It was my birthday a few weeks back and to celebrate the Upstairs Vegetarian and I went to Naples for the day. Highly recommended. The origin of the phrase ‘vedi Napoli e poi muori‘ (see Naples and die) is unknown but it probably dates back to the 19th Century when Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. At that time, it was the largest, wealthiest and most technologically-advanced of any city in Italy and the third largest city in Europe after London and Paris. The idea behind the phrase is that once you have seen what Naples has to offer, you don’t need to see anything else. Later it came to have a more literal meaning. During World War II, Naples was bombed more than any other Italian city. There were about 200 airstrikes by Allied troops between 1940-1944 and an estimated 25 000 civilians died. These days, Naples faces an economic crisis due to record unemployment, a low birthrate, industrial decline and the out-migration of people looking for work elsewhere. None of this is helped by the fact that Naples has a tragic and enduring association with an organized crime syndicate, the Camorra.
In 2006, hero journalist Roberto Saviano shone a massive spotlight on the business dealings of the Naples mob in his genius book, Gomorrah. Then came the death threats. For nine years he has been living under police protection, changing residences every few days and traveling with seven bodyguards and two armoured cars. I cannot begin to imagine how terrible that must be.
In the 1980s, the Camorra, decided to branch out into the lucrative waste management business. Instead of paying a lot of money to have the waste disposed of legally, the mobsters dumped it in the fields, rivers, wells and lakes around Naples. The dumps and waste burn-offs have been blamed for abnormal levels of cancers and other diseases among locals. Although the Italian army has been sent in several times to try to fix the problem, waste management is still a big issue for Naples. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that Italy had failed to act against the illegal dumps dotting the countryside.
Despite all of that and the tendency of the foreign press to characterize Naples as a dirty, chaotic city teeming with mustachioed mob widows and burly fellows hiding in alleyways with knives between their teeth, it’s well worth a visit. Only some of those things are true and, on the plus side, there are tons of things to see and do (and eat) and Naples is no more dangerous than any other major metropolis (I’d suggest keeping a weather eye on your wallet and leaving the car behind however).
Naples is only an hour from Rome by train so it’s a very feasible day trip. Having been there several times, I didn’t feel compelled to run around re-seeing all of the sights. There were just three things I wanted to do. Let’s bullet point!
- Visit the National Archeological Museum
- Eat pizza
- Walk down the Street of the Crèches
In addition to that modest menu, we rode the art subway a couple of stops to the museum so that counts as thing number four. A while back, the municipal government started putting art installations in a number of Neapolitan metro stations. It’s pretty great. The U.V. wrote about it in her fancy newspaper a few years ago.
We stopped off for a coffee at the elegant Gran Caffe Gambrinus on the Piazza del Plebiscito. Gambrinus dates back to 1890 and apparently Oscar Wilde and our old pal Gabriele D’Annunzio used to hang out there when they were in town.
The National Archeological Museum, established in the 1750s, is one of the most important archeological museums in the world. It has one of the planet’s best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, including mosaics, sculptures, gems, glass and silver, and a collection of Roman erotica from nearby Pompeii. I first came here when I was a young aspiring archeologist and it’s been one of my favourite places ever since. Unfortunately, the English language signage is as obfuscatory as ever. Why oh why don’t they ever get a native English speaker involved in translating the displays? This is from an exhibit on the life and death of Augustus: “The Augustus dead body from Nola was transferred to Rome traveling at night to avoid the heat while the day was standing in the main cities on the Appian route…the body was exposed in the most popular basilicas and temples.”
Below are some of the treats in store for you at the museum.
Around since ancient times, modern pizza evolved in Naples in the 18th or 19th century. It is unclear when pizzaioli started putting tomatoes on top. Legend has it that baker Raffaele Esposito baked three different pizzas for the visit of King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889. The queen’s favourite was the one featuring the colours of the Italian flag: green (basil), white (mozzarella) and red (tomato). So Raffaele named the pizza in her honour. Sadly, it’s probably not true. These days Naples is famous for its pizza, which is thicker and soggier than the Roman variety. There are oodles of great pizzarias to choose from. We went to Da Matteo, which President Clinton visited during the 1994 G7 summit in Naples. A picture of Clinton with his mouth full is prominently displayed.
Nativity scenes date back to the 2nd century and were popularized by St Francis in the 1200s when he created a living crèche for Christmas Mass, placing a donkey next to a manger full of hay. In wealthy 19th–century Naples, crèches (presepi in Italian) became super popular and elaborate. They evoke a dramatic scene, full of minor characters that have little to do with the Bible story. On Via San Gregorio Armeno, you can see the artisans designing entire villages, with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers all going about their daily business while the newborn Jesus sleeps nearby. We spent most of our time — as urged by our friend Elizabeth — at Ferrigno, a family business that dates back to 1836. There are loads of pictures of the current Ferrigno hanging with movie stars and being kissed by popes so I guess he’s a sort of rock star of the presepe world.