The sun was rising over the fierce faces of the yawning lions in Piazza dei Martiri. Down in the alleys, cuts of pork were being delivered from the parked van to the nearby macelleria. As if checking a letterbox, a woman placed freshly cut flowers in a glass bottle in the shrine outside her flat. Sacks of white flour were being rolled out into hot baked buns. A vespa veered across the slim, plant-packed streets, leaving freshly hung laundry fluttering behind it. Napoli was awake and teeming with stories.
The place is a writer’s dream. It is spontaneous but also systematic, chaotic but charismatically so. Satre wrote, “Naturally I have to tell you about the people of these streets, the Neapolitans. Maybe they're the only people in Europe that a visitor, in the city for only a week or so, can learn enough about to have anything to say. That's because Neapolitans are the only people you can actually watch living their lives, from top to bottom, head to toe.”
To walk in the footsteps of the city’s greatest scribes, head straight to Gran Caffe Gambrinus, from where Satre wrote. It is an Art Nouveau caffe established in 1860, the same year that Italy was unified. It looks out at Piazza del Plebiscito, which houses the Royal Palace of Naples and the San Carlo Theatre. A meeting place for anti-fascist writers and intellectuals such as Benedetto Croce, Matilde Serao, Roberto Bracco, Alberto Savinio and more, Gran Caffe is layered with history. The Gran Caffe Gambrinus was frequented, most famously, Gabriele d’Annunzio, who wrote the poem, ‘A vucchella’, which Paolo Tosti composed and has since become the song of the Neapolitans. Legend has it that he, along with Salvatore Di Giacomo and Ferdinando Russo would tell ladies seated at adjoining tables their love stories which were met with piqued ears and often tears. The cafe’s menu includes the Napoli staples of pizzas and pastas and small plates of delicies. The walls are adorned with nineteenth century paintings that uphold the spirit of the Belle Epoque. There’s a sense that the old, the new and the as-yet-to-happen is enmeshed in Naples.
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Maybe it is this timely timelessness that creates Naples’ metaphysical air. A little ways north, on the western edge of the historical centre, the San Domenico Maggiore is a Gothic, Roman Catholic church and monastery, once occupied by the philosopher and radical, Giordano Bruno. This is not a church that comes up on the tourist map, nor is it ornate or opulent the way, say, the nearby Gesu Nuovo is. However, in the late afternoon, the light filters through its high stained glass windows. Hues of purples and reds bleed on the checkered floor and even the weary traveler can feel the presence of something invisible, something waiting to be written.
Within a few minutes walk is Naples’ literary neighborhood. Piazza Bellini is replete with rare-book stores, letterpresses and specialist printers. Particularly unique are Belle Epoque for its hole in the wall maps and treasures; Libreria Dante & Descartes for its ‘piccoli’ series of little books by the canonical Dante Alighieri to contemporaries like Geffredo Fofi and finally, Libreria Colonnese, which neighbours the music conservatory, where rummaging the shelves means being serenaded by an opera singer. It is said that the anonymous Ferrante wanders these streets. Tarot cards hang from the ceiling as if to say, interpret this!
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Further westward, Hotel Micalo houses an impressive collection of art by Ernesto Tatafiore and evocative, earthy sculptures and paintings by local artists hang in every room. A distressed-chic vibe, inspired by Napoli, blends seamlessly with calm.
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Down by the sea, there’s distance, and quiet perspective. For a little more distance and far greater perspective, it’s possible to ride the ferry to Albergo Il Monastero. Located on an islet of its own and connected to the greater island of Ischia by a mere bridge, it is a haven of verdant solitude. It countered the madness and the sumptuous adornment of Napoli with its minimalist interior, vegetable garden and freshly caught fish.
Napoli is a literary place not simply for the ghosts of the writers who wandered there but because it is a passionate place. It is a place for lovers, and we all know that writers flock to where love goes to lie.
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