My love affair with Naples kicked off with an adventure. I first arrived in the city by the sea and was picked up at the port by a taxi driver who seemed in a bit of a hurry. It was lunch time so I suspected his wife was waiting for him at home. I looked up the address of the hotel I had booked. I had an early flight to catch the next morning so I figured it would be more convenient to stay close to the airport. “To Poggioreale, per favore!” Before finishing the sentence, the driver gave me a look full of surprise. “Poggioreale signora? What are you going to do there?” I was startled by his indiscretion, but thought he was up for chit-chat. “Are you sure this is where you are staying over?” My notes told me I was right, so why all these questions? “Signorina, your hotel is in the prison district…you don’t want to spend the night over there, trust me!”
The driver passed outside the hotel to let the surroundings convince me. He was right: the neighborhood was sketchy, the hotel looked like a dump, and I felt dumb! The wise words of a travel writer, Claude Dourguin, crossed my mind: “in Naples, one must be ready to improvise on the spot.” I wasn’t expecting to follow her advice so soon.
“Is there any other hotel I could drive you to?” Good God! I didn’t have the slightest clue where to go. For a control freak like myself who takes pride in doing her homework prior to every trip, that shameful “No” I had for an answer felt heavier than Mount Vesuvius. Plus, out of all the cities, I got to choose Naples to be spontaneous. At the time, I was much younger and the anxious words of caution coming from family and friends -unfortunately, no one knew Naples any more than I did- managed to get a hold of me. In the meantime the driver was stepping on it: had he driven any faster, we would have ended up in jail anyway and we wouldn’t even notice. “May I suggest a couple of hotels you could go to?” Bingo. Now what?
My first reaction was purely Greek -like my origins: full of suspicion with a pinch of paranoia. “What if he had made all that up?…What if the local mafia now targets innocent young tourists?” My Cartesian spirit, fortunately, prevailed: “We are going to leave this sketchy area, go downtown and take it from there”. The driver made a U turn and seemed to be heading to the city. My relief was cut short as soon as we reached the center of Naples, an urban jungle full of manic drivers. I instinctively gripped the door handle and whispered to myself: “Signori e signore, brace yourselves and benvenuti a Napoli!”
I was amazed by the smoothness and self-confidence of the driver as he was slipping through the car lines like a prima ballerina, rushing to the opposite direction to merely gain a few seconds as if he was chased by the police; honking and being honked at; screaming out of the top of his lungs to scooters and pedestrians alike; making phone calls to bell-boys and receptionists asking for vacancies: “Ciao Giovanni! Come stai?”; throwing room rates in the air, bargaining prices on my account: “Signorina, I know a hotel with the best view to the lungomare… Do you know il lungomare? Madonna mia, è bellissimo!”
Suddenly, on a red light that we miraculously decided to respect, an old lady opened the door of the cab -“A Vomero per favore, è urgente!”, she greeted us and pulled her brown poodle inside the car. “I need to take him to the vet at once!” she said in between the dog’s barks, “…he is having an allergic reaction to fumes, that’s why he is so nervous, poor baby!” Everything looked so surreal: the driver-slash-hotel agent, the old lady with her fretful poodle, the honks and shouts, and I, an unsuspected tourist at the back seat, struggling to stay in one place…it all felt as if we were playing in some absurd play of Pirandello.
As in theater, all’s well that ends well. I was dropped at a first-class hotel, overlooking the lungomare –bellissimo, indeed- and thanked the driver with a good tip for having kept his wife waiting. As I was walking along the magnificent seafront of Naples -a promenade that I might have never discovered hadn’t I “depended on the kindness of strangers” -like a modern Blanche Dubois- I figured that I couldn’t have found a better way to be introduced to this city even if I tried. That crazy afternoon drive revealed to me the city’s energy, carelessness, and spirit of impertinence.
My bibliographical research would later reveal the long list of writers who were fascinated by the urban jungle of Naples, and were eager to write their impressions about it. Take for example Tahar Ben Jelloun: a Morocco-born writer, nominated for the Nobel Prize, Jelloun draws an enamored portrait of Naples. His book “Labyrinth of feelings” (original title “Labyrinth des sentiments”) offers an avalanche of scenes from the streets of Naples -drifting from scooter honks and merchants’ shouts to Madonna’s tears of blood- all pointing to the spirit of excess prevailing in the Parthenopean city.
