43 Hours in Napoli

Naples, Italy
November 2005

Napoli gets a bad rap. A city of Mafia shootouts, pickpockets, con artists, and petty crime. Fabrizio, the manager of Hotel Seiler in Rome, recommends staying in Sorrento. “It’s more central,” he says. “You get a better quality of life.”

Rick Steves recommends Sorrento for seeing Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. In his 2005 guide, he only lists two hotels in Naples, both on the high end, presumably out of shooting range. Paraphrased greatly, here is how he advises travelers to spend a day in the city:

Check your bags at the station, shove your money belt as far down your pants as it can possibly go, take the metro to the National Museum, making sure to see the secret room, then stroll down Via Toledo to Via Maddalena, taking care to avoid the evil lurking all around you (Never go west of Via Toledo if you want to live; be watchful of locals giving you the sign of the evil eye warning you from danger), then quickly see the many churches off the Spaccanapoli, hit da Michele for the best pizza for five dollars, then run to the train station like scared little girls before it gets dark or you’ll get killed.

Are we scared little girls? Get some courage and open your eyes. Naples is a fun, crazy place.

Sure, there’s a constant sense of doom waiting around the corner, but no more so than in Mexico City or Guatemala City — or the diciest parts of your hometown. It comes from having an active volcano looming overhead, from the reality that the whole place would be a boiling inferno if Vesuvius erupted again.

So you get why Napolitanos drive like reckless fiends in their Smart cars and Vespas, disobeying any traffic laws, and why they run out in traffic to cross the street no matter the peril. The basic rule for pedestrians is run fast across the street and hope you don’t die. And the thing about near-death is it’s life-affirming. You almost got killed, but you survived. It’s the pessimist who shakes his fist at the guy who nearly ran him over and refuses to cross the street anymore. You’ve got to get back in the street.

So maybe the stout, balding man eyeing you suspiciously over a deep bowl of mussels in the Il Sorbino restaurant is the local capo, and maybe he’s thinking he’ll have the boys whack you and sink you in concrete boots off the Gulf of Naples. But he’s probably just a worker, somebody’s father, like your father, or somebody’s grandpa. You shouldn’t lose sleep over it.

Life from death is the central theme of Naples. You come for Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Vesuvius. They remind you that we’re all going to die. Nature destroys two cities, and a new and bigger city grows up in defiance.

I start at the Gulf, the castle on the shore, the boats in the marina, the coastline in the distance ringing around the horizon, the silhouette of Capri just beyond, where the jet set bask themselves like characters in a sunny Italian movie. In Piazza Municipio they’re building a new subway line to replace the R2 death bus I rode in when I arrived this morning; mothers by the Church of San Francisco send their kids from tourist to tourist asking for money. A snack bar on the Via Toledo serves delicious cakes, but the swanky shops close for siesta in the afternoon and reopen before the evening paseo.

At the top of the hill is the Museum of National History, one of the best archaeology museums in Europe, filled with Roman statues, art treasures, and special exhibitions. The ground floor is freezing because the doors to the courtyard are open to let you see the outdoor statues. Some of the statues are huge Roman gods and heroes with their penises cut off, leaving them only huge testicles. Colossal heads of emperors, busts of philosophers. Upstairs there are art and treasures dug up from Pompeii and Herculaneum, plans for a reconstructed Temple of Athena, and an excellent collection of Roman pornography. Apparently the best boudoirs in Rome had sexy paintings and decor. And size did matter: The penises are like oversized clubs; they make John Holmes seem impotent. At Pompeii, there’s a painting of a fertility god balancing a bag of gold off the head of his engorged phallus. You begin to understand better the late-night sex call-in shows on Italian television.

The paseo begins at sundown. Via Toledo comes alive. The guys selling counterfeit DVDs, handbags, and jewelry keep a watch out for the polizia. Somebody gives the signal, and in an instant they roll up their bed sheets, grab up their watch boards, and head up the street in a highly orchestrated show. Most begin to set up shop again even before the patrol has passed.

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