Napoli: Beauty in the chaos

Out of all the cities I explored during my trip to Italy last year, Naples (or Napoli in Italian) left the deepest impression – for many reasons.

naples b&w

The first thing that hit me upon stepping into Napoli was chaos. Being the gateway to Southern Italy, which differs greatly from the more affluent and internationalised North, it was the most flavourful, colourful and boisterous and crazy place I visited in Italy, or maybe even Europe thus far.

First things first, all my pictures in the city of Naples were taken on mobile, mostly because the introvert in me was too overwhelmed by the constant movement, noise and crowd around me to actually take out my DSLR camera like I always do. Another reason was because I felt nothing can capture the chaos, buzz and flurry of activity more than the spontaneity and immediacy of a mobile camera.

The above black and white grainy photo taken one night in the back alleys of the residential area encapsulates the whole essence of Naples for me – grit, movement and harmony all in one frame – along with the incessant siren of motorcycle engines that fills the city.

I think “grit” would be the best word for this place, yet in the intimidating chaos of crowd-filled streets and the people shouting across the road to one another, I found a warmth that I have never known anywhere else.

firstday

First impression of Naples – constant movement. It was as though the whole city was a living organism, throbbing with life and energy. 

On the very first night when I arrived, I was cold, hungry and overwhelmed by the sheer crowds of people drinking and chattering on the streets – on a Monday night. Too tired to make a decision about where to have a proper dinner, my partner and I stumbled into a Kebab shop on the corner – a classic dodgy place with red lighting and questionable NSFW music videos playing on an old TV set suspended from the ceiling.

From my experience in my own hometown (Geylang, Golden Mile Complex, Joo Chiat Road and Orchard Towers are some examples in Singapore if you’re interested) and on my travels, often the more sleazy or dodgy a place seems, the better food it sells – I have no idea why, this correlation.

Of course the kebab shop did not disappoint. It was in this little red light (literally) kebab shop in a corner of Naples that I had the best kebab in my life – heaped generously with hot grilled chicken, the usual lettuce-tomato-onion-etc combination, a crazy amount of sauces and -OMG- FRIES. LIKE ACTUALLY LITERALLY FRIES IN A KEBAB – like seriously, how sinful and how heavenly is that?? 

The whole crazy concoction was simply too humongous to wrap up like a usual kebab, and even when shared with my partner was simply too much (and too good). We went back to our apartment feeling warm and contented, our stomachs and hearts filled to the brim. Heartened by the comfort food, we looked forward to exploring more of this mysterious, exciting city the next morning.

rustico pastry

Rustico Leccese, a traditional snack from Lecce I found at a bakery in Naples

So, here I contacted an Italian friend I made while in Rome a few years back. Although I’d only met her once, I remember our encounter distinctly.

It was a pretty depressing night for me as I was alone in Rome, abandoned by my then-boyfriend who was supposed to travel to Italy with me. Feeling down in the dumps about the relationship I was in, I dragged myself out of my hostel at around 10pm looking for something to eat. Most of the shops were closed, so I wandered into a little takeaway deli and stared at the foreign-looking pies and pastries in the display window. It was my first time in Italy, I was alone, lost and depressed.

A kind young lady (she was also a customer) approached me and asked if I needed any help. I said yes, it’s my first day in Rome, could you recommend me something nice to eat?

With the great enthusiasm and passion about food that many Italians share, she picked out a pastry for me (and paid for it), explaining that she was actually not from Rome but the Southern parts, and this was a pastry from her hometown down south in Lecce, Salento. She was so proud of her food heritage that she requested to take a picture with me to tell her friends that a Singaporean was eating a pastry from her hometown.

It was, and still probably is, the most delicious pastry I had in my life. The simple ingredients like crushed tomatoes and cheese, as well as a delicious savoury paste I later learned was bechamel sauce – all covered by a crisp, thin layer of pastry – simply melted in my mouth. I have always been a fan of pastries but I never knew something so simple could taste so heavenly.

rustico pastry inside

Fast forward three years later, I was in Italy again, and missed this pastry terribly. Messaging my friend to ask her the name of it, I learned that Rustico Leccese, a traditional snack from Lecce, could only be found widely in Lecce. It was harder to come across in other regions.