While Jelloun projects a slideshow of street-life moments, Jean-Noël Schifano focuses on one in particular: a tailback caused by two friends bumping into each other and the drivers’ reaction to it. The reader will find it hard not to grin exploring the surreal disorder around two cars left in the middle of the street by their drivers just to say hi to one another; the chaos of horns and screams; and the absurd dialogues between drivers and police officers.
What would be dangerous in the streets of Paris, in Naples “it comes with zero risk” adds the French author Claude Dourguin. Like Schifano, Dourguin took a liking in observing the Neapolitan avenues, where “red lights are dangerous” only if one respects them. The writer offers visitors a wise word of advice to fend off any street danger: go wherever you want as long as you are willing to improvise on the spot.
Despite what one may think, it seems that street disorder was typical of Naples even before the advent of motorized vehicles. In 1853, at a time when Naples was still capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Alexandre Dumas drew a similar portrait of the chaotic city, following an accident he had with his horse carriage, a Neapolitan “Corricolo”. Impressed by the energy of the crowds, Dumas gathered his travel notes in a book entitled after the name of his carriage. In the selected extract, the eminent writer describes Toledo Street, a timeless commercial hub and a noisy patchwork of stores and social classes. His notes and anecdotes can still serve as a useful guide to the modern visitor, proving that Naples has lost nothing of its vitality.
It’s not the museums that I like in Naples, nor the churches, nor the monuments, nor the sea. What I like in Naples is the turbulence of stones, the madness hovering above the roofs like a cloud; it is the laundry drying on a rope tied between two balconies; an old woman dressed in black with a discreet irony in the eye; the open-air market where Moroccans shout “figui nostri” (meaning “these are our figs”); it’s the excess: the excess of noise, the excess of mystery, of evidence, of violence; the red paint poured over the walls to make you believe it is blood, the blood of San Gennaro turning into liquid, and that of Saint John the Baptist boiling.
What I like in Naples is the smell of fuel oil mixed with a suffocating dust; it is the sweat on faces plaguing the ordinary disorder; a dry cleaners left open to sell lotto tickets; […] a Madonna crying tears of blood; a miracle walking on a pile of pastries; […] a scooter zigzagging the streets; the TV set always on, day and night…
[…] a police patrol pretending to convey order; the Camorra’s strike and the protest of the thugs; the national museum turning its back on screams from the old town; a parking lot that makes piazza Dante look even more ugly […]; a cable car looking like a magic train; a newlywed couple running out of church to be taken a picture on the pier; a street leading to nowhere, and another one falling into a pit […];
(What I like is) a boat leaving for Capri while another one arrives from Amalfi; a tourist whose bag was stolen and another one catching a stroke of sun; an abandoned fountain; […] a cracked scaffolding ; a mechanical pray; […] postcards lost in the mail; posters of Silvana Mangano […] towns within the city where one can hear the sighs of the dead; cemeteries where angels can still breathe; a ballet dance of pigeons on Plebiscito square; cries at night; floured faces in the crowd; a moving circus; a clandestine love in the silence of churches; a Moroccan woman lost in the old town; … and me, holding her hand…
Tahar Ben Jelloun, Labyrinthe des sentiments, Stock, 1999.
The sunset rushes into the tunnel and ignites the clamor of Naples: traffic jam. Paralyzed traffic is normal in Naples for a thousand reasons, human and urban ones. The urban layout has hardly changed since the Greco-Roman period, and is presented as it was in the 18th century: only that, now, the population has grown from 500.000 inhabitants under the reign of the Bourbons, to nearly 2 million under the communist leadership of Maurizio Valenzi […];
Neapolitan drivers act as if they are still riding horses. Take for example two friends crossing each other in cars: their reaction will be to hit the brake and leave their vehicles in the middle of the street to say hi. Horns will start shouting in every tone, engines will roar, cars will do acrobatics exchanging cries and gestures of “friendship”; the two drivers will turn to the impatient ones with their forearms spread, asking them in all innocence: “For heaven’s sake, a little patience!”
