“Vedi Napoli e poi muori!
I won’t say another word about the beauties of the city and its situation, which have been described and praised often. As they say here, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori! See Naples and die!” One can’t blame the Neapolitan for never wanting to leave his city, nor its poets singing its praises in lofty hyperboles: it would be wonderful even if a few more Vesuviuses were to rise in the neighbourhood.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
One should never say “never”, and that was in my mind as a couple of weeks ago I looked out over the rooftops of Naples from the aeroplane that carried me there.
I assumed that my visit to Naples five years ago would be my last to my favourite Italian city. However, that proved not the case as I could not resist its allure for my first overseas venture after the Covid lockdowns.
I knew the weather wouldn’t be great for my short stay. No better than the UK in early Spring. I didn’t mind. Any rain that fell would be Italian. Rain that falls with elegance and style. As it turned out, it was Neapolitan rain; rain that is full-on and falls with clamour. But not for long. Sudden downbursts soon give way to a cloudless sky. It’s not the malingering rain one gets in Britain. Rain that has nothing better to do than hang around.
I was still able to eat al fresco on my first evening. Warm enough to dispose of my jacket and eat in shirtsleeves. Interestingly, that was not the case with those Neapolitans I sat amongst. All wore jackets and pullovers. Some even had scarves.
I’ve written before of the clamour of Naples, so I won’t do so again. It was there in all its familiarity. What was different was the masks, the vaccination ‘green passes’ and the temperature checks. Anywhere I went indoors meant wearing a mask. And not just any old mask. It had to be PP2. Every building I entered saw a check of my ‘green pass’, and sometimes my temperature. Italy’s soaring number of deaths at the beginning of the pandemic has left them wary of prematurely lifting restrictions.
I spent my first day meandering the streets of Naples’ old town to see how many of my earlier haunts had survived the economic downturn that the pandemic wrought. I found most of them had. Even a tiny little bar buried deep into the heart of the old town that I knew well. So, it was good to return and have the owner recognise me. Another ‘Harry’, from Harriet, though, not Henry. The bar was little changed but not all things. Five years on, ‘Harry’ is now the mother of two.
I did come across two Covid casualties. A pizzeria on the seafront in which I’ve enjoyed a meal or two over the decades. Another was a small hotel in which I’ve stayed in the past. However, many businesses seem to have gotten through OK, if not unscathed.
I dedicated my second day to see the three Caravaggio paintings that Naples boasts. As well as a great painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was quite a lad who lived life to the full. In 1606 he allegedly killed a young man in a street brawl in Rome and fled to Naples, where the Colonna family gave him protection. Caravaggio began painting again but then left for Malta to become a ‘Knight of Malta’. It didn’t last long, and another brawl in which he seriously wounded a fellow knight saw Caravaggio imprisoned again. He managed to escape and reached Sicily staying there for some nine months. Caravaggio then returned to Naples to again ask for the protection of the Colonna family. With the help of influential friends, he hoped to receive the Pope’s pardon for the alleged murder. Unfortunately, he died on his journey to Rome to receive this hoped-for pardon. He was thirty-nine years old.
I’ve seen so many of Caravaggio’s paintings in situ. And more in galleries and exhibitions. His use of light and shadow, the realism of the figures he paints, ‘warts and all’ come together to captivate me. One that especially does is ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula’. It’s his last picture, and within it, he paints himself. A death-like figure, looking on at the martyrdom. It’s as if Caravaggio himself had a premonition of his death. I always leave that as the last painting I view.
The first is always ‘The Seven Acts of Mercy’. That was the first painting completed by Caravaggio after arriving in Naples from Rome. The one I view in-between is ‘The Flagellation of Christ’. It’s in the magnificent Capodimonte Museum, which sits high on a hill. The museum was once the Bourbon Royal Palace when Naples was under the control of Spain. Caravaggio’s paintings may be artistically breath-taking, but I know that the climb to the museum is literally breath-taking!
I’m not one for organised tours. But I have found in other cities that a food tour either alone with the ‘guide’ or in a small group is an excellent way to discover a city. It’s not just the sampling of delicacies; such tours can offer insight into a city’s culture, history, and politics.