But to my greatest surprise and joy, my friend told me that a well-known bakery from Lecce had actually opened an outlet in Naples – just this week! How coincidental was that! I immediately thanked her and went out in search of the bakery, which turned out to be still in the finishing touches of construction, but thankfully already in business!

Because of this heartwarming encounter I had with my friend in Rome years ago, and a stroke of serendipity, I got to try this heavenly warm pastry again! This made me so, so happy, and I remember I even came back on my last day in Naples just for another helping of this wondrous find.

During my trip I also visited Bologna, known as the food capital of Italy, but I definitely felt the food in Napoli was THE BEST – which made me determined to return to explore the South in depth and try all the local food I’ve never heard of, the next time!

Did I also mention that Napoli is known to be the birthplace of pizza?

The first pizza in the world was actually the margherita – on Wikipedia, you will see it is aptly named the Neapolitan pizza.

margherita pizza

With just three ingredients of tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese, the margherita is a deceivingly simple dish – both in terms of flavour and history. Representing the three colours of the Italian flag, the margherita pizza was created during the unification of the Kingdom of Italy in the 19th century. An interesting tale goes:

Italy unified in 1861, and King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. Legend has it that the traveling pair became bored with their steady diet of French haute cuisine and asked for an assortment of pizzas from the city’s Pizzeria Brandi, the successor to Da Pietro pizzeria, founded in 1760. The variety the queen enjoyed most was called pizza mozzarella, a pie topped with the soft white cheese, red tomatoes and green basil. (Perhaps it was no coincidence that her favourite pie featured the colours of the Italian flag.) From then on, the story goes, that particular topping combination was dubbed pizza Margherita.

– from A Slice of History: Pizza Through the Ages

So much history in a piece of dough! And Pizzeria Brandi was where I went in Naples for a taste of the oldest pizza in the world. Pizzas in Italy are huge by default (by Asian standards), and I was always in awe of how the locals would buy a box of pizza each and sit by the river, devouring the whole piece in one sitting!

And if pizza in the more Northern regions like Tuscany was already huge, then this one in Naples was astoundingly thick, yet not too heavy to the bite. Baked fresh in a wood-fired oven, the dough was fragrant with the taste of smoke and cinder, light, crisp, and wholesomely balanced by the 3 ingredients.

sicily pasta

My partner and I also shared a Sicilian pasta which looked interesting to us on the menu. As you can see, my pictures of the food aren’t very sharp or well-lit, but obviously I was too busy starting on the food to worry about lighting or composition.

This Sicilian pasta had such a rich, rich taste that I can still recall the mouthwatering taste today, one year later and right in this moment – no kidding! I remember vividly the taste of mushrooms, mozzarella and olio (Olive oil! The secret to Italian cooking). I heard the real Italian food is in Sicily, and I can’t wait to go to the southernmost part of Italy to taste Sicilian cooking, and maybe pick up a dish or two in the kitchen!

alley1

With my spirits buoyed by the wonderful dinner, I spontaneously decided to walk further uphill (Naples is characterised by many steep slopes), and ended up in the living quarters where the locals lived! And if I said the streets of the city were overwhelming, this was another whole new level. My partner could only tag along in disbelief at my bold and adventurous spirit, venturing into private, unfamiliar territories. I was actually too excited by every corner I turned to worry about anything, and I was so thankful to experience the warmth and friendliness of the folks of Napoli!

alley2

The living quarters were really nebulous like a maze – it seemed like you could never find your way out, instead only going deeper and deeper (and higher) into the heart of it all! So I gave myself up wholeheartedly to the labyrinth and let my footsteps take me up one winding slope after another.

