Italy’s darkly romantic destination of Naples beckons to travellers
The view from the ramparts of the medieval Sant'Elmo castle is inspiring. Vesuvius, one of the world’s most famous volcanoes, rises from the mist to the left; the expansive Bay of Naples stretches in front, and to the right is the Isle of Capri, celebrated in the famous song. And immediately below spreads Naples itself, with its many domes, churches, red-tile roofs and terraces, grand plazas and palaces.
Naples may not attract the throng of visitors who flock to Rome, Venice and Florence. Once the third most-populous city in Europe after London and Paris (and formerly one of the continent’s most opulent), Naples is often just a jumping-off point for Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. But this chaotic, charming city has great art, architecture, its own distinctive cuisine and a lively street life.
On the advice of a local, I take the Chiaia inclined railway line, here called the funicular (as in the renowned Neapolitan song Funiculì, Funiculà). Within minutes, it takes me to the upper reaches of the city, away from the crowds. Here, the stylish Vomero district, home to the city’s wealthier citizens, is known for its fabulous views, grand villas and extensive park. Luxury stores line the broad 19th and 20th-century boulevards, along with apartment buildings and delicatessens displaying a great array of delicious local specialities. Firecracker-red chillies hang in clumps outside grocery stores, ready to be picked for the cooking pot, and cheese shops display huge balls of mozzarella and paving-block-sized bricks of parmesan.
In this ritzy residential area, I find another attraction to this often-maligned city: the people. Several times while standing on a street, looking clueless and studying a map, I’m offered advice and directions by the locals – usually very proper-looking older citizens. Neapolitans are among the friendliest people in Italy.
Following directions from an immaculately dressed elderly woman, I walk the short distance to the Castel Sant'Elmo, perched on the hill. Inside the massive medieval fortress, the Museo del Novecento is dedicated to 20th-century Neapolitan art, with an extensive collection of varying appeal. The main attraction, though, is the panoramic view.
From here, another line, the Funicolare Centrale, one of the world’s longest funicular lines, takes me down to Via Toledo and Galleria Umberto I. This expansive indoor glass-and-iron domed gallery and shopping arcade, built in the late 19th century, is as imposing as any in Paris. The spacious, cross-shaped indoor plaza with its beautiful glass roofs and ornate tiled floors – including a mosaic of the zodiac at the centre – houses shops and cafés. Today, the grandest interior in southern Italy is almost empty, except for a bevy of ballerinas tottering up on their tiptoes, posing for a professional photographer.
Leaving the giant arcade, I stroll up elegant Toledo Street (a remnant of when this city was Spanish), which French author Stendhal called ‘the most populous and merry street in the world’ nearly two centuries ago. Elegantly dressed Neapolitans window shop at the designer stores and savour their country’s famous coffee in outdoor cafes. Groups of noisy, animated locals stroll the sidewalks, the ubiquitous scooters buzz past, and salesmen peddle cigarette lighters, fridge magnets and other affordable souvenirs.
My next stop is the Gallerie d’Italia art gallery in a former palace, the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano. Naples is an important centre of fine art, with excellent museums and galleries, often housed in historical buildings, which are works of art themselves. This one displays a fine collection of Naples’ art donated by local banks, but I find the elaborately decorated building as interesting as the paintings.
Just off Toledo, I happen on the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters), a working-class neighbourhood named for the Spanish who ruled the city for two centuries starting from 1504. There is energetic street life here, with colourful flags and laundry hanging over narrow alleys, people yelling and music playing over scooter noise. I catch the sound of an accordion in the street from a wandering troubadour playing classics as O Sole Mio.
Incredibly fresh produce is displayed at stalls: tomatoes grown on the black soil of Vesuvius, lemons, melons, peaches, plus various types of apples, from yellow to red to pink. There are also all sorts of glistening fish piled on tables. Bakery windows display tempting local pastries. There is little English on the menus of the small local restaurants here, making dining a challenge. Naples is credited for inventing the modern pizza, and it is sold everywhere here, but menus out on the streets offer numerous other choices.
That evening, I head down to the port to sit at an outdoor café on Via Caracciolo, looking at the waterfront Castel dell'Ovo (Egg Castle) and the sparkling lights of the city strung out along the shore and across the hills. Cars are banned on this stretch of the road, so it’s peaceful with only strollers and bicycles passing by.
On my last day, eager to see one of the city’s main attractions, I take the Circumvesuvio train through the grubby suburbs, with extensive graffiti marring the local stations.
In Ernaculo, I pay the equivalent of USD 25 (including the entrance fee) and take a minibus up a winding road to Vesuvius, through forests growing from the black soil, past lichen-covered rocks. Near the summit, a restaurant sells snacks and beer, and souvenir shops offer typical tourist fare, as well as black volcanic stones and tasteful handmade volcanic stone jewellery.
From the entrance, a black sand trail goes to the crater rim, steep at first, then levelling off. Wooden stairs lead up to an open area with ropes strung along to hang onto, as powerful winds pummel the hikers. From the lip of this deadly crater, I look down into the cone, to see smoke rising from one corner. And there, far across the blue bay, I see Sant’Elmo castle, where I stood just days ago, and spread out all around it, the exuberant city bursting with life.
Looking out at the blue sea, I recall that the Bay of Naples was home to the mythological sirens, mermaids who lured sailors to shipwreck with their enchanting singing in The Odyssey. I have certainly heard the siren call of Naples, and will return again someday.