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Naples - Song to the Siren

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29 August 2012 by Alex Stewart

Amy Sohanpaul travels to Naples in southern Italy and explores the Amalfi Coast and Bay of Naples area, discovering history and dramatic landscapes at every turn.

The roads leading into Naples may be a riot of rubbish and the Surrounding suburbs a scribbled sprawl of graffiti, but far from obscuring the classical beauty to be found in the city's squares and grand buildings, they do the opposite, throwing them into sharper relief, by way of contrast. It's a chiaroscuro city, half light, half dark, all extremes. Caravaggio, the master of that genre, had a brawl here: visitors who see beyond the rough reputation of the city have a ball. Naples is so seething, sexy and downright demanding of full engagement that it would be hard not to.

Some sidestep, play it safe, do the museums, marvel at the antiquities, dine well and retire to their hotels, but in doing so, miss the point - this is not a place for half-measures. It's chaotic, it's passionate, it's loud, and it has a determination to live hard that comes from living in the shadow of danger. Naples sits bang in the middle of two volcanic areas, and Vesuvius is in vision.

Vesuvius looms over Naples

And always, alongside the stark outline of the volcano against a luminous sky, the interplay between black and bright weaves on. Underground there are dark caves filled with dark deeds to explore, above the streets are incandescent with life. I slip behind a façade studded with stern stone pyramids, and find dazzling light, literal and spiritual, beaming from spotlights and fervent faith. This is the Church of Gesù Nuovo, outwardly forbidding, internally forgiving.

The religion spills onto the surrounding streets. Small shop after small shop sells hand-made figurines depicting the Nativity. They overflow with donkeys looking patient and sorrowful as they always do, with immaculate Madonnas suffused with serenity, with baby Jesuses crafted as small and as pink as prawns. Interspersed between these shops are others selling what look like red chilli peppers, but which are really horns intended to ward off the evil eye. Superstition, frowned upon by the Church, sits side by side with religion here, where people make the sign of the horn - la corna - to jinx jettatura - malevolent bad luck - as often as they cross themselves in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Church of Gesu Nuovo in Naples

The narrow streets in this area - the centro storico - are laid out in the straight lines of the Romans, but lined with chaos as they are, they feel as though they curve and twist as much as the haggle of commerce taking place along the edges. African refugees sell counterfeit designer bags in the shadows, desperate men peddling hard while dodging police. It's hard to avoid their hustle, and fun to engage with it - just as much a part of the city as the brightly lit fashion shops in the smarter quarters. And even here, the contradictions continue: dense dark bars you never want to leave, filled as they are with fug and tangible intent of all sorts, not too far from Gambrinus, a cathedral of a café in the grand European tradition with exquisite pastries and elegant old ladies gently gossiping under the chandeliers and over the cake forks. Whichever doorway, club or café you leave through, outside the traffic is terrifying; to cross the road here is an act of pure faith.

Driving down the twisty coastal road towards Sorrento is just as heart-stopping - but now, it's not the traffic that terrorises, it's the views. Oh that bay, that blue, those faded, salt-encrusted grand villas clinging to cliffs, each could turn a committed cynic into a born-again romantic within a meandering mile. It begs for convertibles and sharp men smoking as they swerve and women with scarves blowing in the breeze, not the coaches that stop and disgorge hordes clicking clicking clicking away instead of crying and laughing into the breeze along the road that leads from the darkness of Naples into the light of Sorrento.

Sorrento coast

Everyone seems to stop off in Sorrento, which even in season is as solitude contrasted to the crowded chaos of Naples. Slightly out of season may be better though - the sun loungers may not be out along the seaside decks, but along quiet cliff paths that would be busy in a summer month, it's all the easier to imagine the sirens and their songs luring sailors into watery embraces of irresistible death, a myth Sorrento is indissolubly linked to by its name, which is said to come from the word 'sirenide'.

Strolling past secretive, intricately worked grand gates, guarding profuse greenery, almost tropical in its lushness behind the high bars, I catch glimpses of stately villas with vast terraces overlooking the water behind walls and trees and terraces pull me as effectively as any siren ever enticed any sailor, down steep inclines and around sharp turns, into a small fishing harbour surrounded by houses festooned with clothes drying in the sea breeze, cats curled up on burlap sacks softened by the sun, jumbled nets, boats bumping into each other and waves bursting on rocks.

