Monday, November 30, 2015

Naples Revealed

Naples Revealed

I actually began this story months ago in a tale entitled, A Friendship Waiting to Happen.  I related how a chance meeting on the streets of Calitri (there are lots of these) led to our meeting Giuseppe (yes another Giuseppe) and his wife, Stefania.  They live in Saviano, Italy.  Think of Saviano as a suburb of Naples, but then, the average Neapolitan thinks the whole country is a suburb of Naples.  Following through on their kind invitation to visit them in Saviano, we eventually did just that.  That day-trip proved to be a delightful experience as we got to know them and their son, Raffaele, better over a shared meal, and in what better place than around their kitchen table.  We must have passed muster because Stefania made the generous offer that we stay the night. Our visit made for a wonderful introduction to a burgeoning friendship. We still haven't been able to properly reciprocate for their outpouring of generosity.  In fact, it's only gotten worse.  We are now farther into their hospitality debt, for in a déjà-vu moment we've since visited them again, actually, depending on how you look at it, three more times.
It was during our first visit that Stefania offered to show us her Naples when next we returned to Italy.  She was proud of her city and wanted us to share in the textures, sights, sounds and colors of Naples, with her as our guide.  Over the years we had made forays into that reality- show known as Naples, but never with anyone so well acquainted with this maze of humanity in the sprawl of Italy's third largest city.  As one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet we could use her help to navigate its complexity and to better appreciate its uniqueness.  On the day of our outing, we drove to Naples, parked our car by the airport, and then hopped on the convenient Ali Bus to rendezvous with Stefania at the central train station.  Over the years we'd become proficient at this, but with Stefania’s help our competence in and about Naples was about to take on a new dimension.  

It was an eye-opener from the start, as Stefania led us underground to the newly opened Metro Station for Line 1, years in the making beneath the Piazza Garibaldi rail complex.  It was an amazing state-of-the-art facility, one foot in yesterday due to the archaeological discoveries made during its construction, the other foot in tomorrow.  It is the newest part of what will eventually be a rapid transit system circling Naples.  I can't wait until the airport is added but then it may be too long to wait since so far the project has consumed 36 years!  On the surface in Piazza Garibaldi, in classic attention to style only the Italians command, soaring triangular spider webs of tubular steel and mesh screens rose from the depths of an open pit to shade the plaza below.  We crossed this concourse of shops and then descended a number of very long  escalators that seemed to go on interminably until we arrived on the subway platform, 130 feet below.  As the escalators made their descent through what I only imagine had been layer upon layer of accumulated Roman, even Greek potshards and other ancient debris, there were hard to miss images that make obvious our descent into a deeper realm.  Along the route, artistic motifs covered the walls to our sides.  It was as if we were moving through an art nouveau museum as a mosaic seascape of foamy green waves gradually changed to darker greens and blues accompanied by fish and sea life the deeper we went on our descent.  

Once aboard, we were quickly whisked into central Naples.  We exited at the Toledo Station, an art gallery in itself, and surfaced in the vicinity of its namesake, Toledo Street, named for Don Pedro di Toledo, the Spanish viceroy who first planned it in 1536.  This lengthy boulevard stretches about a mile through the dense center of the city and crosses another vibrant area, Spaccanapoli, that we'd made tentative forays into before.  We joined Via Toledo about half-way along its length somewhere between the National Archaeology Museum and Piazza Plebiscito.  Via Toledo, also known by its older name, Via Roma, is considered by many to afford the best shopping venue in Napoli.  Many must be convinced of this for we found it literally teaming with people - so many that you had to pay attention especially if you found yourself going against the flow.  Shopping abounds along this thoroughfare especially since automobile traffic is prohibited.  In addition to shopping opportunities among familiar names like Adidas, Motivi, and Benetton, there were numerous boutiques, a department store, and panhandlers, who absent any fashionable Toledo Street addresses, working from cardboard boxes and cloths lying on the pavement.  Sprinkled about, here and there, were plenty of my kind of places, beckoning eating establishments, ranging from high end linen-service restaurants to fast food holes-in-the-wall.  Not interested in shopping or a bite?  Then people watching is another popular pastime in this happening place.

