The largest city of Campania, capital of the province and the region, Naples is the third most populated city in Italy (after Rome and Milan), with about one million inhabitants, and is the most important industrial center and trading port for the South.
A point of embarkation for emigrants in the past, Naples now has a large traffic of merchandise (petroleum, carbon, cereals) and passengers. It is the largest Italian port, with a noteworthy nexus of railway and highways and a large international airport.
In the vast urban area one can distinguish many different neighborhoods: the old center, characterized by buildings closely crowded together, is bordered on the west by the new administrative district and on the east by the business district, into which flows almost all the road and rail traffic.
Other neighborhoods, with narrow climbing streets, rise around the base of the San Martino and Capodimonte hills.
These neighborhoods have experienced intense development, typically of the simpler kind, in contrast to that of the residential neighborhoods that stretch out comfortably along the Vomero and Posillipo hills.
Imagine a history-filled city of enormous natural beauty; one packed with great architectural structures, many filled with incomparable works of art; a city that has the world’s greatest musical heritage, as well as a theatrical tradition, literature and even a language of its own, plus a cuisine loved the world over; a city that has wonderful weather in summer and winter, is located on one of the most spectacular bays on the planet, and has magnificent mountains on its outskirts.
Wouldn’t a country fortunate enough to contain such a city be proud of it? Pamper it? Promote it? Encourage foreigners to visit it?
You might think so.
But such is not the case for Naples, Italy’s third largest city, and in many ways its most important cultural treasure (and I say that mindful of how rich all of Italy is in cultural treasures).
Pick up almost any English-language guidebook about Italy and read its acknowlegment of Naples’ attractions. Inevitably, these will be followed by warnings about its dangers, dirtiness and disarray. The same is echoed by travel agents and, alas, residents of other parts of Italy.
Northern Italians speak of Naples as if it were a third-world hardship outpost. Even Italians from other parts of the south rarely refer to it kindly. I can recall being sternly warned about going there by acquaintances in Calabria and Sicily.
Nevertheless, German, French, British and Scandinavian tourists do not seem to be afraid of Naples. They love the unique warmth of its people and its singular physical characteristics. They regularly fill Naples’ hotels and provide the backbone of its tourist trade.
Americans, however, are conspicuous by their absence. If they see Naples at all, it usually is on a breeze-through to Capri, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast.
Tragically, even Italian Americans rarely visit it ? And as many as a third of them have ancestral roots in or near the city. What is going on? Is Naples all that bad? I decided to find out for myself.
After numerous trips to Italy, none of which included a visit to Naples,I decided to spend a week there on my last trip. It turned out to be the best week I have spent in Italy and my only regret is that it wasn’t a month or more.
What I found is a city that knows its own worth but is little concerned with what others think of it. Its people were the most delightful I’ve found anywhere I’ve traveled, although they were hardly the stereotypical opera-singing, happy-go-lucky paesani depicted in TV commercials.
Years ago Pete Hamill, in an article explaining New York to non-New Yorkers, advised visitors to “accept the city on its own terms.‘ Those who faulted it for not being like Des Moines or Peoria, he suggested, would never appreciate its wonders.
The same is true for Naples. Like New York, Naples is highly idiosyncratic. There is no other place remotely like it, including Rome, Milan and Florence.
Among Italian cities, only Venice is more distinctive. But Venice has relatively few people living in it. Tragically, it has become almost exclusively a tourist attraction, much like Disneyland.
Naples, on the other hand, is a thriving, pulsating metropolis of more than a million people.
It welcomes tourists, but doesn’t really need them. Its size means it has the problems of any big city, some of them exacerbated by its age, and yes, that does include street crime.
But Naples’ virtues, I found, strongly outweigh its negatives.
The negatives have been exaggerated out of all proportion. Take the street crime, for example. The guidebooks would have you belive the only safe way to walk through Naples’ streets is with an armed bodyguard.
Naples has its share of muggers, but no more than Paris, London or New York. Walking around Naples you are as safe as you are in any major city in the United States or western Europe.
In fact, you are safer, for Neapolitan street criminals confine their activities almost entirely to stealing.
Maimings and killings, so common in large American cities, are virtually unheard of in Naples.
