My love affair with Naples began with an unexpected adventure. Arriving at the city by the sea, I was promptly picked up at the port by a taxi driver who appeared to be in a hurry, possibly rushing home for lunch. Considering my early flight the next morning, I chose to book a hotel close to the airport. “To Poggioreale, per favore!” I requested. Before I finished my sentence, the driver shot me a surprised look. “Poggioreale, signorina? What are you going to do there?” Taken aback by his blunt inquiry, I assumed he was just engaging in small talk. “Signorina, your hotel is in the prison district… you don’t want to spend the night over there, trust me!”
The drivercircled the hotel surroundings to let me see for myself. He was right; the neighborhood seemed dubious, the hotel appeared rundown, and I felt foolish! Recalling the wise words of travel writer Claude Dourguin, “in Naples, one must be ready to improvise on the spot,” I found myself unexpectedly embracing spontaneity.
“Is there another hotel I could take you to?” I was caught off guard. As a meticulous planner who prided herself on researching every trip, my reluctant “No” felt as weighty as Mount Vesuvius. It was ironic that, of all cities, I had chosen Naples for a spontaneous venture. At that time, the anxious cautions from family and friends, who unfortunately knew as little about Naples as I did, had managed to influence me. Meanwhile, the driver was accelerating. If he had gone any faster, we might have ended up in jail without even realizing it. “May I suggest a couple of hotels for you?” Bingo. Now what?
My initial response bore the distinct hallmarks of my Greek heritage – laden with suspicion and a dash of paranoia. “What if he concocted that story? What if innocent young tourists are now being targeted by the local mafia?” Thankfully, my rational mindset prevailed: “Let’s get out of this questionable area, head downtown, and reassess the situation.” The driver executed a U-turn and appeared to be directing us towards the city center. However, my relief was short-lived as we entered Naples’ chaotic heart, a bustling urban jungle with drivers exhibiting manic behavior. Instinctively, I gripped the door handle and murmured to myself, “Signori e signore, brace yourselves and benvenuti a Napoli!”
The driver’s seamless navigation through the traffic, akin to a prima ballerina effortlessly gliding across the stage, intensified my amazement. He darted through lanes, at times going against the flow as if pursued by the police. Honks and shouts filled the air, as he bellowed at scooters and pedestrians. Simultaneously, he engaged in animated phone calls with bellboys and receptionists, inquiring about room availability. “Ciao Giovanni, come stai?” he cheerfully exclaimed, tossing room rates in the air and negotiating prices on my behalf. “Signorina, I know a hotel with the best view of il lungomare… Do you know the lungomare? Madonna mia, è bellissimo!”
Like in theater, all’s well that ends well. The taxi dropped me off at a luxurious hotel with a breathtaking view of the lungomare – truly bellissimo. I expressed my gratitude to the driver with a generous tip for navigating through the city, perhaps keeping his wife waiting in the process. Strolling along Naples’ magnificent seafront, a promenade I might never have discovered had I not “depended on the kindness of strangers” — akin to a modern Blanche Dubois — I realized that I couldn’t have chosen a better introduction to this city even if I had planned it. That chaotic afternoon drive laid bare the city’s energy, carefree attitude, and an impertinent spirit.
In contrast to Jelloun’s sweeping portrayal of street-life moments, Jean-Noël Schifano (1944 – ) zooms in on a specific scene: a traffic jam triggered by two friends unexpectedly meeting and the ensuing reactions of the drivers. The reader can’t help but smile at the surreal disarray caused by two cars abandoned in the middle of the street as their drivers exchange greetings. The ensuing chaos of honks and shouts, along with the absurd dialogues between the drivers and police officers, paints a vivid and comical picture of Naples’ unique charm.
Claude Dourguin (1946 – ), a French author, shares a perspective on street life in Naples that contrasts with the potential dangers one might associate with Paris. What would be dangerous in the streets of Paris, in Naples “it comes with zero risk” he points out. Much like Schifano, Dourguin takes pleasure in observing the avenues of Naples, where, as he notes, “red lights are dangerous only for those who choose to respect them”. Offering a piece of practical advice to visitors to navigate the city’s streets, he suggests going wherever one desires, provided they are ready to improvise on the spot.
In Naples, it’s not the museums that I fancy -nor the churches, nor the monuments, nor the sea. What captivates me here is the tumult of stones, the madness floating above the roofs like a cloud. It’s the laundry drying on a rope stretched between two balconies, an old woman dressed in black with a subtle irony in her eye, the open-air market where Moroccans enthusiastically shout ‘figui nostri‘ (meaning ‘these are our figs’). It’s the excess: the excess of noise, mystery, evidence, and violence. The red paint poured over the walls to make you believe it’s blood, the blood of San Gennaro turning into liquid, and that of Saint John the Baptist boiling.
