Guest Post: A Friend in Every Corner of the World

This week, my Napolitana friend Laura Vinti writes about her passion for travel, and a new program to help travelers connect with people in the places they visit.

I see traveling as a sort of spiritual quest. This might sound pompous and self-important, but I’m unapologetic about it — when I visit a city, I’m after its soul.

Now, faced with this confrontational approach,  every city I visit tends to defend itself by doing what charming cities do best: dazzle the visitor by flaunting its beauty, throw at them magnificent palaces, glittering mosaics and frescoes, and daring towers (sometimes leaning too, for added measure), hoping thereby to make the visitor forget their Spiritual Quest and settle for aesthetic intoxication instead.

Well, I don’t fall for it. I take pleasure in all the beautiful sights, and then I aim for the heart – the forgotten alleys, the unexpected quirks, the intimate secrets, the stories you don’t find in travel guides, the places where the locals go for their morning coffee, the corners that offer shelter to star-crossed lovers. I want to uncover the city’s dark side, understand its personality, learn the inside jokes, really get to know the locals. But all too often I come up empty.

The church of Gesu Nuovo in the historic center of Naples.

However, I now have a new weapon in my urban soul-seeker arsenal. Thanks to a great initiative which is spreading its wings (pun intended) throughout the world, I’m enlisting angels in my quest: Angels for Travelers, no less, whose aim is to unite the globe-trotters of the world into a global community of friends.

Angels for Travelers is an exciting and ever-growing network which gives travelers free access to a trove of insider knowledge by providing them with local friends at any stage of their trip, even before they arrive at their destination.

As Stefano Consiglio, professor of Organization Theory at the University of Naples and founder of “Angels”, says, “Angels for Travelers is a web travel community focused around the assumption that someone who wants to visit a new city is looking for a social experience. And what is better than to be guided by people living there?”

This idea was sparked by an episode he witnessed on a city bus during a recent trash crisis in Naples. “Two Spanish travelers were asking some fellow passengers about the nearest bus stop to their hostel. Soon, more people joined in to help the tourists out. It seemed that the group was attempting to distract the tourists from the garbage piling up every

Via San Gregorio Armeno, famous for Christmas creches.

street corner, while at the same time redirecting their attention to the many treasures of our city.”  He found this so striking, because the common assumption is that Neapolitans lack civic pride. “I started to think about how people can contribute to the improvement of their community, especially in a situation of serious crisis.”

Seeing how the passengers were eager to assist the tourists, he wondered about ways to channel this positive energy and do something useful for his city and for the local community. The idea of the “Angels” was born.

However, when he illustrated his idea to friends, they were skeptical: who would be willing to invest their time in helping people they didn’t know?  As it turned out, many were more than willing: only two months after the launching of the platform, already 190 Neapolitan Angels were ready to give advice to travelers arriving in the city.

“People are happy to share and more generous than we might give them credit for,” says Stefano.

Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero, a Naples landmark.

Capitalizing on their Neapolitan success, in 2010 Stefano and his staff decided to update the web platform in order to allow people from everywhere in the world to become Angels for their own city. The idea spread and now there are more than 4,000 Angels in 350 cities in the world, including New York, Paris and London, ready to share tips and insights about their hometown with new friends.

Last June, I met with one of the Neapolitan Angels, Amedeo Colella, to try the Angels’ experience first-hand.  He turned out to be the author of “Manuale di Napoletanità”, a delightful collection of 365 half-serious, half-joking lessons on Naples and ‘being Neapolitan’.

I asked him what he would suggest to an American of Neapolitan descent who wishes to unveil the authentic city of his ancestors.

“They should get in touch with its desperation and its poverty: the shady alleys where families of six or more share two bedrooms in a basement apartment, the second-hand markets where you can buy clothes by the kilo; they should look for the sites where Raffaele Viviani, the 19th century actor and playwright of the poor and forgotten, set his plays, and get a sense of the suffering that pushed his or her forebears to leave their country in search of a better life.”

To move on to a lighter topic, I steered the conversation toward food. It always works, and in Naples more than anywhere else: we Neapolitans love to cook, love to eat, and love to talk about food.

Immacolata obelisk in the Piazza del Gesu.

