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.
It was a dark and stormy night on the Adriatic. “’The sea was angry that day, my friends,’” said Rich, quoting the Seinfeld episode where George plays a marine biologist. “’Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.’” We were reeling about the pitching ferry, trying to find our mini-cabin in its lower depths. “You do realize,” he added, “that we’re actually below the cars and cargo? We’re in steerage.”
We were sleeping in a six- by twelve-foot closet with two stacked bunks, a sink the size of a salad bowl, and nothing else. Well, sleeping is a bit of an exaggeration; we spent the night there, dozing fitfully, praying the tiny railings would hold and we wouldn’t go hurtling to the floor. Around two in the morning, when a trip to the bathrooms became necessary, we lurched through a series of heaving corridors, stumbling and crashing into walls, hoping we wouldn’t be flung bodily through anyone’s door. It was like trying to walk on the back of a bucking bronco, but with handrails.
"Imagine weeks of this on the Atlantic,” I gasped.
“Now I know why my grandmother vowed she’d never cross the ocean again,” said Rich.
We were on deck at dawn, thrilled to see solid land on the horizon, even the unlovely harbor of Bari, which had clearly chosen the profits of shipping and petrochemicals over quaintness and charm. Leaving the cranes and silos behind and heading into the old quarter, we seemed to be the only non-locals about, which suited us just fine.
On that bright, windy morning following the storm, every balcony was aflutter with sheets and flapping clothes, occasionally pinwheels as well. Doors stood wide open, and we saw cobblers tapping on boot heels, tailors stitching, women gossiping as their fingers shaped the little ears of pasta known as orecchiette, which they spread on mesh trays to dry in the midday sun.
Our next port of call was Barletta, another town where industrialization helps keep the tourist hordes at bay. We wanted to pay homage to the town’s most famous resident, The Colossus, an ancient bronze statue standing 5 meters (16 feet) tall. No one is quite sure who he was – a fifth-century Roman emperor maybe? – or how he got to Barletta – washed up on shore after the sack of Constantinople perhaps? But everyone agrees he’s the guy who saved the city.
According to ancient legend, when the Saracens were about to invade, The Colossus went down to the harbor and stood on the shore, weeping. “Why are you crying?” the Saracens asked. “Because I am so much smaller and weaker than everyone else in this city,” he moaned. Terrified at the prospect of fighting an army of giants, the Saracens rowed back to their ships with all due haste and left Barletta in peace. And I am sure every word of that story is true...
En route to our last stop, Pompeii, we decided to visit Naples, mainly because so many people had warned us against it. And it turned out to be everything we’d heard: dirty, noisy, crowded, chaotic. As our taxi roared down the wrong side of the street along the trolley tracks, honking at anyone who stopped at a red light, we saw a city as vibrant as the back streets of Asia, as zany as a street market in Mexico, and as quirky as San Francisco’s Height-Asbury during the summer of love (but as it turned out, with much better food). Within five minutes we had abandoned all thought of going to Pompeii and spent the next few days absorbing the madcap atmosphere of a city that refuses to conform to anyone else’s standards or expectations.
Then it was time for an overnight ferry (smooth as glass! in our own stateroom!) to Barcelona and a high-speed train to Seville. I’m still getting over my train lag; I keep having urges to head to the station and board a train for somewhere. But mostly I’m simply delighted to be home, sifting through memories of the trip, and mulling over all the stories and travel tips I’ll be sharing with you in the months ahead.
Yes, I've got lots more photos of Southern Italy. And for more about the journey – planning, packing, things we've learned, how many miles we traveled, etc. – see Train Trip/Central & Eastern Europe.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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