Naples

What better place to start the search for magic than my favourite city? Naples is absolutely unique, terrifyingly beautiful and beautifully terrifying, a city of wonder that never fails to shock, amaze and delight me.

The attraction wasn’t instant. On my first visit as an 19 year old on my way to Pompeii I was overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos, but then the streets around about the station are not a nice place to be. The true heart of Naples is the centro storico, an area with over two thousand years of history. Layer has been built over layer, each civilisation obscuring the one below it, creating a city which stretches from the black depths of ancient caves to the pinnacles of lofty church towers hundreds of metres above.

Via Tribunali (image taken from http://www.comune.napoli.it)

The centro storico seems to have largely rejected the creeping globalisation of the last century; you won’t find any Starbucks here, and there are no McDonalds. The Neapolitan fast food of choice is doughy pizza, which drips with soft cheese and sloppy tomato sauce. The coffee comes in the thimble-sized cups and is drunk standing at the counter of a tiny, windowless bar.

Naples is not a city for the faint hearted. A walk down the narrow, shadowy alleys of the historic centre involve taking your life in your hands as you jump to avoid the buzzing mopeds or beaten up cars which speed through the crowds. These guys slow down for no-one, and they’ll make very sure you know they’re there with persistent use of their high-pitched horns. It’s not unusual to see a whole family perched on a scooter, Mum and Dad either end and babies stuck precariously in the middle, all helmetless of course, rattling down a pedestrian-filled street at bullet speed. There’s no such thing as ‘health and safety’ in Naples.

The words ‘faded grandeur’ hardly begin to describe what you will find in Naples. Look up from the busy cobbled street and you will see the immense facades of baroque palaces, now divided into pokey flats, their gutters sprouting bushes, their walls cracked, pitted and covered with graffiti. There are hundreds of grandiose churches, but many of them are now boarded up, their dark, crumbling interiors hidden behind firmly locked doors.

An alley in the Centro Storico
(image taken from http://www.comune.napoli.it)

The people are as friendly as they want to be, and you are warned not to carry or wear anything expensive or easily grabbed. This is a shockingly poor town, where people exist on the very edges of survival. The men are dark and brooding. They look like they want to either fuck you, or kill you, or both. The women are loud, brazen and unapologetic. Neapolitans make good friends but terrifying enemies. In this town, death is never far away; most of the churches are lined with the relics of long-departed, now obscure saints, ranging in size from tiny slivers of bone up to complete corpses in gilded cases. The life-sized bronze skulls which decorate the entrance to the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco are a stark reminder of our own mortality.

One of the bronze skulls in Via Tribunali (image taken from http://www.wikipedia.it)

Naples is somewhere that I will be returning to again on this search, and in this blog I will no doubt be returning to it in more detail. There’s mystery everywhere here, every winding alleyway promising something unexpected. It’s dilapidated, falling down in places; who knows what will be left of it in fifty year time? There’s certainly no money to spend on restoration or conservation. For the Neapolitans, these disintegrating edifices are not buildings of historical importance or architectural gems, they are just places to live as best they can. It’s one of the few Italian cities that doesn’t feel like a theme park, with most of the tourists here just passing through on the way to the coast or one of the nearby islands which dot the bay.

If you want to visit somewhere filled with a sense of potential magic, Naples is the real thing. If you think you’ve got the nerve, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Spaccanapoli (image taken from http://www.6suviaggi.com)

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