Naples Seen Through Foreign Eyes

BBC ONE‘s new series Italy’s Invisible Cities takes its audience on a fascinating journey through three eternal cities: Venice, Florence and… Naples. The episode focusing on “The City of the Sun” has been recently aired (Jan 4th) but, unfortunately, can’t be watched online outside of the UK (link here). However, foreign media renewed interest in our beloved city pushed me to go online and look for what US and UK media think of the subject. How do they see Naples?

Rachel Donadio in her article for The New York Times  titled “Seduced by Naples” surprised me with her blunt incipit: «It doesn’t take long to understand Naples». Whaaat? Really? I thought we were starting off on the wrong foot. Naples is so complicated, multifaceted  and paradoxical that even Neapolitans themselves don’t seem able to escape the manichean rhetoric: Naples is either the most beautiful city in the world or the worst. But Rachel knows her way around here and by her second paragraph I was already hooked on her article.

Once you make your way through the unruly traffic, honking horns, locals shouting in thick dialect across alleys lined with wet laundry, past racy black lace garters on display in shop windows, shrines to the Madonna with blue neon and plastic flowers set into palazzo walls, churches decorated with carved skulls, women squeezed into their shirts and spike heels, immigrants selling knockoff bags, helmetless teenagers on mopeds racing the wrong way down slippery one-way streets, and everywhere the smells of strong coffee, fried dough, fresh clams and the breeze blowing in from the sea — it is immediately clear that two primal forces drive this magnificent chaos of a city: life and death.

I loved her article even more when she says that it’s “earthy, squalid, slightly menacing” but maybe even because of this, it’s also “one of the most romantic cities in the world“.Yes, finally someone that completely gets what I mean when I talk about Naples: it’s an «enticing mix of looming enclosure and open possibility». So  it doesn’t really take that long to understand this city after all. The article is beautifully written and touches upon all the fudamental touristic spots, carefully measuring stereotypes and reality (The NYT do love Naples. Here  more articles about it).


Huge pizza on Lungomare, Via Caracciolo.

Sarah Schmalbruch for Business Insider has not been seduced by Naples (yet). In her article “Why no one wants to travel to Naples” she focuses on the dark side of the city: crime, waste,  lack of infrastructures etc. Although it’s important to point out flaws as well as values, one can clearly see that the journalist has never been to Naples and hasn’t even opened a guidebook about it.

There’s not all that much to do or see in Naples.
TripAdvisor lists a total of 149 sights and landmarks and 118 activities and tours for Naples. For Rome, there’s 552 sights and landmarks and 618 tours and activities. In other words, there are other Italian cities to visit besides Naples that offer many more options for tourists. And while Italy is home to a number of beautiful and world-renowned churches, only three churches in Naples are well known enough to have received TripAdvisor’s certificate of excellence. Naples is also particularly lacking when it comes to dining. Although it’s the birthplace of the original Neopolitan pizza, TripAdvisor only lists a total of 36 food and drink places in the city. In comparison, there’s a total of 156 food and drink places in Rome.

I mean, one thing is describing Naples problems (and we do have loads of them and they need to be talked about and analyzed), another is saying big fat lies. Only three churches in Naples are enough well known? THREE!? Ehm, not really. And “Naples is also particuralry lacking when it comes to dining”? Hello, Sarah do you know what you’re talking about?!

Spaccanapoli, the street that splits the city in two.

Stanley Stewart of The Telegraph has definitely fallen for Naples. In his article “Naples: Passion and death in Italy’s underrated gem” he openly declares his love for the city:

I love her theatricality, the oriental chaos of her streets, the architecture that began with the ancient Greeks and ended with the Baroque. I love the fat, sensual Neapolitan vowels. I love the scruffy bars where coffee is served zuccherato, ready sweetened; the pasticcerie with the delicate sfogliatelle bursting with cream; the friggitorie, with their roaring wood-fired ovens and bubbling pizzas; the gilt, the bevelled mirrors and the painted Belle Époque beauties of the Café Gabrini; the extravagance of the opera house, the oldest in Europe, where Verdi was once musical director and Caruso, a Neapolitan, got such a poor reception he vowed never to return.

Same happened to Ondine Cohane who has written for The Guardian her article titled “See Naples and …you’ll find a city on the rise“.

The gritty, cinematic scenes seemed plucked out of Rio or Mexico City, rather than Italy, especially when contrasted with well-ordered Tuscany, where we live, and where pretty, ordered tableaux seem arranged purely for photo shoots, and rubbish disappears as seamlessly as the day. But for me, as for many who fall in love with the city, it is the contrasts of Naples that appeal – it’s a rebellious but beautiful place with layers of ancient art, a chaos that is almost soap operatic, and a determination to thrive even when things seem to be falling apart.

While many journalists from major newspapers seem to be completely fascinated by the city’s beauty, many common travellers haven’t found Naples that pleasurable. For example, people writing in the comment section for this article didn’t go easy at all. Many complain about the filth, the laziness and the pickpockets. So yes, Naples is unique, fascinating and seductive but, perhaps, this charm can’t erase the feeling of uneasiness that some  feel here. On the one hand, you might find some tourists with an arrogant attitude, on the other’s it’s also true that the city has to strive to enhance its charm by working effectively on its negative aspects.

Toledo Station, one of the most impressive underground stations in Europe.

Last but not least, Martin Dunford for the Mail on Sunday amazed me with his spot-on article “Why Naples doesn’t deserve to be the place that everyone loves to hate“. If his colleagues decided to begin their articles declaring their love for the city, Martin points out what is wrong with the city from the very beginning: «It’s had a pretty bad press over the past few hundred years, starting with a reputation for squalor and prostitution in the 17th Century, and continuing to the present-day, with stories about organised crime, uncollected rubbish mountains and street thefts. It’s the city, it seems, that everyone – not least other Italians – loves to hate».

Once this is settled and clear, he goes on to explain what he finds exciting about Naples:

The simple fact is Naples is no more intimidating than any other large city. But its great advantage is it’s ten times more fascinating than most, a mixture of different historical periods that pitch up in one intense, often decrepit, melting pot. It is also perfectly situated for seeing some of the finest sights that Italy has to offer – Pompeii and Herculaneum, the mighty slopes of Vesuvius, the fabled islands of Naples Bay, and the Amalfi Coast. Honestly, Naples could be the next Barcelona if only it got its act together. But it never does, which is what makes it unique.

He invites tourists to visit Naples before it’s too late: once the city “gets its act together“, it’ll lose its allure and uniqueness. We are right back at the beginning: Naples’ contradictions are what make the city so loved and so hated. If you can’t see the beauty within this paradox, its charm might be lost on you. If yes, you’ll be surely seducted by the city.

And you? What’s your take on Naples? Do you love or hate this city? Tell us in the comment section!

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