When I grew up in the early 80s many families manned their cars at some time during summer holidays and went south to one of a handful of beach resorts on the Upper Adriatic, either in Italy or on the Croatian coast of then Yugoslavia. Although I went to both sides of the sea as a child I have more memories of Italy. They are about densely populated beaches where you met your neighbours from home and shopping promenades behind them where you spent your money on cheap plastic toys and pizza topped with Wiener sausages or French fries to comfort those who needed at least some culinary familiarity in strange and foreign lands.
As much as I loved it as a child, as a grown up my urge to visit Italy knew bounds. Until I saw Naples. That one hit me in the guts like a boxer. I have a knack for places with some kind of rough edges and a history that have a kind of realness to it. Naples has all of the above in abundance. Its location in the eponymous gulf is breath-taking. It radiates a three thousand year long history of immigration from all over the Mediterranean and North Africa. It’s a stunning beauty and a squalid monster at the same time. A life can be cheap in Naples and one feels that. But its populace has – as far as I have made contact and can tell – a charming, relaxed, and conscious pride as well as a no nonsense quality to it. One that it could only possibly have acquired collectively through millennia of living next to a volcano that can explode every second and famously did on more than one occasion. My most favourite Italiano from Steubenville Ohio, Dean Martin sang odes to it. When the Army of the United States in 1943 made Naples its main port of call to reinforce its forces in southern Europe, Neapolitanos organized the largest black market in the history of mankind that made entire freight trains vanish from the face of the earth to the very last bolt. And they have invented the pizza in form of the original Marinara as a meal for fishermen when they went out to sea. So what’s not to love?
In my personal ranking of most favourite cities, Napoli easily comes first. A good way to get a taste of the charm and lure of the city is to watch the great late Anthony Bourdain exploring it and eating his way through Quartiere Montecalvario and the Amalfi coast here. I urge you to watch until the end when he gets treated with Ragù by the 85 year old mama of his local fixer.
Since my first tête-à-tête with bella Napoli in 2014 we have travelled also to Puglia where the port city of Taranto comes very close in terms of appeal and visited northern regions on various occasions. During that travels – normally by train and when possible on regional connections because that is the way to get a taste of the people of a region – I grew very much fond of Bel Paese, its paesane, paesani, and its incredible food.