Like every architecture graduate, passionate traveller, or romantic soul on the planet, I adore Italy. I have sailed the canals in Venice, spent days exploring Florentian duomo and the Uffizi museum, and enjoyed Rome's Colosseum and traffic. However, being interested in the unspoiled everyday urban experiences and getting to the bottom of what makes each country and city unique made my visit to Naples the most transformative out of all my trips to Italy. And not just because of the pizza!
I spent a week in Naples in March 2017, and this post looks back through sketches I drew in the streets at the time and photos of the moments I experienced.
Sketch 37: All the Little Moments
Following are six reasons I loved Naples and why we need cities, people, and culture, now more than ever. Dear Naples and all the lovely liveable cities all over the world, I dream of walking down your busy streets, wearing a fancy dress on a night out, visiting museums on a Sunday afternoon and spending money on cappuccinos in your elegant cafés. And if I am patient, I know that in time I will.
Naples is HECTIC
Sketch 38: Backyards = The Real Naples
I found sneaking into the backyards and courtyards of Naples extremely pleasurable! Such places allow the unique atmosphere from within the households to be taken out onto the balconies, becoming a part of public city life.
I sketched this particular backyard from my hotel window on a warm spring morning. I saw balconies decorated with all sorts of plants, some used for hanging laundry (occasionally falling onto the pavement), some full of trash that piled over the years, and some exhibiting Italian women, smoking and taking that much-needed break from the heated stove. I saw an endless range of wires, pipes, air-conditioning units, random patches of tiles; all the self-built elements making this place unique.
And on top of that, I saw the roof terrace, proudly sitting above the hectic cocktail of architectural elements. This is to you, rooftops of Naples: Please, stay exactly as you are, and let me, just once, sit and enjoy the exquisite view, sipping strong Italian coffee and reading a newspaper...
Naples is DELICIOUS
You see this? THIS was the BEST pizza I have ever had in my life, without question. I still dream of it sometimes. Where can you find it? Just follow these simple steps...
1) Wander the streets of Naples endlessly.
2) Get lost on occasion.
3) Let your smell guide you to a tiny, vibrant bistro full of locals and tourists.
4) Buy yourself a slice full of mozzarella di bufala, olive oil and all the things you love
5) Forget to take a picture of your neat plate, and instead, take one as you eat, with your hands all greasy, capturing the full experience.
....It won't be this particular pizza you find, but believe me, it will taste just as good.
Sketch 39: Good Morning
Oh, and did I mention the cappuccinos?
Naples is MESSY
To say that Naples is a messy place might be stereotypical, yet, I assure you it is. What struck me the most was how FULL OF CONTRASTS the city's relationship to mess is. In most towns, you get the pretty bits that are well kept, located in more affluent parts of the city and full of nice buildings, and then the ugly bits in more impoverished areas, with streets and buildings in bad shape.
But in Naples, you get a fascinating symbiosis of the two. Squares with the most impressive churches and palaces, surrounded by a damp. Well-paved streets with great public space and atmosphere suddenly turning all messy and smelling of garbage. It is something to get used to, I admit. But at the same time, there is something almost theatrical about it, making you curious about all the surprises lying ahead.
Naples is HISTORICAL
Sketch 40: Timeless Architecture
This is what we all search coming into an Italian metropolis: landmarks, atmospheric temples and renaissance churches! Naples was first settled by Greeks in the first millennium BC. A significant period in the history of Naples was the Baroque, with Caravaggio starting his career in the city in the 17th century and Naples becoming 'the capital of Baroque'. But the city also has its dark side; it has been troubled, a dark place of crime and corruption, and in the grip of the famous mafia. When I visited Ercolano, a city just outside Naples, vivid stories painted by shop owners and independent radio station broadcasters made it clear to me just how much people's daily lives have been affected. However, things have been changing, and Naples has successfully combated its reputation.
One of the strongest experiences of the trip has been visiting Herculaneum, an ancient town that (just as the more famous city of Pompeii) was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Just how surreal is it to travel in time to a different era, walking through streets that have last been occupied almost 2000 years ago? Such places should be treasured and visited, making us appreciate progress. Making us realise that humans living millennia before us might not have been all that different: they shopped in markets, decorated their homes with paintings, bought fresh bread from bakers and went to buy food in fast foods when they did not have time to cook.
Sketch 41: Timeless Herculaneum
Naples is CHIC (not just for architects)
1) It has long been my dream to see the Galleria Umberto, one of the early public shopping galleries. This is where history has been written. Projects like Galleria Umberto have informed the way we shop (and define ourselves) today, in the era of consumerism of the 21st century.
2) One of Naples post offices, Palazzo delle Poste, has been constructed during the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Being inside this pure, vast, rational machine made me realise how much power our surroundings have over us.
3) A photograph of a church from my morning stroll. Its chic, timeless (think heavy metal bracelets) facade took my breath away.
Sketch 42 & 43: Certosa di San Martino & Palazzo delle Poste
1) An oh-so-tasteful part of the Certosa di San Martino (a former monastery complex, now a museum and one of the city's most visible landmarks). In this part of the museum, a well-crafted reconstruction celebrates the contrast between the old and the new while directly facing the most amazing hanging gardens with breathtaking views of Naples.
2) The pureness and simplicity of the rationalist style of Palazzo delle Poste.
Naples is CROWDED
…and the streets are narrow. I was shocked to see that kids don’t always need extensive parks to play and flourish and that they seemed just as fine running through narrow streets of Naples, between all the traffic, coffee tables and gelato stands.
Does walking in such a street feel crowded? In any other city, maybe. During times of a pandemic with rules for social distancing, most probably. But in a world where one can wander the streets of Naples and engage with people selling, chatting, eating, playing and exploring, it becomes pure pleasure. And below this cute, chaotic, urban maze, there is the underground to take us from one place to another in case that we, from time to time, need to actually get somewhere (which I admit is a necessity in a city of 3 million).
It has been a few years since I visited Naples, and I might not get a chance to go for another few. But the trip to Naples as I remember it (and as my sketches show) had everything I miss living through a pandemic: culture and style, delicious food and wine you were able to share with others, and most importantly, closeness to people. And I will wait patiently for the time when I can once again safely enjoy a slice of pizza while sketching on a buzzing piazza.
If you miss the thrill of exploring foreign cities, check out my previous post on visiting Kathmandu, Nepal's vibrant capital where I went on a morning stroll and captured my authentic experiences in this blog post.
I hoped you enjoyed today's exploration, and see you soon on another online trip!