Since both Amedeo and I know that in our city true understanding passes through one’s stomach, we agreed that our ideal traveler will have to try a sfogliatella (a typical Neapolitan pastry made with ricotta) at Attanasio’s, near the main train station, or at least taste a babà (a yeast dough soaked with a rum and sugar syrup) at “Il capriccio” in Via Carbonara.

Mission accomplished, spiritual needs satisfied, we ended our conversation with an espresso shot at Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante: a worthy way to mark my entry into the Angels for Travelers’ community.

To find out more about Angels for Travelers visit their website: http://www.angeliperviaggiatori.com

To listen to Stefano’s talk about Angels for Travelers at TED go to (http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxNapoli-Stefano-Consiglio-An)

The photos depict some of the sights recommended by Amedeo, all situated in the narrow streets of the ancient Greek grid of Naples.

Laura Vinti is a native Neapolitan living in the greater Washington, DC area. An MFA student in Fiction, she’s writing a historical novel set in 1500s Naples.

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Book Review: The Espresso Break by Barbara Zaragoza

First off, I wish I’d had this book the first time I visited Naples! I will definitely be using it the next time. I’ve looked in at Barbara Zaragoza’s blogs now and then: The Espresso Break and Naples (Napoli) Guide, and I’m glad to have her info about Naples compiled in book form.

The subtitle promises “Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond”, and I would say the book delivers. The major highlights are covered, in greater detail than many books offer, and then come the hidden corners of Naples that you would never find on your own, like Mauro the glove-maker’s factory, and Japanese restaurant recommendations.

Barbara has also included some practical travel information about safety, driving, staying healthy, and using public transportation. Her advice on greeting Italians is spot on: A little Buon giorno will take you a long way in Italy!

The great detail and variety of information make up for the lack of color photos, as I always appreciate color in a guidebook.

After seeing nearly three pages devoted to the subject of trash in Naples, I laughed out loud at Barbara’s defense of the city’s dirtiness. Why is the city so dirty? “Neapolitans have preserved so much of their past that the buildings almost by necessity tend to blend into the natural look and feel of the ancient ruins.” Naples is just natural, and she suggests that other cities seem un-naturally clean. Well, my mom and I had a good chuckle over this, but I must say, please don’t let the city’s reputation for dirt and grittiness stop you from making a visit! I compare it to the gritty vibrancy of lower Manhattan–a sign of life!

The book includes lots of detail on the ancient sites around Naples and legends connected to them. She also includes a section called the “Odious Women Tour” which includes goddesses, queens, prostitutes, and revolutionaries.

Considering that many travel guides offer just a few pages to the entire south of Italy, this book is a treasure for visitors to the Naples region. If you have a day, or several, to spend in Naples, this book will help you fill your time well.

The Grand Tour: An Italy of the past

File:South west prospet of mount Vesuvius - September 1747 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine.jpg

[Illustration from the September 1747 issue of “The Gentleman’s Magazine]

“A man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”  Samuel Johnson said it, and Joseph Spence, at the age of 31 in 1730, set off from Oxford to see what a man should see. Spence was a commoner with little money, but through the connections of friends, arranged to travel with Lord Middlesex, the 19-year-old son of a duke. The rakish lord drank his way through Europe for a couple of years, while the Oxford don spent his time developing a passion for Italian opera.

In 1737, Spence accompanied John Morley Trevor to the continent, eager to return to Italy. However, Trevor turned out to be a dull companion, and they did not make it to Italy, because Trevor was recalled to England before the end of the year.

In 1740, Spence was asked to accompany another young nobleman, Lord Lincoln, to Italy, where Lincoln was to attend the Royal Academy at Turin. As his governor, Spence oversaw the improvement of Lincoln’s fragile health and guided him out of an affair with an unsuitable partner, returning him to England better prepared for his future.

Spence kept a journal, and wrote numerous letters to his mother while traveling. Here are excerpts from letters to his mother describing his first visit to Naples:

In going to Naples we often passed old Roman roads, in many places all laid with large smooth stone and as entire still as the pavement of a great hall, though near two thousand years old. ‘Tis to me the most surprising thing of art which we have seen abroad. This noble pavement, sometimes for miles together, is bordered with myrtles and a hundred other evergreens, and on each side of it you see perpetually the ruins of old tombs and monuments, for the Romans always buried by great roads (perhaps to put people in mind that this life is but a journey, and that in this world we are not properly at home).

There are sometimes orange-trees in the road, and at Mola, a little seaport on the way to Naples, all the orchards were full of them just like apple-trees with us. Within about thirty miles of Naples we came into a vast plain, the richest soil and the best cultivated in Italy: whence the Italians call it ‘Campagna Felice’ or ‘the happy country’. It was soon after that we discerned the top of the famous Mount Vesuvius, and the smoke which it perpetually flings out looked at that distance like a cloud gilded with the sun.

Naples is one of the most delicious sea-ports in the world: it lies down a sloping ground, all in a large half moon to the sea. The shore on for a great way humours the same shape of a half moon. In one side of it, about six miles on the left hand from Naples, is Vesuvius, and on the right the grotto of Pausilippo and the tomb of Virgil…

It was with a great deal of impatience that I waited for the morning when we were to go up Mount Vesuvius, which was heightened by my seeing it every morning. The tops of the houses are all flat at Naples and as smooth as a floor; they often set them out with flower-pots and orange-trees, and ’tis their usual place for diversion on summer evenings. From the top of our house we had a most distinct view of Vesuvius, and I used to run up there every morning the first thing I did, to see whether he increased in his smoking or not.

At last the morning came: four mile we went along the beautiful shore of Naples in chaises, which were then quit from the rising and badness of the way, for horses. These carried us two mile more, and then the way is so steep and bad that you are forced to quit even them and be dragged up the two last mile by men who make a trade of it…. Two of these honest men get just before you, with strong girdles on; you take hold of the girdles, and then they draw, and you climb up as fast as you can. Both they and we are forced to rest very often, and then tug and trudge again…. In some of the resting places here we felt the earth hot under us as we sat down…. The last stage is infinitely the worst. ‘Tis all loose crumbling earth in which your two draggers and you sink every step almost up to the knees, beside which it often yields under you, and ’tis often impossible not to slip back half a yard…but eagerness to get to the top when so near makes it the less troublesome. When there, you have a ragged rocky edge all round a vast cauldron of perhaps half a mile deep and a mile round, all full of smoke. The wind every three or four minutes clears away the smoke, and then you have a view of it. It sinks irregularly and raggedly all down on the inside. There are several places in it that look of a fire-colour, blueish, greenish and principally yellow…

One of my guides was an extraordinary honest fellow; I was got very intimately acquainted with him in our journey uup. He told me that ‘to be sure the devil lived in that hill’, and wished very heartily that all the Frenchmen were in there with him. Upon my telling him that we are all Frenchmen, he said he was sorry for it, but it could not be helped….

When the wind blew away the smoke from between the crags of the opposite side of the cauldron, we had a veiw of a beautiful piece of country, green fields, meadow-grounds, etc. thick set with houses; on the right hand appeared a part of the delicious bay of Naples: ’twas but turning the head, and we had a full view of all the city and bay.

Spence’s writings are collected in a book edited by Slava Klima entitled Joseph Spence: Letters from the Grand Tour published in 1975.

Watch for a BONUS re-blog of a modern day view of Vesuvius.

An Italian in old Seattle: Joe Desimone

From vegetable farm to international airport!

You never know where the Italian South will crop up! I made my first visit to Seattle’s Museum of Flight last weekend, with some friends from out of town. It’s a beautiful facility directly adjacent to Boeing Field, Seattle’s first international airport. In the photo, the museum buildings are nearest to the airfield, and some of Boeing’s buildings are in the foreground.

Turns out, in the late 1920s when the Boeing company was in its early stages, William Boeing was looking around the country for another location because Seattle did not have a suitable airport to meet the company’s needs. When news of the search got around, immigrant farmer Giuseppe “Joe” Desimone made Boeing an offer he couldn’t refuse–a big tract of land south of downtown Seattle, for one dollar, to keep the company in Seattle. Today the airport is bordered by dozens of Boeing facilities, and both the company and the airport continue to play significant roles in the life of Seattle.

Very cool!I thought, and made note of his name to learn more about him for a blog post. We finished our tour, and continued sightseeing, including lunch and a wander through Pike Place Market. And guess what!? Joe Desimone was one of the earliest participants in the Market, gradually buying shares until he owned the place. His family remained in ownership after Joe’s death in 1946, until the Market became publicly owned in the 1970s.

Joe Desimone taking vegetables to market.

