When I landed in Naples on December 23rd, the first article I came across was this one, published the day before: “Christmas tree stolen from famous Naples shopping gallery within 24 hours”. What a great start of my trip to one of the safest cities in the world, thought I. Warning: irony detected. According to numerous travel forums, everyone gets robbed in Naples. Everyone.
It really was a day full of utmost success. The mouthwatering Da Michele pizza – the very one Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Roberts devoured for the book and the movie – leaked onto my new light blue coat while I was hurrying with the box back to my apartment. A piece of cannoli, which don’t always have chocolate inside of them, smudged onto on my clothes, leaving an even more obvious spot. And to top all that, a half-size bottle of red burst out of my hands while I was trying to open it and smashed to pieces on the tile floor, leaving a pool of dark-colored ooze. That did solve the problem of opening it, no doubt, but I only got half a glass in the end. Perhaps I just have such a strong connection to G-d that each and every whim of mine gets brought to life in the extreme before I have time to think it over. Or maybe it’s just the aura of Naples. I mean, this city is nuts.
If you think that you’d have time to leisurely stroll down the narrow city passages and enjoy the views starting day one, let me disappoint you. All you’ll manage to do is to keep yourself moving through the endless streams of busy people and try to not get hit by a car or a buzzing Vespa. The way you cross the street here has noting to do with neat European standards: a pedestrian crossing or a traffic light is a mere suggestion, as well as traffic signs. Instead, you look around, think of the speed of the cars around you, and cross wherever you see a gap big enough to make it in time. If you underestimate the speed and distance, many cars would slow down and let you pass. Just don’t count on it.
Good news though: at the end of day one I still wasn’t robbed.
Naples is intense. I try to compare it to other places I’ve been to, like Marrakesh, like Accra or Rio, but even these had some logic to them. Here the chaos rules. When you turn the corner you never know what you’re going to find: a narrow passageway full of drying underwear, a random fishmonger’s stall, a bucket on a rope which, legend has it, is left for the mafia to collect their due, a lane full of goods that nobody ever wants, like plastic basins and shitty toys; only people still keep these businesses, so someone must buy them. You walk down the street and everything jumps at you, screams at you, overwhelms you with all the smells and shapes and colors. I’ve learnt to find refuge in the city’s numerous cathedrals and churches: they’re peaceful and quiet, and I could consult my phone navigator without being afraid to flash the expensive piece of technology. To hide is a reasonable wish when you start your acquaintance with Naples.
The world’s train stations are, as a rule, full of shady personalities. Naples beats the scale of shady. You walk around Garibalidi station, you walk down the nearby streets, and you can physically feel men in baggy clothes here and there sizing you up, weighting you, determining whether there’s loot to be had. You dive into one of the narrow cobblestone passageways, take a few turns – and they’re gone, the scenery changes, and suddenly you’re in a quiet residential area. Well, relatively quiet.
See, Neapolitans are loud. They’re not just loud like normal people, not even as loud as the Chinese or Russians. No, living next door to a cheerful family of Neapolitans was like living in the war zone. At any time of the day or night you could hear noises that would make you think someone was getting murdered, or that an awful argument would result in violence, or some kids were getting beat up by drunk parents. But no. Neapolitans just talk that way. They have no sound cap and they are not thinking of what the neighbors would say. So a family who, I believe, simply sends their kids off to school every weekday, used to wake me up just preparing breakfast. And they weren’t even right next door. The doors and walls of my house might’ve been thin – I could hear the shaky elevator go up and down, and when someone flushed their old-school toilets. But the high-pitched local dialect is really something.
The absurdity of Naples is that its nicest and quietest areas are often the least accessible. It will take you over an hour to walk to a well-kept neighborhood from the city center. The contrast between uptown and downtown is striking, just as it is with farther seafront areas. I once wanted to go to the thermal baths on the other side of the city, but looked at the distance and thought better of it – taking the city’s metro seemed like too much trouble, and I wanted to walk.
Walking around Naples was more like a Disneyland ride. I don’t know how, but this city works. You reach what looks like a solid wall, and then there’s that little passage that takes you to the street you were looking for. I remember the comments under all those safety articles telling you to stay away from the narrow streets and be wary of the Vespa-riding thieves. At that I can only laugh now: every other street in Naples is not only narrow, it’s also paved with dodgy wet cobblestone, and people’s drying underwear often takes half the space. Some part of the street would be also cut off by a line of garbage or dog poop that no one seems to mind. Telling people to avoid narrow streets in Naples is like using adjectives “antico” and “storico” to promote a local brand: absurd. Everything you look upon in the center is either antique or historic, and often both. And of course, every second pizzeria boasts to be the inventor if not of the famous Margherita, then of pizza fritta, or at least claims to be the best in Naples.
Speaking about antiquity and history there: the way antiques are integrated into the modern city is pretty brutal. Sometimes you look at a structure before you and you full-heartedly fail to gather how it still stands. Houses are built on remnants and ruins of old Roman walls and columns, or woven tightly around them. I wandered across a square in a dirty grey neighborhood and suddenly, out of the blue, I realized that I was gazing at a whole-sized castle, with fat round towers and medieval gateways. I walked around it, awed, and saw that a side of the castle adjoined a shabby residential building. From across the street I could appreciate the grandeur of the castle, in front of which a dark-faced man in dirty rags was rummaging through the garbage bin. The contrast was so striking I itched to take a picture, but surveyed the area and thought better of it. Still wasn’t robbed that day.
In terms of architecture, central Naples could be Paris, really. A Paris in exile. Only it Paris you rarely see such state of neglect of the buildings and such dirt on the streets. It takes you a trip to the upscale and tidy-ish Vomero neighborhood to see what the whole city could be, if not for the lack of effort and financing. But the shameless decadence is what makes Naples itself.
To fit in and enjoy the experience I had to get used to the chaos, to looking where I put my feet and which turns I took, and to find comfortable nooks in the busy streets to observe the locals from. The first lesson I learnt, though, was from the old man who served tables at Da Michele. He was calling out as he squeezed through the crowd that waited to be seated or handed their takeaway boxes of sauce-dripping pizza: “Permesso! Permesso!” He would say the word, and suddenly the tight cluster of people would shift, making way for him – just enough to get through. Permesso, loud and clear, my number one Neapolitan magic word to be.
Now after all the alluring detail, let me disappoint you: during my week in one of the safest (irony again) cities in the world I wasn’t robbed, nothing got stolen from me, I was never harrassed or assaulted anywhere, even though I walked alone and often after dark. So don’t trust the tourist forums, trust your common sense. More on that in Part 2 of my Neapolitan avventures.