Neapolitan streets, however, are generally narrow and crowded with automobile and pedestrian traffic. At first sight this might seem overwhelming to most Americans.
But if you let yourself get into the city’s rhythm, you soon find Neapolitan streets fascinating. What at first seems crazy, reveals itself to have its own order. Drivers, you’ll begin to notice, are exceedingly tolerant of people crossing mid-block or of other drivers making unusual movements. In this respect, Naples is like midtown Manhattan, only more so.
But this is something to be enjoyed, not feared. I rented a car in Naples … a mistake.
The car spent most of the time in a garage. I found it easier to get around the city on foot; if the distance was too far to walk I took a bus, taxi or a funiculare (a unique train that goes up and down the city’s hills), all of which are cheap, dependable and, most importantly, don’t have to be parked.Nevertheless, my rental car provided me with the first of many uniquely Neapolitan experiences.
Driving from the Hertz office to my hotel, I got caught up in a traffic snafu that put me in a lane I wasn’t supposed to be in.
Before I realized what I had done I was confronting a police barrier and a policeman. “Oh, oh,‘ I thought. “I’m going to get a ticket before I even get to my hotel.‘But no.
The policeman sensed my predicament and said, “Un momento,‘ and moved the barrier so I could make a U-turn and get back in the traffic flow.
“You’re in Napoli, amico,‘ an Italian friend who accompanied me and my wife told me. Although our amica now lives in Perugia, she grew up near Naples and was quite proud of its human warmth. While driving around that first day I found a radio station that played delightful Neapolitan music.
This was a pleasant experience as most Italian stations play international rock, much of it non-Italian, and all of it as cacophonous as that played on the worst American stations.
I tuned in the station again at the hotel. Calling itself “Studio Napoli, after every third or fourth song it played an identification jingle that contained the line: “solo musica napolitana‘ (“only Neapolitan music‘).
What other city, I thought, has a musical tradition so vibrant that one of its radio stations could play nothing but the music of the city? I couldn’t think of one.
And Studio Napoli did not rely on a steady diet of ” ‘O sole mio‘ or other tunes of that ilk; it played contemporary songs with modern beats, whose lyrics were, nevertheless, in the ancient, beautiful and often haunting Neapolitan tongue. In a bookstore I picked up an Italian-Neapolitan dictionary.
At last, I thought, I would be able to find out the meanings of words I heard my second-generation parents (whose own parents came from Naples’ outskirts) speak but which they were unable to translate and of which teachers of Italian always expressed ignorance.
It should be noted that while Neapolitans are able to speak the language of their city (and it never ceased to amaze me that a city could have a language of its own) they more often speak Italian. Italian is what is used on Neapolitan airwaves, in its newspapers and in most daily transactions.
When I showed the dictionary to a hotel clerk, he laughed, and in perfect Italian said to me: “First, learn Italian; then work on your Neapolitan.‘ A put-down, but a gentle, typically Neapolitan one.
Tourist attractions? Naples has plenty. With Greek, Roman, French, Spanish and assorted other rulers over more than 2,000 years, its attractions are unbelievably diverse.
Some top Neapolitan ones are the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the world’s finest archaeological museum; the Duomo of San Gennaro, where the blood of the city’s patron saint mysteriously liquifies three times a year; the Certosa of San Martino, whose elevated perch offers a magnificent view of the city and whose chambers contain exquisite examples of Neapolitan presepi (Christmas nativity scenes); and the magnificent Capodimonte, a royal palace turned into a hilltop art museum.
I don’t, however, want to rehash information that is readily available in guidebooks, even ones by the most anti-Neapolitan writers. Suffice it to say, if you visit Naples you won’t lack for interesting and beautiful places to visit.
My point is, simply, don’t be afraid of Naples. Discount the negative talk.
It is, in my opinion, all the product of envy, and similar in many ways to the negativity that all Italic people experience (save that this particular bigotry is shared, sadly, by many Italics).
See Naples for yourself and do so with an open mind. If you can do so with a friendly Neapolitan at your side, as I did, you will appreciate it even more.
But no matter how you do it, don’t miss this incredible city.
(Taken from a trip to Naples by Robert A. Masullo)