To most Americans, it's as unfamiliar as Micronesia. But this is one city where Europe-- maddeningly, seductively-- is still Europe

By James Atlas
August 22, 2013

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.

After an elegant Sunday lunch (fritto misto and a chilled carafe of Greco di Tufo, the local white wine) on the roof terrace of the Vesuvio, overlooking the glittering bay, we headed for Mount Vesuvius. I have often wondered whether the world is now an uglier place than it was before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the automobile. Perhaps that idea is too romantic: life was hard in those days, travel arduous. But the discrepancy between the early pastoral depictions of the bay that hang on the walls of every Naples lobby and restaurant-- showing the Castel Nuovo and farmhouses and fields beneath the volcano's smoking cone-- and the tangle of clogged highways we negotiated as we fought our way out of the city persuaded me that we do live in a fallen state. The road to the top of Vesuvius, marked by high-rise housing projects and seedy hotels, was a far cry from the landscape depicted by Sir William Hamilton in his famous series dating from the mid-1700's, when Vesuvius was active.

We arrived at the gate at five o'clock, just as it was closing for the day, and I had to bribe the gatekeeper to let us in. Still confused by the bloated denominations of lire, I handed the guy a 100,000-lira note (roughly $60). When Fabrizio learned what I had done, he hurried back down the path and returned in triumph with my bill, having exchanged it for a 20,000-lira note.

Despite my protestations, Fabrizio was determined to make the ascent with us. He set off in his tasseled loafers, blue blazer, and tie, armed with a crude walking stick. At last we had left behind the crowds; spread out far below us, Naples appeared as tranquil as a Mediterranean village. To the south, the Amalfi Coast towns clung to high cliffs; the islands-- Capri, Ischia, Procida-- shimmered in the bay. At the summit was a simple hutch, the gift shop, where one could buy postcards, mineral samples, and bottles of Lacrima Christae wine, produced from grapes harvested on the sides of the volcano.

As I gazed down through a chain-link fence at the crater, wisps of smoke rose from the ashy lava. I remembered Pliny the Elder's description of the huge column of ash and smoke as being "like an umbrella pine" in a.d. 79, when Vesuvius burst forth and covered Pompeii. (Pliny himself eventually suffocated from the poisonous fumes.) Even now, millennia later, Vesuvius is asleep, not dead.

One afternoon I went to see the mayor, Antonio Basolino, a former Communist Party official. Elected four years ago, he is now often mentioned as a candidate for national office. Basolino is proud of his association with President Clinton-- there is a photo of them together in the Vesuvio's lobby-- and is somewhat Clintonian himself: youthful, energetic, with a full head of gray hair. But he's still unmistakably Italian in his herringbone jacket and black slacks, cigarette in hand.

We spoke in his ornate office overlooking the Piazza Municipio, adjacent to the Castel Nuovo; it was a grand, official-looking room with a frescoed 16th-century ceiling. Culture used to be considered a luxury, the mayor told me animatedly through a translator: "For me, it is the first resource, the most important industry. Turin has the auto industry; we have culture." What he is trying to bring about is nothing less than a valorizzazione culturale (revitalization of culture). He pointed to his most celebrated initiative, the "Monumenti: Porte Aperte" ("Open Doors"), held in May, when all the city's museums are free to the public. Inaugurated in 1992, "Porte Aperte" was designed to reacquaint Neapolitans with their heritage and renew the sense of pride that has been damaged by natural disaster and civic neglect.

Last New Year's Eve, Basolino boasted, describing another of his "initiatives," 100,000 people had shown up in the vast Piazza del Plebiscito in the city center to drink spumante and champagne at midnight. Then there was the "Ritorno di Bastimenti" ("Return of the Ships"), an effort to bring back citizens who had fled Naples for more prosperous shores. Foreign investors, aware of the profit potential in local tourism, have been solicited with some success; so far the city has raised $180 million in bonds. The Japanese government contributed to the renovation of a fountain; the British Airport Authority is helping upgrade the waterfront. Naples used to be the point of departure for boats to the islands-- "a parking lot," Basolino said. Now it is a destination.

It all sounded good, but how effective had the mayor really been?My Neapolitan friends were divided. Defenders pointed to the metro under construction, and the newly scrubbed Galleria Umberto, a glass-roofed arcade like one in Milan. "Things are better in terms of morale," Mirella Barracco told me. Others noted that, for all his talk, the mayor hadn't improved the infrastructure: "The buildings are still falling down." But they all agreed on one thing: Basolino is a master of P.R.

That night we dined at Masaniello, named after the celebrated leader of a people's uprising in 1647. The restaurant, in a former stable, has no menus-- the proprietor described the various dishes available. When he learned we were American he invited us into the kitchen, where his mother stood boning a fish. Then he gave us a tour of the walled courtyard that had once belonged to the Masaniello family. At the end of our bounteous feast, he brought out a dusty bottle of grappa. But at one point during our meal, a cluster of urchins trooped in carrying buckets, come to collect coal from the kitchen's big open ovens to warm their unheated apartments. Naples may be on the way up, but it's still as poor as ever.

On our last morning we went to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, where the mosaics of Pompeii are kept. Pompeii itself had been a marvel: we'd spent the better part of a day there, wandering the orderly grid of streets that formed a thriving metropolis until it was buried by a hail of volcanic ash on that fateful August day in a.d. 79. No matter how much one has read about Pompeii, it is impossible to anticipate the stunning effect of these ruinsãthe frescoes, the statues, the wine bars, even the grooves made in the stone roadway by carriagesãso vividly intact it's as if the Romans had departed only yesterday. But the most treasured artifacts had been transferred to the museum.