Working our way toward Piazza Plebiscito, south, toward the sea, Stefania pointed out an infamous area known as the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter), joining Via Toledo to one side.  It was built in the 16th century to house Spanish troops whose job was to squelch any uprisings from city inhabitants.  Today the inhabitants, about 14,000 of them, having long ago expelled the Spanish, have taken over the area.  These days it is a checkerboard grid of around eighteen streets by twelve streets, more like alleyways actually, that disappear into stairs ascending into the nearby peace and quiet of the Vomero district.  Moving along Via Toledo block after block, I caught intermittent glimpses into the gritty vicoli (alleyways) of the Quarter.  They appeared as inviting as a Siren's song.  They were, however, very narrow, some less than 10 feet wide, tight enough for laundry to stretch between buildings, too tight for much light to penetrate down through its six story, high-rise tenement buildings.  Clotheslines, like empty windsocks, stood still in this airless, soukish labyrinth.  While I stood with the tourists of Via Toledo, essentially one myself, I suspected the real Neapolitans
lurked in the Quarter just streets away.  Teaming with foot-bound activity, interrupted by the occasional whiz of a Vespa that seemed to only add to its seeming narrowness, this is a relatively poor area with considerable unemployment, a reality of Naples in the extreme.  Crime reportedly thrives here and though inviting in itself, especially to someone like me eager to dive into its muddled clamor, it is best to exercise caution.  It has the unsought distinction of having one of highest youth crime rates in all of Europe.  Still I would have liked to have tarried long enough to tromp along its lanes.  For a beat, I considered it ... to have been able to examine the street corner shrines, neighborhood boundaries more or less, possibly gang territorial boundaries too, here delineated by saints, that I suspected would be ensconced here and there on the streets.  To have stopped for a stand-up coffee in some non-descript café or gone into a shop or two to possibly sense if these people, the Quarter’s inhabitants, were somehow different from those only yards away on Toledo.  Maybe I was outrunning my imagination here, it's easy to, but I yearned to see more than shaded glimpses down laundry draped lanes.  Stefania is a teacher, a French teacher in fact.  Hers is a situation where annually she is posted to a new school.  For the upcoming school year she told us she'd been assigned to teach in a school somewhere in the bowels of the Spanish Quarter.  Beauty and beast clearly lived and worked side by side in Naples. 

Postponing a visit to the Spanish Quarter for now, we instead turned away from the Quarter onto Via San Brigida and entered the Chiesa di Santa Brigida (Church of Saint Bridget).  Saint Bridget, in addition to being the patron saint of Sweden is also one of Europe’s three patrons.  The day was already heating up, which made sitting in a pew in its cool interior a chance for a refreshing break.  This ornate Baroque style church, dating from 1610, is laid out in the iconographic shape of a Latin cross.  You’d be hard pressed to miss its classic long main isle and shortened chapel transepts
on either side.  The contrast between the hustle outside and the shadowy interior, solemnly bathed in candlelight, were worlds apart.  In the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows we saw the much revered Statua della Madonna Addolorata (Statue of the Madonna of Sorrows), considered to have miraculous powers.  She stood in a columned niche high above the main altar shrouded in an ornate black cape.  Above her head Latin words translated to announce, Here is Your Mother.  Her sorrow was evident from the pained look on her face ... a vacant expression, parted lips, her eyebrows raised as though startled.  The cause of her anguish were the seven daggers that pierced her heart, symbolic of the seven sorrows of Mary.  It was thus in a more contemplative, though thoroughly cooled state, that we returned to the streets.

Just a few doors away was an entry to Galleria Umberto I, considered the world's first shopping mall.  It was inaugurated in 1890 and named for Umberto I, the king of Italy at the time of its construction.  Like the church, when looked down upon from high above the city, it too took the shape of a cross.  Inside, its grandeur, amplified by its dimension, exploded upon me much like my first emotions on entering Saint Peter's Basilica.  It was hard to take it all in.  This World Heritage Site was immense and cavernous all at once, with its insanely beautiful architecture capped by iron and arched glass canopies running the length of each roof cross-member.  Larger and loftier by many times over than the church we'd just visited, this 'cathedralesque' structure served another purpose.  Maybe because I'd just exited Saint Bridget, the biblical admonishment, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's, flashed across my mind.  This place was of the realm of Caesar and worshipped another god entirely.  In this shrine, the stuff of worship didn't fill reliquaries and niches above altars, or look down from a cross topped by a placard proclaiming 'INRI'.  Instead, the subjects of its adoration filled storefront windows overseen not by the priests but by shop managers, the parishioners replaced by customers, the only sacrifice an occasional discount on a price.  In addition to a bank, a post office, a gelato shop, souvenir shops and cafes that spilled over onto the vaulted concourse, there were globally branded stores and boutiques, among them a Zara clothing boutique, a Sephora beauty store, and a small Lacoste handbag outlet, to mention a few. 

It is hard to appreciate the considerable floor space shrouded by this enormous structure. Like the building, it too was extensive.  As eye catching as any storefront display, it's inlaid floor consisted of intricate tessellated patterns.  One exemplary piece, actually a series of them, is not to be missed.  At the point where the overhead cross elements met, the exact junction of the four soaring
shopping arcades, conveniently aligned with the four cardinal directions, lies a large open floor-space.  It is appropriately called l'incrocio (the crossing).  Here surrounding a compass rose in larger than life-size proportions were the astrological signs of the zodiac in mosaic, each a work of art that made me hesitant to step on them.  With the shape of a cross high over our heads, Saint Bridget's next door, and the zodiac prominently displayed beneath our feet, they'd clearly not taken any chances with the supernatural powers that be.  It's a wonder the movie, Angles and Demons, hadn't somehow been able to work this into its plot.  Making our way across the gallery, to an opposite exit, I was handed a flyer as I approached the door.  It was a last ditch appeal for me to reconsider, stay, spend, and worship to the sound of a cha-ching.  I stifled a laugh and stepped outside once again into the seething maelstrom of humanity that is Naples.

Just outside the mall, we took a break at the elegant Gran Caffè Gambrinus, Naples' oldest and most revered cafe located on the corner adjacent to Piazza del Plebiscito and the Royal Palace of Naples.  This historic 1860 cafe was the meeting place for intellectuals, artists, politicians, journalists, writers like Oscar Wilde, and the cultural elite including once upon a time, the Italian royal family of Savoy.  Nonetheless, they let us in!  After wandering its interior, which remains an elegant throwback
to a bygone era, we relaxed outside to the impeccable service of their wait-staff, cool drinks and tantalizing stuzzichini snacks.  It's that kind of place where everyone watches or is being watched.  As Maria Elena and Stefania nibbled and chatted, I tried my hand as voyeur, since so many passersby were trying their best to be seen.  The hard part was imagining a story to go with each perceived persona ... for the flamboyant overly tattooed and pierced group of teens; a woman capped with a fascinating fascinator, tipped almost enough to fall away; the impeccably dressed elderly gentleman moving along like Alice in Wonderland's rabbit clutching his briefcase; the hidden eyes behind so many sunglasses, and on and on.  Imagining their stories, it was difficult to pull myself away from this urban theater intermezzo but there was still so much more of pulsating Naples that Stefania wanted us to experience.

We next crossed historic Piazza del Plebiscito spread out before the royal palace, Palazzo Reale, once home to Bourbons and Savoys.  If only the piazza's walls could speak they might tell of Nazi troops that paraded there during WWII, or in more recent times, of the evening in 2013 when The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, on his Wrecking Ball Tour, had appeared in concert.  It was a short but hot walk from there along Via Cesario Console to Via Santa Lucia.  Santa Lucia was especially pleasant, a promenade of shading trees and cafes where men sat about reading salmon colored sports
newspapers.  It deposited us on the shore convenient to Castle dell'Ovo (once a villa, fort, monastery, prison), today the oldest fortification in Naples.  The castle was built by Roger the Norman in the 12th century, while the current castle was brought to life by the Spanish in the 15th century.  Its name originates in legend.  The myth recounts how the Roman poet Virgil, also thought a sorcerer, placed a magical egg in a glass jar, inserted it into a metal cage, and then buried it somewhere in the foundation.  Had this egg been broken, a series of disastrous events would befall the city.  As this historical contingency purported, as went the egg, so went Naples!  The problem with the legend is that Virgil lived long before Castel dell’Ovo was actually a castle.  But such is the stuff upon which myth is built, though doubtfully castles.  Today, Castel dell’Ovo houses the Museum of Prehistory used for events and exhibitions.

The Borgo Marinari fishing village grew up around the base of the castle in the 19th century.  This district is now renowned for its restaurants and busy marina.  A causeway connects the island-bound castle to the mainland.  While signs along the causeway said swimming was not permitted, nearby rowboats, filled mostly with children, enjoyed their dips without hesitation the afternoon we passed.  Here was a clear reminder of the stereotypical impression many have of Italians - that these signs, like traffic signs, any sign in fact, could simply be disregarded.  Forget the boats, it was the restaurants that caught my eye.  We couldn't miss noticing them, whichever way we walked across the causeway.  On the mainland, facing us as we returned from the island, rose the posh, Five-Star, Grand Hotel Vesuvio, a blend of old-world charm with swank modern comforts.

I peeked in.  Here was definitely the place to stay so long as your money held out, an attitude we developed while staying at the Disney World Yacht Club Resort during the Millennium celebrations.  The Vesuvio had been patiently waiting for us since it opened in 1882.  Its list of distinguished patrons include writer Guy de Maupassant, actress Grace Kelly, and more recents like Luciano Pavarotti and Woody Allen.  The hotel was destroyed in the extensive bombing of WWII but soon resurrected and opened its doors again in 1950.  The doors opened to some fabulous restaurants.  Of special note is the Caruso Roof Garden Restaurant dedicated to musical legend, tenor Enrico Caurso, who made the Vesuvio his home.  Beyond a splendid panorama over the Gulf of Naples, big enough to stop your heart, it brought a new level of dining - amazing food surly at amazing prices.  A peek can only go so far with little time to enjoy Bucatini alla Caruso, a favorite of the maestro and a specialty of the roof garden, even though about then I wondered if they also served-up Scrambled Eggs a la Castlel dell'Ovo.

