On Tuesday we took advantage of the gorgeous day, and our locale and train connections to make a jaunt to Napoli. It is one of those cities that polarizes; you either love it or loathe it. Staunch supporters will fight to the death to sing its praises, like my friend Luciano, who hails from the fair city. He will frequently effuse about the glories of his bella citta`, but when asked why he lives in Ascoli Piceno instead of his hometown, he quickly says, "Well, it's beautiful but I couldn't live there anymore."
I confess that I had been on the other side of the fence. I spent one wretched day in Naples on one of our earliest trips to Italy. Admittedly, the heavy rain did nothing to cast a beautiful aura upon the place and made it difficult to get around to see much of anything. The fact that my stepfather drove into town, got us very lost in less than stellar neighborhoods, where we were nearly killed three times over by red-light defiant motorists didn't put the town or inhabitants into a rosy light. And, while the Archeology Museum that we'd ventured into to town to see was impressive, the addicts shooting up outside of it tarnished it all for us. After that, whenever I saw the requisite pizzeria in every town named Bella Napoli, I would question, "oh really?"
But, living a relatively easy train ride away pushed us to give Naples another chance. We arrived right in the centro and hopped a bus to the seafront castle to follow a sort of self-guided tour that Bryan had staked out for us. We didn't have a list of truly "must sees," but instead had a route that would take us past some of the more important sights and monuments. For me, wandering the streets and getting a "feel" for the town is more important than rushing through museums or churches.
We had a gloriously sunny day. It was warm enough for just a light jacket and the Mediterranean shimmered and rippled. The clear outlines of Capri and the Amalfi Coast loomed. The enormous main piazza saw teens and dogs basking in the warmth while grandmothers pushed baby carriages. I was already starting to see the "bella" part of the often quoted statement.
We visited the imposing castello and the church of San Francesco, which borrowed heavily from Roman monuments like St. Peter's and the Pantheon. We meandered in the districts known as Quartieri Spagnuoli and Spaccanapoli, both of them tight grids of insanely narrow streets brimming with life. Countless rows of laundry criss-crossed the alleyways, fluttering like a boat's regata flags. Motorini rocketed around, even in the areas marked "pedestrian zone," not bothering to slow down for said pedestrians or oncoming scooters, but instead sounding their horns to tell us to jump out of their way. The constant cacophony cascaded through the canyon-like alleys, minging with the shouts of vendors and the din of a hundred TVs and conversations that tumbled out the windows.
We visited ancient ruins, a few pretty churches, and rode one of the famed funiculars (while humming that old song Funiculi Funicula). At one corner, while thrusting ourselves against the wall to avoid being plowed down by a motorino, the vegetable vendor started chatting with us. We asked him for a good place to have lunch, and he directed us to his sister's little restaurant. She happened upon us just then, so we followed her while she told us of their specialties that day. We enjoyed a nice plate of freshly prepared spaghetti alla vongole (delizioso). Before leaving town, we managed to fit in a vera pizza Napoletana and some of the local pastries, known as baba`.
We mostly marveled at the place. Naples really is unlike any other city in Italy. It is Europe's most densely populated, and it shows. It is full, and fully occupied. There is little green space, few parks, and unlike many Italian cities, boasts few piazzas. It is dirty - though not from the much- publicized trash crisis, but from millions of people, tourists, buses, cars, dogs, motorini and businesses all converging together in daily life in a compact space.
Napoli is full of contrasts. It is a place that both charms and intimidates. It attracts and repels in the same instant. It is full of beauty and full of chaos. There is daily drama, wafting music and filth occupying the same space. A vast sea and towering mountains define its boundaries yet it is squished in with streets so narrow the sun doesn't penetrate.
So did I like it? Yes. And no. At the same time.