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Naples, Italy: Maddeningly Seductive

I had been curious about Naples ever since I read Edmund Wilson's impressions of the anarchic city-- with its "pavementless, lightless, policeless streets" and "half-obliterated shrines"-- almost 30 years ago in Europe Without Baedeker. A few years later I came upon Norman Lewis's Naples '44, in which the author describes his harrowing experiences as a soldier there during the war: the Germans wired the catacombs with explosives and nearly blew the whole place up. But Naples survived the Nazis, just as it survived the Visigoths, the Normans, the French, the Spanish viceroys, and numerous other foreign invaders, along with plagues and insurrections beyond number, earthquakes, and periodic eruptions of Vesuvius (most recently in 1980).

What finally made me decide to visit was the buzz about Naples from my Italian friends; apparently that durable city was in the midst of yet another revival. From journalists I heard about churches and monuments being restored; an art historian excitedly described the renovation of the famous Capodimonte museum; a government official who had accompanied President Clinton to Naples for the 1994 Conference of Industrial Nations spoke glowingly of a major urban refurbishment. He mentioned the efforts of Naples's energetic mayor, Antonio Basolino, who was intent on restoring the city's luster. And American friends, too, seasoned travelers, recounted the pleasures of their latest discovery. The very week of my departure, the Sunday travel section of the New York Times published a persuasive account of the city. As a correspondent for L'Espresso said to me, "This is Naples's moment."

Before I left New York, I called on the novelist Shirley Hazzard, a part-time resident of Naples for the last 40 years. Hazzard and her late husband, Francis Steegmuller, had both written evocative accounts of their lives there-- Hazzard in a novel, Bay of Noon, about the period she spent in Naples as a translator for NATO just after the war; Steegmuller in a piece for The New Yorker describing the time he was robbed by a pair of thieves on a motorcycle in Spaccanapoli, the city's ancient, crowded center. "The Incident at Naples," far from a complaint, was a loving homage to the city's inhabitants, who had rallied to his side in the wake of the assault by the scippatori.

Hazzard, too, was a great Naples booster. She set aside an hour for me on short notice, an hour she spent writing with intense concentration on one lined yellow sheet after another: "Santa Chiara-- great Gothic church, tombs of the kings from Anjou; behind Santa Chiara, beautiful 18th-century cloister in ceramic tiles. Through passage to the rear of the Church of San Lorenzo, an obscure stairway down to a vast excavation of Roman streets. Important." But it was the single word Hazzard scrawled at the bottom of the last page, as she once again ran out of space, that would prove prophetic: "Endless."

Mildly unnerved by the city's reputation for crime-- even the most cheerful guidebooks warn against carrying valuables-- my wife and I had hired a driver to pick us up at the airport in Rome. (One can fly directly to Naples from London, but at considerable expense.) On our first glimpse, the city was unpromising: a jumble of industrial plants and concrete slums. Some of the crumbling buildings alongside the highway looked as if they hadn't been touched since the war. But as we rounded a massive wall surrounding the Castel Nuovo-- founded by Charles I of Naples in 1279-- we were met by a gorgeous spectacle: the Bay of Naples in all its azure Mediterranean splendor. Boats rocked in the enclosed harbor beside an imposing fortress that juts out into the water; Vesuvius was barely visible through a haze. People were strolling up and down the esplanade. Behind us tiers of whitewashed buildings covered the steep slope. Shelley, arriving here in the winter of 1819, exulted in "the blue waters of the bay, forever changing yet forever the same, & encompassed by the mountainous island of Capreae [Capri], the lofty peaks which overhang Salerno, & the woody hill of Posilypo"-- and so it still was.

After much deliberation, we had chosen to begin our stay at the Excelsior. Some guidebooks suggested the hotel had gone downhill; our driver told us the previous proprietor had been on the verge of closing it. But two years ago the Sheraton, which owned the posh Vesuvio next door, had taken it over and restored its magnificence. The rooms were large and plushly furnished, with balconies facing the bay; the elegant lobby and formal dining room were busy.

It was a Saturday night, and we didn't want to miss out on what a recent visitor had described as "the most unusual dining experience in Naples": the weekly banquet at Simposium, a cultural institution that sponsors dinners with menus from different historical eras, served by waiters in period costumes. Tonight's offering was "di fine Settecento"-- loosely translated as "from the end of the 18th century"-- and accompanied by a live performance of selections from Don Giovanni.

