Unravelling Naples, or trying and failing
Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
77Trip End Ongoing
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There are many people who still live and die in overcrowded apartments, and the Comorra – the Mafia families – still control huge swathes of the city. “Yeah, there’s one,” declares Helen, as she points to a well-heeled middle-aged man with a thick gold chain around his neck and a quietly confident, wheeler-dealer ethos
Stepping out into Piazza Garibaldi, immediately adjacent to the central train station, is truly a baptism of fire. The clatter and thunder of the vast building site dominating the centre of the large square is only superseded by the raucous bustle of the people who rush, hustle and mill around this rectangular central transport hub. On all sides, the drab hotels sit squashed between tiny neon-signed cafés and tabacchi.
Weighed down by a 70 litre rucksack, Naples is even more perilous. Down the narrow streets lined with cramped shops spilling over onto the pavement ride daredevil scooter-drivers, each seemingly in such a rush that they scream past pedestrians with barely a few inches to spare.
To cross a road in Naples is to take your life into your hands – in fact, you place it in others’ hands
As the world’s mecca of pizza, Naples’ streets are crammed with pizzerias and, much like the city’s street life, these establishments are chaotic and fast-paced. Mild-mannered Brits as we are, we found ourselves on more than one occasion being barged to one side by a queue-jumping. Stern words (in our garbled Italian-English crossover) were exchanged and our pizzas
In stark contrast, the Roman city of Pompeii – tragically well-preserved half an hour’s train ride from Naples – is a sedate, ordered space. Tour groups are directed around the ruins of this once-prosperous trading town; they sport colour-coded earphones, bright stickers, and other temporary insignia to mark their right to remain in the clutches of their guides. They sport shiny silver cameras, wide-brimmed khaki hats and sturdy shorts. We wear no such badges of affiliation and, due to a drought of English-language brochures that has been going on since April, we fight our way through a French guidebook that directs us through the main sights of the town
It is easy to draw contrasts between Pompeii and Naples – wealth and poverty, order and chaos – but it is in the detail where we find the real stories. Excrement flowed freely through the streets of Pompeii, many different gods were worshipped there, and the town’s downfall was not of its own making. Naples’ peculiar culture, in contrast, is rooted in the dominance (culturally, if not spiritually) of the Catholic Church, legions of industrial rubbish bins line the streets in front of churches, and the destructive presence of the Camorra continues to hold back otherwise vibrant and cultured communities.
A hour’s train ride up the coast, atop Sorrento’s dramatic cliffs are perched dozens of hotels, cafés and bars, all vying for the tourist trade that passes through this pleasant little town.
“Does nothing work in this bloody country?!”
The greying, middle-aged man struggled to activate the movement sensor on the tap. His uncomfortable, reddish cheeks and pale arms partially hidden by a bright short-sleeved shirt were indicative of what a stereotypical British – no, English – tourist should look like
“Um, try this one” is the reply from the adjacent sink, its water happily flowing.
“It’s a fact! Nothing bloody works here! Don’t you think?”
As the man is left spluttering at his tap, increasingly reddening in the face and remaining dirty-handed, it becomes clear that Sorrento – an hour south-east of Naples – is quite distinct from our main base in Naples’ bustling centre. Swapping the tourism-driven economy of Sorrento for the gritty, gangster-controlled economy of Naples, we pass endless slum-like suburbs. Buildings cram closer and closer to the tracks, their laundry buffeted by the wake of the graffitti’d train, and their crumbling stucco and dusty vegetable patches are very distinct from the cleaner and better-funded cities of Italy’s north.
Four days is not long enough to truly capture the spirit and complexity of Naples, but it is enough to want to know more. It is a captivating place that reveals more, the more you understand its rhythms. As we pull away from the central train station and wave farewell to the madness of Piazza Garibaldi, we find ourselves opposite an elderly Neapolitan couple. It is hard to understand quite what they are saying, but it had something to do with a packet of biscuits. He, a mischievous, overgrown child, holds the biscuits near her hand and pulls it away when she goes to take it. Her pursed lips and furrowed brow suggest annoyance at his giggling face that occasionally meets ours with a raised eyebrow, but her eyes betray a little glint of amusement at her husband’s antics. We change train to catch a connection to Perugia, and they continue their elaborate games. Although it is not quite possible to understand precisely what is going on, their playful cat-and-mouse double act encapsulates some of the contradictions and quirks of the city we have left. Strangely entertaining and fascinating, yet largely indecipherable and distant, the enigma that is Naples still eludes us as we move on to our next destination.