NAPLES is not easy to love. I have spent much of my adult life cajoling, if not positively bullying, fellow travellers to see behind the centuries of grime, litter, uncomfortable petty crime, large scale corruption and wild, daily chaos. See, what’s not to love?
I want people to see what I feel. The saying goes: "Chi viene a Napoli piange due volte: quando arriva e quando parte". People who come to Naples cry twice: when they arrive and when they leave. The comedy film, Welcome to the South, shows this beautifully: the up-tight Milanese gradually softens as he falls under the spell of the sun, the laughter and the people.
A side street, off Spaccanapoli. See the man on the balcony - he is singing nostalgic Neapolitan songs. People drop coins into the little basket he has suspended from his terrace. On the awning in the foreground, we see le corna, a twisted horn, an ever present talisman of the city.
An elaborate fruit and vegetable shop in the heart of historic Naples. Everything is exuberant, lively, full of colour.
Underneath the chaos, the sprawl, the poverty, is a spirit earning for love, for passion (which is not love), a tranche of history, an urbanity based on art, based on an intimate understanding of the human condition. I am not waxing lyrical in my Shakespearean sweep of the Neapolitan character – it’s there in the neighbourhoods and especially in the centro storico, the historical centre.
In my opinion, a tour of Naples should start with a walk around the crater of Vesuvius. This sleeping giant, which still puffs its sulphuric warning, is at the core of the Neapolitan psyche – ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die’ from Corinthians could have been written about Nnapule, then and now. And there it is. What is the point of being reserved? Be flamboyant. Live loudly, love wildly, sing and dance like there is no tomorrow. For who knows? Perhaps, there will be no tomorrow.
Vesuvius is also responsible for the area’s fertile soil without which those fleshy San Marzano tomatoes, bulbous eggplant and fragrant grapes would never have happened. A blessing and a curse – like so much of Neapolitan life.
Start early, be the first ones there. It’s not an easy walk with its steady, relentless incline but if you have a basic level of fitness, it is a pleasant hour at a leisurely pace. Wear walking shoes that are not precious as they will be covered with a fine layer of ancient grey ash by the end of the morning.
Park the car at 1,000 metres, grab walking sticks if they help (a small tip or ‘mangia’ is expected when you return them at the end), and set off. At half way point, there is a gift shop with tatty souvenirs, limoncello liquore, the heady lemon liqueur from the Amalfi coast, and espresso coffee (yes, on a mountain top – it’s Naples). It is staffed by indolent guaglioni – young men talking loudly on their phones, to the guides, fruitlessly trying to impress the pretty young woman at their counter who is overwhelmed and confused by their energy. Their language is foreign to me. Is it Greek? It still has the ‘che me ne frega’, the “I couldn’t care less”, cadence of the Nnapulitan’ I know so well but I can’t grasp the words. Can it be that 9 km from the city of Naples is a dialect so steeped in its own history that it is unintelligible to a daughter of that city? Neapolitan, like many dialects in the south, derives mostly from simplified versions of Latin that ordinary people spoke during the Roman Empire. However, since Naples began as a Greek colony (Neopolis, 470 BC), many words of Greek origin survive. I got by for a number of years at a Greek language school desperately trawling for dialect words from my grandmother and aunt’s memory to help me fit in. But, Naples was also ruled by the Spanish and then the French over the ages and traces of those languages also seeped into the local lexicon. Perhaps in the countryside, those foreign influences were not felt as strongly, if at all. Those young men at the gift shop may have come from Ottaviano, Torre Annunziata, San Giorgio a Cremano – towns so close to Naples yet in the linguistic and historical landscape they are many miles away. Anyway, I felt like a furastiere, a foreigner, on my own patch.
'Nu guaglion' - a local lad
Restored, we continued around the crater. Actually, Mount Vesuvius has two craters, one which was the original crater (Mount Somma) and another created when the top of the mountain caved in during a previous eruption (Gran Cono). We were rewarded with fabulous vistas of the wide, flat Sarno Valley backed by distant mountains. We can see Procida and Ischia in the distance and on the other side, the soft green undulations of the mountains going deep into Campania. The air smells faintly of sulphur; at 1,200 metres we are high above the fray of everyday life.
It is time to come down.
Walking the rim of Vesuvius, October 2017 Small Group Tour. The puffs of smoke remind us that it is still an active volcano. Last eruption was in 1944 at the height of WW2.