Despite its fascinating history, stunning seaside, and incredible cuisine, Naples has often been cast aside for Italy’s more tourist-friendly destinations like Rome, Milan, and Florence. Enter Elena Ferrante: an Italian novelist whose honest, gritty depiction of Naples has drawn travelers’ attention to the city — and inspired readers from around the world to tour Naples with characters in mind.
Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” follows the relationship between two friends, Elena (Lenù) Greco and Lila Cerullo, throughout the course of their lives. First published in Italy in 2011, My Brilliant Friend resonated with readers in Italy and beyond. In 2018, HBO released a limited series adaptation of Ferrante’s quartet. The Italian production received high praise for its gripping portrayal of Lenù and Lila’s complex friendship — and its alluring scenes of Naples’s bustling city streets, coastal drives, and nearby islands. The second season premiered this spring and the series has been picked up for season three.
The Neapolitan Quartet has inspired what author and historian Danielle Oteri calls “Ferrante Fever.” For superfans and newcomers to the world of My Brilliant Friend, here’s how to take an Elena Ferrante-inspired tour of Naples:
Touring Elena Ferrante’s Naples
In My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante does not always name specific locations; but for those who know the city well, Ferrante’s descriptions offer clues. Naples-based documentary-maker and writer Sophia Seymour has been offering her “Looking for Lila” tour based on the Elena Ferrante novels since 2017. She provides us some tips for uncovering Ferrante’s corner of the city:
True fans will be keen to explore Lila and Lenu’s childhood neighborhood, Rione Luzzatti. Located east of Naples’s center, readers will recognize the tunnel that Lenù and Lila go through to escape to the sea — this spot is likely an underpass at Via Emanuele Gianturco. The main road, or stradone, is Via Taddeo da Sessa; fans will recognize the fascist-era apartments described in the books.
Seymour points out that Ferrante’s novels inspire a particular feeling that goes beyond specific locations: the nostalgia factor. People enjoy the community aspect of Naples that is alive and well in neighborhoods like Rione Luzzatti, where people still frequent local markets, and neighbors all know each other’s names. As a UK expat in Naples, Seymour looks to the locals for advice when curating her Elena Ferrante tours; she also limits her tours to once a week in order to respect local life.
“Ferrante has raised up exactly what kept people away in the past — that grittiness that she deals with such poetry in the book… It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world; it’s got this crumbling decadence. There is so much beauty and the people are so warm. People come here and their expectations are only bettered,” she says.
Seymour also suggests visiting the Church of the Sacred Family, originally built in the 15th century. Biblioteca Andreoli is also perfect for Ferrante fans: the public library features My Brilliant Friend-themed murals created by the HBO series’ set photographer, Eduardo Castaldo.
A Taste of Tradition
At the intersection of that community feeling and tradition is, of course, food! Seymour says it’s essential to visit a local market. The city’s energy is on full display at the bustling and vibrant O’Buvero market, where mopeds speed past shopkeepers shouting out each other’s names.
Famous for pizza and its tradition of breadmaking, the best way to immerse oneself in the character of Naples is through its flavors! For sweet confections and other baked goods, check out Pasticciello Pasticceria e Rosticceria, located on Via Vesuvio: this local spot is famous for its pagnutielle, a Neapolitan street snack made from eggs, ham, and cheese that the main characters often order in My Brilliant Friend. Seymour also recommends the classic Neapolitan custard-filled treat sfoglliatella.
In the nearby Mercato district lies the perfect lunch spot. Pizzeria Carmnella serves the “Elena Ferrante” pizza, dedicated to the beloved author, featuring classic Neapolitan ingredients: ricotta, ragu, Fior di Latte mozzarella, and fresh basil.
The Chiaia district and Piazza dei Martiri
Next, visit the elegant Chiaia district, a neighborhood with trendy boutiques, expert tailors, and exciting nightlife. There you’ll find the Piazza dei Martiri, one of the city’s most stunning squares and the location of Lila’s shoe shop in the novels. This neighborhood is perfect for shopping — or just window-shopping — at high-end stores like Bergamo and Prada, strolling along the waterfront, or people-watching in the main square.
The contrast between Naples’ poor neighborhoods and the richer areas is sharply displayed in the books. Protagonist Lenù describes the residents of the Chiaia district as “seeming to have breathed another air.” An Elena Ferrante tour through Naples is incomplete without experiencing this juxtaposition first-hand.
Digging into Naples’ History
As tourists flocked to Naples after falling in love with My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante-inspired tours popped up throughout the city. Along with Seymour’s Looking for Lila tours, art historian Danielle Oteri launched “Ferrante Fever” tours to show off her beloved city to newcomers.
She also penned the guidebook, Ferrante Fever: A Naples Travel Guide Inspired by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. With southern Italian roots herself, Oteri says her guidebook aims to help visitors tour the best of Naples, using Elena Ferrante and her work as a jumping off point.
To understand Naples’ storied past, one has to go below the surface — literally. Oteri recommends the Napoli Sotterranea (Naples Underground) tour. Led by young Neapolitans, visitors can explore Greek quarries that date back 5,000 years, the underground aqueduct network created in the Augustan period, bomb shelters used in the Second World War, and the remains of the Roman Theater.
“Once you understand how much is going on literally underneath Naples, you understand the character of the city,” says Oteri.
Seaside Side-Trip: Ischia
The HBO adaption of My Brilliant Friend puts the beautiful volcanic island of Ischia on display. Known for its thermal spas, sandy beaches, and fresh seafood, Ischia is only a 90-minute ferry from Naples. Ischia is a popular holiday destination for Neapolitans and other Europeans, but it is much less touristy than nearby Capri.
Maronti Beach is an important location in the novels and a serene spot for visitors to relax and swim. Walking from the town of Sant’Angelo to the beach offers gorgeous views of Ischia’s coastline and Capri in the distance.
Though North Americans are advised against traveling to Italy for the time-being, reading and watching Ferrante’s stories transports readers to southern Italy and provides some major travel inspiration.
Danielle Oteri’s company Feast on History also hopes to make up for the lack of travel this year with virtual Neapolitan experiences. Though currently based in New York City, Oteri’s Neapolitan cousins host Italian cooking classes on Zoom from their country inn just outside Naples. And in January, Oteri will lead a read-along of My Brilliant Friend in its original Italian, for those who want to go deeper into Ferrante’s prose.
After finishing the Neapolitan quartet and the HBO adaption, fans can pick up Ferrante’s other novels, also primarily set in Naples and the surrounding area. The Days of Abandonment is a stunning, rage-filled drama about a woman starting her life over after her husband leaves her. Her most recent novel, released September 2020, The Lying Life of Adults, is about an adolescent girl growing up in Naples.
The Lying Life of Adults has already been picked up for a Netflix TV adaptation. Plus, her 2008 novel The Lost Daughter is also moving to the big screen — Maggie Gyllenhaal is directing this star-studded adaptation featuring Olivia Colman, Dakota Fanning, and Paul Mescal.
With two major adaptations in the works, “Ferrante Fever” is about to hit an all-time high. Now is the perfect time to dive into the Neapolitan Quartet and see what makes Ferrante’s work, and the Naples she describes, so alluring.
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