(Further down the street) a police officer, surely in bad spirits that day, sets out to enforce respect for the red lights at a crossroads for a few moments. There is a jam, so he will surely turn his back on the traffic: the code’s violations are so common, that he prefers to turn a blind eye and wisely leave the traffic at the drivers’ peril. […]
An employee can be as long as two hours late for work: his delay will be quite excused in case of a public transport strike, a heavy downpour or a protest; besides, once in the office, he won’t rush to work: first, he will call the nearest coffee shop to bring him an espresso. Foreign travelers, don’t you grumble, don’t curse this unproductive disorder, these constant pauses…take patience and open your eyes: the city of Naples, scene of a permanent, open-air show, gives you its first lesson: in this “school of gaze”, learn to look at the daily life of the greatest actors in the world, directly on the street -not like an artificial stage. […]
Understanding Naples also means riding a car. If you arrive by train, plane or boat, hire a car for a day and explore the city in all directions, like Alexandre Dumas in his Corricolo (note: the name of his horse carriage in Naples). And off you go! Apart from the sound of horn in lieu of a whiplash, the city is no more chaotic than Dumas found it himself. The stunning anarchy of the traffic -anarchy, in general, being the only rule in Naples -; […] the violation of all rules and codes; the brutal honking forcing you to run through the red lights, to take no-way streets, to park […] on the sidewalks: all that is a necessary preparatory training.
The day when, with a feline dexterity and with cunning, modulated horn blasts, you will manage to pull your car out of four vehicles around you, in front, behind, to the right, to the left -they too will be blocked in the same way by a frozen wave of hundreds of rounded tin roofs-, then, only then, you will have the first drop of Neapolitan blood in your veins.
Jean-Noël Schifano, Naples, Seuil, 1981.
An inventive driver
Neapolitan traffic is an integral part of the city’s culture and deserves a mention if not respect […]. Cars, motorini –any motorized vehicle on two, even three wheels -vespas, cyclos, scooters and the like- move forward, change direction, cut the lines […] find themselves face to face […] in the most ingenious ignorance of the rules commonly accepted elsewhere.
“Red lights are dangerous” I was once told when I got behind the wheel. I agree, we cross them lightly. But no, (in Naples), despite what one believes, “the danger is to stop”. If you do, the following vehicle is very likely to “tamponare”: to crash into yours.
The only guideline is the invention, the ability to improvise on the spot. We go where we want, as best we can, feeling confident in our reflexes, awakening and fair play of the other.
It is therefore understandable that the horn becomes the mandatory sound, as a sign of presence, of greeting, and an announcement of our entry into action. Good understanding reigns: we always give to the other person the possibility to do what we do -that means: anything. […] Making a U-turn on a five-meter track full of people -at the heart of a traffic jam- or on a vespa loaded with shelves crossing four lines of intersecting vehicles, these are expected to happen and will be tolerated with understanding. Being able to cross the street at any spot would have been suicidal in other cities (in Paris, for example, one would risk being run over and being insulted too); in Naples it almost comes with zero risk. This daily exercise makes the Neapolitans automobile acrobats, unparalleled maneuver inventors […] their ease confuses: clashes are rare.
Claude Dourguin, Escales, New-York, Dublin, Naples, Champ Vallon, 2002.
Toledo Street is the street of all the people. It’s the street of restaurants, cafes and shops; it is the artery that feeds all the districts of the city; it is the river where all the torrents of the crowd flow. This is a place where aristocracy rolls by in a carriage, the bourgeoisie sells its fabrics, and lower classes can take their nap. To the nobleman, Toledo street is a walkway; to the merchant, a bazaar; to the lazzarone (i.e. the beggar), a home.
Toledo street is also the Neapolitans’ first step towards modern civilization, as perceived by our progressives; it is the bridge between the poetic city and the industrial one; a neutral ground where one can follow with a curious eye the remains of the old world going away and the intrusions of the forthcoming new world.
Alongside the typical osteria with old curtains stained with flies, a gallant French pastry maker puts his brioches and rum babas on display together with his wife. […] Opposite a respectable antique dealer […], there is a proud trader of chemical light matches. A hairdressing salon rises above a lottery desk; in this long line of fusion experiments, one must also add that Toledo Street is paved in lava like Herculaneum and Pompeii, and lit by gas like London and Paris.
Alexandre Dumas, Le Corricolo, Editions d’aujourd’hui, 1843.
Naples for urban walkers
Explore the most lively spots in Naples to feel the vibes of the city.