Therefore, I enjoyed a stroll around Naples on my third day with my guide Gennaro. He didn’t feel like a guide. After sharing our first coffee, it felt we were two friends enjoying a few hours of conversation over some food and drink taken in all sorts of places.
We started in the Vomero district of Naples, which strongly contrasts old Naples. Vomero is high on another hill (yes, I walked up this one too — funiculars are for wimps) near the Castel Sant’Elmo overlooking the city.
Where old Naples is a rabbit warren of cramped streets, the Vomero is much like any modern European city. Wide roads and high street shops. It’s still noisy, and the traffic is crazy, so the spirit of Naples is definitely still there. Gennaro and I started in the Vomero to allow us to feast our eyes on the magnificence of Naples that stretches out before you from the castle. In the far distance stands that classic view of Vesuvius. In the foreground, stretching in all directions, are a myriad of rooftops, spires, copulas, and towers as far as the eye can see. And just on that far edge stands the patch of modern skyscrapers that represent the financial district. The modern and ancient all in one panoramic view.
From the Vomero, we plunged down into the old city and our first stop in Naples’ oldest market, ‘La Pignasecca ‘(Dried Pine) in Montesanto. There it was to a street food stall selling fried fish. There’s a lot of fried food in Naples. It’s cheap and, once cooked, keeps a while. This stall offered a wide range of shellfish, squid, octopus etc. Served as a Mista. You don’t see chips very much, but mashed potato fried in a batter. That was the accompaniment here.
We then weaved our way through the claustrophobic streets of the old town, sampling the freshest mozzarella and tomatoes, then sipping Aperol and limoncello. Next came a meal that brought back to Gennaro, Sunday lunches with his family. I did not realise the competition between Naples and Bologna over Ragù. In Naples, it was a Sunday lunch dish, and in contrast to Bologna, the basis of the Ragù in Naples is a mixture of cheap pieces of beef rather than mince. That means it’s cooked for an exceptionally long time. Gennaro told me typically 10 hours.
What I tasted was both packed with flavour but melted in the mouth, and the ziti pasta, over which the Ragu pored, proved an excellent absorbent. The plate was then wiped clean, not with bread but with Taralli. It’s a peppery breadstick baked in the shape of a small hoop.
Of course, being Naples, we had to have Pizza Fritta. I’ve described this local speciality before. Every time I’ve endeavoured to eat one, I’ve only managed around half of it. It’s not because they aren’t tasty. Or that the bread base is overly thick. Indeed, it was papery thin. The fact it’s deep-fried adds to its ‘weight’. One day I will succeed.
The ‘conversation’ with Gennaro thus drew to its close. By this time, we had not only discussed food but also football, history, culture, art, and wine. We agreed that politics was an area too painful for either of us to discuss. The finale was a Babà Napoletano. Although even Gennaro had to admit the claim may be dubious, it's a desert to which Naples lays claim. What wasn’t dubious was the Babà I enjoyed. Light sponge with a sharp kick of rum. After all that food I waddled back to my hotel replete.
I spent my final day gently. Dodging in and out of the heavy rain showers. I explored the seafront in the sunshine and watched the thunderstorm clouds grumbling up the bay. As they obscured Vesuvius, it was my indication to seek shelter. On one occasion, it was the Galleria Umberto. Another Italian shopping centre built to resemble a cathedral.
On another occasion, it was to a cocktail bar. Covering the vast open-air courtyard was a massive sheet of thick plastic whose centre was a funnel that took the falling rain straight down into a drain. I lost an hour sipping a mojito (well, two mojitos) while watching the rainfall cascade down the funnel like an internal waterfall.
The weather had cleared sufficiently by the evening to eat al fresco again, although my jacket stayed firmly on this time. It happened to be in the piazza in which Sarah and I shared a coffee back in 2005. It had changed little. Then again, old Naples has changed little in hundreds of years. I dined on Cotoletta alla Napoletana, the Neapolitan equivalent of Cotoletta alla Milanese, with seasonal vegetables. In the case of Naples, they were aubergine, zucchini, and fennel. Not a combination you would see in many English restaurants.
And so, another visit to Naples drew to its close. This one could very well be my last. And yet what did I say about saying never….