Maybe I fell in love with this messy, intemperate city by the bay because I first saw it after spending a week in well-ordered Germany. Maybe I feel close to my family's southern...
NAPLES, Italy Maybe I fell in love with this messy, intemperate city by the bay because I first saw it after spending a week in well-ordered Germany. Maybe I feel close to my family’s southern Italian roots here. Or maybe I’m just drawn to underdogs.
Naples, a city of about 1 million people, is definitely that; it was all but off the map for travelers in recent decades because of crime, poverty, decay and disasters including a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in 1980 that killed nearly 5,000 people and damaged many of the city’s historic facades. Even adventurous travelers who knew of Naples’ extraordinary churches and museums ventured here warily and came away with tales of pickpockets and purse-snatchers.
But the city’s fortunes have been changing. Recognizing a need to save its many treasures including its glass-roofed Galleria Umberto and vast Capodimonte museum local power brokers about 15 years ago embarked on a campaign to save Naples. Museums, palaces, piazzas, churches and cloisters were renovated, and car traffic was banned in certain neighborhoods. Police were posted in tourist areas.
On my last visit, I found it still noisy, dirty and discombobulating. But I had prepared for the trip as if I were going to a Third World country, girdling my middle in a money belt and hiding my camera in an over-the-shoulder bag. I prepared mentally as well. While there, I went out alone at night, but I always watched my back. I stayed away from the poor, crime-ridden Spanish Quarter.
And I never once felt ill at ease.
“Violent crime against Americans in Naples is very rare,” said Gloria Berbena, of the U.S. Consulate in Naples. “While there certainly is petty crime, it is not anything different than what American tourists would find in other major European cities.”
People willing to take precautions are amply rewarded by the city’s art and architecture, nearby archeological showplaces including Pompeii and Herculaneum, and a feast of irresistible food. Others who prefer to see the city but want to stay elsewhere can station themselves on the Amalfi coast, an easy day trip by train. But it would be a great pity to avoid “La Bella Napoli” altogether, if only because its National Archaeological Museum provides such an excellent introduction to the wonders of nearby Herculaneum and Pompeii, covered in ashes and rubble and thus preserved for posterity by a massive eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
Whenever you manage to wrest your gaze from the view, Naples gratifies with art. But you don’t come to Naples principally to see masterworks of the Renaissance, as in Florence, or antique splendors like those in Rome. Because Naples was ruled by a long train of foreign suzerains, from the Greeks and Romans to the Goths, Normans, Spanish and French, it is an artistic mishmash, demonstrating almost every style that hit the Italian boot but especially the Baroque and Neoclassic.
Nor is Naples the place for passing time in a cafe on a quiet, traffic-free piazza. Despite efforts to make the city more tourist-friendly, traffic remains relentless. Cars, vegetable trucks and motorcycles, driven at breakneck speed over curbs and down railway tracks, whether or not there’s a train in sight, have the right of way, it seems.
Neapolitans eat with sensual abandon, which is perfectly understandable given the food: “margherita,” the standard Neapolitan pizza, a simple tomato-sauce-and-
cheese style often folded in half and consumed walking down the street; “gelato” richer than Ben and Jerry’s ice cream; the fresh mozzarella found in salads that tastes subtly different every place you order it; and, of course, red sauces, starring the region’s prized tomatoes.
In the city’s historic center, cafes and pizzerias, ancient churches, archaeological digs, food stalls and “presepio” workshops, where craftsmen make Naples’ signature Christmas creche figures, are jammed together along impossibly narrow streets, lined with tenements and crumbling palazzos that let in only a thin ribbon of blue sky. The city “flag” drying laundry flies from windows and balconies; waiters deliver morning coffee on trays to apartment-dwelling customers too tired to make it themselves; and in the early evenings, families gather in wine and lingerie stores.
For travelers who come to the Campania region chiefly to see Pompeii and Herculaneum, paralyzed and preserved by Mount Vesuvius, it might come as a surprise to learn about the Circumvesuviana. This efficient Neapolitan train takes commuters to the suburbs and tourists to the thresholds of Pompeii and Herculaneum.