By Gemma Brosnan
WITH Mount Vesuvius looming to the east, the fumaroles of Campi Flegrei steaming to the west, and the isle of Capri floating like a phantom across the bay, Naples is blessed with a strikingly vivid setting.
Yet despite being surrounded by immense natural splendour, Italy’s third largest city is the real show on offer, an intense urban concoction of histrionic, chaotic uniqueness. Life here transpires on the streets with a pace that constantly sways between leisurely southern comfort and whirling frenzy, a blunt antithesis of sterility and homogeneity.
Dense brooding lanes hit palm-fringed piazzas. Medieval castles rise above ancient Greek grids as laundry strewn tenements stand cheek by jowl with palaces. Crumbling façades hide baroque ballrooms and cultish shrines flank cutting-edge clubs. Big, dirty, noisy, lively, vibrant, vital Naples shoots out so many sensations it takes a while for visitors to know what’s hit them. One minute you’re in dusty Tangiers, the next you’re thinking of Paris.
Large as Naples is, it’s easy to get to the sights you want to see on foot, allowing you to experience the city’s allure from every crease. A few blocks west of Piazza Garibaldi boasts the historic centre. Dark and intoxicating, its ancient streets teem with scooters, shrines and secrets extending north from seaside Castel Nuovo beaming over Piazza del Municipio to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and east from Via Toledo and Quartieri Spagnoli to the Porta Nolona Fish Market, where locals get their daily dose of seafood and baccalà.
The washing-strung streets of the Quartieri Spagnoli are the real high-octane spectacle of age-old Neapolitan rituals. Residents converse across balconies with an intoxicating intensity tilting on theatrical confrontation, guys in T-shirts lower baskets from windows to haul up cigarettes and kids play amid street stalls selling everything from fish to candles.
Although parts of the city still lean towards garbage strewn squalor, its museums are a contrasting embarrassment of riches. South of Via Toledo, regal Santa Lucia boasts the mighty Piazza del Plebiscito, Palazzo Reale and the stately Teatro San Carlo, one of the world’s finest opera houses awash in acres of gilded stucco and plush red velvet. Opposite stands Galleria Umberto, one of the world’s first shopping malls, a beautiful late-19th-century jumble of domes and steel girding, where commerce transpires in style on beautifully tiled promenades beneath glass arcades.
West of Piazza del Plebiscito, upmarket Chiaia is Naples’ heart of cool, its sleek shops and bars stretching west towards the bobbing-boat port of Mergellina. From here, pristine Posillipo climbs the promontory separating the Bay of Naples from the Bay of Pozzuoli and beyond it lies the Campi Flegrei, a volcanic sprawl of classical ruins, sulphurous steam and sexy summertime beach clubs. Looking down on it all is the hilltop enclave of middle-class Vomero, providing striking views from elegant 19th and early-20th-century Liberty villas framed by the hulking star-shaped fortress of Castel Sant’Elmo.
There seem to be only three constants about the city – movement, noise and food and in a nation of champion drivers, talkers and gastronomes, Neapolitans excel effortlessly in all three categories. They are proud, voluble people, but Naples is not a tourist town like Florence, Venice or Pisa. The beautiful sweep of the Bay of Naples may be dominated by Mount Vesuvius, but also by the huge docks which have been the city’s lifeblood from the beginning. This is a working city, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating than those great ‘living museums’ further north. It gives it an edge and an attitude that you won’t fully appreciate until you experience this mesmeric city and its people for yourself.
The Hotel San Francesco al Monte is a converted monastery on a mountain in the heart of the city with a suitably cinematic setting.
Offering stunning 360° views from Vesuvius right round to Capri, this hotel was converted from the Santa Lucia al Monte convent, founded in 1557 by the Minori Conventuali monks. All of its elegantly furnished rooms – once severe monastic cells – have views over the bay and you can admire the original frescoes and medieval décor throughout. A sun roof and floral terrace with pool add to the charm, and the back garden climbing up the Vomero hill offers spellbinding views and an open-air restaurant.
Breakfast is served buffet style in La Terrazza dei Barbanti on the 4th floor where you can also enjoy Mediterranean cuisine and fine wines at lunch and dinner. Add a soundtrack of campanile bells, impassioned shouts and some honking horns to the visuals and it’s easy to see why this picturesque haven is the perfect base.
The Metropolitana (subway) has two lines: line 1 from Piazza Dante to the Vomero and beyond and line 2 from Pozzuoli to Piazza Garibaldi and beyond. Several new stations have opened in recent years, with more under way. You can also use the urban section of the Cumana railroad from Montesanto, which is convenient to Mergellina and other coastal locations north of the city centre.
Taxis are an excellent, relatively inexpensive way to get around the city, and are very reliable and strictly regulated. Official taxis are painted white and marked by the comune di napoli. Inside, you’ll find a sign listing official flat rates to the seaports, central hotels, and major attractions. Don’t fret if your driver doesn’t use the meter – not using the meter is legal for all rides that have established flat rates. Taxis do not cruise but are found at the many taxi stands around town or for an extra 1€ surcharge, can be called by phone.
As for driving around Naples, don’t do it. The traffic is horrendous but if you’re still tempted, take a look at the cars on the street. In the rest of Italy, even the simplest models are kept in pristine condition; here, cars look like they’re used in demolition derbies.
Funiculars take passengers up and down the steep hills of Naples. The Funicolare Centrale connects the lower part of the city to Vomero. Daily departures (6:30am–12:30am) are from Piazzetta Duca d’Aosta just off Via Roma. Be careful not to get stranded by missing the last car back. The same tickets valid for buses and the Metro are good for the funicular.
While walking, remember: For Neapolitan drivers, red lights are mere suggestions; cross busy streets carefully, and stick with a crowd if possible. Always look both ways when crossing a street, because a lot of driver’s scoff at the notion of a one-way street. The zebra stripes (white lines) in the street meant to indicate pedestrians have the right of way mean absolutely nothing here.
Naples is the home of pizza and they take it very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that in 2004, the Ministry for Agriculture issued regulations outlining how a real Neapolitan pizza should be made and wherever you are in the city, you’re never far from its freshly baked aroma.
Neapolitans live and breathe pizza, almost literally. They eat it as soon as they’re weaned, fold it over hot from curbside stalls and wolf it down on the way to school. Pizza lives in Neapolitan poetry, song, and literature—and in the city’s largely untranslatable street jive. ‘Farsi una pizza’, one popular expression, confirms that this age-old food is a drug, to be had.
Located in the historic centre bisected by a narrow lane with outdoor tables and upstairs rooms, Pizzeria Brandi has the right to be included in the official history of this famous Mediterranean recipe.
Established in 1780, it was thanks to the pizza chef in this restaurant, Raffaele Esposito, that Pizza Margherita was invented in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy who visited Naples in 1889. The patriotic creation represented the national flag – the red of tomato, white of mozzarella and fresh green basil – and was a hit with the Queen whose appreciation is confirmed by the historical documents displayed inside the restaurant.
The walls are also plastered with photos of famous Italian and foreign personalities who have feasted on pizza at Brandi, including Pavarotti and Chelsea Clinton who are probably the only familiar faces outsiders recognise. You also get a classic guitarist singing Neapolitan songs in the background which adds a layer of local charm to the authentic tasting, even if it feels slightly surreal to hear these songs being played on home turf.
Brandi’s focus is entirely on Neapolitan pizza, prepared as dictated by tradition with 100% natural tomatoes, local olive oil and DOC buffalo mozzarella cooked in a wood fired oven which is the only type of cooking allowed to obtain the right consistency and golden brown colour of the dough which blends the ingredients into a perfect combination of flavours. When inserted into the oven, the moist, loose Neapolitan pizza dough instantly starts to puff, creating bubbles with thin walls and micro-bubbles on top of them, with even thinner walls. These thin walls will quickly brown in the air of the oven and against the hot stone floor while the rest of the pizza remains comparatively pale. It’s this interplay of smoky, slightly bitter notes that comes from the charred spots and the soft, mild, pale dough in between that gives a Neapolitan pizza its great complexity.
Toppings of any other variety are kept fresh and sparse, but they also offer a wide selection of Napolitano style bruschetta and for those looking for something livelier than the standard tricolore, the Pizza Marinara, a traditional Neapolitan pizza with oregano, anchovies and garlic and Pizza con Prosciutto e Rucula, the buffalo margherita with healthy doses of prosciutto ham and wild rocket are worthy alternatives.
While locals tend to drink beer with their pizza, Brandi has an extensive wine list offering some nice Falanghina white wines and Aglianico based reds. And if you need time to find room for an after espresso or gelato, it’s also only a block away from Oscar Wilde’s old hangout, Gambrinus Café.
It’s a cab ride out to Rosiello on a hilltop above the sea in swanky and leafy Posilipo, but a meal on the terrace here is one of the city’s great treats. Tables are set in a terraced, wisteria-draped garden, high above the restaurant’s own lemon grove and vines, from which it makes wine and limoncello.
Hypnotic views stream straight out towards the Bay of Naples and everything brought to the table comes either from the waters at your feet or the restaurant’s extensive plots. Owner Salvatore Varriale, along with his sister Carmela nurture this retreat’s potential with love, care and tradition.
