Naples

Love it or hate it—and we’re closer to hate than love—Naples is undeniably a fascinating city. It’s dirty, noisy, chaotic, humid, and crumbling. It also has some grand Baroque buildings, good museums, great pizza, and a glorious view over its bay to Mount Vesuvius.

History feels very real here. Not least because Pompeii and Herculaneum (now called Ercolano) are just 30 minutes down the train line. Those excavated towns give you a sense of how ancient Romans lived. Back in Naples, things don’t seem very different from 2,000 years ago. People are crowded into tall, crumbling apartment blocks on narrow streets, with the poorest in the lightless, noisy rooms on the ground floor, and the better off progressively higher, where they have some sunlight and fresh air to dry the laundry hanging from their windows. Little one-room shops at street level sell food and drink and housewares, or reveal a bookbinder, a furniture mender, even a blacksmith pursuing his traditional trade, at a leisurely pace, in dark, cramped quarters.

A typical narrow street in the old center of Naples

It’s easy to imagine that the cars and motorbikes on the old cobbled streets are ox carts, horses, or litters carried by slaves. Now, as then, most people go around on foot, calling out greetings to friends and relatives as they go about their daily business, passing small outdoor shrines, ducking around overflowing trash bins, keeping an eye out for thieves when darkness falls. I have a feeling this is what parts of ancient Rome felt like in their heyday.

Like other ancient cities, Naples is built layer on layer, new over old. We took a fascinating underground tour in the city center that revealed the remains of a Greco-Roman theater—used between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD—in the cellars of some apartment buildings. The tunnel that the actors had taken to get from one side of the stage to the other was being used as a motorcycle garage. Only the distinctive stonework, similar to that unearthed at Pompeii, alerted archeologists to the presence of something special. Just a small part of the theater has been excavated. Too many people live on top of it for archeologists to unearth the rest.

Contrasts: a renovated 16th century church next to a crumbling apartment building

Another feature of Naples is that working traffic lights are few and far between, so crossing the main streets on foot is a nerve-wracking experience. It’s hard to make yourself step out into a crosswalk when four lanes of cars, buses, and motorcycles are bearing down on you. But you can’t wait; there will never be a big enough gap to get across easily. After a few trial runs—in which you wait for local residents to start crossing, so you can cower next to them—you finally get the hang of it.

The rules are simple: When traffic in the nearest lane is still a little way off, step confidently into the crosswalk. Don’t try to avoid the motorbikes; they’ll swerve around you. As you enter each lane, make eye contact with the driver approaching you and keep staring. As long as he knows you’re watching him, he’ll stop. (Maybe it’s part of Italian culture not to want to be seen doing the wrong thing?) I’m reliably informed that once you’ve mastered the art of crossing a street in chaotic Naples, the infamous traffic of Rome will be a breeze.

Naples is full of vibrant street life and quintessentially Italian faces. A photographer could have a field day doing portraits of the city. Unfortunately, it also has a reputation for petty theft (though personal crime is low), so we didn’t feel comfortable carrying our camera around with us.

A few times, Melissa went out at mid-day with the camera slung under her coat and took some furtive pictures on the streets while I kept an eye on passersby. But we weren’t comfortable doing leisurely photo shoots, as we’ve done in other places. So our photo gallery of Naples is small, and many of the pictures are of the gorgeous Roman-era mosaics in the archaeological museum. For the rest, you’ll have to use your imagination, or Google images.

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