Ever since I moved to Naples 20 years ago and fell in love with the city, I’ve had a conversation that has repeated itself endless times with Anglo-American friends. It starts with an enthusiastic “We’re coming to Italy!” and ends with me sounding like I’m being paid by the Neapolitan tourist commission. My friends tell me that they’re going to Rome, Florence, Venice. Not Naples. They may travel through it to get the boat for Capri or the Amalfi Coast… but stay there? No, thanks. We’ve heard that it’s dirty and dangerous. Gritty, rough, corrupt.
What about the Caravaggios? The medieval castles in the centre of the city? The magnificent opera house that Mozart longed to play in, and food that is arguably the best in the world? Not to mention the people – big-hearted, hilariously charismatic Southerners who can entertain your pants off just by answering a simple question about directions!
Better not. There are so many other places to see in Italy.
I gave up. You don’t want to experience it? Your loss. Statevene a casa, they would say in Neapolitan dialect. Stay at home.
And then a woman – or a man, somebody! – calling themselves Elena Ferrante wrote four novels set in the poorest, most corrupt part of Naples at the poorest, most corrupt time in the city’s history. Now all my friends want to visit Naples. The human psyche is a mysterious thing.
I loved Ferrante’s novels, don’t get me wrong. I’m embarrassed to say that I screamed an ugly swear word at my children at one point when they interrupted me toward the end of book four. The writer not only portrays female relationships with depth and nuance, but captures the contradictions that are at the heart of Naples and Neapolitan culture. She/he/it recreates the gritty, the dangerous, and the lurid and sets it against the sensory paradise that is Napoli. A bright beam of Mediterranean light exposing the dark recesses of the human heart. ‘O sole mio, indeed.
“We’re coming to Naples!” women friends have begun to tell me. They’ve read Ferrante and they can’t get enough. They want to take the risk, to live it. They want to follow one of the Ferrante tours that are now cropping up in the centro, and the Rione Luzzatti. They also want to drink in the beauty of the volcano, the sea, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida. And eat a pizza that will take them to new levels of transcendence.
Naples has been a tourist destination for three thousand years. Wealthy Roman families came to summer along the coastline of Posillipo, now the posh residential area of the city, and in the 1700s Naples was the place to be: Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented that “if you want to know if you have a spark within you, run – no fly! – to Naples…” Stendhal said, “Naples and Paris, the two only capitals.” But perhaps the last person who was as successful as Ferrante in getting women interested in visiting Naples was Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of the British consul to Naples Lord Hamilton and lover of Lord Nelson. Lady Emma gradually abandoned all social conventions when she settled at the magnificent Villa Emma on the shoreline of Naples, eating and dancing her way to pure Neapolitan bliss. Artists depicted her in her stunning milieu, and the paintings were hotter than Vesuvian lava.
Ferrante not only portrays female relationships with depth and nuance, but captures the contradictions that are at the heart of Naples and Neapolitan culture
Come to Naples, I can imagine her urging her girlfriends in the UK, and I’ll show you a good time.
Recently, I met up with a group of friends who, spurred on by Ferrante, came to Naples and did a tour of the centro. I took them for lunch to Antonio e Antonio, a delectable restaurant and pizzeria that looks out over the medieval Castel dell’Ovo on the waterfront. After eating an aubergine parmesan that made one of my girlfriends throw a napkin over her face and head and say SILENCE! I CANNOT RECEIVE ANY OTHER STIMULI WHILE I AM EXPERIENCING THIS, they asked where they should go in the afternoon.
I toyed with the idea of some of the magnificent Bourbon palaces, the ruins of the Roman city of Pozzuoli. But those suggestions, beautiful as they are, are not seductive. And as Lady Emma and Elena Ferrante have showed us, Naples does not impress, it seduces.
“Let’s go see Villa Emma.”
My friends, after their day of seeing the many colours and emotions of this city (and hitting back numerous shots of the sweet syrupy nectar that is Neapolitan coffee) agreed unanimously that they want to come back. Naples may be outside their comfort zone, but guess what? It’s worth it.
The top Elena Ferrante destinations:
- The stradone of Elena and Lila’s childhood is based on Via Taddeo da Sessa, which cuts through the Rione Luzzatti: a poor area flanked by the Napoli train station and the prison of Poggioreale (one of the most crowded and dangerous in all of Italy).
- Piazza dei Martiri, the site of Lila’s elegant shoe store, is one of the most beautiful piazzas in the middle of the chic Chiaia shopping district.
- The rettifilo, where the characters in Ferrante’s novels take Sunday strolls, is the bustling Corso Umberto, where you can find inexpensive shops and street food.
- The Bagno Elena beach club (Via Posillipo 14) is next to the lido where Elena brought the children of the stationer to swim. You can rent deck chairs or enjoy the view from the beach bar.
- The Parco Virgiliano is at the breathtaking summit of the Posillipo promontory, where Michele Solara buys an extravagant apartment as a status symbol.
Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law by Katherine Wilson is published by Fleet