What started as a long weekend to reimagine the Naples of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels turned into four days of discovering hidden gems in this vast, bustling, crowded wonderful city. And I ate some pizza. Exceptional pizza. And spaghetti with mussels. And mini octopi, called moscardini, from a small bread bowl. And fresh baccala’. And pizza.
Despite this being my fourth visit to Naples, the city never disappoints on repeat visits. Plus, there’s a nice new subway. Cheers to you Naples.
My good friend and Naples native Antonio was a superb guide, showing me all the places mentioned in the four Ferrante books (he did his research) as well as proudly showing me the guts of the city: the Spanish quarter and the Pallonetto. These two neighborhoods are colorful and gritty, lively and routine, not to contradict myself. The residents here visit each other on a balcony or on the street, their laundry hanging above. They cast a glance at me as we walked and then went about their business. I did get a funny look from the Pallonetto parking garage attendant who must have been curious as to why an American wanted to see a parking garage. This garage is sort of dug into the hill, the Pizzofalcone. I can say that I’ve not seen anything like that anywhere else.
We arrived in the Pallonetto by way of Piazza Martiri (in the book!) to the chic Via Chiaia (in the book!), and then we took an elevator to Via Solitaria, where the goddess herself, Sophia Loren, used to make movies.
This was Naples.
We took the steps through the Pallonetto, went around a corner, took more steps and then all of a sudden we’re back facing the bay, Antonio’s office building and Via Santa Lucia. I stood in amazement, looking back at the concentration of high-rises, wondering how in the world we got there.
I recalled those first few weeks when I lived in Manhattan. You could lose an entire day just walking the streets, absorbing every sight and sound. That’s what walking through the Spanish quarter felt like. We spent two days there. There’s so much going on and yet there’s an order to the chaos.
Yes, orderly chaos. I wonder if there’s an app somewhere to teach people how to drive a car in Naples. When we were in the car, I could swear I only saw two lanes on our side of the road. Somehow, Antonio always found that invisible third lane and took it. Not a lot of yielding when you drive in Naples. Not a lot of space either. The sides of the “street,” and I use that term loosely, are bordered with cement barriers to mark the pedestrian area. It’s a tad close.
It was also pretty great to be able to walk along the Bay of Naples, with the sea breeze blowing, the sun reflecting off the water, the outline of Capri in the distance. And to your right, the dense urban landscape of this centuries-old city.
Or you face the wide, expansive Piazza del Plebiscito. We hit the world-famous Gambrinus café, next to Plebiscito. I was last here in 2004 with Antonio, his wife Gina and my mom. Like its pizza, the coffee in Naples is a religion, a standard-bearer. When Gina and I got our cups, we stood there and looked at them for a few minutes. We weren’t admiring the designs. We were waiting for the cups to cool off! The coffee is served in cups minutes after said cups are pulled from a sink of steaming water. So we stood and waited. I ate a sfogliatella, the other jewel of Naples, while the china cooled. Such is tradition. Such is Naples.
On our second day in the city, we went underground to see the Bourbon Tunnels, built in 1853 by the king who wanted an escape route from the palace. Neapolitans later used the tunnels as bomb shelters during World War II. It was a fascinating and haunting visit, complete with cars, bicycles and baby carriages left over from those days.
From there, we hit the Spanish Quarter again, ate some Neapolitan street food, (I had a slice of pizza, with just tomatoes and the crust was as light as anything I’ve eaten) and then we made our way to Spaccanapoli, the street that cuts the city in half. At every vicolo, every turn, I snapped a photo. That’s what you do when you walk through the historic center of a city in Italy.
Antonio’s friend Giovanni met us later in the day and I was blessed to have another terrific tour guide who knows the history of the city, the architecture and all sorts of secrets to reveal.
We walk into the Basilica of St. George Maggiore. Giovanni points out that there are chapels on only one side of the church because when the street outside, Via Duomo, was widened, the naves on the right side of the church were removed. In the area behind the altar, there is a massive 18th century fresco by Alessio D’Elia of St. George slaying the dragon. Then the caretaker grabs an equally large wooden pole with a hook on the end, pulls the painting away from the wall and shows us the hidden 17th century fresco by Aniello Falcone of St. George on horseback as he’s about to slay the dragon. It’s been impeccably preserved.
Then we’re in the middle of a neighborhood and there’s a Banksy work on the wall in the middle of Naples, “Madonna with a Gun.”
Now, about the books. Antonio did not read the Ferrante series and is not as obsessed with them as I am. But he did research and made sure to note as we hit every street or piazza mentioned. His colleague Valeria also read all four and we immediately struck up a conversation about certain parts that were left ambiguous, mostly the ending. There is also the mystery about who Elena Ferrante is (she only gives interviews by e-mail). The best part of that conversation for me was actually having a conversation like that. I really felt like I’d surpassed some threshold being able to converse about something so colloquial in Italian.
So much happened in Piazza Martiri, where the Solara shoe store was located. Today there’s a Ferragamo store there. How’s that for symmetry? I saw Via Mezzaconone where Elena works in a book store and the shopping district of Via Chiaia, where Elena and Lila go one day and see upper class men and women and their fancy clothes.
We drove on Via Rettifilo and Corso Umberto, a wide busy shopping street, where Lila bought her wedding dress. We drove around the Vomero district, up on the hill overlooking the city and the Bay of Naples and I remembered Elena going to her professor’s house here for a party.
We even drove through the Rione Luzzatti, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city center where, I’ve read, the girls likely grew up. We drove through a few tunnels which take you to different parts of the city. They reminded me of how the two young girls took a chance one day and decided to run to the other side, into the city, away from their poor neighborhood.
It was fun remembering all those scenes from the four books. I may even read them again, now that I can really imagine the places they go. Maybe I’ll even read them in Italian. That’s my next goal.
I loved visiting Naples. It was a world away from my daily life in Siena, my base for five weeks, and even further away from the Dolomites, both in distance and culture. That’s what I love so much about Italy. You can get on a train for a few hours and land in a place where the people, the cuisine, the art, the way of life is nothing like from where you came. I think I belong in Italy.
STREETS, SIGHTS, FRIENDS