Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Naples - Naughty & Nice

This is Naples, the Chiaia District

NAPLES – Naughty & Nice

We've recently returned from sunny Napoli.  Far from the norm of a wintery indoor existence in New England, the weather by the sea in Naples and the streaming sunshine were invigorating.  We sometimes question why we live where we do.  This was one of those times.  The opportunity to walk its streets, nudge our feet into warm sand on occasion, watch the sun dip into the sea at end of day and sample the cuisine of a handful of hundreds of beaconing restaurants was well worth the ride to get there.  The expression "out of sight, out of mind" was easily invoked though, when on occasion we’d hear of terrible winter weather at home.  We are fortunate.  Although nothing remains constant, at this moment, life is good, especially in Naples, Florida!

That's right, this was Florida, not its Italian namesake, that we chose to visit verses hibernate in a New England deep freeze.  I thought I'd be able to come across some Italians while there, somewhere uncover a "Little Italy" of sorts, get their stories and write about it in the future.  Other than its name, however, there wasn't much Italia in this Naples.  We did come across some busy bocce courts full of seniors getting a modicum of exercise each time they bent over to pick up a ball and the architecture was somewhat reminiscent of Bella Italia, but it was a far, far second.  When I inquired about the Italian community thereabouts and why the name, “Naples”, I learned it wasn't due, as I had expected, to some early Italian immigration to this garden spot on the southwestern shore of Florida.  It was more of a marketing scheme. Kind of like that other part of Florida, "Disney World", which monetized the expression "If you build it, they will come."  Seems its early promoters believed that Florida's west coast could enjoy the same boom that the east coast was experiencing in the 20's.  They wanted to boost their town's image, draw development to the area, so they looked around for a brand, even willing to change the town's name if necessary.  While I was told it once had an earlier name, the name "Naples" caught on when promoters described the nearby bay as "surpassing the bay in Naples, Italy."  After all, wasn't there a Venice a little farther north?  As early as 1932, Charles Lindbergh would land his plane there.  Lindbergh and his wife, Ann, had a retreat nearby and would drop in, literally out of the blue, to pick up supplies in Naples.  Today this municipal airfield is surrounded by an ever expanding city and the single engine monoplanes of yesteryear have been replaced by Lear Jets.  Far surpassing what its founders envisioned, it is today a renowned American winter resort, enjoying unparalleled prosperity.  With the sixth highest per capita income in America, it is one of the wealthiest cities in the United States and boasts the second highest proportion of millionaires per capita.  We, however, were quite a few dollars short and about 75 years too late to capitalize on its real estate boom and be able to drive one of the many Rolls-Royces cruising its streets.

It is a much shorter ride from Calitri to that genuine city by the Tyrrhenian Sea, filled with true-life Neapolitan souls.  I always try to avoid driving in large metropolitan areas, especially the Italian kind.  Instead, we rely on bus service.  In the nearby town of Lacedonia, about thirty minutes from Calitri, there is an area called Calaggio.  It is an industrial area on the outskirts of Lacedonia, conveniently located adjacent to an A16 Autostrada exit where the CLP bus line makes frequent stops throughout the day.  It's a perfect place to park your car and hop on the bus.  About an hour later you arrive at the Naples main bus/rail terminal of Piazza Garibaldi.

In the past, we had been hesitant to venture into Naples on our own for it had a less than sterling reputation.  It is a place you can love or hate, possibly both at the same time.  Like any big city, take New York City for instance, it has its good and bad points; its beauties to be marveled and its ugliness.  You need to steer clear from highlighting yourself with extravagance and always remain mindful of your surroundings.  I recall the time I was inside a cafe paying the bill when the owner commented on what a nice watch I was wearing.  He went on to advise me that I should be careful wearing it there on the streets of Naples.  You'd have thought it was a Rolex!  Not a chance.  It was in fact my everyday, who knows how old, Seiko.  It was a sobering lesson.  It gave expression to the subtlety of complacency.  I hadn't thought a common Seiko watch would have been that enticing.  I pocketed it for the night before someone else beat me to it. 
From Piazza Garibaldi it is an enjoyable walk along Corso Umberto I toward the historic center of the city.  A shopper’s mecca, this long commercial avenue is lined with shops of all sorts.  Of course this key artery has its requisite number of fashion and shoe stores, and if you tire of these, more to my speed, there are eateries galore to choose from.  The corso continues for about three quarters of a mile before terminating in Piazza Giovanni Bovio.  One particular area, which extends down to the marina along interesting side streets, is known for its golden bling fashion creations.  Go there for a Rolex!

