……And then there’s Naples. I think Alan, our friend Gisela and I were interested in visiting it just to be able to get it out of the way and cross it off our “to do” list. So you can imagine our collective surprise when we all LOVED it!!!! You know how some people say that New York is “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there”? Well, with Naples, I REALLY wouldn’t like to live there, but it was absolutely fascinating for a visit. We stayed 3 days, and I’d say 3 or 4 is just about the right length of time to feel you’ve seen some things and you’d like to go back again to see more. A whole week would leave me weary and counting the seconds till I could escape. There were more chaos, dirt and graffiti than I’ve ever seen, and I really hate all three of those things. But with Naples, after a short time I really didn’t notice them much.
Spaccanapoli is the iconic street of old Napoli that you always see whenever there’s a TV show about the town. It’s no more than the width of a driveway and is lined with shops that opened directly onto it. We saw a motorcycle stop in front of a doorway, and without even bothering to get off, the driver picked up a bag with that night’s dinner. We would frequently see a car driving in one direction, a Vespa carrying a family of 4 going the other, people walking everywhere…..and no one seemed to get excited or frustrated or angry. There was no shouting — no road rage. A honking horn was a “hello” rather than a “get out of the way”. The Vespa-riding family of 4 always included a small child perfectly balanced on the seat in front of his dad, calmly swaying as the scooter swerved in and out of the crowds. Yes, there is a helmet law in Italy; no, no one in Naples wears one – including the children.
Need another example of chaos? How about the fact that the only way to get to our hotel was to go down a one-way street the wrong way. According to our navigation system, it was an actual case of “you can’t get there from here”.
Our hotel was very close to Spaccanapoli, and we always tried to walk along it when we were going to other neighborhoods because it had a vibe unlike any street we’d ever seen anywhere. The older shops were more like caves. They had deep displays outside on either side of the entrances which, when they closed up for the night, would swing back into the opening so the displays were now facing the inside, and the backs formed the door, thereby securely sealing up the shop.
Though everything imaginable was sold along the narrow street, there were many, many shops with what I would normally call dust collectors, but as with so many things in Napoli, these were totally unlike any of the useless objects you usually find in tourist areas. The Napoletani have a history of making small, intricate items to use in a presepe or Christmas manger scene. This might seem like a fairly narrowly focused business, but these items are world famous and will include things that allow the collector to build entire neighborhoods around Jesus, Mary and Joseph. You can buy row houses, or cross sections of rooms, or a full set of dining room furniture, or miniature fireplaces with delicate wrought iron screens…..you get the picture. At first it’s disorienting when you see store after store of this kind of merchandise. But like the city itself, once you get the hang of it and stop wondering what the buyers’ living rooms must look like, it’s absolutely fascinating.
Naples has an almost embarrassing number of gorgeous buildings — many of which are in various degrees of disrepair, covered with graffiti. People seem to have a disconnect between civic property and personal property. You can tell by the care they take with their shops and how they dress with a real sense of style that they take great pride in what is personal. But I think the area has had so many centuries of corruption in high places that the people no longer consider public property their own.
Of course there are world-class museums and gorgeous neighborhoods, with beautiful shops and elegant, well-cared-for buildings – many with incredible views of the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius off in the distance. In fact, you almost forget that you’re in the infamous Naples. But that’s not the Napoli of your imagination. And if you love Italy, the Spaccanapoli area should probably be somewhere on your “to do” list. No — I wouldn’t recommend it for your first visit to the country, but keep it in the back of your mind for when you’ve finally tired of the peace and quiet of the rolling green hills of Tuscany and Umbria. Consider it like a Monty Python skit: “And now for something completely different….”