In the car, we threaded through the impossibly jammed streets of Spaccanapoli in search of Simposium's address. Our driver, Fabrizio, kept urgently demanding of pedestrians and taxi drivers the whereabouts of Via Benedetto Croce. Eventually I glanced up at one of the rare street signs and saw that we were on it. Finally, we sat down at a long banquet table, men on one side, women on the other. While everyone drank red wine from clay pitchers, the master of ceremonies gave an animated lecture in Italian on the culinary history of Europe.

My Italian is less than serviceable and no one spoke a word of English, but everyone showed us the "immediacy and human fellowship" that Steegmuller had singled out as Neapolitan virtues. The food was basic, to say the least: authentic gruel, a plate of lumpy vegetables, and a turnover stuffed with some unknown and nearly inedible substance. It made me realize how primitive the culinary arts had been during the Enlightenment. But the singers and musicians, in their Mozartian finery, were glorious. When we ducked out close to midnight, the boisterous diners were requesting a third encore.

Even at this hour, the streets were packed. Cars and motorcycles nosed through the narrow lanes, surrounded by a mob of pedestrians, many of them carrying open bottles of wine. On every corner, vendors cooked corncobs on smoky grills, sold beer out of wheelbarrows, and hawked cartons of black-market Marlboros. I floated back to the hotel on a tide of wine and exultation. Europe was still Europe after all.

The next morning we wandered through the open-air market of the Villa Communale, the park beside the bay-- a ritual on Sunday mornings, when the area becomes a hectic flea market. Down on the quay, we could see fishermen unloading fresh eels and tubs of silverfish. On the beach, dogs played and swam. Children zoomed up and down the paths on miniature mopeds, learning at an early age to make as much exuberant noise as possible. Other kids roamed the plaza in bumper cars, feeding them periodically with tokens. It was characteristic of the city's anarchy that the bumper cars weren't confined to one area but were free to speed around the plaza, miming the traffic that roared along the adjacent Riviera di Chiaia.

In Naples, cars don't stop at pedestrian crossings; I was told that the safest way to traverse a major intersection is to follow in the wake of an old person. Our driver was having a virtual nervous breakdown; he was embarrassed by the din of Naples. "Next time you come to Italy, see Umbria or Tuscany," he counseled, a note of desperation in his voice. But I had quickly grown to like this city. The grass was scuffed, the bushes smelling of urine, the air thick with diesel fuel; but the city gave off energy-- "the New York of Italy," a friend called it. Goethe, in his Italian Journey, found Naples "gay, free, and alive"; that hadn't changed. Whole families rode together on motorbikes, the children sandwiched in between the parents, who had babies strapped to their backs. And cell phones: everyone seemed to have one-- businessmen in the lobbies of the grand hotels, messengers steering their motorbikes one-handed, even a priest on a bench. (I would have liked to eavesdrop on that call.)

Not until my third day in Naples did the most singular fact about the city register on my consciousness: there were no Americans! In Rome and Venice, Paris and London, in the remotest corners of the Dolomites and the Abruzzi, the American presence is ubiquitous. You can go for a month in Italy without having to speak a word of Italian. In Naples, the American language has crept in: there are stores named Dizzy, Idea Baby, the Brooklyn Connection. I even saw a poster for boockee! one night hip hop a napoli featuring Jasmine and Sab Sista. But I didn't hear an American voice the whole time. "We're beginning to see a lot of Germans and Japanese," said Mirella Barracco, the co-founder of Fondazione Napoli '99, a private foundation devoted to the restoration of Naples. "But it's not on the American tourist agenda yet. To Americans, Naples is more unknown than Micronesia."

Naples wasn't always unappreciated. In the 18th century, it was the capital of Europe, a flower of the Bourbon dynasty. Many of the city's finest buildings-- the Capodimonte, high on a hill; the San Carlo opera house, second only to La Scala; the magnificent royal palace at Caserta and its park, designed by Vanvitelli and reminiscent of Versailles-- date from that vigorous period. In the 19th century, Stendhal and Dickens made the pilgrimage. "Europe was born in Naples," a guest at Simposium had said to me. Now the place feels like a Third World city, impoverished, graffiti-scarred, its sooty streetcars out of another era. But even in its dilapidated state, Naples has haughty grandeur, as if its monuments and churches have only to cast off a cloak of grime to gleam again.

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