The street was sealed off; a student demonstration was in progress, and a cluster of riot police stood before the doors, blocking access. The museum was closed, we were told. But just then the doors opened a crack, and in the confusion we slipped through. Inside, a few intrepid museum-goers were gathered around the admissions desk; the harried clerk had no change. The man behind us proffered a few small bills, and our 50,000-lira note was accepted after it had been put through a machine to make sure it wasn't counterfeit.

The museum's state of disrepair was appalling. There were no guidebooks, pamphlets, or maps to help us find our way around. The white walls of the huge rooms were dirty, the windows smeared with grime. Plaster crumbled from the ceilings. In the courtyard, dusty palm trees rustled in the wind.

But the art! I had never seen anything like the gargantuan marble sarcophagi in the main hall, or the bronze Greek statues with their muscular torsos and handsome, almond-eyed heads. And when I arrived at the gallery that held the frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum, the colors that greeted my eye were unbelievably vibrant. The modesty of their surroundings enhanced the works of art, their durability a counterpoint to the transience of our own world.

A few hours later we were on a boat to Capri. It was dusk, and Naples twinkled in the bay. I watched the hulk of the Castel dell'Ovo recede, and behind it the winking lights of electrical towers, the illuminated billboards, the industrial sprawl, and the lights of the apartment houses climbing the hill. I thought of Shirley Hazzard's warning: "Endless." I had seen so much, but there was so much more to see: the Botanic Garden; the Fontana dell'Immacolata, with its statues by Bernini; the Church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo, which Hazzard had recommended for its Donatello.

As the boat churned through the dark water, I was already plotting my return. Next time, I would take in the fabled opera house, the early Christian church of San Giovanni Maggiore, the 17th-century Taverna dell'Arte. And what if Naples is discovered by American tourists?I could just imagine the Piazza del Plebiscito, so blissfully empty now, on a warm afternoon jammed with tour buses. In a way, I'm sorry to share the news.

By James Atlas, Martin Rapp and Nicole Whitsett

Famous for its historical and architectural attractions, and its perpetual flourish of the arts, Naples has a lively cultural scene. Its street life and beautiful vistas are easiest to appreciate during the temperate fall and spring seasons. Easter and Christmas offer traditional festivities, while the summer months are ideal for crowd-shy, quieter types who don't mind hot weather.

The Excelsior 48 Via Partenope; 39-81/764-0111, fax 39-81/764-9743; doubles from $265.
One of the two poshest hotels in Naples. Combines old-world elegance-- 135 large, cozily furnished rooms; French windows opening onto balconies that overlook the bay-- with such modern amenities as minibars and direct-dial phones. The hotel restaurant is one of the finest in the city.
The Vesuvio 45 Via Partenope; phone and fax 39-81/764-0044; doubles from $220.
The city's other stellar hotel. The Vesuvio is sleek, and its recently refurbished, plush rooms have Jacuzzis and futuristic telephones. This is where the European heads of state stayed during the 1994 Conference of Industrial Nations. Not quite as charming as the Excelsior, but very comfortable-- a first-class European hotel. The Ristorante Caruso (the singer kept a suite here), with its outdoor terrace on the roof, is a wonderful place for lunch on a sunny day.
The Britannique 133 Corso Vittorio Emanuele; 39-81/761-4145, fax 39-81/660-457; doubles from $125, including breakfast.
Halfway up a hill in a quiet central neighborhood near the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the Britannique looks over the city and out to the bay. But it has seen better days; the lobby is down-at-the-heels, the guest accommodations somewhat seedy, and the garden across the street has a derelict air.
Parker's 135 Corso Vittorio Emanuele; 39-81/761-2474, fax 39-81/663-527; doubles from $185, including breakfast.
In contrast to its next-door neighbor the Britannique, this hotel is a more ornate, Jamesian establishment, with an opulent lobby that hasn't lost its charm and a library filled with rare editions.

  • Masaniello 28 Via Donnalbina; 39-81/552-8863; dinner for two $70.
  • A small restaurant on a hard-to-find side street that's well worth a visit. The vaults and pillars of this former stable give the place an intimate feel, and the food, cooked to order after elaborate consultations, is exquisite.
  • Bellini 80 Via Santa Maria Costantinopoli; 39-81/459-774; dinner for two $40.
  • In the middle of Spaccanapoli, just down the street from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Pleasant outdoor tables view Porta Alba, a passageway lined with excellent bookshops.
  • Simposium 38 Via Benedetto Croce; 39-81/551-8510; dinner for two $50 (including tax, tip, and wine). Every Saturday at nine o'clock, this cultural institution celebrates a different historical era with an informative lecture, followed by a banquet featuring period food and costume.
  • J.A.

Cadogan Guides: The Bay of Naples & the Amalfi Coast by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls (Globe Pequot Press)-- Up-to-date information on where to eat, stay, and tour, enhanced by insights into the area's history and culture.
Knopf Guides: Naples and Pompeii (Alfred A. Knopf)-- Hundreds of color photos and illustrations, along with descriptions of churches, museums, and archaeological sites.

Naples '44 by Norman Lewis (Macmillan)-- The author's persuasive account of a year spent in the war-torn city shows the indomitable spirit and courage of the Italian people.

Volcano Lover: A Romance by Susan Sontag (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)-- A classic novel that borrows from the journals of Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples in the 18th century.
-- Martin Rapp

  • NSA NaplesThis site was designed for U.S. Navy officers stationed in Naples, but it's full of useful "civilian" travel tips on shopping, transportation, and more.
  • Nicole Whitsett

The Gold of Naples-- a 1954 movie starring Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica.