An old childhood friend/neighbor, whose first encounter with me was when my brother and I ambushed him with our Super Soakers over the fence that separated our backyards, came through Hong Kong this weekend. Over our reunion dinner he regaled our party with vivid snapshots of our adolescence: Streetfighter 2 tournaments, wall-banging competitions and trips to Lillian’s Pizzeria (the best pizza in NY ;). After 15+ years, it was really nice to walk down memory lane as recanted from his elephant of a mind, which pretty much summed up that I was
a cruel and merciless bully the older sister he never had.
After we moved on from those glamorous stories, he shared the highlights of his travels around the world: the mouthwatering food in Taiwan, the dichotomous sights in China and the best faces of New York City and California. So many new moments, new wrinkles, have been added to his impeccable memory along the timeline of his meandering travels; and so many of his recent experiences were sparkling and curious. All but one.
The one lowlight he shared that evening was of his recent trip to Philadelphia, a city that seemed to bring a wave of fear across his otherwise unabashed face. Perhaps he stumbled across the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time with the wrong people but whatever it was, he did not remember the city very fondly.
The only thing I remember about Philly was my college trip to the University of Pennsylvania, which featured quintessentially colonial buildings and majestic greenery. So I couldn’t really relate to his experience in America’s fifth most populous city. But what I did relate to was his initial shock of the city’s state and the subsequent unease for his safety. His reaction to Philly was mine to Naples, Italy.
Dating back to the second millennium BC, Naples boasts an amazing roster of credits. For example, during the middle ages, the Roman emperor built the world’s first state university, making Naples the intellectual capital of the kingdom. By the 1700′s, Naples was the second largest city in Europe after London and was home to timeless artists and philosophers including Caravaggio, Bernini and Giambattista Vico.
Just two short centuries later, the city of Naples took a colossal hit as the most-bombed city in Italy during the second World War. And while the city has experienced significant economic growth in recent decades, political and economic corruption have prevented Naples from rising back to its full glory.
Not quite the quintessential center of progress that it used to be, today the city is in a beautiful and gritty time warp. It took me a bit to get over my initial shock at the seasoned, shall we say, state of the city but once I did, these sparkling diamonds only shone more brightly against the rough exterior of Naples:
Real Teatro di San Carlo: Once the largest Opera house in Italy, Teatro di San Carlo housed famous composers including Hasse Haydn, Johann Christian Bach and Giuseppe Verdi.
Galleria Umberto: Located directly across from the San Carlo opera house, one look at this public arcade’s high and spacious glass dome had me awestruck.
L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele: Pizza was invented in Naples and da Michele is the city’s best so pure logic says its the best pizza in the world.
Napoli Sotterranea: Dating back 2400 years, the Naples Underground is a labyrinth of tunnels and cavities forty meters below the city. Created by geothermal pressure from a volcanic eruption, the underground cistern served as the city’s main aqueduct and later provided shelter from the bombs of WWII. Today, its cavernous hallways echo the staid resilience of the city’s people.
Sfogliatelle: Born in Naples over four centuries ago, sfogliatelle is the original “lobster tail”. It’s shell-shaped exterior is made of soft, flaky dough and graciously filled with a creamy mixture of ricotta, semolina, sugar, cinnamon and eggs. That alone was worth the 2 hour drive from the Amalfi Coast into the city and I still dream of it today.