In 1933, their grandmother Gelsomina Rosiello opened a small trattoria whose cuisine was based on the products from the kitchen garden along with rabbits, chickens and pigs and simple seafood dishes such as fried paranza, fish and mussels with pepper. Between the ‘60s and ‘70s, Salvatore turned the trattoria into Rosiello and quickly replaced farmyard animals with oceanic offerings such as corvine, sea bass, sargos, blue lobsters, octopus, cuttlefish and crab.
He personally takes care of the 25,000 metres of garden spreading from the restaurant to the coast with all kinds of sun ripened delights used to prepare the dishes. These home-grown ingredients find their way into every glass and dish, including many traditional Neapolitan favourites such as pumpkin flower soup, broad bean, pea and artichoke soup, raw seafood such as grouper and dried cod tartare with lemon sauce and wild mint, carpaccio of sea bass and yellowtail, sweet and sour cuttlefish salad, marinated octopus and ziti pasta with ragù served in a terracotta pot.
Additional seafood highlights include linguine topped with gigantic crab, spaghetti rock salt mussels, paccheri pasta with artichokes and amberjack, blue lobster and roast corvine, all cooked according to traditional all’acquapazza, with salt or baked on lemon leaves.
Many wines on the list are produced by Salvatore with great passion cultivating the typical grapes of this area: pink grape, ‘caca mosca’, ‘catalanesca’, white and red ‘sanguinella’ and ‘per’ e ‘palumm’ from which he obtains simple and tasty wines.
He also takes great pride in his range of extra virgin olive oil while the desserts and liqueurs are prepared by Carmela with imagination and home-produced fruits ranging from mandarins, walnuts, raisins, prunes, apricots, cherries and the figs used to produce their wonderful caramelised tart served with wine jam.
Close to the University and Piazza Bovio, you’ll find Baccalaria , a new small restaurant which is completely dedicated to local favourite, baccalà (salted cod).
It is definitely worth at least one visit and making a reservation is highly advisable. The decor is traditionally rustic and the tables spill out onto the cobbled streets which has the additional musical indulgence of the occasional passing quartet.
The menu is completely focused on bringing baccalà to life with zeal and tradition offering delights such as cod ceviche and chicory followed by a magnum of stuffed baccalà with pesto, carpaccio of baccalà with parsley and mint, baccalà with dill pesto and cannellini salad, baccalà with potatoes and black truffle, an excellent baccalà fishball, fried baccalà in homemade sauce and delightful sides including ziti with baccalà and parmesan and truffle risotto. Service is extremely attentive and topped by a great selection of reasonably priced local and Tramonti wines with Baladin’s Teo Musso providing the beer.
Trips Out of Town
Capri, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast all lie within striking distance of Naples. An hour outside of the city on a train bound for Sorrento, you hit the Amalfi’s weaving and winding coast road, hugging the cliff more tightly than tortured lovers. John Steinbeck described it as ‘carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side’ in a piece he wrote for Harper’s Bazaar in 1953, admitting that ‘in the back seat, my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically’.
Back then, Positano wasn’t much more than a rarely visited hilltop village. These days, the area’s immense popularity means that traffic generally proceeds at a painful crawl, especially during summer.
Passengers are more likely to experience awe and wonder than nerve-tinged terror as they pace one of the most undeniably beautiful and dramatic stretches of coastline in the world. The seafood risotto at ‘60s beachfront haunt, Chez Black is highly recommended before moving on.
Pompeii, the city buried by a volcanic eruption in 79AD is the queen of archaeological sites, considered to be one of the few where an ancient city has been preserved in detail – everything from jars and tables, to paintings and people were frozen in time, yielding, together with neighbouring Herculaneum, an unprecedented opportunity to see how the people lived two thousand years ago. To reach Pompeii take a Circumvesuviana train from the central station to Pompei Scavi – Villa dei Misteri.
Capri, an area famous for its villas, vistas and VIPs attracts thousands of daytrippers from Naples each day, eager to spend their Euros in the cafés, chichi boutiques and souvenir stores, before making the obligatory visit to the famous Blue Grotto. It’s easy to forgive Capri for being so popular. Glinting waves merging into an azure sky, luminous lemon groves, bourgainvillea-draped terraces and rocky, heather-strewn slopes exude a wild natural beauty, sending even hardened city dwellers into reveries. Get away from the crowds by taking a serene spin on the chairlift up to Mount Solaro, the highest point on Capri with spectacular panoramic views and a dizzying sense of calm.
Easyjet flies from London Stansted and London Gatwick to Naples from £175 return, including taxes www.easyjet.com
For more information including local festivals and events, visit the Napoli Tourist Board