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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An apple in Naples

An apple. Two, actually, on a white plate. They were not sliced and put into some buttery pastry, or ground down and frozen into gelato, or zapped with some beam that broke them down into their pure molecular form. They were just apples, their peels -- a burnished off-red color with no shine at all -- completely intact. A long stem, with a leaf attached, still jutted out of one. We were in a dimly lit little osteria on a side street in Naples. The thick green glass of the label-free bottle was almost empty and our bellies pleasantly full. Donna Teresa, for whom the place was named and its sole cook, sat on a stool, watching her patrons. The waitress -- or rather, I suspect, Teresa's daughter, beautiful but who also looked tired and almost apologetic that her mother's food was so good -- brought us our desert: two apples, on a plate, with two knives. That's when I fell in love with Naples, a city of chaos and history and crime and beauty. A place where one's senses are constantly under assault.

My wife Wendy, daughters Lydia and Elena, and I had come to Naples three days earlier almost by accident. We flew into Rome, and intended to stay there for a week, seeing the city and its surroundings; I had hoped to find Rome's best gelato and Negroni. But Wendy has a hard time sitting still, and after a three-day whirlwind tour of the Vatican, the Forum, the Colosseum, "Invader's" street art, Trastevere and Testaccio; and after sampling several off-the-beaten path Roman rosticcerias, no fewer than eight gelaterias and a negroni or two, we decided to head further south. Naples was less than two-hours away by train, at just 57 Euros for the whole family. So, why not?

In retrospect, it might have been too much to go directly from the zurückhaltend populace of Berlin to Naples. Luckily, Rome helped acclimate us to what we would experience when we got out of the Montesanto metro station in a bustling hillside Napoli neighborhood: a full-on sensual battering. Bright orange storefronts beckoned. Through the window of a barber shop, we saw a man sitting helplessly in the chair, his hair half shorn, as the two barbers yelled and gesticulated frantically at one another. The smell of garlic and pizza and garbage mingled together in an olfactory stew.

The Google map had shown a mere 200 meter walk from the station to the bed and breakfast we had booked. It did not mention that the walk also included a 100 meter vertical climb, through narrow passages (I'd use the word sidewalks, except cars and scooters used them, too) that were paved with black volcanic stone worn shiny from a millenium of use and that did not easily accommodate the wheels on our low-grade luggage. Clothing hung above us from every balcony like awnings, and there was more graffiti than in Berlin. I knew enough Italian to ask an old guy in which direction we should go, but not enough to understand his answer, except that he kept repeating the word "funicolare." Later, we would discover what that meant: A cable-pulled train that makes climbing Naples' formidable hills a lot easier. We kept walking. The old man laughed, threw up his arms and pointed up the hill.

That was good enough. While our room -- the cheapest one we could find in Naples -- was not exactly plush, it was adequate. It's part of a building complex perched perilously on the edge of a cliff high above the city, and was also serving as the residence of three college-aged women studying at the local fashion design school. Andrea, the owner and a Naples native, is friendly, fluent in English, and gave us great tips on how to spend our time in the city, steering us clear of tourist traps. Indeed, as it was lunchtime when we arrived, he sent us right back down to the chaotic neighborhood below, where we ducked down a street so narrow that felt like night, at noon. After dodging several scooters and even a small car, we found the doorway to the olive oil shop next to the big shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary (these shrines, or madonnine, are everywhere in Naples, but this one was especially ornate). There -- the place has no name as far as we could tell -- we found a few tables, a woman slaving away in a tiny kitchen, fresh octupi piled up on a counter. There was no menu, but somehow we managed to stumble through the language barrier and get a lunch of simple pasta, seafood meatballs (I don't know what else to call them), a couple of plates of vegetables drenched in beautiful olive oil and a jug of wine, all for about $30.

