I’m caught behind a funeral procession in the narrow streets of Spaccanapoli, Naples’ historic district. The men and women, old and young, come out from the shops, bars and from their balcony windows, one after the other, to pay their respects. They take off their hats and move their hands to sign the cross. I look up and see photos on pieces of fabric, leisurely dangling from balconies or stuck on windows. They show a young, good-looking boy maybe no more than 20 years old and I presume it’s his funeral.
“This is Naples” says my on-the-ground guide, Maria. “You never know what you’re going to bump into around the corner,” referring to the fact that behind us, only a few steps ago we passed a wedding celebration and caught the bride and father just as they were entering the church. My guide is an attractive woman, probably in her early fifties. She is dressed in loose white linen trousers and a green blouse; her thick black hair in tight ringlets falls aimlessly at her shoulders. Her skin is tanned from spending too much time in the sun. We slip into a dark side road to get away from everything and soon get lost in the complex riddle of craggy backstreets. The streets are even narrower, windless, quiet, and uncongested with a languid atmosphere, a startling contrast to the high-octane energy of Via dei Tribunali just a few turns away. The grey buildings are decaying and tall blocking light from coming down. Every two or three metres street corners are heavily decorated with icons. Madonna and Maradona sit side by side each under gold-starred crowns or adorned with fresh white flowers. Above me, old women hang their faded laundry to dry with multi-colored pegs on rusty balconies. Their plump neighbours sit on plastic chairs outside their doors, looking at us up and down so intently that you feel vulnerable to their gaze.
Like many tourists, I always stop in Naples en route to somewhere, mostly before I go further south to the Amalfi Coast. My mother’s parents are from Naples. They moved to London in the 60’s. This link motivated me to spend some time here. I’ve been warned continuously, told numerous tales about the notorious suicidal motorcyclists, areas that I shouldn’t step foot in past five o’clock and the mafia-driven rubbish problem – but the latter doesn’t seem to be so evident now.
“Let’s stop and have a coffee” she says and points to the nearest bar as we get back on the main road. I sit directly under the sun and I begin to sweat. It makes my clothes stick to me, which I hate. The air is thick, filled with cigarette smoke and humidity. We fill our morning hunger gap by gnawing on some sfogliatelle, a local pastry from Campania, and I quickly grab a tissue before the ricotta filling drops down me. A group of old men sit next to us, elegantly lounging in the southern heat whilst playing cards. Their sacred daily ritual, I’m sure. A motorbike whizzes past us and I manage to catch a glimpse of the rider, a man with no helmet holding a newborn baby with one hand as he weaves past the human traffic with the other. “As you can see, in Naples we have our own set of rules that we live by,” says Maria laughing. It’s moments like these that make other Italian cities seem like a monastery. Naples is a city full of paradoxes, where its virtues and vices coexist and intertwine, it becomes impossible to separate them. The cross-currents of Roman, Greek, Arab, and Spanish influences ripple throughout the citadel, evident in a number of impressive museums, archaeological sites, and opulent art collections. Over recent years, Naples is slowly emerging from its dark shadows, as the city struggled to free itself from the stifling hands of the mafia and of violence and social unrest, an image that couldn’t be further from La Dolce Vita. That kind of foreign fantasy runs out of breath here. But thanks to the local’s resilience to conformity and gentrification, their devil-may-care attitude has helped them resist being trampled by tourists. As a result, it has become one of the most electrifying and visceral cities in Europe with a complicated and culturally rich past, splattered with unapologetic and battered beauty.
Characterized by a highly strung symphony of sirens, mopeds, and hand gestures, the bold strokes of its personality can be volatile and overwhelming at times. Uncovering the true soul of Naples lies in the art of straying off course, allowing yourself to be passive to its raw and chaotic energies. Your efforts will bring you rich rewards filled with spontaneous conversations, hospitable locals, religious eccentricities, powerful landscapes, and an incredible food scene with abundant fresh ingredients and wild herbs that bring an innate sweetness to the air.
The beating pulse of the city is in the theatricality of its street life, fuelled by the magnetic energy of the locals who manage to strike a comfortable balance between rugged masculinity and romantic sensitivity. Ordinary life has the qualities of a film. Just turn your head and watch the locals go about their daily rituals like buying bread or chatting with their fruit vendor, it is the most captivating show you’ll ever watch. The people have an uncaged human spirit where they live how they want to and there’s a wonderful liberating freedom to that. It’s clear that Naples has slowly and seductively gotten under my skin. True, the city does have its obvious flaws and you’ll be lucky not to get hit by a motorcyclist but still, I can’t help but feel compelled by all its flaws and grit. Living in the omnipresent shadows of Mount Vesuvius is a constant reminder that at any point, something can happen, and it gives the city that edge but more importantly, the freedom and the glory to live.