The most vibrant places in Naples - Citimarks

Jungle town

man with scooter


"What I like in Naples is the smell of fuel oil mixed with a suffocating dust; the sweat on faces plaguing the ordinary disorder; [...] a scooter zigzagging the streets…”
Tahar Ben Jelloun, Labyrinthe des sentiments, Stock, 1999.
chapter 1

In excess

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.

port official shouting at a Naples port
port official shouting at a Naples port
port official shouting at a Naples port
chapter 2

Traffic anarchy

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.

chapter 3

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.

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chapter 4

Toledo Street

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.

dante's statue at Piazza Dante

Dante’s statue casts a solmenn shadow on the homonymous square, via Toledo.

passers by via toledo

The commercial section of Toledo Street.

View to Bellini's statue Piazza Bellini

A view to the square and statue of Neapolitan composer Vincenzo Bellini.

The Galleria Umberto I, a major architecural landmark of Toledo Street, is a public shopping gallery reminiscent of the of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.

Naples for urban walkers

Explore the most lively spots in Naples to feel the vibes of the city.