There are some especially prestigious areas.  Once after arriving in Naples we had a comfortable stay at the three star Pinto Storey Hotel.  The Pinto Storey is set in an art-nouveau building in the historic and elegant Chiaia neighborhood of Naples.  It sits between the city’s historic center and seafront promenade, to one side of Piazza Amedeo, just opposite the Amadeo Metropolitana di Napoli (Naples Amadeo Metro Station).  It occupies the 4th and 5th floors of the building and is accessible by either stairs or an elevator that thankfully worked when we were there.  It may be old but it is classy.  Its refurbished, tall-ceilinged rooms are comfortable and of generous size by Italian standards.  We even had a balcony looking out over the piazza.  All its rooms reportedly have elegant 19th-century furnishings and wrought-iron beds with bronze details.  For an extra cost, you can enjoy a savory breakfast in their small dining room.  Knowing us by now, you can probably guess … we chose to take to the streets.

From the hotel it's a pleasant walk along Via dei Millie to Via Chiaia and beyond to inviting places like the palatial glass-vaulted arcade of Galleria Umberto I and the nearby Largo di Palazzo, where not long ago Nazi troops goose-stepped.  The Galleria is an amazing place to visit whether you decide to sit or shop.  We have been there twice now.  I doubt they franchise places like this but in many ways it is similar to the world famous Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II in Milan.  A few blocks farther is Castello Nuovo just across the street from the port where you can easily hop a ferry to nearby islands like touristy Ischia or sleepy Procida.  That first evening, out for a walk, we discovered the Manfredi, a little neighborhood osteria to one side of very pedestrian Via Santa Teresa right there in happening Chiaia.  We found the place friendly and welcoming from the moment we entered.  We sat upstairs at a table for two to take in its close quarters charm.  Just across the narrow isle was a larger table crammed with Italians, who from their dress appeared to be professionals.  We basically let our server have his way with us and prayed we wouldn’t be disappointed after he’d just promised the same thing.  We skipped the pizzas altogether instead concentrating on the evening’s seafood offerings.  There was sea bass, octopus, incredible steak-like slabs of tuna and of course calamari to choose from.  As we waited for our waiter to surprise us, I took a peek in the pizza kitchen.  Clearly one man was in charge of the oven.  He not only flipped the saucers of dough into and out of the oven with the skill of a surgeon but managed the fire, keeping just the right amount of cherry-red embers to one side of the domed affair to maintain an even temperature.  Along with him, almost back-to-back, stood the pizzaiolo, the man who custom made your pizza.  All his ingredients were arrayed before him.  Starting with a ball of dough he’d knead and pat, spin and flip it into a perfect disk within seconds.  For a red pizza he’d ladle on the sauce and quick as the streak of a meteor, any remaining ingredients as masterfully as an artist might add tiny pieces of glass to a mosaic.  His “whites” received a splash of olive oil, cheese of course, and to one in particular, he sprinkled on white pignoli nuts.  Only after the fire had performed its magic crisping did he add a green lawn of “rocket”, better known as rucola.  Some pizzas, as an added treat, saw their edges swollen with a ricotta filling.  I was beginning to reconsider.  When I asked him how many of these works of art he made in a day, I was amazed when he replied vicino seicento (close to 600)!  If there was such a thing as carpal tunnel for pizza makers, he’d have been a prime candidate. 
Our dinners having arrived, I abandoned the heat of the pizza maker’s lair and returned to our table.  After visiting the pizza kitchen I now questioned my haste to forgo pizza and instead go with the waiter’s seafood recommendations.  I’d seen them being made and here I was in what was the pizza capital of the world!  What was I doing?  Steps later, I remembered a common reminder of Mare’s, “This isn’t your last meal” and let my doubts pass.  Our first entrée was a seafood antipasto crammed full of every sort of sea creature.  Tiny crisp octopus tentacles, fried anchovies and small lobster-like crayfish only added to this treat.  After all that kitchen heat, in addition to our meals soon to arrive, we needed some wine.  Although ours would be a concentration on fish, the rogue in me opted for a crimson red.

