Vedi Napoli e poi muori, see Naples and then die

Vedi Napoli e poi muori.

A common saying in Naples, a common saying in Italy.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, once visited Naples during his two-year Grand Tour in Italy. He liked Naples and its people so much that it took him a month to leave.

While in Naples, Goethe came across a phrase that the people there used to say about the city: vedi Napoli e poi muori. See Naples and then die. Apparently, it didn’t sound to him as creepy as it may sound to us now: in fact, he understood the philosophy of it; but of course he did, he was a philosopher after all.

Vico del Fico al Purgatorio, Napoli
Pulcinella, is that you?

Vedi Napoli e poi muori. See Naples and then die. It’s not exactly a threat, really. Merely an aknowledgment: you’ve got to see Naples before you die, you cannot miss it, you cannot show up to the other side and say you’ve never been to Naples.

So there you have it: from creepy to poetic. See Naples and then die.

My chance to see Naples (but hopefully not die immediately afterwards, I remember thinking back then) came when I made friends with some Neapolitans. What better chance to visit a new city than to meet friends?

Piazza del Plebiscito.
Piazza del Plebiscito.

My first stay in Naples was extremely short, but those precious few hours acted as the most amazing business card ever and fought off all my fears of finding a chaotic, noisy, dirty and smelly city. I did find the most awful traffic I had seen since Shanghai (I hadn’t been to Vietnam yet), and I did spend my hours in the city clutching my purse as my life depended on it. But I also fell deeply in love with that chaotic, noisy, unquestionably dirty and smelly city.

Naples is not your tidy European city. Naples is not clean, Naples is not pretty. It’s not that kind of city that takes you by the hand and walks you quietly through its streets and roads and squares. Naples shoves itself into your face; and you better be ready, but you never will, not really.

Naples is alive on so many different levels and in so many different ways. All that life being lived by the city and by the people is what makes the back of your neck tingle and the hairs on your arms stand. When you feel that there is something in the air, which may or may not be the scent of pizza, most of the times it’s all that life being lived. And the scent of pizza.

Palazzo Venezia, Napoli
Palazzo Venezia in Naples.

On my second stay in Naples, I had the chance to visit the city on my own, and to explore its belly: I entered Napoli Sotterranea, a centuries-old water main that was built by the Greeks, expanded by the Romans, closed by cholera, used as a shelter during World War II. Naples unfolded at my feet as I let them take me to see art and history and beauty. I ventured out of town: I took a train to Caserta because I wanted to see the Reggia for real and marvel at its hugeness and grandiosity; I took another train to Herculaneum and Pompeii because I wanted to feel very little and young while walking on ancient Roman streets (and freak out at
pedestrian crossings and wooden door frames from 79 AD). My feet will never forgive me, but I just couldn’t stop going places and seeing things.

Naples offers so much to see, so much to do, so much to taste (pizza is only the beginning; should we talk about mozzarella di bufala?). You could spend days and days exploring it, living it; you could go back every once in a while with the only purpose to get to know it a little bit more, to see yet another side of it. And you will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that the more you know it, the more you are aware of how little it is you really know. Naples is a neverending book: every time you feel like you’ve got it, you’ve reached the end of it, now you’ll have the whole picture of the story at last; and every time you find there’s a new page after the last one, a new chapter, a new story to be told.

Cono gelato.
Anyone up for an ice-cream?

On my third stay in Naples, I started moving around some of the different districts that make the city as unique as it is. Vomero for a stroll among fancy stores (and for two or three ice-creams!); Rione Sanità to see Totò‘s house; Materdei to enter the Cimitero delle Fontanelle, a charnel house located in a cave where Neapolitans still go, bring coins and bus tickets to the hundreds of skulls hosted there, and ask for favors in return.

Naples’ unbreakable connection with religion is paralleled by its unbreakable connection with superstition. Neapolitans are said to protect themselves from their city’s unimaginable traffic by placing in their cars a prayer card depicting San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, the one whose blood conveniently liquefies at set times throughout the year. Just in case San Gennaro happened to be busy liquefying his own blood, Neapolitans are also said to always keep a cornetto, a red horn, for good luck and good measure.

Red horns in Naples aren’t hard to find. The city center is full of shops selling them by the bunch; some shops even sell tested red horns. They ward off the malocchio, the evil eye, and they make extremely cheap and good souvenirs. Very typical. Very Neapolitan.

Il Vesuvio visto da Napoli.
The bay and the Vesuvius.

By the time I returned to Naples for an extremely quick fourth time, I felt like being home after a long trip. And as I managed to discover yet another corner of the city, I thought that maybe that’s the magic of Naples: it doesn’t take you by the hand and it doesn’t welcome you quietly; but when you come back, its unmistakably Neapolitan hug is waiting for you. And you can’t but join Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in appreciating the philosophy behind the phrase vedi Napoli e poi muori.

Vedi Napoli first, see Naples and live. Then you may be allowed to die.


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