Marjorie Eisenach shares her experiences with all things Italian during her international travels.
Italy’s third largest city is very different from Rome and Milan. It is a unique hybrid, at times reminding me of a Moroccan souk, with its dark warrens of crowded streets, and even a bit of what Manhattan looked like before the big clean up in the 1980s.
Waves of invaders from Greeks to Bourbons once ruled Naples and it still bears witness to Greek, Roman, and Spanish influence. Some of Europe’s best archeological sites lie scattered around the Bay of Naples and the jaw-droppingly beautiful Amalfi coast is just a few miles to the south.
Two quite different quotes encapsulate my feelings about Naples.
The first one is, “See Naples and then die,” “Vedi Napoli e poi muori,” in Italian. Often attributed to Goethe, the quote dates back to a time when Naples was the center of elegance and culture for the Bourbon Empire, when the city was considered the equal of London and Paris.
The other quotation is “Ti amo, poi ti odio, poi ti amo.” In English, “I love you, then I hate you, and then I love you,” from a popular ’70s song by Mina, which I loved when I was living in Bologna as a college student.
Naples is an urban center in decay, dominated by traffic, pollution, graffiti, and of course, Mount Vesuvius. You love it, and then you hate it, and then you love it, because it is chaotic, dirty, and crazy all at the same time.
The images that define Naples for me are the steep streets where drying laundry decorates the vertical landscape; the motorini that seem to appear from nowhere and look as if they will run you down at any moment; the perfection of the new Toledo metro station, which has artfully kept ancient Roman remains on the site; the disgusting, ever-present graffiti on the outside of most buildings, even several churches; the uneven or broken pavement that are the sidewalks, which are a constant pedestrian nightmare; and the exquisite pizzas made from fresh mozzarella di bufala, cooked to perfection in wood fired ovens.
I have had many positive experiences in Naples: a taxi driver, who was so concerned about my safety that he made me wait in his cab while he checked out the B&B that I had chosen online; the genuinely friendly innkeeper, who couldn’t do enough to ensure that I enjoyed myself in his home town; the relative of a friend of a friend, who drove me and two other students around the Bay of Naples for an entire day, showing us Herculaneum and buying us pizza, not by the slice, but by the meter.
Yet the dominant impression is of overcrowded, unkempt streets, animated with people who are calculating, curious, and intensely alive. There is the astonishing beauty of the vertiginous coastline that is tempered by the garbage, the ever-present graffiti and a sense of decay. People love to gather and talk but the pollution and population density screams for fewer people. Despite its attractions like the Teatro San Carlo, which is a jewel of an opera house; the Archeological Museum, the only museum that I know of with a room devoted to erotic material (recovered from Pompeii); and Santa Chiara, a convent and cloister, full of colorful majolica tiles featuring bucolic scenes of life outside the cloister; I was ready to leave after three days to find peace and tranquility in a sunlit village.
Marjorie helps American and British travelers build their Italian language skills and learn about Italian culture, sites and events so they can get the most out of their time spent in the country. Visit www.italyanditalian.com to get in touch with her!