Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Study in Contrasts

Guidebooks and travel blogs aplenty warn of what is to be found in Naples. Frommer’s describes the zone around its central train station as “a horror” and I would have a hard time disagreeing with this apt characterization. What we experienced as we purposefully strode from the rail station towards the waterfront confirmed my image of Naples as a city overrun with swarthy men with meaty hands who look like they settle disputes with shotguns. I was sideswiped by a hurtling motorino as we crossed our very first street, Joe was approached by a goods-that-fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck salesman aggressively pushing iPads, laptops and cell phones “at very good prices,” we passed heaps of uncollected garbage, the graffiti was even worse than in Rome and a cadaverous man with rotted corncob teeth repeatedly jabbed a long yellow fingernail at us as he begged for change. An unsightly construction project that appears to have stalled eviscerated the entirety of the enormous plaza that sits in front of the station. How could such a city coexist in such proximity to the wonders of the Amalfi Coast, not to mention the island of Capri, both extolled as some of the most beautiful places on earth?

Our mission for our one day in the city was twofold: enjoy a Neapolitan pizza lunch, since Naples is celebrated as home to the best pizza in the world, and gain a general sense of the city overall. We’ve often found it effective to shape a city visit around a specific restaurant destination and so we chose Pizza Brandi, which lays claim to having invented the basic Pizza Marguerita, as our goal. Finding our targeted lunch spot was not as easy as we’d hoped, but the search led us to stumble upon the city’s old town, the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters), on whose edge Pizza Brandi sits. The area’s moniker goes back to the 16th century when it housed Spanish garrisons that suppressed any revolts from the upstart Neapolitan inhabitants. A replica of what the Lower East Side of Manhattan must have looked like in the early 1900s, and reminiscent of New York City’s Little Italy in days past, the neighborhood is a grid of shadowed, constricted streets with colorful laundry hanging every which way above them. Six-storied buildings border the grimy alleyways with black-clad nonni leaning over iron balconies, standing watch over the quarter’s comings and goings. Mouth-watering, garlic-infused aromas wafting into the streets hinted of afternoon meals stewing in kitchens behind shutters and made our empty stomachs growl even louder as we drifted deeper into the belly of the maze. We later read that the community is poor, is notorious for its petty crime, suffers significant unemployment, is unduly influenced by the Camorra, Naples’ particular brand of organized crime, and that many of its residents continue to speak the colorful Neapolitan language. The narrow streets were filled with children playing soccer and residents on the corners catching up with their neighbors, yet motorini, often carrying complete families (two adults, a baby wedged between them and a dog on the foot board – none with helmets), whizzed up and down the cobblestone ways. Evidently the police allow bikers to drive as they please, paying little attention to helmet and other laws since to do so would result in a citizen revolt of major proportions. We held tightly to the straps of our backpacks as we wandered the streets, trying to avoid being victims of the scippatori, purse-snatchers and pickpockets, who cruise by on motor scooters seeking targets. Our visit to Naples was on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, or Carnivale, one of the prime days when Italian children traditionally dress up in costumes and toss confetti and spray brightly colored string at passersby -- the Italian version of Halloween. We were showered with our share of multicolored shards as we searched for our elusive lunch destination. We finally enlisted the help of a willing teen who spoke no English to direct us to Pizza Brandi once we’d managed to lose ourselves in the warren of the Quartieri, and by following his perfect directions of two destras and then one sinstra, we finally arrived at our journey’s end just in time for a late lunch.

We can now confirm that what is said about Naples pizza is absolutely true. It was certainly the best pizza we’ve had on our trip and except for a slice from a steaming, cheese-dripping, oil-leaking pie on New York’s Long Island, it’s way up there on the list of the best I’ve ever tasted. Tradition says that this particular restaurant garnished a pizza to mimic the three colors of the new Italian flag to honor the visiting Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889: red tomato sauce, white mozzarella and fresh green basil leaves. The queen loved their creation and thus allowed her name to be given to the new culinary concoction. Our bellies warm and filled with a complete Pizza Margherita each, we braved the streets of Naples and made our way back to the tawdry train station, passing more piles of trash, enjoying additional sprays of confetti from celebrating children and hoping we’d arrive before the sure-to-be perilous dark.

Safe, sound and ensconced in our comfortable home base in sophisticated Sorrento by the sea on the peninsula jutting out just south of Naples, I considered what we’d just experienced in the city and compared it to our excursion along the Amalfi Coast the previous day. Could there be a more jarring disparity? The pastel coastal villages of Positano and Amalfi, which colorfully spill down the hills, are among the loveliest anywhere, a bit like the Cinqueterre writ large but with a more visible nod to tourism. And the further flung, undisturbed hamlet of Ravello, whose elegant stone dwellings sit high on a cliff, has watched over the bay for many hundreds of years with nary a care to spoil its solitude.

The local bus from Sorrento had taken us up the north side of the peninsula, crested the ridge and then zigzagged down to the legendary coast. We and the American college students sitting behind us on the bus let out a collective gasp as we glimpsed our first perfect view of deep green pines framed against the clear turquoise water of Salerno Bay, the contrasting colors painting a lovely scenic coastline of natural beauty dotted with the whites and delicate shades of the seaside houses. The day was crystal clear and the sunlight shimmered silver on the distant water of the cobalt blue bay. Our bus headed east high above the water and wove in and out of deep ravines; around every bend was a new view more breathtaking than the last. It was all just as gorgeous in reality as the postcard-perfect pictures that lured us to this part of the world on this trip and throngs of visitors year after year. The switchbacked rollercoaster motorway carved into the face of the rock was simply the paved-over original trail built in the early 1800s and used by donkey carts passing from town to town. It was not designed for air-conditioned motor coaches but somehow accommodates the scores of modern vehicles that hug its tortuous twists and turns every day, not to mention the daring Italian drivers who attack the hairpin curves with abandon. We passed through Positano, terraced into the hillside and dramatically tumbling down a deep ravine to the shoreline and got off the bus in Amalfi to explore the town and have lunch. Set at the mouth of a chasm, nestled close to the blue-green water and surrounded by dramatic cliffs, the town boasts the 11th century Cathedral of St. Andrew and its cloister, reached by ascending a wide, dramatic stairway, perfect for people-watching. We then enjoyed insalata mistas and delectable gnocchi with creamy Sorrento tomato sauce in a small, whitewashed trattoria on the winding main street of town and then hopped on the next bus heading further east along the coast to Ravello. Precipitously perched on an imposing cliff-top plateau overlooking the water, Ravello’s lofty setting has long been a haven for artists, musicians and writers attracted by its pedestrian-only, rabbit warren village of narrow, winding, stair-strewn alleyways. We meandered through its heart and along the edges enjoying our afternoon gelatos, gradually realizing that much of Ravello’s charm is hidden behind high stone walls through which we could only occasionally glimpse the delights of villas and their private gardens. After a full day of exploring, we traveled back to Sorrento and got second looks at Amalfi and Positano from the opposite direction, now in early evening light, our camera snapping away as we attempted to capture the vibrant sunset palette as the rapidly westering sun was sucked down into the sea.

Like two sides of a Southern Italy coin, the exquisite Amalfi Coast and Naples, its tough city neighbor, reside in tandem, physically proximate yet so far apart in both appearance and demeanor: one a marvel of nature and the other a spectacle of man. 

Pictures of our adventures:

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