Travel

The particular beauty of Naples, an incomplete list

Posted on June 3, 2017

I crave Naples the way I occasionally crave a very specific type of food: Intensely, completely, and then – in exactly the same way as when I allow myself to indulge in inadvisably large quantities of something like sushi or Indian food – not at all for a relatively significant length of time, until one day I wake up again and think: You know what I need? I need a pizza, eaten in the city where it was invented, and I need a dose of that in-your-face, brazen chaos that only Naples can properly deliver.

I’d been to Naples a good number of times before, but only ever for day trips and never with Alessandro, who generally claimed to dislike the city for exactly the same reasons – the chaos, the sheer anarchy of the place and the shadowy history hanging over it all – that made it so fascinating to me. Apparently the draw of truly excellent pizza alone just wasn’t enough of a motivator for him. But this time, on a rather grey and blustery Friday, we both got on the train headed down to Naples to spend the weekend with our friend Livia, who had been living there for two months, and to dive deeper into the city than I had been able to during my previous day trips.

There are a lot of cities that feel like they’re laying everything they have to offer in front of you, putting all their beauty on display up-front in a series of elegant piazzas and well-manuciured buildings, with the occasional sweeping vista thrown in for good measure. Naples, on the other hand, makes you work for its best bits. It doesn’t care if you love it or not, and so it holds its beauty close, tucking it away behind someone’s private gate or around a particularly grungy-looking corner, surprising you when you least expect it.

There’s a lot of unconventional, odd beauty in Naples, and I’m certain that it would take years to uncover it all. So while I know that the cumulative result of every trip I’ve taken to Naples barely even amounts to scratching the surface, I wanted to put together a list (of sorts; it’s rather long-winded) of some of the details and particularities of the city that I find most beautiful, in one way or another.

Laundry, everywhere

For a city that tends to come across as worn-out and grubby on first inspection, there actually appears to be an almost obsessive emphasis on cleaning in Naples. This is the city famous for its garlands of drying laundry zig-zagging across streets and flapping out of windows; every single alleyway, no matter how small, seems to be decorated by at least a couple of semi-dry sheets and a towel or two fluttering in the breeze. Every time I walk around Naples, I come away with the impression that at any given moment, at least 50% of the city’s population must be loading or unloading a washing machine, the only possible explanation as to why there is constantly so much laundry everywhere.

Streetside saints

I’ve spotted little roadside shrines to various saints and the Madonna all over Italy. Their style varies significantly depending on where they are – Rome’s madonelle tend to be elaborate verging on over-the-top, with ornate carved frames surrounding softly faded imagery, while the shrines down in Bari are simple and homely and, oddly, often draped in lace curtains.

Naples though, not exactly known for its subtlety, takes the concept of the roadside shrine to a whole new level. In both quantity and styling, the shrines of Naples stand out. They’re everywhere: one shrine after another lining the narrow streets, visible deep inside gated courtyards, peeking out from behind parked cars, posted beside doorways and shops and markets, watching steadily over the comings-and-goings at the local fishmonger.

Many of the shrines sport corrugated plastic roofs, discoloured and fuzzy with moss from a daily onslaught of drips from the second floor’s freshly-washed laundry. Others have little fences surrounding them – crooked wrought-iron bars doing their best to protect the saint inside from poorly parked cars – or are framed in a neon tube light, bathed in a pale blue glow. Nearly all of them could be described as tacky; plastic flowers in lurid colours and fake candles abound, and, if you ask me, it’s exactly that tackiness that makes the shrines of Naples so endearing.

Mom-and-pop shops

The hardware store that looks like it’s been in business for the better part of a century, its windows frosted in a thick layer of dust. The fishmonger where Neapolitans stand around trading gossip under a striped awning, the day’s catch spread out in front of them. The old lady selling plump heads of garlic out of a few plastic crates at the side of the street, calling out in completely indecipherable dialect. The artisans, working with metal or wood or chocolate in semi-hidden, florescent-lit spaces. The hole-in-the-wall shops that seem to sell a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing. All of these shops feel like the soul of Naples, something that’s endured for generations, resisting change and commercialisation and that slick, curated feeling that seems to be taking over one city centre after another these days.

Courtyard secrets

I am not normally the type of person who wanders into a building’s private courtyard just to explore and snap a few photos – I’m always fairly certain that there’ll be an elderly lady watching from some hidden window within, ready to make a scene at the first sign that something doesn’t belong. And yet, in Naples, we wandered into countless courtyards, and nobody gave us any problems – I’m going to assume that’s because they know that some of the city’s best scenes are hidden away inside, waiting to be discovered.

From the crumbling baroque staircases, peeling frescoes and hidden garden of Palazzo Sanfelice, tucked away behind an unassuming facade in the depths of the Rione Sanità, to the glimpses of unexpected colour and greenery lurking past gated entrances, it constantly feels like some of the most beautiful parts of Naples are very nearly secrets, available only to those who are brash enough to brush past partially-closed gates and brave the occasional stern stare.