Naples is steeped in some 3,000 years of history. Greeks settled nearby islands in the 9th Century B.C., where the Sirens had once lured sailors to their deaths on the rocky coastline,  and in the 5th Century B.C., Greeks founded the "New City" of Neápolis. Even after the Romans took over and danced a gluttonous jig on the Greeks' collective graves, the Greek culture persisted in Naples. Evidence of those early times can be found at Pompeii, of course, about half-an-hour by train down the coast. But better yet is Herculaneum, another city that in 79 A.D. was buried, and thus preserved, by Mt. Vesuvius' ash. Excavations began in the 1800s, and continue to today. It's closer to Naples' center, has relatively few visitors and is remarkably well preserved. Lydia and Elena refused to leave without seeing -- and narrating the significance of -- every room, every mosaic, every fresco. We were there for nearly five hours, seven if you include our trip to the National Museum and its artifacts from Herculaneum and Pompeii, not to mention that tantalizing "Cabinet of Secrets," full of Roman erotic art (kids not allowed).

Mosaic, circa 79 AD or earlier, Herculaneum.
One simply can't immerse oneself in so much history without fortification, so we made sure to stop and sit down -- okay, stand up, since that's what you do in Italy -- for caffe machiato and pasticceria. Our gluttony, er, gastronomical research, focused on the crostatta di fragola (tarts topped with what appeared to be wild strawberries), canolli and sfogliatelle, a phyllo dough pastry filled with ricotta and candied orange peel. In those narrow streets, under the watch of more shrines, it was easy to imagine eating an identical treat 400 years earlier, when these pastries were new -- sfogliatelle were reputedly invented in a convent in the heart of Naples in the 17th Century. In Naples time, that's a mere eyeblink. I suspect that 2,000 winters ago, the great poet Virgil sat at a Taberna in downtown Naples and enjoyed a plate of friarelli, a close relative to Brocolli Rabe that's rarely found outside the Campania region of Italy. Napolitans sautee it in garlic and oil, cook it with sausage and put it on pizza, which, by the way, was born in Naples.
Night, Pignasecca market.

Virgil, ancient Rome's most famous poet, wasn't born in Naples, but he penned some of his greatest work while living here during the 1st Century B.C. Virgil's epic poem, the Aenead, includes a number of scenes around the base of Mt. Vesuvius; Aeneas entered Hades to search for his father via Lago Averno, just up the coast from Naples.

Dante Alighieri drew on Virgil's knowledge of the underworld when he portrayed the latter as his guide through the Inferno.
Indeed, as I tried to navigate the dark forest of humanity that is the Pignasecca market, I summoned the guidance of Virgil. Maybe he wouldn't help me find Beatrice, but at least he could guide me to the next pizza and bottle of wine. Luckily, there in one of the city's oldest markets that runs every day, that wouldn't be difficult. The Pignasecca is a jumbled mixture of cheap plastic kitsch and Italian delicacies. Here, a man is peddling cigarette lighters; over there, a pig's head hangs in a window. Still-wiggling fish fill simple tanks at the pescheria, artichokes are piled high at a produce stand, and it can all be had at ridiculously low prices. We got dinner: a huge loaf of beautiful, wood-oven baked bread; marinated local artichokes; olives; salami; cheese; and wine, for just about $10.

Virgil is also said to be buried along the coast in Naples, his bones serving as protectors of the city. Attempted attackers are allegedly chased off by huge swarms of flies. The bones, I don't know about. The thing about the flies, I can believe. They emerge not from Virgil's remains, but from the mountains of garbage on many a street corner. Naples is perhaps as notorious for its trash heaps as it is for its pizza. In the mid-oughts, trash collection came to a standstill as landfills were filled to capacity and garbage workers went on strike. There's some sort of connection to organized crime here -- the city hosts one of Italy's most powerful crime families -- though I can't, for the life of me, figure out what that connection is. Berlusconi, apparently in between his dalliances with teenagers, cleaned things up in 2008, but the problem resurfaced just last year, after a proposal to build a huge landfill on the slopes of Vesuvius was met with riots. How this led to piles of garbage in Naples' streets, I'm not really sure. But, as an Italian told us with us a shrug of his shoulders during a moment of train chaos: That's Naples for you.
Street art in Naples.