For a more down to earth experience at a reduced cost, though I fear not by much, there were other venues close to the causeway.  Along the shore adjacent to the causeway, seemingly built into
its cliff-like shorefront, were a number of restaurants, specializing in what else but seafood.  The Zi Teresa's swordfish and the La Bersagliera for an alfresco dining interlude are definitely worth a return for a closer look.  Also of note, on the castle island adjacent to the bobbing boats in the marina rose the Transatlantico restaurant, great for some white wine and grilled calamari.  Next door, sup and take-in sigh-making views of luxury yachts with Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop from La Scialappa,.  No need to stick to my recommendations, their menus overflow with delights from the depths of Neptune's realm.  

With all these inviting gourmet establishments as distractions, we opted for lunch with Stefania's husband, Giuseppe.  We caught up with Giuseppe close to his place of work in the Centro Direzionale di Napoli, practically a city within the city, where he is a dirigent (executive) with the Campania Department of Agriculture.  
Constructed in 1995, this complex is a collection of skyscrapers and high-rise office buildings that take up about a square kilometer of Naples.  He walked across the plaza and joined us outside of Ristaranti Ciro.  I had a good feeling about the place even before we entered.  Inside we discovered that its delights extend from a wood-fired pizza oven, surprising to discover operating this time of day, to a quintessential seafood eatery set in a modern decor accented with white tablecloths, white chairs, white walls, white shutters, white tiles, white, white, white ... white classy Neapolitan soul.

An imaginative menu offered much to choose from, actually too much.  Mare and I relied on Giuseppe to navigate its pages and choose for us.  After a few questions of us, he waved over our waiter and after many 'very goods', though in Italian from the waiter, Giuseppe and I enjoyed spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), a growing favorite of mine.  Maria Elena had an insalata di mare (seafood salad) and together, along with refreshing beakers of cooled white wine, we shared in a large spigola alla brace (barbecued sea bass).  Hot from the grill it was brought head-to-tail to our table and expertly filleted as we watched.  Stefania stuck with traditional Neapolitan fare and put Ciro's master pizza makers to work.  Her pizza, crafted the traditional way in this modern setting, arrived hot and bubbly from the oven.  A fruit salad, then coffee, topped off a luncheon fare to remember. 

By this time it was apparent to us that walking in the heat had exacted a toll.  We were heat hazed, better yet, heat dazed.  While the refreshing cool air and the scrumptious food and wine of the
restaurant had been therapeutic and lessened our discomfort, as far into our years as we'd come, we were still tired.  When all was said and done, especially with our tummies full, all we could imagine doing was to start our trek back to Calitri.  We had exceeded our use-by-date, at least for that day.  I suspect this disappointed Stefania, who'd planned to show us more of the city but recognized that we were beat.  Our farewells concluded, she was kind enough, as a goodbye gesture, to drive us to the airport to retrieve our car.

While our parents may have advised a life with everything in moderation, in Naples, life in all its excessive forms plays out on the streets.  For refugees from another place, like us, it was a magic place, boisterously human and serenely appealing all at once.  Ours had been an adventure in a city like none other, replete with a montage of images that will long remain with us.  Its many varied corridors of reality had included an eye-opening subway ride, a stroll along busy Via Toledo, the lure of the Spanish Quarter, the saintly scents of Saint Bridget's, the architectural dazzle of the Galleria mall, and a castle built on eggshells.  And not to be bested, our visit had concluded with a fabulous luncheon we hadn't even expected.  

It's easy to fall under Naples' spell.  Stefania and Giuseppe had seen to that.  Yet while there are manmade treasures like Naples, more importantly, there are human treasures like Stefania and Giuseppe.  Stefania's attention and thoughtful concern for us was refreshing, cherished and much appreciated.  Giuseppe's unembellished nature to look beyond the present, his zest for life, his total persona was infectious.  We'd put ourselves in capable hands.  Theirs is a strong family in a fragmented world where friendships like theirs are rare, especially in a culture like ours, where eye-contact is discouraged and talking to a stranger just about taboo.  We were young, all acne, when it came to Naples, but thanks to Stefania and Giuseppe, that blemish on the face of our bella figura is clearing up nicely.  Our appetites whetted, they'd given us more than enough reason to want to return.  Related by a growing affection, we look forward to seeing more of Naples revealed with our newfound friends once again as our congenial guides.  Accept no imitations when it comes to friendship ... you'll know when it is real.

Stay tuned, as this story continues ......

From That Rogue Tourist