We are trailing up the Via Toledo again, this time making for the Spaccanopili, a narrow street that cleaves its way through Naples, straight as a die, like the slash from a sword. The Romans called it the decumanus, the east-west road in any city. Now it is famous for its churches, but we are only going to be visiting two.
The first is the 15th Century Gesù Nuovo. I wouldn’t call the façade beautiful but with its top-to-toe diamond-point rustication it certainly makes a point—about 2000 of them, I would guess.
A service is in process, and as quiet as nuns, we follow Sophia as she skirts the nave and leads us to a chapel covered from floor to ceiling with ornaments — except they aren’t exactly ornaments. They are body parts: legs, arms, breasts like poached eggs, even guts and brains — any part you care to mention (yes, even the unmentionable) —all are here, so many that the walls glow with a silvery luminescence. What’s more, they have run out of space because bundles of them are hanging on hooks, like on a chatelaine’s keyring. I take a closer look at one. It’s paper-thin and made of aluminium, if I’m not much mistaken.
In the chapel beyond, a man is on his knees. He is praying to Naples’ very own saint, a very recent one, Guiseppe Moscati, who died in 1927 and was canonized in 1987. We can see his study and bedroom preserved here behind glass. (What! He didn’t really work and sleep here did he!) On the way out, I notice a poor woman lighting a candle which she places beside scores of others at the saint’s feet.
If there is anything else of interest in the church, we are not going to be shown it, maybe because of the service still in progress or maybe because Sophia’s time is almost up. I suspect this may be the case, as when we cross the street to the exceedingly plain Santa Chiara, which, in contrast to its pointy neighbour, seems to make a point of being deliberately self-effacing. It dates from the 14th century, so Sophia tells us, and doesn’t bother to take us in but leaves us to our own devices instead. I don’t mind in the slightest because my feet are dropping off and if I don’t get my weight off them soon I’m going to end up having to buy a pair of metal replicas.
Having come this far, we may as well go in. Its Franciscan simplicity is very pleasing, better by far than the Baroque Gesù Nuovo. In the middle of the back wall is the tomb of Robert of Anjou. I suppose, as one of the kings of Naples, he was a famous person in his day, but I’ve never heard of him before so I don’t count him as a worthy addition to my collection. You should know I’m no ordinary tourist, but a bit of a thanatourist besides, my special interest being the graves of men and women of letters.
In a chapel off to the right is another tomb, that of Philip of Bourbon, the idiot son of Charles III, so the guidebook says. That’s a fine way to be remembered I must say. Pity I wasn’t collecting obscure royalty though. They would have been a couple of good ones.
Leaving the church (and the rest of the group behind), we walk a little way down the Spaccanapoli, past the little church of Santa Marta and the altogether much grander San Domenico Maggiore. We are heading for the restaurant with the bargain beer and pizza for €5 which is near here somewhere.
Wouldn’t you know it! It’s not open yet but a café further up is. With relief, I take a seat and order a birra grande and a glass of white wine for Iona whilst we study the menu. We should have a Margherita I suppose. It was for the queen of Umberto I that this pizza was invented. Up until this time, the pizza was the food of the poor with a topping of tomatoes only, but for the Queen, mozzarella and basil were added to mimic the national colours. Food fit for a queen it may be and it may look pretty enough to eat but it sounds a bit boring to me, so in the end I opt for a calzone which I’ve never tried before. When in Naples…
It takes an age to come, so I order another beer, this time a media because by now I have seen the price and a grande costs as much as our whole meal would have at the other place. The calzone itself costs €7.50 (much dearer than a Margherita, ironically the cheapest on the menu) and when it comes, I see why it has been so long — they have been lovingly burning it to a crisp. I cut off the worst bits and open it up to remove all the nasty mushrooms.
I would have been better off having a Margherita and a grande.
Now we are rested, night has fallen and I want to go out again, to take Sophia’s advice, to walk down to the Castel dell’Ovo and drop in to the Gambrinus on the way back. La Belle Dame Sans Merci reluctantly comes along to keep an eye on me.
The Piazza Plebiscito is mobbed. It looks as if all Naples and his wife and children are here, most heading the same way we are, towards the bay and the castle. But then I have heard that Italian television is the worst in Europe, where even game shows with housewives taking their clothes off fail to attract viewers. But you can see why: this is where the real action is. Everywhere you look (though I try very hard not to) lovers are eating each other’s faces off.
Presently we turn onto the Via Partenope. There are some very swanky hotels here and in their reflected light, a flotilla of boats and yachts are bobbing gently while Vesuvius looms darkly in the distance. And up there, floodlit, is the bulk of the Castel dell’Ovo sitting on its own little promontory like a galleon turned to stone by the Gorgon as it was heading out to sea. It’s impressive, like the Palazzo Reale, but it is too square to be really interesting, architecturally speaking, and the buildings on the top look decidedly modern. A bit of a disappointment, but I’ve still got the Caffè Gambrinus to look forward to.
There is a door at the side off the Piazza Plebiscito. Inside, it is all marble and mirrors and gilt chandeliers — and not a single soul about. What’s a tramp like me doing in a posh place like this? Before someone comes along wanting to know what I’m doing here and throws me out on a torrent of irate Italian, I swiftly rejoin Iona who was too cowardly but wise enough not to follow me in. The entire clientele, apparently, is here on the pavement. I just can’t imagine Oscar and Guy sitting here, lapping up their lattes. There’s no sense of their presence here; their ghosts have gone.
I have made the fatal mistake of looking forward to this expedition far too much but before I turn in, I go up to the roof for one last look at Naples by night. A myriad of lights are twinkling all round the bay as far as Sorrento and in the dark distance I can just make out the brooding hulk of Vesuvius.
This, at least, does not disappoint. It’s the image I take with me to bed. I hope I will not die in the night but if I do, this image of Naples will be the one they find imprinted on my retina.