What I cherish in Naples is the scent of fuel oil blended with a stifling dust; it is the sweat on faces plaguing the everyday chaos; a dry cleaners left open to sell lotto tickets; […] it’s a Madonna crying tears of blood; a miracle strolling 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 a deaf ear to the cries from the old town; a parking lot that further mars Piazza Dante’s beauty […]; a cable car resembling a magical train; a newlywed couple rushing out of the church to capture a moment on the pier; a street leading to nowhere, and another one falling into a pit […];
(What I aprreciate is) a boat departing for Capri while another one arrives from Amalfi; a tourist whose bag was stolen and another one catching a sunstroke; an abandoned fountain; […] a crumbling scaffolding; […] postcards lost in the mail; posters of Silvana Mangano […] small towns within the city where one can hear the sighs of the departed; cemeteries where angels seem to breathe still; a balletic dance of pigeons in Plebiscito square; nocturnal cries; floured faces in the crowd; a travelling circus; a clandestine love in the hushed corners 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 pours into the tunnel, sparking the tumult of Naples: a traffic jam. Congested traffic is a common occurrence in Naples for myriad reasons, both human and urban. The city’s layout has scarcely changed since the Greco-Roman period, retaining its appearance from the 18th century. However, the population has surged from 500,000 inhabitants during the Bourbon reign to nearly 2 million under the leadership of Maurizio Valenzi, a communist figurehead […];
Neapolitan drivers maneuver as if they were still riding horses. Consider two friends encountering each other in their cars: their immediate response is to hit the brakes and leave their vehicles in the middle of the street to exchange greetings. Horns blare in every tone, engines roar, and cars engage in acrobatics, exchanging cries and gestures of “friendship.” The two drivers, with forearms outstretched, turn to the impatient onlookers, innocently asking, “For heaven’s sake, a little patience!”
(Further down the street) a police officer, undoubtedly in a foul mood that day, embarks on enforcing respect for red lights at a crossroads for a brief moment. A traffic jam ensues, prompting him to likely turn his back on the chaos. Code violations are so commonplace that he prefers to turn a blind eye and wisely let the drivers navigate at their own risk. […]
An employee can be up to two hours late for work, with delays easily excused due to a public transport strike, heavy rainfall, or a protest. Moreover, upon arriving at the office, there’s no rush to start working; first, a call to the nearest coffee shop is in order to have an espresso delivered. Foreign travelers, don’t grumble or curse this seemingly unproductive disorder and constant pauses; exercise patience and open your eyes. The city of Naples, a stage for a permanent, open-air show, offers you its first lesson in this ‘school of gaze’: learn to observe the daily life of the world’s greatest actors directly on the street, not on an artificial stage. […]
Understanding Naples also entails mastering the art of driving. If you arrive by train, plane, or boat, rent a car for a day and explore the city in all directions, much like Alexandre Dumas did in his Corricolo (note: a type of Neapolitan horse carriage). And off you go! Besides the honking replacing the whiplash, the city is no more chaotic than Dumas found it himself. The breathtaking anarchy of traffic—where anarchy, in general, is the only rule in Naples—; the disregard for all rules and codes; the aggressive honking that compels you to run through red lights, take one-way streets, and park on sidewalks: all of these are essential elements of your preparatory training.
The day when, with feline dexterity and cunning, modulated horn blasts, you manage to extricate your car from the four vehicles surrounding you—front, back, right, left, all blocked in the same way by a frozen wave of hundreds of rounded tin roofs—only then will you have the first drop of Neapolitan blood in your veins.
Jean-Noël Schifano, Naples, Seuil, 1981.
An inventive driver
Neapolitan traffic is an intrinsic element of the city’s culture, deserving acknowledgment, if not respect […]. Vehicles, from cars and motorini to any motorized contraption on two, or even three, wheels—Vespas, cyclos, scooters, and the like—move forward, change direction, cut lines […] finding themselves face to face […] in a brilliantly ignorant defiance of the rules widely accepted elsewhere.
“Red lights are dangerous” someone once advised me when I took the wheel. I concur; we approach them casually. However, contrary to common belief, (in Naples), “the danger lies in stopping.” If you do, the vehicle behind you is very likely to “tamponare”: to collide with yours.
The only rule is invention, the art of improvisation on the spot. We go where we please, navigating as best we can, trusting in our reflexes and the mutual fairness of others.
It is thus reasonable that the horn becomes a mandatory sound, a declaration of presence, a greeting, and an announcement of our entry into action. A mutual understanding prevails: we always afford the other person the opportunity to do what we do—meaning, anything. […] Executing a U-turn on a five-meter stretch teeming with people—amid a traffic jam—or on a Vespa loaded with shelves navigating four lanes of intersecting vehicles, these occurrences are anticipated and tolerated with understanding. Crossing the street at any point would be a perilous venture in other cities (for instance, in Paris, one risks both being run over and insulted); in Naples, the risk is nearly negligible. This daily exercise turns Neapolitans into automotive acrobats, unparalleled masters of maneuvering […] their ease is bewildering: collisions are a rare spectacle.
Claude Dourguin, Escales, New-York, Dublin, Naples, Champ Vallon, 2002.
Toledo Street is the thoroughfare of the people. It’s adorned with restaurants, cafes, and shops; a vital artery that nourishes all corners of the city. It serves as the river where the streams of the crowd converge. For the aristocrat, Toledo Street is a promenade; for the merchant, a bustling marketplace; and for the lazzarone (i.e. the beggar), a home.
Toledo Street also represents the Neapolitans’ initial stride toward modern civilization, as perceived by our progressives. It acts as a bridge connecting the poetic city to the industrial one—a neutral territory where one can observe, with a curious eye, the remnants of the old world fading away and the intrusions of the forthcoming new world.
Next to a traditional osteria with aged curtains tainted by flies, a dashing French pastry maker proudly displays his brioches and rum babas alongside his wife. […] Across from a respected antique dealer […], stands a confident vendor of chemical light matches. A hairdressing salon overlooks a lottery desk; within this amalgamation of diverse experiences, it’s worth noting that Toledo Street is paved with lava, akin to Herculaneum and Pompeii, and illuminated with gas, reminiscent of 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.