We traveled to Naples last week to spend a bit of time with our friends Gordon and Renata and to see the city that we had passed through several times but never really stopped to visit. It is a city with a slightly sketchy reputation–you hear the tales of crime and dirt and noise and the Camorra, Napoli’s own private Mafia. You are warned to keep a hand on your money, to avoid alleyways. Whatever. It’s a spectacular place.
The afternoon of our arrival we rode one of Naples’ many funiculari down from our friends’ home on the Vomero hill and went exploring: via Toledo, the elegant Umberto I galleria, the Palazzo Reale facing the grand Piazza del Plebiscito, the Teatro San Carlo. Then we walked toward the center of town, past the university, and down the long, narrow medieval street that appears from above to split old Naples in two–hence the nickname spaccanapoli, or Naples splitter. Alleyways cut off on every side; we peered down them, watching cats scutter into doorways and looking up at laundry hanging above (and Italian flags–it’s World Cup season, after all). Shops were shaded by the heavy loggia columns that ran down part of the street. Eventually we reached our destination: the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, where the remains of a Roman town (streets, shops) have been excavated below the church. Unlike the Vatican scavi tour, you are free to wander around this site yourself.
The posted closing time for the basilica was 17:30–half past five. It was well past that–well after 6, actually, but there were people in the church, and after a few false starts, we found someone to show us to the staircase that led down to the excavation. Repeated questions about when the site would close got no response. We were the only people there. As we descended underground, the air got cooler and damp; the lights were dim.
The ruins before us were not vast, but they were big enough: a main street (long enough that you couldn’t really see the end of it) and side streets, shops (a laundry, a bar) along the way, all marked by brick walls that were many centuries old. Frankly, I got a bit spooked. The back-of-the-head thought that someone might inadvertently lock the door at the top of the stairs was too much for me. Eventually I followed the main path up and out while John, exasperated with me, explored the byways. No one locked him in.
On Day Two, Renata led us to the sites on Vomero–Castel Sant’Elmo, with its unparalleled views out over the city, and the museum of San Martino, built around a cloister complex and surrounded by terraced gardens. The day was hot, and several rooms in the museum were closed, but we felt we understood Naples better for seeing it from Sant’Elmo’s parapets. The most amazing thing at San Martino: the presepe, or carved and painted nativity scenes, including one with so many figures in it that you had to search hard to find Mary and the babe.
But it was Day Three in Naples that really astonished us. Once again, Melville led the way. Herman had traveled out west from Napoli, through the villages of Pozzuoli (Sofia Loren’s hometown) and Posillipo, now part of the Naples suburban sprawl, to the volcanic crater of Solfatara and the smaller, lovelier one of lago d’Averno. John was determined to do the same. Our host, Gordon, had recently disposed of his car, and this trip needed wheels, so he arranged for a car and driver for the day. We set out in the cool of the morning with Rino, our 28-year old driver, who was, he told us, out of work (like 40% of all the young people in Italy) and on his first assignment with the car service company. (He also told us later that he had lost over 100 lbs in the last three years, was a body-builder, and had been with the same girl friend for 7 years but would not marry until he had a job. Check out the photo. He was adorable.)
We wound our way through the western suburbs, once rather run-down but more recently, because of their prime positions by the water, gentrifying, more expensive and fashionable. We made several stops along the way to see Melville-related sights (like the tunnel leading to the amphitheater of Pausylipon), for photo ops of the Bay of Naples, and to see things Gordon especially loved.
Eventually we arrived at Solfatara, one of about 40 volcanic craters that make up the Phlegreaen Fields north and west of Naples. The landscape had grown progressively more stark. We entered the national park of which the crater is a part, paid our admission, and walked on. This is the site that ancient Romans (according to a 1st century B.C. writer) assumed was the home of Vulcan and the entrance to Hades. And it looks it. The fumarole, or steam geysers, cover large areas with blankets of vile-smelling, sulfurous steam; the mud pools bubble ferociously. Wooden fences and the occasional sign warn you away from coming too close to the various bubbles and jets, but overall, you are free to wander among them.
The area was vast, although the edges were clearly defined (it is, after all, an extinct volcanic crater), and off to one side were two small cavelike grottoes: the proverbial gates of hell. Gordon and I posed in front of them, as, I suppose, all tourists are wont to do. It was a bit disconcerting. In earlier times–the 19th century, when Melville visited this terrain–travelers were advised to step inside the grottoes and let the steam (and the smell) permeate their skins; it was, they were assured, healthful. I suppose we visit spas for similar reasons today, but I have to say, the thought of spending even a matter of seconds in one of those openings in the rocks did not appeal.
From Solfatara, we traveled on to a more pleasant crater, the lago d’Averno. A small, lovely lake with families of ducks paddling on the surface and the ruin of a small Roman villa on the shoreline, this is a restful place, especially after the fires of Solfatara. I was hot and tired and remained behind, sitting on a small stone wall overlooking the lake while John and Gordon explored the ruin; Rino gallantly bought me a bottle of water. Once again, I had come out without a hat.
Gordon had hoped to show us more–some of the sights that he loves best like the 8th century B.C. Greek ruins at Cumae–but by the time we had done the Melville sights, the day was waning. We were hungry. We returned to Napoli. Renata had eggplant parmigiana waiting for us. John says the best meals he has had in Italy were in Renata’s kitchen. I’m just sayin’.