In another life, long ago at pilot’s school I learned the expression “I left the red port wine”.  It was a sort of mental crutch to recall that when someone over the radio commanded, "port turn now", they meant "to the left, stupid, and fast".  It also served to reinforce the fact that the blinking left wingtip light on any aircraft is always red.  Though essential to remember, it didn't come easy to those of us raised far from the sea where “port” is only infrequently encountered in some nautical Moby Dick type novel as opposed to one of those squid type Navy pilots who would know this as surly as the fact that the sun always rises in the east.  Apparently, the wine part was not the important part of the catchphrase as it was just a filler noun for the memory jog that port is left. Today, with flying behind me, I simple try my best, like a Marine unwilling to leave anyone behind, to insure I've 'left no red wine' behind in the bottle!  It would also be the case this night with the help of my ever copilot, Maria Elena.

Our main courses soon followed; one a risotto, the other a pasta, both a la Mare.  By the time we departed we had to be close to overdosing with Omega 3 and boarder line on iodine!  Did they take advantage of us?  Who knows, but then it doesn’t matter for this was an especially memorable treat oozing with special moments that we’d happened upon on a back-water street, not much more than an alley.  We seem to fall into great places.  Then again, this being Italy, they just all might be!

On another occasion, we did get to sample a true Neapolitan pizza at Pizzeria e Ristorante Lombardi dal 1892, ranked in the top 100 verses all its other street-smart rivals for your lunchtime patronage.  Sit inside and like I’d witnessed at the Manfredi, you can watch them create their traditional pizza fare from simple, fresh ingredients, that is, unless it's a rather warm day when outside might be better.  This, in combination with the wood fired oven, may require that you drink more vino to keep cool, which isn't a bad thing at all.  All those locals sitting around you serve as a sort of insurance that you didn’t make a wrong choice.  That they, like you, were not wrong about the place is soon confirmed by the thin crust, fresh tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella cheese topped pizza that arrives.

Located in Piazza Museo, the long since forgotten northwestern corner of the Greek wall of this city, once known as Neapolis (New City), lies Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (Naples National Archaeological Museum).  It is the most important of all Italian archaeological museums.  What had once been the royal cavalry barracks was converted into a museum in the 1750s.  Today, the long gone horses have been replaced by paintings, sculptures, mosaics, jewelry and every day, though ancient, household objects.  An especially valuable collection of gems and precious stones make up the Treasure of the Magnificent.  At its core are gems collected in the 15th century by Cosimo de’Medici and later continued by Lorenzo il Magnifico, patron of Michelangelo Buonarrati himself.  Among additional notable works are the Herculaneum Papyri, carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as well as the massive sculpture by Glykon of Athens, the Farnese Hercules (see photo album).  This depiction of Hercules forever fixed the image of Hercules in the minds of Europeans.  Also, there you’ll see the Farnese Bull from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla.  This sculpture is the largest sculpture grouping to have survived from antiquity.
For a long time we’d wanted to visit this museum, for from all reports, here we would find priceless ancient wonders removed from lost Pompeii and the ancient Roman towns of Stabiae and Herculaneum.  Its collection of mosaic artifacts showcase a number of important tessellated masterpieces recovered from the ruins of Pompeii and other cities, which once lay in the shadows of Mount Vesuvius.  This includes the dramatic, larger than life Alexander Mosaic.  On a visit to Pompeii we had been inside Casa del Fauno (House of the Faun), one of the most luxurious aristocratic houses remaining from Roman Republic times and once home to this epic work.  It is terrible to say but in a way we are the beneficiaries of the 79 AD eruption.  The resultant layers of ash covering the town delayed the ravages of decay thus preserving the artworks through the centuries.  Uncovered in 1841, the Alexander Mosaic dates from circa 100 BC.  It originated in the House of the Faun as a floor decoration.  Today, the size of a roadside billboard, it takes up a sizable museum wall.  It is thought to depict the Battle of Issus in 315 BC, a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia.  Over 1.5 million pieces of glass and stone portray Alexander attempting to engage King Darius who appears already in retreat.  Darius was so confident that victory would be his that he brought members of his family with him to Issus.  This included his heavily pregnant wife, who when the tables turned, fell into the hands of Alexander.  What became of her?  Alexander the Great, like Caesar centuries later, was known for his mercy.  Lucky her, history records he treated her like a Queen!

By far one of the more interesting parts of the museum would have made the likes of Hugh Hefner or Peruvian artist, Alberto Vargas smile.  We have visited naughty places before.  There was that adult “toy store” on a Philadelphia street we couldn’t resist peeking into and of course that brothel in Pompeii.  Right off, let me say the brothel had been out of business since at least 79 AD!  I recall how our guide, using his connections, got us inside ahead of the long line snaking down the street outside.  It was as though I was an ancient regular with special privileges!  Vacant though it was, but for the crush of fellow tourists, we too snickered at the Kama Sutra style paintings above each bedroom doorway.  There in crude graphic detail appeared the specialties available from girls obviously gifted with physical flexibility.  In total, this visual menu served as a compendium of erotic pleasures awaiting their clients. 
Certainly the winner and the more in your face exposé we have yet experienced was in the little village of Castelmola in the heights above Sicily’s Taormina.  There we were in a small square.  A few tables from a nearby café, along with a church, which when we attempted to enter we discovered was closed, was the extent of the place.  As we stood there an elderly British couple entered the square.  At the moment we were looking up at a patio with inviting tables that seemed to be part of a restaurant or another café overlooking the piazza.  The British gentleman, noticing our questioning gaze, urged us to go up for a closer look.  When I asked what we would find up there he just smiled and encouraged us to go have a look for ourselves.  All would be clear then.  Around to one side of the square, from where they had come, we found the entrance leading us upstairs to Caffe Tarrisi.  We got some inkling of what might lie ahead when a sign announced you had to be 18 to enter.  Now I was intrigued.  Upon entering, Maria Elena blushed when a few steps later she had to duck to avoid walking into a coat rack prominently adorned with phallic-like, shall we say “hooks”!  There was no doubt about it, we had arrived in a bar decorated in every imaginable way with penises.  Apparently age-old wood carving traditions had been put to a new profitable use.  This bar had a kinky twist featuring an in your face erotic motif as Mare had already experienced.  If she had hurt herself on entering, it certainly would have been embarrassing to explain what had caused her injury.  I certainly would have liked to have heard her explain how she had walked into an erect male member.  No, better yet, I would have loved to have observed the doctor’s reaction!

The bases of lamps, chair rails, spindles, banisters, ceiling lamps, even the handles on the mugs flaunted this full package salute to masculinity.  Inside the rest rooms, try to imagine what the egg-like handles on the hot and cold water taps might have been mimicking especially when they complemented the custom crafted water spout lying between them?  We didn’t shirk and run off.  Why should we?  There couldn’t be another place like this in the world.  The décor was not vulgar at all.  I wouldn’t call it sexy either.  It was more on an out-of-the-ordinary, overdone, almost comical theme, somewhat on the order of that magic something, just beyond the delivery, that makes us laugh when we hear a joke.  Minutes later we sat on the balcony of this “Four Seasons” of lewd bars overlooking the square below.  Glad the church was closed at that hour, we lifted our obscene mugs in salute to the British couple below.

The naughty part of the Archeological Museum was along the same vein.  In the refinement and dignity befitting the museum’s stature, however, the sexually explicit items and XXX-rated depictions were presented in a more fashionable, more becoming manner, whether considering the nature of its composition, such a feat is even possible.  Now many of the ribald caricatures occupy rich glass display cases, the lighting professional.  In one instance the only protrusion from an armless, headless marble statue was a bulge in the draped toga below the waist, certainly the sculptor’s intent and not some area his chisel had simply missed.  In its cabinets of curiosities here were idols and charms of all sorts.  Many seemingly had the same face with small rings apparently meant for them to be worn or hung.  Hung would certainly be the descriptive attribute of these idols.  From the look of things, their optimistic intent seemed to be the propitious bestowal by some god of antiquity of the equivalent of spiritual Viagra on their owners! 

This collection of titillating artifacts had begun centuries earlier under the Bourbon Monarchy.  Small at first, it occupied a private cabinet before growing to hundreds of items needing entire rooms to be properly displayed.  Considered pornographic in its day, it was maintained under lock and key, reserved for few eyes. Who knew what damage the monarchy might sustain if word of its existence got out?  Its secret was maintained by tight censorship and even more restrictive viewership.  At one point destruction of the collection was entertained.  In way of compromise, access was terminated and the entrance locked.  With an idea toward security even greater than today’s nuclear surety, separate locks requiring three separate keys under the control of separate individuals were introduced to seal access to the rooms.  One key went understandably to the museum’s curator and another into the hands of the museum’s controller.  Strangely, in Downton Abby fashion, the third and final key was held by none other than the palace’s butler! 

It was not until 1860 that censorship of the collection ended (at least until the Fascists took control) and erotic viewing became available to the general public.  Control was maintained, however, for access was limited to only persons of “mature age and known morals.”  Right off I wondered by who’s standards.  How this was enforced would constitute a story in itself.  It was not until April 2000, following the complete restoration of the exhibit, the locks finally removed, that the collection reopened to the public.  Its secrets were finally out, ironically to a new generation of ‘voyeurs’ who instead of being outright shocked, today might only chuckle.  While you must wait until you are 18 to visit Caffe Tarrisi, visitors under the age of 14 can tour this naughty museum exhibit when accompanied by an adult, though honestly, it being Italy and all, I never saw anyone checking!
Back on the straight and narrow, another wonderful place to visit and spend some time is in the open-air museum of Spaccanapoli.  This district of Naples runs just about east-west between Via Toledo and Via Duomo.  In doing so it bisects the city thus earning its name, "Naples-Splitter".  The birthplace of such luminaries as tenor Enrico Caruso and actress Sophia Loren, I rank it the most interesting and enjoyable walk in all of Napoli.  It is at once frenzied, disorderly, noisy, confusing and everywhere thrilling.  You can experience primal Italy there beneath man-made webs of crisscrossing clotheslines crammed with the day's wash, for this is where the real Neapolitani live.  To the south of the museum you’ll find Piazza del Gesu Nuovo, outside the beautiful Church of Santa Chiara with its majolica cloister.  From there stroll along Via Benedetto Croce and when the streets change name, continue along Via San Riadio Dei Librai.  By far the best spot, for me at least, is one particular alley.  Though small and narrow, Via San Gregorio Armeno, also referred to as Via del Presepe (Crib Street), is simply fascinating.  Its fame is because all year long, it is crammed full of workshops selling nativity scenes (presepi) and all the fixings that go along with them.  Simple to elaborate, they cover the gamut of size, complexity and of course, cost.  I was especially captivated by the ingenious mechanical add-ons offered.  You could find properly scaled figurines inserting what else but pizza into tiny ovens, old ladies lowering and raising baskets from the street below, while others might pump a well handle or be washing clothes in a barrel.  Being there during what I imagine as the Christmas market rush, when the shop operators go all out, has to be beyond description.  Hopefully, someday soon, we’ll know what it is like.

Everywhere around you there is history.  It is not all confined to museums.  Along our route, for instance, we arrived at Piazzetta del Nilo.  There on a marble base lies a Greek statue, carved so long ago, it predates Rome.  It portrays the personification of the God Nilus, God of the Nile.  This statue is thought to have been erected by Alexandrians, who once lived in a colony not far from there.  The god is depicted reclining against a sphinx, which lacks its head.  Nilus clutches a cornucopia in one hand as some sort of stylization of the Nile itself.  Against his chest are what appear to be remnants of an infant.  Sometime later, like the artifacts in the museum, it was lost, only to be re-discovered in 1476, this time with both god and sphinx headless.  Mistakenly thought to be a representation of the City of Naples, the square where it sits takes the name of “Corpo di Napoli” (Body of Naples).  It was not until the end of the 18th century that the statue was relocated to this street in Spaccanapoli with a head of a bearded man added.  The sphinx, being only a sphinx and less than a god, still lacks its head.

In our time on this earth there are things that need doing and places needing a visit.  As opposed to the tameness of America’s version of Naples, this Naples, the pounding passionate heart of Italy, is one such place you need to experience for yourself.  We take our pleasures from various sources with naughty or nice forever fixed in the eye of the beholder.  What is obscene, even abhorrent to some, remains startling beauty to another.  Some of man’s handy works here are as grotesque as the heaps of trash you may see lying about or the corrugated immigrant shanty towns strewn here and there about the city.  Both are expressive monuments to what some would describe as a living decay, others as a transformation of its humanity.  But there are also richly memorable wonders to behold ranging from the simple act of a man crossing himself and kissing his hand when passing a church to the spectacle of its architecture, its fabulous food and the content of its museums breathing history.  Having only scratched the surface in our few visits, we plan to return again and again to this lively city of contradictions, known for its mindless confusion.  A modern Sodom & Gomorra to some, it yet tempts fate daily in the shadow of Vesuvius’ annihilation.  Hurry, come taste the life here, there are eyefuls galore awaiting you.  

From that Rogue Tourist

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "Naples".