It doesn’t take long to understand Naples.
Once you make your way through the unruly traffic, honking horns, locals shouting in thick dialect across alleys lined with wet laundry, past racy black lace garters on display in shop windows, shrines to the Madonna with blue neon and plastic flowers set into palazzo walls, churches decorated with carved skulls, women squeezed into their shirts and spike heels, immigrants selling knockoff bags, helmetless teenagers on mopeds racing the wrong way down slippery one-way streets, and everywhere the smells of strong coffee, fried dough, fresh clams and the breeze blowing in from the sea — it is immediately clear that two primal forces drive this magnificent chaos of a city: life and death.
Maybe it’s the location, set on that wide bay that looks out on movie-set-perfect Capri and its poorer cousin, Ischia, and the most storied active volcano in the world at the city’s shoulders, Vesuvius, inescapable memento mori. Or maybe it’s the history of colonization — first by Greeks, then Romans, Normans and after them the Spanish, and later even Italians, and the lingering presence of organized crime. But this is a city that has seen it all, survived most of it, and, if you have the patience to explore it, will win you over and never let you go.
Its spell can be powerful. More than elegant, restrained Florence or show-offy Rome, with its perfect, ruined beauty, and even more than otherworldly Venice, I would argue it is earthy, squalid, slightly menacing Naples that is one of the most romantic cities in the world.
I FIRST SAW NAPLES years ago, when I was working as a babysitter in Rome. It was winter. The city’s famous Christmas market was in full swing, as it is now. I was traveling with a group of scholars and archaeologists. They took us to every church in town, one blurring into the next, and I don’t remember much, besides being warned to hold on to my bag. (Always good advice. In Naples, street crime is fast and real.) Still living in Rome, I returned the following summer and stayed in the leafy middle-class neighborhood of Vomero, once a stopping point for Grand Tourists. “See Naples and Die” was the motto in that era, although Henry James’s Daisy Miller didn’t make it past Rome. In the hotel room, one window had a sweeping view onto the bay below, with the ships gliding in the harbor under a summer sun, and the other opened onto the towering hillside above. Captivated by the city’s enticing mix of looming enclosure and open possibility, I vowed to return to Naples again and again. And so I have.