Naples is filthy, but gorgeous—like a lingerie model at a belching contest.
When the garbage syndicates aren’t striking and medieval cobblestones are visible above the trash, when you’re not run down by twelve year old handbag artists scootering on the sidewalk like truant hyenas; when the mafia’s not putting screws to the teeming underclass with every purchase of fresh fruit or cut flowers—you see the city could be an angel in spite of its demons.
You escape the overcrowded afternoon Intercity train arriving an hour late from Rome. Move quickly or be crushed. Your head swims; the sweat of Stazione Garibaldi in your nostrils. The frenzied Neapolitans are everywhere, and—everyone has assured you—none can be trusted. You’ve arranged your cash, passport and credit cards in six places around your undergarments; the signs on the platform warn of pickpockets in six languages. Instinctively putting hands to your wallet, you ironically inform nearby thieves precisely where to strike. Neapolitan trickery at its most subtle? The city is a conspiracy, and the safest bet is paranoia.
You exit onto piazza Garibaldi, the air fetid in summer heat. Plastic bags and empty paper cups collect at your feet. Yet beautiful architecture, centuries old, towers above the mire. Baroque and older, majestic, a gorgeous tradition of grand public building since the 13th century. The list of visual treasures is endless: cathedrals, museums, the colourful palazzi of the Vomero hill, and shopping malls like the Galleria Umberto, that most beautiful outdoor arcade shaped like a holy cross.
But what a falling off. The population has paid for a past golden age by feeding on itself, since 1944, when the Allies were handed control of the city and enlisted the insidious Camorra to reconstruct after all the bombings. They reconstructed, sure, like mad scientists; they built a Frankenstein that serves them to this day.
Two young men on a scooter buzz past, make a coy grab at your fiancée’s purse. You outmaneuver them. The demons turn, cackle and laugh. All the evildoers from the Old Testament were banished here: Every encounter seems to be with usurer from the Book of Numbers, the vendor of impure meats from Leviticus; the catamite owner of fourteen teenage concubines runs the brothel next to your hotel. Sodom and Gomorrah have a run for their money. Where’s prophet Jeremiah when you need him?
But this city was always out of control. You can’t contain its millions of highly involved actors; every inch is a dramatic scene. Collectively the Neapolitans are frightening, but individually each one a studied gem. Each gypsy panhandler could have been Meryl Streep. What performances! These women are all over you with outstretched hands, like Jesus on a leper, aiming to cure you of your earthly possessions.
Refuel with espresso, walk a few blocks more. Don’t even think of pulling out your camera. Try not to get killed crossing the main streets. The motorists are toying with you, skilled and capricious, they let you live. You learn quickly here: to paraphrase Paul Theroux, The Naples Book of Road Etiquette is a very slim volume. Rome in comparison is seven days of Sunday driving.
There are rewards for the brave wandering souls, however. Pizza at Da Michele is the best in Naples, and by extension, the world.
Full of the Queen Marguerita, you navigate street vendors, young men with toothpicks in mouths and wooden crates on shoulders hawking black market frippery; energetic North African immigrants or underemployed locals all ogling your fiancée. They’re saying with their eyes, ‘she’s got a lot of nerve having blonde hair’. The one honest soul in Naples, the guy who works at your hotel, was right to refuse to let her out of the building wearing her bracelet.
You keep escaping, from the spiderweb labyrinth of Spaccanapoli, down the Corso Umberto I toward the port, the spots south of the city centre that let you breathe. You reach the water, outlet for the condensed mass of Europe’s most densely populated city, writhing between the surrounding hills, waiting to be pushed into the sea by the next volcanic eruption.
Most astonishing is that view from the sea: how the city erupts above the bay of Naples. On one end, toward Pompeii, you see Vesuvius, the ornery beached whale promising to spew ash from his blowhole. And like the murderous Camorra, the fire mountain makes good on that threat every so often. 79 AD was the year immortalized for wiping out 20,000 in Pompeii, but Naples has had its kneecaps smashed by quakes every few decades. In 1693, 93000 dead, in 1980 another 10,000, and those are just the highlights. Still the surrounding suburban hills are jam-packed with illegally-constructed housing. The lava hills are deadly but fertile; people survive, thrive somehow, building up their jammed structures like a colony of vain termites destined for collapse.
Naples has a tragic death wish. This lingerie model is not only beautiful, but bipolar. It’s heartbreakingly obvious why they love her so much: I mean, Sofia Loren's from around here.