One of the biggest literary sensations of recent years, Elena Ferrante's gritty and enigmatic Neapolitan Novels have inspired thousands of fans to travel to the city where the stories are set in search of the characters' favourite haunts. My Brilliant Friend, a new TV series based on the books, looks likely to further heighten interest.
Ferrante’s tetralogy focuses on the relationship between the narrator, Elena Greco, and her 'brilliant friend' Lila Cerullo, amidst their tight-knit community of family, friends and adversaries in post-war Naples. The neighbourhood to the east of Naples' central station where the girls' early lives unfold remains anonymous, with the author referring generically to ‘the parish church’ or ‘the public gardens’. However, as the girls come of age and venture into the sprawling city and beyond, Ferrante’s descriptions become meticulously detailed and specific. She names every corner where her charges venture, making it possible to embark on a Ferrante-inspired adventure though the streets of Naples.
Port’Alba, where Elena Greco often shops for second-hand books © Antonio Gravante / Shutterstock
Lose yourself in the bookshops of Port’Alba
Ever since the Holy Roman Emperor Frederik II founded the world’s first public, non-religious university in Naples in 1224, the city has fostered a fervent academic and literary character, driven by the vast student population. Fuel up with an espresso coffee (the best in the city) at Caffè Mexico in Piazza Dante before wandering over to Port’Alba, where Elena Greco-type characters staff a number of cavernous bookstores, eager to sell you recycled guides, tatty literary classics and political manifestos.
Local colour at Vasto district market
To experience Neapolitan community life akin to that described in Ferrante's novels, head to the Vasto district, just north of the station. A street market occupies the wide perpendicular avenues, dotted with old fashioned underwear shops and confectioners selling boiled sweets and herbs displayed in glass jars. Here, Lila and Elena's mothers would have scoured the second-hand clothes stalls and bought produce from the grocers which still thrive today, sporting their original art-deco signboards.
Doll-repair workshop at the Ospedale delle Bambole © Mario Laporta / Getty Images
Repairing precious dolls at Ospedale delle Bambole
Elena and Lila's fraught friendship begins as they play with their precious dolls by the rusty grates of their apartment block. Hidden in a bougainvillea-clad courtyard within the once-opulent Palazzo Marigliano in central Naples is the Ospedale delle Bambole (Dolls' Hospital), which is dedicated to the craft of restoring such dolls. As you wander past dangling body parts and buckets of miniature cotton clothes in the workshop you might just stumble across a Tina lookalike with her ‘plastic eyes and plastic hair’ sitting alongside Lila’s doll Nu with her ‘yellowish cloth body filled with sawdust’.
Pizza portofoglio © Susan Wright / Lonely Planet
Searching for bargains on Il Rettifilo
Corso Umberto I, nicknamed 'Il Rettifilo' by locals, is the lengthy commercial street where Lila buys her wedding dress. It connects the eastern part of Naples where the girls grew up with the rest of the city, and is still popular with teenagers for its vast number of affordable boutiques. At its eastern end, close to Piazza Garibaldi, informal markets sprawl off the avenue selling counterfeit shoes, watches and fake designer handbags. The nearby Mercato di Porta Nolana is also worth a rummage after a pit-stop at Pizzeria Tutino to try their infamous folded take-away pizza portofoglio.
The dark tunnel that leads to Elena and Lila's neighbourhood © Sophia Seymour / Lonely Planet
A pilgrimage to the Rione Luzzatti neighbourhood
Although it isn't named by Ferrante, a forensic geographic study of the novels has ascertained that the neighbourhood where Lila and Elena grew up is based on the isolated Rione Luzzatti neighbourhood to the east of the city centre. On arriving at Gianturco metro station (line 2), visitors should pass through the murky, graffiti-painted tunnel, where Elena and Lila embark on their first adventure together. Cross the ‘stradone’ and enter into the unusually quiet (for Naples) neighbourhood with its blocks of ‘four-story white apartment buildings’, stopping at Bar Parisi for a coffee and the exceptional Pasticciello bakery for a sfogliatella pastry.
Fishing boats in Marechiaro © forben / Shutterstock
A trip to the Marechiaro seaside
If, like Elena Greco, you are in need of an escape from the boisterous din of Naples' city centre, a short cab ride will bring you to the sleepy fishing village of Marechiaro at the base of the wealthy Posillipo peninsula. Descend the steps from the piazza toward the sea. Veer left and you'll find fishermen waiting to boat you out (€5 per person) to a mass of undulating rock that serves as an ideal sun bathing spot (albeit without shade). Venture right instead to watch the local scugnizzi (lads) showing off as they jump wildly from the rocky sand barrier that protects the bay.
Elegant Piazza dei Martiri © Yevgen Belich / Shutterstock
Shoe shopping on Piazza dei Martiri
Following Via Chiaia away from the raucous Spanish Quarter down into Piazza dei Martiri, you cross a distinct social and economic divide. In this square, nestled amongst the elegant cafes and glamorous tailors, the malevolent Ferrante characters Michele and Marcello Solara open their shoe shop, selling Lila’s artfully designed footwear. Today, the designer Salvatore Ferragamo occupies centre stage and in one corner of the square the vast Feltrinelli bookstore has Ferrante’s works proudly on display.
Artisan traditions at the Omega glove workshop
Naples boasts a strong tradition of artisan crafts and trades and is famous for its tailored suits, silk ties and leather gloves. Five generations of families have run the Omega glove workshop found in a third-floor apartment in the La Sanità neighbourhood. Just like Amalia in Ferrante’s first novel Troubling Love, local women are employed to stitch the gloves at home, only bringing them into the workshop for quality control. Swing by the workshop to meet passionate Alberto, the youngest Omega heir, and buy a pair of gloves before they are packed up and distributed to the likes of Dior, Chanel and the boutiques of Saville row.
View of Spiaggia dei Maronti on the south side of Ischia © elzauer / Getty Images
Picnicking on the beach in Ischia
The island of Ischia is just a 45-minute ferry ride from Naples. Sheltered by steep craggy rocks and covering over 3km of coastline, the Spiaggia dei Maronti is the island’s finest swimming spot. Either book yourself a sunbed and umbrella for the day from one of the lidos or join the locals sunbathing for free on the open stretch of sand. Bring a picnic to avoid enviously watching local women unpacking elaborate lunches of homemade Parmigiana and Caprese salads, and spend the afternoon, like Lila and Elena, wallowing in the shallow waters, catching fanciful glances from potential summer suitors.
Annalisa Durante community library
After fourteen-year-old Annalisa Durante was tragically killed by a stray bullet fired between warring camorra clans in 2004, her father recognised (just like Ferrante’s heroines) that an education in literature could lead teenagers away from the violence of gang culture. The Annalisa Durante Library was founded in the neighbourhood of Forcella the following year and hosts a varied programme of readings and book exchanges. On weekends, Durante invites visitors to take one of his impromptu tours deep into the Forcella neighbourhood, which despite past upheaval fosters a colourful and charming community.
Sophia Seymour runs Looking For Lila, a tour company offering guided walks through the Naples neighbourhoods depicted in Elena Ferrante's novels.