I never planned to visit Naples, Italy but was convinced by a business colleague who had been stationed there during his time in the Navy. He loved it and to hear him talk of Naples well I wanted to love it too. He warned me that the people can be “gruff at first but if you can get in through the shell, they’re family”
After a flight from Barcelona with the couple from hell (who waited to board last) – the woman in front of me not only put her seat back into my knees pinning me in, but she was bouncing in her seat too (no idea why or how) while her husband across the aisle threw his Louis Vuitton bag in the aisle when no overhead space was available causing the flight attendant to pick it up and find it a home somewhere. These two were my introduction to Naples and they were foreshadowing to my time – while it looked glamorous and shiny, underneath it was gritty.
Welcome to Naples
Arriving the airport was the easy part as was retrieving my luggage from the small baggage area. When I exited into the bright sun, I followed the easily marked signs to the “taxi” line. I said “buon giorno” and my bags and I were quickly in a cab and on the road. During the long drive, we passed all the evidence of a city – the high rises, the graffiti, the trash, the traffic and eventually the highway over the water. It wasn’t much different from my Philadelphia or New York City – people live here versus the tourist enclave that now exist in Venice.
The streets were crowded with traffic but in this case it was pure chaos! There were no marked lanes just a free for all – bikes, Vespa’s, cars, taxis, trucks, busses, etc. I’m pretty hardened to the ways of the city and have survived the craziness of Lima, the NYC taxis and my daily highway commute in Philly but this was something entirely different – this was art and it wasn’t friendly like “sure you can go ahead of me” this was winner take all in the quest to get ahead. Along the way, the graffiti tagging was everywhere and it made me sad because with it came the inevitable piles of trash.
My first impressions of Naples was “yuck” but then we arrived at my hotel on the waterfront, Partenope Relais and I saw the beauty of the bay. Thankfully the taxi had a flat rate of €23 for my adventurous ride. At one point, his Italian and my English both said “crazy” during the traffic.
You can’t deny that the Bay of Naples is quite the beauty. With views of Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento and the Isle of Capri as well as boats in the harbor it is gorgeous. I quickly forgot about the graffiti, the traffic, the yuck and settled into my little world of pedestrian only waterfront enjoyment. My other brush with beauty would come with my last minute decision to Bike Napoli (because I needed a bit more excitement to my life in the chaotic city that my friend said “don’t drive there, it’s crazy and chaotic”).
My colleague gave me a list to do in Naples and one involved going to the Old Town and walking along Toledo to stop at the Piazza Plebicito, Galleria Umberto and small cafes along the way. Rather than take the bus or metro to Toledo, I walked from the hotel and while they said it would take forty five minutes to an hour, I easily strolled the early morning Saturday as shops were setting up in about 20 minutes or so (note that the laneways quickly filled with people so the time estimate of one hour could be accurate). This was after figuring out how to cross the street (no traffic lights) – the drivers don’t quite know that the zebra stripes on the ground in the crosswalk mean to stop for people.
Welcome to Times Square on a Friday Night – Napoli Style
When I turned onto Toledo there were people – just hordes of people everywhere that the sidewalks couldn’t contain them and they spilled into the streets. While normally cars drive on the street, for a portion of my walk in the street, it seemed to be a pedestrian zone today interrupted only by the police vehicles. I saw so many police walking together on the streets and sidewalks, riding bikes and driving cars all throughout the day – I’m not sure if I felt safer or if this was a police state.
So in the masses of people there were the normal types – slow walkers, strollers, couples holding hands across the sidewalk so you can’t pass, street artists and the Vespa’s attempting to cut through the crowds. How they made it across was just a dance of people and machine. I wasn’t in tune with it yet (I would be by the end of the trip) so it all seemed insane, claustrophobic and reminded me of Times Square in New York, of which I’m not a fan.
Then I turned right in search of the Underground tour. With the address in hand and a map (yes, a real tourist map), I traversed the zigs and the zags of the road passing the churches, the book sellers, the cafes, the snack shops and looking up at the lines of laundry (Italian’s don’t have dryers). This was real life stuff, while it looks romantic in the photos, it’s just life in Naples courtesy of knickers, jeans and socks.
I wouldn’t find the tour location on the first try because I didn’t realize the Italian logic of walking straight on a road and the name of the road changing five times! Once I embraced this crazy logic, the puzzle of Naples started to piece together.
Did I Love It Too?
I can honestly say that while “Naples is Like a Movie Set” as my bike guide told me and we experienced, I wasn’t a fan initially, it took a while for me to get into the groove and see the potential (long term) but that said, I won’t be back anytime soon. Changes are slowly being made but my Italy has always been this glamorous country full of Tuscan farmhouses, vineyards, historic churches, the Amalfi Coast and rides on gondolas. Naples paints a real picture of Italian life, the side you often don’t see as you follow the tourist path in the popular Italian cities. Maybe that was it, it felt too real, too much like home and I was trying to escape home, trying to escape into the fantasy world that is Italy – La Dolce Vita.