Favorite Place: Seduced by Naples

Written By wartini cantika on Senin, 16 Desember 2013 | 17.35

Giulio Piscitelli for The New York Times

A view of the city from the former monastery of San Martino.

It doesn't take long to understand Naples.

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.

Maybe it's the location, set on that wide bay that looks out on movie-set-perfect Capri and its poorer cousin, Ischia, and the most storied active volcano in the world at the city's shoulders, Vesuvius, inescapable memento mori. Or maybe it's the history of colonization — first by Greeks, then Romans, Normans and after them the Spanish, and later even Italians, and the lingering presence of organized crime. But this is a city that has seen it all, survived most of it, and, if you have the patience to explore it, will win you over and never let you go.

Its spell can be powerful. More than elegant, restrained Florence or show-offy Rome, with its perfect, ruined beauty, and even more than otherworldly Venice, I would argue it is earthy, squalid, slightly menacing Naples that is one of the most romantic cities in the world.

I FIRST SAW NAPLES years ago, when I was working as a babysitter in Rome. It was winter. The city's famous Christmas market was in full swing, as it is now. I was traveling with a group of scholars and archaeologists. They took us to every church in town, one blurring into the next, and I don't remember much, besides being warned to hold on to my bag. (Always good advice. In Naples, street crime is fast and real.) Still living in Rome, I returned the following summer and stayed in the leafy middle-class neighborhood of Vomero, once a stopping point for Grand Tourists. "See Naples and Die" was the motto in that era, although Henry James's Daisy Miller didn't make it past Rome. In the hotel room, one window had a sweeping view onto the bay below, with the ships gliding in the harbor under a summer sun, and the other opened onto the towering hillside above. Captivated by the city's enticing mix of looming enclosure and open possibility, I vowed to return to Naples again and again. And so I have.

In the years I lived in Rome, whenever I wanted to escape that swampy city, with its oppressive world-weariness, its perennial ability to seduce but never to surprise, I headed for Naples — and still do — a surefire adrenaline rush, a slap in the face, a semifailed state only an hour south by train.

Sometimes I start at the Café Mexico in Piazza Dante, for a perfect espresso or a "caffè shekerato," a mix of coffee, ice and sugar shaken into a thick cream and filled with so much caffeine and sugar that it makes the back of your head throb. I calm my nerves by browsing in the secondhand bookstores that line the passageway leading to Piazza Bellini, named for the master of Neapolitan Romantic music, into the ancient heart of the city, "Spaccanapoli," from the Italian word "spaccare," to split. It takes its name from what is now Via dei Tribunali, slicing down the middle of the old city first settled by the Greeks.

The area is now a warren of dingy, narrow streets, churches, pizzerias and shops selling Naples's famous Christmas crèche figurines. There are countless Holy Families, but also little clay workers at their trades — the battery-operated baker forever putting his tiny loaves into the oven, the fishmonger with little silver fish — as well as statuettes of football stars and politicians, sometimes engulfed in the red flames of hell.

Rachel Donadio is a culture correspondent for The New York Times, based in Paris. From 2008 until August she was Rome bureau chief.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 14, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the time period that the Bay of Naples first caught the attention of the Greeks; it was the first millennium B.C., not the first century B.C. It also misstated part of the name of the church that houses Caravaggio's "Seven Acts of Mercy"; it is Pio Monte delle Misericordie, not San Pio delle Misericordie. And it gave an incorrect description of the composer Bellini, after whom Piazza Bellini was named; he was a composer of Romantic music, not Baroque music.

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