Sorrento centre, Italy

I sit at a deck belonging to a small trattoria, tables covered in the cliché of checked cloths, sea spray sprinkling the cutlery, in the corner closest to the water. I start in solitude, but as this is Italy it doesn't stay that way for long. The deck fills up quickly, with tourists who have made their way from the main tourist spots in the centre of town, and with locals taking a long pause for lunch. Pretty soon I'm sharing my space with Fabio and his friend. Between briny and luscious linguine alla vongole and solicitous interjections from one of the waitresses, a granddaughter of the legendary Emilia who opened this family-run place in 1947, we talk about life and lemons for a long time.

The luminous, enormous lemons that line this landscape are among its most uplifting sights, yellow against a blue sky, against a blue sea, the combined smell of salt and citrus perfuming the place to perfection. Like all Italians I've ever met, Fabio and his friend wax lyrical for hours about the perfection of the local produce. "These lemons, they're the best in the world, they're sweeter than any in Italy, their thin skin means you can slice them and eat them just as they are." They finish off with an invitation I hear several times during my stay: "Come and taste some limoncello with us." It's impossible to leave Sorrento without sampling at least a glass or two.

Naples lemons

Later that day, heady with sunshine and enough limoncello to make everything seem more enchanted than it already is, I slip into the hushed cloisters of the Church of San Francesco, its arches surrounding weeping trees and drooping vines. Outside stands my saint of all saints, St Francis, his hand stretched to welcome a bird. It may be the limoncello or the glorious sweeping lines of this sculpture that make me linger, but whatever it is, I sit by his feet until darkness falls and teenage boys throng past with requests for cigarettes and invitations to disco, and then I know it's time to go.

They've made me think, though, about how intensely people live here, as they do in Naples, and again I wonder if the eternal sight of Vesuvius has something to do with it. Every morning of my stay in Sorrento, I see it silhouetted against the sky and shadowing the sea as I open the windows of my room, drawing me to Pompeii.

Pompeii, Italy

It's a misty day when I visit, the air soft with light rain, but this does nothing to dampen the persisting image of flaming lava and floating ash obliterating the city and all life within. The ancient grid remains, desultory outlines around empty spaces that were once houses full of life and marketplaces full of bustle. The weather means that the site is all but deserted, except for the people from the past who I see everywhere, going about their business before the blanket covered them. I can't shake them from sight.

Stray dogs are everywhere, sheltering from the rain in doorways. The dogs that roamed these streets long ago weren't fast enough to escape, and like all living creatures here, died agonising deaths. The contorted bodies - plaster casts moulded from the impressions left in the solidified ash - capture forever the writhing against pain long gone. Many people have arms raised in a futile attempt to shield themselves from a bombardment of military intensity. Pliny the Younger, who was close enough to watch, far away enough to survive, wrote: 'Some raised their hands to the gods, but most of them thought there were no gods at all.'

Body found at Pompeii, italy

The haunting atmosphere is intensified by the plentiful evidence of a good life lived here before that day. There are the bones of restaurants, restored Roman baths laid out for sociability and pleasure, and a pictorial menu in the brothel painting the universal language in universal language to make communication simple between all the sailors and merchants and prostitutes from far-flung lands who joined the great congregation of this thriving city as it was then.

To go between Naples and Pompeii and Sorrento is to witness many of life's vagaries, pains and pleasures, past and present, within a short stretch of shoreline. Across the water from them all sits Capri, an island that has long been an ode to pleasure. As I stand on a terrace next to the twisty head of a medusa, I think about Alex Munthe, the physician who lived here, in Villa San Michele, and filled it with wonders and rescued animals, and who said that 'the soul needs more space than the body.' I think that a soul may not have space enough even here, in this place of vertiginous cliffs and vast seas, but that this corner of Italy could provide both body and soul with enough experience to last a long, long time.

Traveller magazine cover

Article originally published in

Traveller magazine

Vol 42, No 1, 2012


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