Visual chaos

Naples is not a place that subscribes to the “less is more” school of thought, and this extends to the appearance of the city itself. If you stand in the middle of a street – which often feels more like an urban slot canyon, tall and narrow with only a sliver of sky at the top – and look up, you’ll find a dense web of balconies, awnings, street signs and sagging wires that all tangle together into one impenetrable mass. Walls are layered with years of peeling paint and graffiti; everything is textured, everything demands that you look at it.

If you walk up the hill looming over the city, up Corso Vittorio Emanuele and circling around towards where Castel Sant’Elmo is perched at the top, the chaos of Naples revels another few layers: Colour – there are splashes of bright primary colours everywhere, buildings displaying ochre and brick-red facades – and a sea of uneven rooftops dotted liberally with satellite dishes. From above, the narrow streets of Naples are all but swallowed up, vanishing into the chaos.


There are handfuls of things I could add to this list, and handfuls more if I had even more time to explore the city. With Naples, I feel like I’m always just scratching the surface – which means that I’ll be back, obviously, when a few more months have gone by and I suddenly wake up with the feeling that a trip to Naples (and a pizza or two) are needed.

Share this post: Pinterest Facebook Twitter

Comments on this post

Suzie Kelsey 4 June 2017 at 7:20 am

Love the way you described Naples – it really made me feel like I’d been there, and at the same time made me want to go there! Great post. :)

Natalie 4 June 2017 at 11:32 am

So beautiful!

Claudia 4 June 2017 at 2:54 pm

Can I just say that I LOVE the way you write?! The way you describe Naples just makes me want to buy a plane ticket and don`t look back haha. Just out of curiosity, did you feel safe wondering through the streets of Naples? I know that in bigger cities, like Rome, pickpockets are everywhere, but is it the same in Naples?

Leslie Price 4 June 2017 at 8:09 pm

Your writing is absolutely delicious and your photos are phenomenal. I suddenly have the urge to do my own wandering around Naples and go poking around in hidden courtyards. Magnificent.

Leah 6 June 2017 at 10:55 pm

What stunning imagery and fluid prose. I’m aching to visit Naples after experiencing it through your words, and at the same time, I feel like I have already been.

The particular beauty of Naples, an incomplete list – Just About Retired 22 June 2017 at 3:38 am

[…] A good article. Lots of pictures. Read the whole thing here. […]

Leave a comment

Recently Written

Travel

Bold and stark: The colours of Burano

Burano is a strange kind of place. If you search for photos of it, you’ll mostly come up with shots of ultra-saturated rainbow-hued buildings bathed in golden sunlight and girls in sundresses twirling cheerfully in front of doorways. Any maybe it’s like that during the spring or summer, when it’s warm enough that your lips don’t feel numb with cold after a few minutes of wandering around – but I was there in winter, mid-January, the deepest part of the season where sundresses and warm sunlight felt like a long-lost memory. So Burano, a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon, felt...

Food

Winter isn’t over yet: A warmly-spiced cookie recipe to keep you cozy

The wind is blowing hard today, a cuttingly cold wind that slices its way down through the narrow streets, slamming shutters back and forth on their hinges and ripping leaves and twigs off plants. The sky is brilliantly, deceptively blue; it looks like a perfect nearly-spring day until the wind gusts again and tips over a parked bicycle while sending a stray plastic bag flying through the air. “Senti che tramontana”, remarks an older man at the market as his scarf whips out behind him. The tramontana is a cold wind that comes from the north, from somewhere cold and snow-covered...

Travel

Venice: The allure of Italy’s most unique city

If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance...

Life

The trauma of underwear shopping in Italy

The scene played out something like this: I was in Intimissimi, enclosed in one of those woefully undersized changing compartments harshly lit by hot and unforgiving halogen bulbs and closed off from the rest of the store by a single strip of beige canvas that left a two-inch gap on either side no matter how firmly I tugged on the fabric. I was also in the middle of trying on a new bra, which is always a traumatic experience in and of itself. So I was standing there in that tiny cubicle, undressed, wincing at the effect of the world’s...

Food

A bright cranberry cake for those cold winter days

In most places, the holidays are officially over. By now, decorations are making their way back into boxes, people are back at work, and schools are back in session – a return to the usual, now that the new year has kicked off and gotten underway. In Italy, though, things aren’t finished quite yet. While the bulk of the festivities are over, there’s still January 6th – the holiday of Epiphany – to get through before real life really gets going again. Decorations stay up, trees stay lit, and streets stay draped with lights until at least the 6th –...

Life

Momentum

About a year ago, as 2017 started winding down, I found myself thinking that my life was feeling just a little bit stagnant in a few ways. The last couple of years had been pretty uneventful and consistent, which always seems like a really good thing until it goes on that way for just a bit too long and starts to feel more like being stuck in a rut than moving smoothly along. So I told myself that 2018 would be a year of change – by which I mostly meant growth and learning, where and when I wanted it...

View more posts
Show me posts about...