I already got traces of an inkling of why Naples is such a special place, but it was in the living quarters that I understood the reason fully. Unlike other Italian cities, Naples did not feel like “conventional” Europe. European cities are known for their distinct European architectural styles, mostly quaint or drenched with colourful pastels (Venice, Florence, Prague, Karlovy Vary) or bolds (Copenhagen, Brugge, Amsterdam) or steeped in history like the Gothic structures of Edinburgh or Yorkshire (Whitby comes to mind).

But Naples – Naples made me feel like I was transported to Bombay, India. I’d never seen or imagined anything like this in Europe before! In fact, many people only visit Naples on the way to the glamorous Amalfi coast, Capri islands, or the ruins of Pompeii / Mt Vesuvius. Few, I doubt, would stumble into the living quarters like I did!

I’d heard other travellers mention that Naples is not a very clean city, with dirt and grime on the streets. Indeed, that was the feeling I got – as though I had landed in a slum – but I loved everything about it! I wouldn’t want to idealise living here, but the people seemed happy, and the whole place had so much character and mood because it was not sanitised the way many modern cities aspire to! It is, truly, a gem in Europe and a special gem in my heart.

alley3

This line of laundry really made me smile. My partner always teases me for having a very weird fascination with laundry and clotheslines. I guess it’s because we don’t get to see it in Singapore, where we have these weird bamboo pole contractions on which we hang our laundry from high-rise windows – look at these photos from a fellow Singaporean blogger for illustration. I’m not really sure how to explain it but seeing colourful clothes of all shapes, patterns and sizes hanging on a line is particularly endearing to me? Especially when they’re hanging neatly in a line strung between two low-rise buildings – extra charm points!

alley4

A traditional pulley and bucket system for delivering and exchanging goods such as groceries and household supplies between neighbours. The old man who looked at me taking this picture laughed in amusement, and explained to me how it worked.

I don’t have pictures of the people I met in the living quarters, because I just wanted to enjoy the moment, their smiles and warm conversation. I read somewhere that Naples is a very Italian city with as much as 98% local Italians, born and bred in Naples. In this age of connectivity and globalisation, it was pretty amazing to stand out so starkly as a foreigner. In fact, almost everywhere we went we were given curious glances and questions about where we came from.

Despite their unfamiliarity with foreigners, the Napoli people were really friendly and tried their hardest to communicate with us with their limited English, our even more limited Italian, and very wild hand gesturing – another cute Italian trait, they really do talk with their hands! I remember laughing so hard at a lottery announcement show on TV in my apartment in Florence, because I couldn’t understand a word of what the announcers were saying but they looked so animated and passionate!

I recall one rather touching episode in Naples. We were just wandering around the alleyways, and we must have looked pretty dazed (with wonder), for an elderly man in a wheelchair stopped to ask us if we were lost, and if we needed help. We tried to convey to him that we were “just walking around”, but it got lost in translation and we were starting to get anxious in our fervent effort to thank the old man and assure him that we were okay. Just then, a local teenage boy stopped to check what happened, and helped us translate our English to Italian so the elder man could understand.

I was so touched by the concern and kindness in this simple gesture from both of these people. The old man and the young boy ended up getting into an animated conversation themselves, undivided across their generation gap, and as though they were old friends that hadn’t met in a long time. In Naples, it felt like everyone could be friends, if you were not already friends!

That night, I left the living quarters feeling humbled and privileged to be let into their lives, even if for a moment, and to be met with warmth, kindness and laughter. The experience made me nostalgic for a life I had never experienced, similar to the lives of my parents’ generation in Singapore, when they lived in kampungs, or villages in Malay.

Upon visiting an Italian kampung in Naples, I realised it was not only the simplicity of life that an ardent pursuit of economic progress had sacrificed. More than that, we had also lost the kampung spirit – the spirit of sharing, openness, trust and community.

The sight of children laughing merrily as they ran from house to house, having dinner and watching TV with one another’s families, still lingers in my mind.

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