See Naples and sigh

You know what they used to say in the early 19th century — “See Naples and die.” They meant, of course, that nothing on earth could match the beauty and grandeur of the city. Today, when I hear stories of Naples from friends in Rome, I wonder if that could be literally true.

Along with the salty sea breeze, the air is filled with whispers about how Naples is serious Mafia country (even if they are called Camorra here). I am repeatedly cautioned to be careful with my purse, my camera, myself. And Naples itself — chaotic, colourful and crowded — provides a perfect backdrop for these stories. I feel right at home here in this city, with its yellow barricades, mad motorists with cheerful disregard for traffic rules, clothes hanging out of balconies and tall metal cranes and scaffolding that hide the beautiful medieval buildings.

I want to make the best use of the short time I am in Naples and hop on to a red sightseeing bus. It takes us through the city’s main roads, finally winding its way up Posillipo Hill. And on the way down, there is a clear view of the shimmering sea and the silhouette of Mount Vesuvius in the distance. The mild morning sun, the cool breeze and the soft Italian music that fills the silences between the audio guide’s commentary — I have to struggle to stay awake. Especially that music, a bit like the hatted Venetian gondolier’s passionate outpourings in the song from Amitabh Bachchan’s The Great Gambler (except, no Zeenat Aman here to duly translate for me). If all Italians wooed like that, their bellas don’t stand a chance, I think.

Artery-thickening food

Most people just pass Naples on their way to Pompeii, Capri or the Amalfi coast but it’s worth a few days all to itself. After the slick sophistication of Milan and the languorous charm of Florence, Naples is a rude shock at first sight. But I find it relaxing to be able to just saunter around, without having to purposefully tick off boxes named Duomo, Museum, Market and so on. Here the grandeur is not in your face as in some other Italian towns — it is all there but you have to look hard, look beyond the grime and indifference. The city has what travel writers of a certain breed would call “character.”

And part of that character also comes from its food. There is this pizzeria here in Naples, existing quietly since 1870, catering almost exclusively to locals in the know. Till a few years ago, when a hysterical American writer found her way there (before she left the country to pray and love elsewhere), followed closely by a top-rated Hollywood actress. By all accounts, the burning question of whether this is the best pizza in the world or not has not affected Da Michele much. But with tourists pouring in everyday to pay their obeisance, it has never been the same again.

Since I am not on an “eat” crusade, I head to Ciro a Santa Brigida (just called Ciro and crowned with Michelin stars) for lunch. First come the fried starters — local cousins of Indian pakodas and French fries. As I am munching on these, someone mentions Naples’ famous stuffed and fried pizza (ripieno fritto). There is a stunned silence on the table and I can actually hear the sound of my arteries thickening.

Yes, Neapolitans are the fried food champions of Italy — from starters to desserts through pizza and even pasta. But their most famous gift to the world is the Margherita pizza, made by Pietro Colicchio, a local artist — seriously, let nobody tell you that pizza-making is not an art — in honour of the queen’s visit in 1889. It was a simple concoction of tomato, mozzarella and basil and the queen was chuffed (I am told) not just by the taste but also the fact these were her beloved Italy’s official flag colours.

I then have a wood-fired Margherita, a perfect melt-in-the-mouth creation with the edges slightly doughy and chewy and the insides thin and crisp. After that, there is a choice of desserts including another local favourite baba au rhum. At the end of the meal, my vegetarian soul is singing in delight.

If you are a compulsive sightseer, then visit the 13th century Duomo, the cathedral dedicated to Naples’ patron saint San Gennaro and the National Archaeology Museum. Or follow my example and take a long leisurely stroll through the narrow lanes of Spaccanapoli, stopping to admire packets of quirkily shaped pasta and bottles of Limoncello liqueur.

Neapolitans, like all Italians, have embraced the La Dolce Vita code of living. In fact, they do it even better than some other Italian cities, given that they don’t need to scramble every morning to put on a glamorous face. They just sit there with what they have; take it or leave it. Sure, they celebrate the good things of the city — pizza, Limoncello and Sophia Loren — but they also embrace its dark side. Where else would you have a formal “Illegal Tour” — a walking tour through the seedier districts of the city?

HOW TO GET THERE

The easiest way to reach Naples is to fly into Rome and take one of TrenItalia’s new high-speed Fecciarosa trains (from Eurail) that get you there in just an hour.

Published in The Hindu, November 11, 2012

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