That piece of wisdom came after an already long day on public transportation. As we were waiting for the metro to arrive, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, in Italian, of course, and incomprehensible to us, of course. Suddenly, everyone on our platform jumped down to the tracks, and ran across them to the opposite platform -- something you would never see in Germany -- and boarded another train. We followed, fearing for our lives. Then another announcement came, and about half of the people jumped back off the train, and ran back across the tracks. This scene repeated itself several times. A group of Italian musicians assured us that we were on the right train, and to stay put. They were right. I don't know why the other people were running back and forth. I don't know what was wrong with the trains. Nor do I know how the same pickpocket could work the same part of the train station day after day, without getting rousted by the cops. But there he was, first on Friday, then on Sunday. That's Naples, I guess.

And that's part of the reason Naples has a reputation as a hotbed of organized crime, petty crime and just outright chaos. Then there's the garbage, the big volcano, the huge fault line and the crumbling buildings perched precariously on vertical hillsides. All of which adds up to one big reason that a lot of people stay in Sorrento, or along the Amalfi coast, and just visit Naples for a few hours to eat some pizza.

Not us. We figured we'd do something like the opposite. We picked up one-day passes on the public transportation system for 4,70 Euros each (our nine year old was free, and the tickets are cheaper on weekends). That allowed us to ride a really slow train along the coast to Sorrento, via Herculaneum and Pompeii. Sorrento is clean, orderly and a cruise ship stop, meaning it's also a bit boring and overpriced (though beautiful). So, with our same one-day tickets, we boarded a public bus to, well, we weren't really sure where. It quickly filled up beyond safe capacity with very loud teenagers, including a kind of chubby obnoxious boy who kept yelling something about muzzarella, which I suspect has a broader, more crude meaning than just being a type of cheese.

The bus climbed, an impossibly steep, windy, narrow road that twisted through olive and lemon and orange groves and tiny villages, and offered a tremendous view of the Mediterranean, far below. Then it stopped at the top of the mountain, and we had to get off. Our hoped-for journey to the Amalfi Coast was cut short. We had boarded the wrong bus. We panicked. I think one of the girls started crying, or maybe that was me: The cafes were all closed for siesta.

Fortunately, after wandering around the sleepy little village for half an hour, we got on a bus going back down. Unfortunately, the bus driver was insane. As soon as we got on, he accelerated enough to throw us all back into our seats and caught up with the bus in front of us. Then, he engaged in what appeared to be a race or strange game of chicken with the other bus, passing those little Italian truck/scooter things that all the farmers drive on blind curves, tearing around the switchbacks way too fast, never falling more than a few feet behind the bus in front of us. Meanwhile the two bus drivers made faces at each other and gestured wildly via rear view mirror.

Procida, a 6 Euro, 40 min. ferry ride from just outside Naples
We survived, but we needed to get away from the cruise shippers. I needed a Negroni, truth be told, but would do with more caffe, a quiet beach, some gelato. All of which we found a few train stops away from Sorrento, at a town called Vico Equense. Getting to the beach here requires another steep descent on foot, but it was safer than the bus, and for the girls it was worth it: The beach was littered with sea glass and sea tiles -- pieces of ceramic tiles that had somehow found their way into the sea and had been worn smooth, like little pendants. We're convinced that we even found a piece of ancient Greek sea glass. Sitting on the beach in the day's last sun at Vico Equense, or the next day, on the island of Procida, which provided much of the setting for the movie il Postino, I could see why people might choose one of Naples' outliers as a base rather than the city itself.

As for me, I'll take Naples. It's scary, yeah, and disorienting and sometimes overwhelming. Its past seems to press down on you, its present has a darkness of its own. But it's also alive, fecund, raw and real.

Oh yeah, and then there's that apple. By the time we got back to Naples, we just wanted a quiet, simple meal, so we took the funicolare up to the relatively posh, somewhat calmer Voremo neighborhoodin search of a pizzeria. Elena spotted a little place with just a few tables and said, "Hmmm, this looks good." So we sat down. No menu, just two of each piatto to choose from. Wine arrived. Then a white bean, friarelli soup ("This is comfort food," said Elena, "and I need some comfort.") A plate of roasted, marinated vegetables. Meatballs. And two plates of exquisitely tender, tiny octupi, cooked in a tomato-based broth.

And then the apples. Raw. Simple. Tasting of the earth, of this place, of this history.

See a video slideshow of images from our trip.