Italian cities are typically adored for their quaint piazzas, fragrant eateries and florid facades. But some possess a darker allure. Naples — the capital of Campania — both seduced me with its confusion and confused me with its seduction on my recent whirl about town.
Three decades had passed since my last Neapolitan travels, and I was eager to see if it had cleaned up as handsomely as reported. No better base from which to launch my investigation, I figured, than the Decumani Hotel de Charme, smack in the grimy gut of the historic district.
Leftover from Greco-Roman times, a decumano is a central axis of a city. Naples' decumani host the maliolica Cloister of the Santa Chiara Church, the Veiled Christ and the Via dei Pastori, among other reasons UNESCO named it a "museum under the open sky."
I might have flinched at the grit and graffiti lining the alleys en route to the hotel were it not for these cleansing landmarks and my fascination with statuary. Votive displays twinkled from the stone walls, improvised from every sort of bauble you could imagine. Colored bulbs, silk roses and wax figures enlivened the scenes, beckoning me onward to the interior courtyard that houses the Decumani.
Two flights up, an incongruous calm prevailed.
The first thing that impressed me about the hotel lobby was its sheer lack of chaos. If anything, the spacious entry could stand to amass some clutter.
Perhaps the idea is to offset the dining hall next door. It’s hard to imagine a more ornate affair. A riot of gold, stuccoes, mirrors and frescoes, the hall is the piece de resistance of the Decumani palace, built in the 1700s for Cardinal Sisto Riario Sforza. Should your history need freshening, he was the last Bishop of the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples.
In April 2008 the Decumani opened for business as a new brand of restored, “cultural” hotel, with an eye toward presenting concerts, exhibitions and dinner shows.
"Tourism and culture have the same weight in this city," said manager Sandro Guida, who dreams of making the venue Naples' premier arts salon. Until the kitchen and terrace are revamped, he’s holding events in the intimate space off of the lobby. But come late spring he hopes to lure bookings and a club membership with 15 cultural happenings per month.
And that's not all Guida has planned for Cardinal Sforza’s old residence. Currently 22 rooms, it will have 20 more, on the first floor, after upcoming renovations.
If my room was any indication, the architect is a whiz at blending old and new. The wainscoting and antique furnishings gave a retro neoclassical feel to the minimalist aesthetic. But my favorite innovation was the use of high ceilings to create a loft.
Though offering all the checklist comforts of air conditioning, soundproofed windows, flat-screen television, minibar, safe, telephone and Jacuzzi, the space was a welcome break from mega-chain predictability. Adding an especially operatic note was the wrought iron balustrade overlooking the living room couch below.
The Decumani is one of two heritage hotels owned by the Fusella-Lecaldano family. The other, Chiaia Hotel de Charme, is located in Naples’s Chiaia pedestrian zone; its former owner, Marquis Nicola Sasso Lecaldano Laterza, was the family's illustrious forebear.
Both properties serve up a welcome touch of nobility amid the city’s lived-in neighborhoods. And both embrace a concept of hospitality that goes past the mercifully quiet rooms and the sinfully rich breakfast coffee to give their guests a flavor of Neapolitan culture and make them feel a part of it.
Decumani Hotel de Charme
15, Via San Giovanni Maggiore Pignatelli
(+39) 69 338 7532