What a contrast. The guidebook says Naples is unlike anywhere else in Italy. And it is dead right. Within a few minutes I knew this was a once in a life time visit. And I don’t mean that in a complimentary way.
After a morning walk around Capri, strolling to the lookout point near our hotel one last time, saying goodbye to Dad’s favourite door (yes he had one), and downing a final coffee in the diminutive town square, we caught the funicular back down to Marina Grande and then the ferry across to Naples.
It was like entering a different country. Pavements littered with rubbish, every dingy surface covered in graffiti, the cobbled streets so dirty that when it rains the roads fill with mud puddles, and scaffolding growing like some sort of tatty skin disease over the buildings. Buildings that had once been magnificent had render peeling off in warty chunks, with paint flaking from all the windows. And nothing of beauty to be seen in any of the streets we explored.
After settling in to our hotel (with a minor episode of Dad watching in disbelief as I reacted somewhat poorly to the tiny doors of the lift – I had to insist on moving to a lower floor so I could take the stairs instead) we took a walk around the Spanish Quarter. Extraordinary, and they say not to walk there at night.
A grid of tiny narrow streets, all dark grey and depressing with no sunlight getting through, motorbikes racing up and down every few minutes, and everywhere you look washing hanging out of windows and doors or just perched on racks on the streets. This is a residential district and one of the poorest areas in Naples. Some had their doors open giving you a glimpse into miserable looking kitchens and dining rooms, and apparently the area is famous for their Bassi – single room residences with no windows. We saw children playing football in one of these narrow streets, their garden being a gloomy patch of pavement about 6 feet wide.
We had lunch on the pavement of one of the streets, with Dad backing onto the street itself and therefore feeling the motorbikes whizz past his back only a few inches away!
Actually it was a nice meal, especially when washed down with a good Rose. Dad soon forgot all about the bikes and became very relaxed. And I mean very relaxed. “I am very relaxed!” he declared loudly. And then as we continued our stroll “Why on earth do you want to walk around here?” (loudly) When I said I it was fascinating his response was “It’s a dump! What exactly is so interesting?”
Luckily no one near us seemed to speak English! But even though he was right, so was I. And the more we walked the more interesting it became. After seeing so much wealth in Capri and at Pompeii and Herculaneum, this had a gritty realism that was quite intoxicating (though in Dad’s case that may have just been the Rose). The street market was especially interesting – little stands specialising in tripe, fishmongers with all sorts of fish for sale and loads of still alive shellfish squirming around in plastic buckets, and shoe shops that confusingly also seemed to stock canaries.
We burst out of this noisy grid onto Via Toledo, the modern day centre of Naples. And I have to say again – what a dump! But we found an excellent icecream shop. We stopped at a remarkably ugly Jesuit church – volcanic grey Vogon-style on the outside and OTT lavishness on the inside – before making our way back to the hotel for a rest and dinner. I had a bath and a gin and tonic – very relaxing – and we dined at the hotel itself.
Dad suggested an evening constitutional so we headed out to Via Toledo again. It was even worse at 9pm on a Saturday night. Great heaps of rubbish were piled up along the street, drunken couples were fumbling about on the benches, hordes of people walking up and down – but not in a friendly buzzy way like in Verona, more in a threatening repellent kind of way. We retreated quickly back to our hotel, and only moments before some group of kids exploded right behind us throwing things, yelling and running away.
The next day it poured with rain, and the city became greyer and grimmer, though less drunken and disorderly. We dodged our way to the archaeology museum – Dad didn’t have an umbrella – stopping at Piazza Bellini on the way. This is described in the guidebook as a pleasant leafy square. It’s not. But we had a coffee there anyway under a plastic awning because it was raining so hard.
While sipping our coffee we were approached by a little old lady who kept asking us for something. It was unclear what it was. She seemed to want our serviettes, so I gave them to her and she took a few. But then she came back, and kept touching dad’s shoulder. Dad kept saying he didn’t speak Italian but that didn’t stop her. We were interrupted by the appearance of a brolly salesman, so Dad bought a brolly for the day. As soon as brollyman disappeared the old lady turned up again. We were glad to get away! The café owner said she was always there, and was quite dismissive of her, but then overcharged us by 10 euros so not a reliable source of information.
By now the streets and gutters were bursting with water, reminding me of flash gutter floods at Dundas when we were kids. How we enjoyed that on a hot summers day! It’s very different in the cold in the ugliest city in Europe.
Finally, with wet feet and a sense of peevishness we arrived at the museum. What an amazing collection! I normally get bored quite quickly in museums. Something about everything ordered together in monochromatic style leaves me cold. I infinitely prefer to see things in context. But because we had been to Pompeii and Herculaneum it was much easier to imagine it all in situ, and we must have spent nearly 4 hours exploring. The statues were enormous. And so beautiful. I was gobsmacked looking at them.
The mosaics were exquisite – even if they were ripped from Pompeii- and the sex objects hilarious, (the flying penis with a little mongoose on top was my favourite).
There was also a moving collection of everyday but gorgeous objects from Herculaneum and Pompeii – pots, statues, glassware, jugs, cooking utensils, weights and measures, etc, etc.
After a couple of hours we took a break at a café across the road. Miserable cold place it was too, with the most disgusting pizza ever, that I couldn’t eat. When the waitress cleared it away she exclaimed “Don’t you like it?” and I said “No”. I couldn’t be bothered being polite!! I then sat huddled and shivering in a chair while Dad went off to find an ATM as he needed more cash. Eventually he came back with no cash but tales of hobos en masse sheltering from the rain in one direction, and slums in the other. Poor Dad! A long way from Dural!
Nevertheless seeing the collection made it completely worthwhile. Frankly it was a privilege. I had just read a book about a guy who wants the emotion “awe” to be recognised as a fundamental human emotion. That’s how I felt at the museum. It was literally awesome.
Stepping out of the museum back into the wet, dodging traffic and slipping on rubbish, it was so strange to think this is the same culture and the same people that produced that collection.
And even though Naples is tatty and ugly, it is very real. This is not a city that is some sort of tourist shrine to the modern wealthy (Capri) or to the ancient wealthy (Herculaneum). This is a punch in your guts modern struggling city. I might even be back…but don’t tell Dad.