A city of contradictions and one that inspires a sense of great passion. Naples offers the unique ability to truly live in each moment
IT WASN’T ONE THING that made me fall in love with Naples. It was so much all at once. The dazzling light, music on every street, the smell of oranges and pizza. The cobbled Roman roads that wind up the hills, the young women with dark eyes and swaying hips walking arm in arm. The glittering Bay of Naples and the magical islands of Capri and Ischia in the distance. And the towering, enigmatic Vesuvius, which could erupt again at any time. One million people live between the volcanically active areas of Campi Flegrei and Vesuvius, and it is perhaps this volcanic threat that has taught Neapolitans to live for each day, and say they are reborn every morning. It’s a city full of contradictions, its inhabitants both very religious and highly superstitious. Wherever you look, you’ll see the Neapolitan corno – the red, horn-shaped amulet claiming to keep the malocchio (evil eye) away – hanging from doorways, around people’s necks and in souvenir stalls. Neapolitans sing about love, believe in family, but have a strong relationship with death, and preserve skulls in some churches. There’s even a tradition where women adopt a skull, care for it and help it to pass over from purgatory. In the historic centre the dark, narrow streets are crammed with washing lines and graffiti, or iconic images of Maradona and Sophia Loren. With vespas flying past ubiquitous churches dedicated to different saints, there’s a raw energy around every corner. And then there are the grand boulevards lined with palms and maritime pines, baroque flourishes and luxury shops, that lead to the glittering promenade along the seafront.
Neapolitans love their food: pizza of every description, pasta, ragù and, wherever you go, a cornucopia of cakes. The most famous is rum baba, rich and buttery and filled with rum. And, of course, there’s the wonderfully pungent Neapolitan coffee. Every few hours you must have an espresso and something sweet filled with fresh ricotta cheese. Everything seems to taste better here. The epic pizzas at Ciro Oliva, where every course is like a scene from an opera, are presented with drama and flair. For the best fish, visit La Bersagliera in front of the yacht club, an eatery often frequented by film stars. I passed Ralph Fiennes on the way out. In Naples the food is traditional, handed down over generations … it’s simple, seasonal and fresh. Just as dazzling as the city is the Romeo Hotel, a great leap forward in the quality of hotels in Naples. Its foyer entices you with anticipation, escape and fantasy. Boasting cascading water, a striking Andy Warhol behind reception, handmade wooden and leather chairs, and extraordinary pieces of original art, you barely know where to look first. There is a lot of glass, tall white vases, cacti, and succulent desert plants. The owner is an art collector and has generously shared his Chagall, Guttuso and Clemente, as well as splendid sculptures and photographs.
The rooms are state-of-the-art with views across the Bay of Naples, and no comfort has been spared. I fell in love with Luca at reception, who couldn’t do enough for me, and the glamorous manageress, Gaia, who, while looking as though she’s come straight off the catwalk, instantly makes you feel at home. We dined together at Beluga on the ninth floor where the atmosphere is cool, casual, yet elegant. The chef had put together his own choices for us – luscious salmon and squid – with enticing light, fresh tastes, paired with a perfect choice of Neapolitan wine. Gaia was great company, a connoisseur of the art pieces in the hotel and a font of memorable anecdotes about the real Naples. The Michelin-starred restaurant Il Comandante, is the gem of the hotel, supremely elegant, and a special treat. There’s also a luxurious, sleek spa and great gym.
The mythical founder of Naples is the siren Parthenope who sang to seduce Odysseus. When he rejected her she cried so much that her tears filled the Bay of Naples. Today, Parthenope is everywhere in the city – on fountains, monuments and street names. The university is named after her, its main doors flanked by two giant sirens. More than 3 000 years later Parthenope is still the symbol of Naples, a city so beautiful it breaks your heart and so tragic it inspires great passion.
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