You can’t ignore the many layers of history making up the modern city of Naples. It would take years to explore all the ancient ruins, fortifications, churches, sculptures, museums and art galleries but we only have 24hours and there is so much to see.
Deep beneath the 13th century Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore are the archaeological remains of the city of Neapolis, the New City, founded by the Greeks, and later, the Romans. A covered marketplace of shops, mosaic tiled courtyards, laundries and workshops that form the historic centre of Naples.
Sitting back, over thick, dark espresso we watch the crowds press by, tourists mingling with locals, touts, buskers, scooters, and even cars. Catching snatches of conversation, and the urgent shouting of shopkeepers, we realise that life in this ancient city continues much as it would have done in 5th century Neapolis.
Today the shops and narrow roads mirror the proportions of the ancient market place below; street food vendors sell snacks dripping with grease, and tempting gelato treats. Dried pasta hangs outside shop windows; green, white and red striped pasta ribbons, quills black with squid-ink, and several vaguely obscene novelty designs, perhaps another link to the ancient Romans and their fascination with everything phallic. A nearby fishmongers shop displays tanks of fish, where squirming octopus threaten to wriggle their way to freedom.
Along the tourist routes, shops are filled with trinkets; the red chili ‘Corno’ which brings good luck, and figurines of ‘Pulcinella’ with his white costume and ugly mask; the unofficial mascot of the city. Tiny automatons sawing wood, washing clothes, or cooking pizza are a spin off from the famous Neapolitan cribs.
In the busy lanes, an air of decay pervades; paint faded and peeling, rubbish awaiting collection, weeds colonizing ancient buildings. Graffiti covers every wall; a very ancient tradition that can still be seen adorning the walls of nearby Pompeii.
Palazzo’s burst with activity as black-aproned waiters serve drinks and snacks; students compete at table football; a baby grand piano has been wheeled outside for an impromptu performance as crowds and dogs gather to listen.
Old ladies carrying shopping, and young ones pushing babies disappear behind doors within doors, offering up a tantalizing glimpse of hidden courtyards filled with fragrant herbs and colourful flowers. Overhead, laundry dries and perched high in a shuttered window garden, between pots of rosemary and basil, a garden gnome watches the crowds below.
The ruins beneath Naples are hugely impressive, but to imagine the vibrant living City that thrived before a mudslide buried and preserved it in such detail, you need look no further than the streets above, where the basics of city life remain unchanged almost two thousand years later.