Yesterday was my dad’s birthday. We spent it in Naples. He lived here for several years back in the 1960s when he was a young officer in the Navy. He and my mom met here and always looked back on their time here fondly. Very fondly. They loved it here. What is interesting though is, to my knowledge, they never returned. I wonder why. I think it is because their love for this city was bigger than the city. It was of a love of Europe, of Italy, of their carefree lifestyle, of their friends and the young love they felt for each other. But they were way more practical than nostalgically romantic and when they had the opportunity to resume travel later in life, there were too many places they wanted to see. I guess it’s true that you can’t go home again.
All that being said, I’ve always wanted to visit. I knew it was a bit of a gritty city, but I still had some romantic notions of it. This despite coming through Napoli Centrale Station a decade ago and witnessing the jaw dropping surrounding slum. To be described as “gritty,” it would have needed a significant upgrade.
So, fast forward ten years and David and I disembark at that same train station, but this time we’re not just passing through. After some time, we find our driver. (This is not the kind of place where a group of drivers hold signs awaiting passengers.) He whisks us off and we walk the several blocks to his car. He leads, dragging our suitcases over and around the blankets and mattresses that create the shanty town surrounding the station. We’re happy to get in the car, but we both agree that things have actually improved a little since our prior visit.
We have only two days here so when arrive at the hotel we immediately set out on foot. We take another Rick Steve’s tour. (Thank God for those things. I don’t think there’s a better way to soak in a city.) We have a lay of the land now and I have a few observations and thoughts.
- The city has an overall feeling of a long decline. The day is rainy, which only adds to the feeling of decay.
- There are pockets of great beauty if you know where to look for them. (Thanks RS).
- Spaccanapoli is a wonder. It is such a fantastic street with tiny shops selling all the food, drinks and keepsakes that define Naples. (The sfogliatella, cream stuffed mini croissants are a must try).
- Naples is an old, old city with a fascinating history and a story that, while currently rocky, is still being told.
- There is graffiti everywhere, not street art, graffiti. It is ugly and masks many otherwise beautiful structures. It even covers the churches. It is hard to understand that.
- We have been to many cities all over the world and fortunately have only felt a little unsafe a handful of times. We have yet to feel unsafe here but you do need to be careful, especially at night. Last night, as we left our restaurant we were approached by a slightly aggressive beggar. I don’t think we were in any real danger but he waited to see if we were headed his direction. We turned the other way. He had dried blood on his head.
- What is the deal with the garbage? I mean seriously. It’s everywhere. I have yet to see a garbage truck and wonder if they even have them.
- Some of the most beautiful sculptures ever created by mankind are found here. That is not an exaggeration. (My favorites are “The Toro Farnese” in the Archaeological Museum and “The Veiled Christ” and “Release from Deception” in the Cappela Sansevero. Incredible and for me they alone are worth the visit.)
- Naples is not just the city where pizza was invented. It has a few other claims to fame. It is also the birthplace of the guitar and the creator of the Italian American culture as we know it. I’ll explain the second tidbit. Naples was heavily bombed by the Allies in WWII and the city was all but destroyed. After the war, there was a great exodus from the city. Many who left went to America and created the red and white checkered table clothed, pizza and red sauce culture that defines Italian American culture to this day.
- Finally, there is a vibrancy and authenticity to this place that is hard to explain. These are a tough and resilient people.
We leave tomorrow and head back to the picture postcard Italy we all dream of exploring. As I write this, my feelings for this city are complicated. I’m glad we’re here both because it is a city that deserves a look beneath the dirty veneer and because it connects me to a happy time in my parent’s lives with their whole future ahead of them. I will no longer be able to view this place with the rose colored glasses I did as a kid hearing their stories, but we’ll have our own nostalgic tales of the dizzying pace of life, the incredible art and, of course, the delicious pizza.