Joe immigrated from the Naples area at the age of 18 in 1898, and by 1910 was a thriving farmer in King County. His stall features prominently in this historic video footage of Pike Place Market–you can see his name on the sign at about the one-minute point, and again at three minutes into it, but I don’t know which of the men in the movie is him.

A new (old) painting on my wall

 

I have to thank my daughter and son-in-law for an amazing gift they presented to me not long ago. They listened (ever-so-patiently) as I waxed lyrical about Simone Martini’s painting, St. Louis of Toulouse crowning Robert of Anjou, which hangs in the Museo di Capodimonte at Naples. They heard (again, I’m afraid) the story of those two brothers, my favorites of the Angevins of Naples, about their long imprisonment from youth to young adulthood, how Louis was called to the Franciscan order and defied his father to answer that call, how his charismatic brother Robert, a third son, became heir to the throne of Naples because of Louis’s decision, and how Martini’s painting contains many symbols of the brothers’ complex relationship and history.

It was a gift that they listened so attentively to the story that has fascinated me, and charged my imagination, for decades.

But a few weeks later, they showed up at my house… with the painting!! Of course, not the one from Naples–the original is not for sale. Mine is a reproduction, a knock-off from one of those websites that will make you a copy of any oil painting you like, in any size you want.

I have it framed, now, and hanging in my bedroom. The saint (Louis of Toulouse) and the king (Robert the Wise) watch over me as I sleep.

Christmas year-round: Nativities of Naples

Nativity scenes are part of the Christmas tradition for many of us, and they range from gilt-trimmed masterpieces to naked trolls. In the historic center of Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno is home to workshops and storefronts selling an array of elaborate creches, or presepi in Italian.

The narrow pedestrian street is Nativity Central in Italy, carrying on a tradition established some four hundred years ago, in the Baroque era. From individual figurines and furnishings to elaborate full-village scenes, from finely crafted and expensive pieces to the very inexpensive–the array is fascinating. They go far beyond the typical scene of the holy family with wise men and shepherds. These scenes include the whole town–the innkeeper, the greengrocer, the mayor, homemakers and housekeepers, in lively scenes where you can imagine them sharing the story they’ve heard from the shepherds. “Did you hear about the baby? Did you hear about the angels? Can you believe it? Let’s go take a look!”

Christmas is a year-round affair on Via San Gregorio Armeno, so enjoy it whenever your visit to Naples comes along. At the end of the street is San Lorenzo Maggiore, a historic church that contains a museum focusing on the historic center of Naples. This neighborhood oozes history from every seam, so plan to spend some time exploring.

A selection of nativity scene characters for sale.

And whether you call it a creche, crib, presepi, or nativity, browse the workshops and enjoy the tradition of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ in a thousand variations on the theme.

(Remember those naked trolls I mentioned? Check out Nativity Scenes Gone Horribly Awry at a blog called “List of the Day”.)

Book Review: The Stones of Naples

Sometimes I think that only a nerd like me would be fascinated by a book subtitled “Church Building in Angevin Italy, 1266-1343”. But I’m glad to know there are enough nerds like me around that the author, Caroline Bruzelius, and the publisher, Yale University Press, decided to produce it.

The Stones of Naples is filled with stories of why and how various churches were built in Naples during the first three generations of Angevin rule there, 1266 to 1343. The social history is tied to the architectural history to answer questions I didn’t even know I had! And I have plenty of questions about these Angevins–for some reason their story resonates with me.

The book is academic, filled with minutiae about builders and stone, about bishops and their political persuasions, about monastic influences on the royal family members, and their influence on one another. There are several appendices, and pages of end notes, a lengthy bibliography, and detailed index.

But the academic burden (which it might seem to some readers) is lightened by a few other inclusions. Right up front there are maps, a city plan of Naples, and a genealogical chart of the Angevins. The large-format book contains many photos (too few in color, but there are many) and illustrations of church floor plans, construction elements, and decor. And the cover is beautiful, featuring detail from the Tavola Strozzi, showing a view of Naples in 1465 commemorating the Aragonese victory.

Although Naples itself figures heavily in the Angevin church construction, locations throughout southern Italy are mentioned or discussed.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in southern Italy of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It helps me understand the events and the atmosphere of the period, and develop a clearer picture of medieval Naples.