Friday, February 20, 2009

Naples: A raw slice of Italy

I survived a day in Naples. But I didn’t dare carry a purse, and I left before dark. Pollution and litter, deranged vespas, hanging laundry, and legendary pizza come to mind when I recall my intense day in Napoli. Romans insisted that they would fear for themselves in Naples, advising that I stay away. But I had to go. I needed to infuse a bit of third-world style chaos into my Italian vacation in order to consider it an adventure.

I wanted a story to tell — an experience to remember. I, an Italian-ignorant, solo American girl who could pass for 17 (according to the Italians) took to the streets in Italy’s most crime-ridden city, the gritty home of the mafia, more Cairo or Rio de Janeiro than Milan — the closest thing to extreme travel on the European circuit.

Rather than a purse, I carried a wrinkled, red gift bag holding only my camera, train tickets, and notes I'd copied from my guidebook. (There was no way I was going to have my nose in a Rick Steves' book on the streets of Naples.) In the front pocket of my jeans under my long winter coat I had folded a bit of cash along with my Visa and my identification (just in case). For the first half of my day in the ancient port city I didn’t even dare get out my camera. I would only cross the insane streets on the heels of a local.

I saw men arguing, exchanging charged Italian insults while shaking their fists in the air. Plazas with statues of Dante and stately cathedrals still stand, although marred by graffiti and rubbish. Without any green parks or open spaces, Naples is officially Europe’s most densely populated city. After years of corrupt governments, the residents don't seem to take any efforts toward law and order seriously.
I noted that puffy nylon bomber jackets, often in neon colors, replaced the fur coats of Venice. In the States, the Napoleon woman would be the type to have long acrylic nails and maybe even a couple gold teeth. Think rhinestones and gaudy earrings. Napoleon men are the Italian stereotype -- unbuttoned shirts revealing chest hair and gold chains, leather jackets and tight jeans, oppressive cologne and indoor sunglasses.

Naples is the Bronx of Italy. No, considering the brash colors, the blaring Italian pop music, and the frenetic street vendors in the pulsing urban center, I’ll take it a step further and say I felt as if I was in Central America. Many people claim the south of Italy is the real Italy. I would say Naples certainly offers an extreme dose of Italian culture at its rawest.

After surviving the metro ride from the train station (where I saw a conspicuous blonde with hiking boots and a giant backpack furiously flipping through her guidebook in a corner and swore to myself I would never be that sort of traveler), I made my way to the unkempt yet still grand palace housing the Museo Archelogico to discover all of the treasures sacked from Pompeii and the Roman baths.

Past the grand staircase at the entrance is Michelangelo’s Toro Farnese. At 13 striking feet it’s the tallest marble group statue discovered from antiquity. It depicts two vengeful twins tying their father’s consort, the witch Dirce, to a bull to be bashed against a cliff as their mother looks on. Upstairs is a mosaic from a Pompeii residence that depicts Alexander the Great in Battle with the Persians, a remarkable accomplishment in shadowing and perspective that outdates the Renaissance by centuries.

The museum's once-locked Gabinetto Segreto exhibits a collection of erotic art, mostly stolen from Pompeii, where it adorned not only brothels (as a sort of menu of services) but also private residences (especially bedrooms), stores, and communal buildings. The collection includes plenty of phalluses and fertility trinkets as well as numerous representations of Kama Sutra and sodomy along with a few hermaphrodites and illustrations of bestiality thrown in.

Along with dozens of classical bronze garden statues such as the whimsical Drunken Faun, the museum also displays a disconcerting model of a group of skeletons discovered in Pompeii, cowering in terror as they took their last breaths when Mount Vesuvius released its final blows.

I saw Mount Vesuvius looming over the city myself as I took in the harbor views near the sea of concrete Piazza Plebescito. I breathed a little easier when I arrived there at the end of the intimidating main street teeming with pedestrians. By the plaza in the elegant Gran Caffe Gamrinus, a hangout of the 19th-century intellectual elite, I sampled the traditional Napoleon pastry sfogliatela, a crispy scallop-shaped crust filled with sweetened ricotta. I beamed when the barista understood my pronunciation.

Behind an archetypal fountain roundabout clogged with perilously speeding motorcycles stand two sophisticated remnants from Naples’ glory days: Europe’s oldest opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, and the Galleria Umberto, a Victorian shopping mall. I started to feel a bit more at ease seeing a couple of other tourists, some even taking photographs. On the way back uptown, I passed commanding, block-like examples of Fascist architecture with engravings hailing the powers of the state.

I ventured three whole blocks into the infamous Spanish Quarter, an overcrowded, filthy neighborhood with endless lines of wet laundry. Despite its reputation as a gritty center for organized crime and the Dickinson novel comparisons, this is where friendly grocers will still make you a sandwich and neighbors congregate for a chat on street corners.

I turned onto Spaccanapoli, the ancient Greek road dividing city's historic quarter in half that now is a tight, action-packed market street stuffed with a bizarre assortment of shops and stands. Lining the street are gold and silver stores selling jewelry made from melted stolen pieces and dozens of stands selling (often grotesquely comic) nativity scene figures. Women also vend a variety of heebie-jeebies-inducing potions and amulets, the neighborhood being notoriously superstitious. Napoleons still live life outside on this crusty street, where boys pee, couples kiss, old women gossip, men fight, and teenagers flirt.

Before leaving Naples I had to eat pizza. It was half the reason I took the two-hour train ride south of Rome. I stopped at the Antica Pizzeria da Michel, circa 1870, considered the best pizza in the city that invented pizza. Upon arrival, I discovered a two-hour wait list in the small joint with harsh fluorescent lighting, stark white walls and a wood-burning oven in the middle.

I lucked out being on my own; the host immediately stuck me at the end of a table by a heavily made-up Napoleon woman with her blond 18-year-old daughter and her visiting friend. They spoke almost no English but managed to communicate that they had waited two hours for a table and assured me that this was the place for Naples’ best pizza. We all ordered the classic margherita with tomato sauce and mozzarella. They all quickly devoured their entire pies, and I followed suit. I must say the pizza was not what I expected. It had a doughy, crepe-like consistency with a downright soupy center and lightly puffed crust. The buffalo mozzarella tasted farm-fresh, but the sauce tasted almost too simple, reminding me of canned tomato paste.
My dinner companions warned me that the 15-minute walk to the train station was incredibly risky at night. They advised me to leave as soon as I finished my pizza, running if I had to. Despite all of their warnings, they said goodbye and hopped into their four-seat car without offering me a ride.

I got another taste of Napoleon hospitality when I ducked into a storefront to have a look at my map, not wanting to announce my confusion on the streets crammed with dodgy dealers hawking heaps of stolen electronics. I dropped a crumpled receipt into what I thought was a waste bin, and a saleswoman shrieked what I deciphered to be “What do you think your doing!?” I realized it wasn’t a bin but an umbrella container.

I mumbled a “mi dispiace” (sorry) and fled to what I now considered the safety and comfort of Rome.


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