From the 7th floor towards heaven of our skyscraper hotel, but not visible from our room unfortunately, I am impressed by the sight of a very striking fort-like building. It turns out to be the Castel Nuovo which dates from 1279 though what we see now actually dates from nearly two hundred years later when Alfonso V of Aragon (later Alfonso I, King of Naples and Sicily) more or less totally rebuilt it.
If there is one thing I can’t resist it’s a medieval castle, so despite the lateness of the hour and the weariness of the body after all the stresses of the day, we head out into the soft Neapolitan night. This is what I adore about the continent – to set out, to stroll in shirtsleeves and shorts into the velvet warmth of an evening that would be considered a blisteringly hot afternoon in Scotland.
We go through a park teeming with people; even little kids who should be in bed long ago, are still up. Now we need to cross the road but that is more easily said than done. Despite that zebra-striped piece of contemporary art which someone has gone to all the trouble of painting on the road, not a single driver slows down, let alone stops to acknowledge our presence, but thunders over it as if we (and it) weren’t there. No, we are just not going to be able to cross here unless we want to end up being scraped off that black-and-white stripy thing like strawberry jam.
We retrace our steps and like the attackers of old, I imagine, come at the fort from a different angle — you can see the impact of where a cannonball has left a dent high up on one of the crenellated walls — and this time we are successful. Now we are as close as we can get due to the enormous moat which separates us. Apart from the soaring walls, what impresses me most is the way the immense round towers fan out at the bottom, like the pleats on a tennis skirt, something I have always found very sexy.
Somewhere in the distance, down by the port, I hear the sound of music from an open-air concert. Some people would call it “music” I suppose, but I don’t and I’m sure Rogers and Hammerstein wouldn’t either, but I have to admit, it does add a certain ambience to the evening. To our left, a neon sign on a pharmacy broadcasts the time and the temperature for anyone who would care to look: 22:22 280 C. Perfect. Just right for a little stroll.
But La Belle Dame Sans Merci puts her (weary) foot down — no way is she going to walk all the way round the Castel, as was my intention. And, I have to admit, now we have rounded one of the five massive crenellated towers and can see what lies ahead, it does look a bit of a trek. And being next to a busy street with the roar of traffic and the irritating buzz of Vespas for company, it doesn’t seem the most appealing or romantic of walks either, so we turn around and in a short while come to a footbridge with an arch at the end of it. I just have to cross it to see where it leads but the tired and footsore lady is not going one step further than is necessary and that is flat! So leaving her alone and palely loitering, like the knight-at-arms in the poem, I set off to see what I shall see.
Once through the arch, I find myself standing at the front of the castle and facing three of the fat towers which make me think of upended giant cotton reels. Incongruously, linking the two on the right is a triumphal marble arch. With its Corinthian pillars and elaborately carved figures and not least, the contrasting whiteness against the austere brown of the plain, brick towers, it looks singularly out of place, like a brand-new tooth in a set of coffee-stained dentures. And indeed, it is a later addition, built to commemorate the victory of Alphonso I over René d’Anjou in 1443. It’s not a happy marriage and if I don’t start heading back soon, it’s not the only unhappy marriage there is going to be.
Soon we come across a couple of scugnizzi, small boys with two plastic washbasins full of empty beer bottles. Presumably they are collecting them to sell for a few cents somewhere. Unemployment in Naples is at a staggering 28% compared to 12% in the country generally and crime is rampant, so they say. As a matter of fact, I have noticed a number of cars displaying some very sturdy anti-theft devices. Yet I feel completely at ease and the warm air with its gentle breeze and the distant strains of the music from the concert create a very ambient atmosphere. The only crime I have seen so far is that crime against architecture, that over-the-top, that too-too white triumphal arch, though I suppose what I really don’t like about it is its location. As a piece of art per se, I’m sure it is very fine indeed.
At the top of the grassy Piazza Municipio which we had come through earlier, and occupying one whole side, is a very attractive pale-yellow building with olive-green windows. It is an elegant symphony to symmetry. Some flags are lazily stirring over the entrance and a brass plaque tells me it’s the Town Hall (1819-25). Our hotel, on the other hand, has nothing to recommend it architecturally, being no more than a rectangular cornflake box with perforations for windows, but it does have the advantage of height and its flat roof does make an excellent vantage point, so just before we turn in, I suggest we go up (it’s only two flights up the staircase from our floor) to soak in a little more of the atmosphere.
The floodlit Castel Nuovo dominates. Despite its glaringly white triumphal arch, I think it is one of the most splendid buildings of its type I have ever seen. Away down in the park where the lighting is soft and yellow in contrast to the stark-white illumination of the Castel, the sound of the laughter of the ant-like children comes filtering through the trees. Further away, down by the port, obscured by darkness, the sound of the concert is wafted up on the breeze which even the thrumming of the nearby myriad of invisible cicadas fails to drown out.
I luxuriate in the warm wisteria-scented air. Virgil not-so-famously remarked: “Videre Neapolim et Mori”. Not a lot of people realise that the phrase “See Naples and die” made famous by Goethe in his Italian Journey, is actually a pun revolving around the Italian “muori” meaning “die” and Mori, a small village outside Neapolis (literally “new city”) in Virgil’s day. So said those two poets; my poet said unequivocally:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain…
My feet are killing me. We’re not far off the bewitching hour. I’ll go with Keats.