13 February 2008


Monday we returned from Naples, the city whose favorite sport is crossing the street. Skills required: motorcycle dodging, traffic-light defying, and split-second timing. No scaredy-cat scurrying allowed; you are supposed to move like a stroll in the park, calmly and fluidly. The officially sanctioned unisex costume is a black poofy jacket with a fur-rimmed hood, sunglasses, and a telefonino clamped to your ear. Bonus points if you are a waiter carrying a covered tray of miniscule espressos as you weave in and out of moving vehicles.

The piles of trash that I predicted before leaving, amazingly enough, were nowhere in evidence, apart from the to-be-expected urban dumpsters. Our taxi driver told us they shipped the refuse out to the suburbs. In fact, everything was cleaner and more charming than I had remembered. The impressions I had held of Naples (based on two short visits, once a brief stop in 1998 to meet up with my father and a tour bus full of opera buffs, and another in 2006 which amounted to two taxi rides and a short walk before heading to Procida) were chaos, crazy traffic (that hasn't gone away), dirt, dark alleys, oh, and did I mention the chaos?

But I was pleasantly enchanted by Naples during this visit. I wandered around by myself while the Mister and his boss were in a marathon stretch of philosophical discourses (in Italian) on the topic of socialism. Of course, I stuck to stretches of the map that were well-populated, and only in the daytime. But the buildings, even the crumbling ones, are beautiful, eyefuls of architecture to scoop up and savor. I spent hours in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the number of visitors practically outnumbered by museum staff (in general over the weekend we saw very very few tourists, which is just how I like it).

Although a portion of rooms were closed for restoration, it was a satisfying visit with discrete sections: the most intricate and astounding of Pompeii's mosaics, an exhibit by a contemporary artist named Luca Pignatelli whose work I just fell in love with, the Gabinetto Secreto (the over-18-only portion of the museum featuring sculptures, paintings, and objects with "adult" themes--by today's standards, all pretty tame and sometimes giggle-worthy), the contents of the Villa Papyri in Pompeii (scrolls and wonderful bronzes), and finally, a temporary exhibit of the 19th-c British painter Alma-Tadema, who recreated scenes from Pompeii and other Roman cities in the lush, romantic, idealized Victorian vein. A nice touch: the artefacts (sculptures, furniture, lampstands, etc.) that show up in the paintings were presented at their side.

Also adding to the "I heart Naples" effect: food, of course! Both Thursday and Friday the folks from the two conferences we were there for took us out for delectable meals. As the Mister points out, these people seem to see conferences as a pretext for the real event: long, delicious hours dedicated to eating and conversation. Our dinner Thursday night was at least six courses, and I was able to converse with the guy who is a French professor sitting next to me. (By the way, I SO want to learn Italian. That will come after French. It's almost there, I can understand it just ...almost, but speaking is a disaster.) Friday, we fully expected to be on our own for lunch, but when M. asked for restaurant recommendations, he got the "are you crazy, of course we're taking you out, I absolutely insist" series of gestures that only an Italian could produce. They didn't even know I'd be there, but it was taken for granted that I would be invited, as well as, it seemed, whoever else happened to hang around after the end of the conference.

That hospitality, by the way, is the other reason I am enamored of Naples. Forget the mafia, forget the chaos: these people are incredibly generous. After the Friday lunch, we all tramped over to a beautiful gilt bar for coffees, and because we had asked about Napolitan desserts, a girl we barely knew bought us three plates of pastries and cakes. Just to try. Because those desserts represent her city. Then on Sunday night, when we came back to the city to catch the plane in the morning, we stayed at the B&B of a Brussels friend's mother. The place was palatial, the views amazing. We expected to get a reasonable rate, but we did not expect this: she insisted that we pay her nothing. And oh, the kisses and smiles and embraces and fond farewells of people you have only known for an hour or two.

But can I go back to the food for a second? SO delicious, and even in "fancy" restaurants, really reasonably priced. We followed some New York Times restaurant recommendations that were spot-on (Amici Miei and Da Ettore), and ate in a restaurant called Brandi, where the pizza is said to have been invented. There, we were regaled with guitar-accompanied Neopolitan songs, and a woman who seemed to be a friend of the restaurant (not connected with the two guitar guys) sang O Sole Mio: she was a trained opera singer, without a doubt, and her voice was AMAZING.

The Centro Storico, the gothic city, was beautiful but a little scary, too. I was always glad to be with the Mister after nightfall. And we stuck to well-lit streets; some of the dark lanes were positively medieval. But I really enjoyed it, because it reminded me of Barcelona's Barri Gotic, without all of the tourists (ps to the one British couple we saw: is it TRULY necessary to wear hiking boots and safari vests? When I'm guessing you didn't set foot outside of the city?). Stepping into what seem like your average neighborhood churches you discover elaborately gorgeous interiors. Every corner seems to have a few Roman marbles stuck into them. Towers and convents appear out of nowhere. And we dawdled endlessly in the warren of bookstalls behind Piazza Dante, purchasing what turned out to be our only souvenirs of the trip (not counting wine and limoncello purchased at the airport): books, of course! (Most of them unrelated to Naples: an English novel, a Catalan-Italian edition of Catalan women poets, and a gorgeous French coffee-table book on Provence for only five euros.)

The one drawback of our trip: we seem to have picked the only winter weekend where Brussels was warmer than Naples; turns out that in our absence, Belgium had experienced record-breaking February warmth and sun. In Italy, the air was downright cold, with a frigid wind. True, the golden sunshine drenching everything did much to warm us, mentally and physically, but we were shocked to experience such a chilly weekend. M's boss didn't bring a coat, and he was freezing the whole time. I wore a scarf and gloves, and wished for a hat, especially at night, and especially on the island of Capri, where the windward side of the island was positively gelid.

Ah yes, Capri. I haven't even gotten to the two days we spent there! But I'll save that for another post (photos, too!). For now, I'll just say that it was actually pretty nice coming back to (a sunny) Brussels. When I stepped onto the streets of this dear Flemish city, in comparison to Naples, it seemed downright tranquil, slow-moving, spacious, and tidy.

1 comment:

maitresse said...

some of the most blissful days of my life have been spent walking around Napoli.

(and capri, but that's another story!)