If you Google Naples, Italy, you’ll find “79 Tips on Naples Warnings or Dangers – Stay Safe!” where travelers can express their feelings about the city, mostly using such terms as “filthy,” “dangerous,” and “stay away.” Many complained bitterly about “helpful” residents who turned out to be thieves, and described, aghast, the staggering amount of garbage on the sidewalks thanks to landfill disputes involving the Mafia. One visitor wrote, “Naples in general is a horrible horrible place. With no redeeming value. Avoid it at all cost if possible.”
And yet, rumors trickled around the travel community that Napoli (to use it's proper name) had a certain fascino, a kind of fascination, and last fall, Rich and I decided to go. “If it turns out to be ghastly,” we told each other, “at least it will be colorful and ghastly.”
Several of the “79 Tips” people mentioned the insane traffic (“SHOW NO FEAR” wrote one), but even that didn’t prepare me for the taxi ride. Our driver was a gonzo road warrior, hurtling along at breakneck speed, shooting into impossibly small gaps, riding up on sidewalks, flying past stop signs, going against one-way traffic, and zooming up trolley tracks in the wrong direction. His spirited commentary indicated the many shortcomings of his fellow motorists. They were mouse-hearted chumps who drove like old ladies on their way to church. What was that fool doing (loud honk, shouted curses, creative hand gestures)? Who the hell stops at a red light? OK, I didn’t really understand a word he was saying, but I assure you that was the gist.
I clutched my daypack to my chest, wondering how effective it would be as an airbag in the crash that was beginning to seem inevitable. The city flew by in a blur of crumbling walls, scabrous grime, peeling paint, vegetable stalls, people, and Vespas. Everyone seemed to be shouting at once, often at our cab driver. It was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride as filmed by Fellini. It was a pure adrenalin rush. I loved it.
Incredibly, Rich and I survived the taxi ride and were soon exploring the city on foot. There were café tables everywhere, jammed with people eating Napoli’s justly famous pizza and talking at full volume, gesticulating wildly, like ham actors underscoring a point in an amateur play. Overhead, old ladies were lowering baskets from third floor windows to relatives on the ground bringing them groceries. Laundry was strung from every balcony, fluttering in the breeze.
“Hold on a minute,” Rich said, stopping suddenly. “Is that graffiti on a church?”
“They are so going to hell for that,” I said. “Their souls are toast.”
But I looked again and realized this wasn’t random graffiti but pairs of names, often accompanied by hearts and the words “ti amo,” (“I love you”). Here was a Bizarro-World, street-punk version of the ancient tradition of posting the banns. Napoli’s young people were still going down to the church to declare their love publicly, in front of God and everybody, just in a slightly different way than their ancestors did. It was really rather sweet – for sacrilegious vandalism.
And that, I think, is Napoli’s gift to the world. They do everything “wrong.” They don’t obey the rules. In fact, they seem to pride themselves on not being intimidated by the constraints of ordinary society. People live at full tilt and top volume, without apologies. I suspect the first thing they teach their kids is how to color outside the lines. And from what I can see, they’ll never clean up their act in order to become the next vacation playground for the cruise lines. The city’s robust, free-for-all atmosphere demands that you embrace the chaos or (sometimes literally) be run over by it. Yet all these “wrongs” add up to something very right: a city that knows what it loves and lives as it chooses. Napoli doesn’t try to seduce you, which is why it’s so easy to fall in love with the city – not despite its faults, but because of them.
Have you or anyone you know ever visited Napoli? How was it? Tell us about the good, the bad, the ugly, and the just plain weird – post your comment below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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