Naples is unceasing, upfront and disarming but what I found beneath was fascinating

Beauty, destruction, saints and would-be sinners mingled in the streets of Napoli for Laura Waddell.

So much is made of returning to Rome the desire is pre-etched on the tourist trail for first-time visitors, and now I too have thrown my coin in the Trevi Fountain wishing for more sunny spritzy days there. But there is something uniquely fascinating about Naples. There are direct flights from Edinburgh that aim for Vesuvius, stopping short at Naples airport multiple times a week. I’m already planning to go back for a long weekend to see its museums of Pompeiian artefacts.

The first time I saw Naples I had to leave again within the hour. I had arrived via train from the north with sore muscles and mud-soaked shoes, the day after hiking downhill from the 80th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Monte Cassino. I had a ferry to catch and was tired after a long, hot night in a high-ceilinged bed and breakfast buzzing with mosquitos, the lace blanket of the bedcovers pulled up over my face.

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Naples and its energy held the attention of Laura Waddell right from the very start. PIC: Montse Monmo Monmo// CC/Wikimedia Commons.Naples and its energy held the attention of Laura Waddell right from the very start. PIC: Montse Monmo Monmo// CC/Wikimedia Commons.
Naples and its energy held the attention of Laura Waddell right from the very start. PIC: Montse Monmo Monmo// CC/Wikimedia Commons.

Naples, even rushing through, caught my attention from the start. The historic port town insistently moves to its own impulsive pace, just as it established its own idiosyncratic economy separate from rich North Italy, relying heavily on smuggling post-war, fishmongers and cigarette sellers still trading on the streets as they have for over a century. My first view of the city was through the windows of a white cab streaking from the station to the port. As we flew over potholes, afternoon sunlight hit the patched-up frontages of tall buildings with colours of peeling bark, faded tobacco brown and blurry pistachio. The buildings turned from residential apartments with open windows and drying washing to impenetrable glassy hotel blocks nearer the bay. To distract myself from the high speed weaving of vehicles just missing each other by flicks of the steering wheel, I hummed in my head the melody to Santa Maria.

Guidebooks warn of pickpockets in all major European cities; in Naples, frenetically so. I had in fact seen an unsuccessful attempt, an older man lingering behind a couple poring over train tickets in the station cafe, letting his hand fumble with the top zip of their suitcase before, realising he was too conspicuous, walking away. But in Naples, the only place I lost money was with the taxi drivers, benefiting from suitcase-laden reticence to barter. The station hire shrugged as he said he didn’t have any change for a note, grinning about netting a bumper fare. ’I went extra fast for you’, he added in justification.

The second visit was a stopover long enough to walk, look, and eat before showering off the seawater still in my hair from the island of Ischia. I was staying near the Piazza Garibaldi, which in the first book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, set in the 1950s, Lila and Lenu walk across with their friends and beaus to pizzerias, avoiding Camorra-linked boys in flashy cars. I’m rereading the series with pleasure, attaching its locations to the streets I’ve walked and seas I’ve dipped my own feet in. From port to that night’s hotel the cab journey was stop-start, horn-blaring, heart racing around fountains and squares. Neapolitans sometimes take offence at questions about the volume of garbage on the city streets - the bin strike is over, they say - but you wouldn’t know it. Its disarray is upfront and disarming, but the city beneath is fascinating.

It’s also famously where the pizza was invented and there are long queues outside all of the most revered locations in the guide books, where the historic centre meets the Spanish Quarter. Giving up on the greats, my priority became respite from the crush of the crowd, with local wine and tomato and basil filled puffs of fried dough under a fresh-faced, spray-painted mural of St Gennaro.

At first glance I wondered if it wasn’t Carlo Acutis, the internet-using Millennial saint beatified by Pope Francis, who has a statue dedicated to him in North Lanarkshire’s Carfin Grotto. But Naples patron Saint Gennaro is as revered here as Maradonna, the festive blue and white ribbons of Team Napoli everywhere. In Naples Cathedral is a vial of Gennaro’s blood. At the door, off season for the liquefaction ceremony, was a sign warning visitors they could not see the blood. In another church with heartrending ceilings, I sat behind a backcombed woman in a startling purple suit witnessing bride and groom marry, doors open to all the city coming and going as they kneeled up front at the altar. Architectural beauties nestle between the graffiti. There came one near miss after another on the roads. A round-cheeked kid who couldn’t have been older than 12 zoomed past a tripe seller’s stall. A car suddenly stopped and a baby was held out to greet his uncle’s kisses at the front window.

That evening I looked out of my high hotel room window onto a building where on one floor alone all the window glass was gone, and birds flew in and out of the empty spaces, but the top floor was a garden flat with lit lanterns: a determinedly beautified space above destruction, calm beside the disconcerting. All over the city were signs of workdays winding down in window frames. Dinners being eaten at tables. Cigarettes smoked into the warm night as the sun went down. Lying on the hotel bed I could still see the giant red neon sign advertising KIMBO coffee on top of a tower block on the horizon. Naples is a giant newspaper of a city, the facts of life and death out in the open, pasted over its buildings and streets. Back in Glasgow I found myself missing the sound of unceasing, overlapping horns rising from the streets below.

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