|Climbing hundreds of stairs for a good view, as per usual.|
Thursday, 1 September, Napoli, Italy
The weather was a bit mercurial, and we took shelter from a sudden downpour in a nearby cafe. As the storm passed and we prepared to continue on our way, my friend (a Napoli native) informed me that we were about to cross an invisible boundary.
The police don’t come to this part of the city. It’s controlled by a powerful family (think mafia). Recently, three young men from a different, neighboring family were shot dead as they walked down the street.
Suffice it to say, this was not a safe neighborhood. At least, unlike most tourists, I was acutely aware of the risk involved as we ambled onward on our quest for the best sfogliatelle in Napoli (and thus, seeing as it’s a Neapolitan specialty, the best sfogliatelle in the world).
|Go fish! Can you find this famous Napolitano bakery? 🙂|
Now, if you’re thinking it’s insane to risk your life for a pastry, you’ve never eaten sfogliatella.
Flaky layers of crisp pastry, artfully shaped to resemble a seashell, filled with sweet ricotta cream lightly flavored with local orange, and dusted with powdered sugar—one is already too much, too rich, and yet I bought four just in case.
Napoli has a bit of a reputation as the more dangerous, more sordid Southern cousin of the well-frequented tourist destinations to the North (Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan). And indeed, the crowded warren of twisting streets layered atop a cavernous subterranean void (in turn layered atop the lava fields that fuel Vesuvius) is not the Italy many tourists may imagine.
It may be better.
As we walked from one end of the city to the other on our quixotic pastry mission, my friend, uniquely knowledgeable about Napoli’s architecture, history, language and culture, regaled me with stories—many macabre—that endeared me to this dark gem of a city.
Here are three of them:
|Rub a skull for good luck.|
The Old Ladies and the Catacomb Skulls
Twenty years ago, the old ladies of Napoli still maintained this tradition, originating in the plague years, or perhaps the war years (regardless, years of extraordinarily high mortality rates). Each would “care for” a particular skull in the catacombs beneath the city, bringing it flowers, offering it prayers, and grieving the death of a stranger who perhaps had no family left to mourn their passing. Sometimes, vicious arguments would break out over a particular skull when more than one woman lay claim to it. Questa è la mia testa! No! È la mia! (This is my head! No! It’s mine!) Talk about macabre.
San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), Patron Saint of Napoli, and the Curious Affair of the Keys to the Church
San Gennaro is not officially a saint, but don’t try telling that to the citizens of Napoli, who are particularly dedicated to their patron. A vial of the saint’s blood purportedly resides in the main church of the city, and twice a year, the miracle of the liquefaction takes place, in which the dried remains turn to liquid once again. Interestingly, the remains of San Gennaro do not belong to the church, but rather to a mysterious ancient sect with a centuries-old history in Napoli. They allow the church to hold the remains in exchange for the keys to the building. If you’re picturing creepy Satanic rituals in the catacombs of the cathedral, yeah, I’m right there with you.
|L’Ospedale delle Bambole (Doll Hospital)—a whole different kind of creepy.|
The Hospital of the Incurable Ones
In medieval times, when pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a popular undertaking, Napoli occupied an important step along the journey. In plague years, and other times too, pilgrims would frequently fall ill and find themselves unable to complete their pilgrimage. Many of these stopped in Napoli, and the city became their final resting place. The Church built a thriving business around this occurrence, constructing buildings to house the sick and dying—partially out of Christian charity, surely, and partly because dying pilgrims, unable to reach Jerusalem, proved particularly disposed to leave everything to the Church instead. One of these, L’Ospedale deli Incurrabili (Hospital of the Incurables), still operates today, although I believe it is more concerned with saving lives than saving souls.
This dark and fascinating history lays a particular foundation for the vibrant crush of life filling Napoli today. Young people sporting dark 70s-style fashion, 80s-style hair, lots of attitude and even more tattoos loiter outside cafes, nightclubs, pizzerias and bars. Crowds line up outside the best gelateria, stroll along the waterfront and press into the narrow streets of the Old City. The Napoletano language is alive and well, spoken by many if not most locals, changing and adapting as any healthy, living language should. Musicians play tarantela in the streets, and motorcyclists and pedestrians weave past, seemingly unaware of one another, in a seething dance.
There is life here. Tons of it. And maybe that’s the point of all the macabre underpinnings; they tell a story about all the living happening now.