The cab was a Rénault estate, so old that – had it been a person – it could’ve legally been allowed to drive. It had about 300,000 km on the odometer and, rather worryingly, wobbly seat belts that wouldn’t tighten properly. That’s probably why, I reasoned, the cabby hasn’t fastened his. Or, perhaps, he was too busy overtaking other cars while texting on his antediluvian phone, a refreshing change in this world of iPhones.
I lowered the window, soaking up the sunshine and 20C. A light haze blurred the silhouette of the Vesuvius’ caldera; cars, houses and trees zoomed past us as we made good progress on the highway from Capodichino to the city.
The Gulf from afar
My decision to go to Naples, or Napoli as I shall call it, raised more than a few eyebrows between friends and colleagues. A particular coworker of mine, when I told him my programs, synthesized everyone’s opinion with a single-worded Whatsapp message: “Mafia?”
Napoli, both in Italy and abroad, has a rough reputation. A busy port city founded by the Ancient Greeks a good handful of centuries before Christ, it’s always been the epicenter of shady dealings and questionable businesses, more often than not masterminded by the local organised crime: the Camorra, one of Italy’s three main crime networks. Additionally, unlike places such as Palermo or the Calabria cities, equally (if not more) plagued by the organised crime cancer, Napoli also has a reputation for having quite high levels of petty crime. Sure enough, years of stern action from the state has resulted in a decline in criminality. Yet, in spite of statistics showing an ever-decreasing number of murders, (90 for a region with population of almost 6 million people in 2013), Napoli continuously suffers from a bad press. Would I confirm it? I was eager to find out.
Mosaics, archeology and metro stations
Napoli was the first city in Italy to have a railway, opened in 1839. It was quite a feat but, judging by what followed afterwards, that didn’t seem to catch on for only recently the city started building an underground mass-transit infrastructure. The main efforts are centered around the Linea 1, a yellow-painted line which, like its famous London counterpart, will eventually evolve into a circle line.
We’re not used to consider underground stations as places that can be arty; they’re supposed to be utilitarian, infrastructures allowing us to board a train from A to B. But the city has taken a different approach by making as many stations as possible works of art: be it Garibaldi, Università or Museo, it’s hard not to remain surprised about the level of cure that has been put into each one of these places. But my favourite is and remains Toledo.
Departure level, Toledo Station
Built 40 meters below the street level in the heart of Napoli’s centre, it represents a journey from the depth of the sea, as the platforms lie below the waters level, to the yellow tuff which makes much of the city’s bedrock. The mezzanine is, perhaps, my favourite part, covered as it is with mosaics and proudly showing the old Aragonese city walls that, once, enclosed the city.
Mezzanine; a mosaic depicting the demolition of the historic Garibaldi neighbourhood made by the Fascist regime
Telescopes and musicians, railways and working-class locals: the mosaics pay a tribute to every aspect of Napoli
Toledo was the end of my brief metro journey and it was quite an apt conclusion. I left the immaculate station deeply impressed, both by the level of detail invested in its construction and by the care with which the city seemed to use it. It had been open for a couple of years and – yet – it felt like no one dared touching it. Nothing short of a miracle, in a country so dedicated to vandalism.
The alleyways: singers, statues, graffiti and centennial enigmas
Via Toledo doubles up as a dichotomy, as a demarcation line; to the west, one can find the stern buildings hosting the police HQ as well as many offices, erected in a rigid rationalist style; to the east, instead, lies the orderly chaos of the Quartieri Spagnoli, the borough built by the Spanish kings to host their soldiers.
Big, stately buildings dominate the east side of via Toledo.
But one doesn’t have to look far to see signs of the usual life in the ‘hoods even here.
Further ahead, instead, via Toledo is crossed from east to east by a small road, slightly larger than an alley. Ramrod straight, offering an interrupted view from Castel Sant’Elmo to piazza Garibaldi, this road changes many names but, to the locals, it’s known as Spaccanapoli.
Spaccanapoli is the Decumanus of the old Roman town, an uncannily straight road in a maze of winding alleys. An intelligent city council has turned its whole length, about 1.5 km, in a pedestrian-only area, making it an irresistible linear market.
I start my journey through the Decumanus in Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, a square that manages to host a Jesuit church, a cathedral and an obelisk with a statue of the Virgin on top, the Catholic equivalent of a dream team.
A closer inspection, though, reveals how the statue of the Virgin, when seen from behind, looks extremely similar to the Death; an anarco-communist squat lies on the road leading up to the square and, finally, an unknown hand had carved some mysterious signs – Aramaic musical arrangement, apparently – on the Jesuit church’s bossage: as it often happens, the Neapolitan approach to religion is neither straightforward nor immune from ambiguity.
The bossage on the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo shows some very fine and mysterious carvings, identified by Hungarian musicologistsas a
A step into Spaccanapoli and a more profane atmosphere permeates the air. From a doorway a man, modestly dressed in a coat and jeans, sings opera a cappella, a penitent look on his face as he tells the tale of a suffering man. Around him everyone – tourists, locals, street vendors – stands still, rapt by his voice. In hush tones they say he’s from Calabria, a mountainous region to the south of Napoli, and that he’s self taught. A few blocks away another musical scene unfolds, featuring this time a trio of musicians belting out cheerful tarantellas for the benefit of an enthusiastic audience while a man, red handkerchief in hand, dances to the rhythm.
When they’re not singing, or listening to music, the Neapolitans love to eat. Spaccanapoli is peppered with small restaurants featuring not more than four tables but, more often than not, limited to a simple ground floor window acting as a counter. Pizza, sfogliatelle, frittate, delicious babà filled with rhum and other specialties are sold to customers either queuing or waiting for their names to be called. A warm, oily bundle in hand and the church steps become tables. Once again, religion is good for many things in the city.
One of the many pizza parlours, selling only fresh local produce.
Every place is good for an impromptu snack stop.
Piazzetta Nilo appears rather unexpectedly, as an offshoot of the much grander Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. This square, nothing more than a widening of Spaccanapoli, is the epicenter of the old Egyptian quarter, thriving at the time of the Greek poleis, when Egypt still had pharaohs and the Sphinx wasn’t yet photographed by sweaty tourists on a coach trip. Only few vestiges remain of that time, tiny fragments but for what dominates the area, white marble on a black pedestal towering over the endless river of humanity: the magnificent, 2000-years old, statue of the God Nile, captured in the act of turning his gaze away from the church to his right, seemingly disgusted at the sight of those who have usurped his temple.
I stop for a little while, trying to imagine how it must feel like to have stood there for two millennia, witnessing the city shaping before itself. A humbling thought. Feeling the need for fortification I turn by back to the statue: it’s time for an espresso, now. Up above, a gargoyle smiles encouragingly.