Sunday, 22 June 2014

Days 453 to 456: Naples

Naples is an absolute dump. Finally, Italy doesn't deliver.

Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Siena, Perugia, Milan, Verona, Venice, and Bologna: all were wonderful, all I would happily return to. Even Genoa I'd happily spend some more time in, although I think Danielle would leave me to it. But Naples. Oh, Naples. Am I still in Italy? Is this still Europe? Or have I been transported to somewhere in the third world, a city piled high with rubbish and patrolled by people who look like they've just failed the auditions for Jersey Shore?

We arrived in the city on a damp Friday afternoon and immediately wanted to leave. Unfortunately, we'd already committed ourselves to three nights. Our hotel was mercifully near the train station, and although somewhat worn around the edges was still the brightest light in the city. All around was squalor. Metres from the front entrance, a derelict shop had been re-appropriated by the homeless, a makeshift canvas sheet forming a small porch by the front. Litter was everywhere - not just around the shop, but everywhere. Rubbish so ancient it will soon make the eyes of archaeologists sparkle. Not just your usual plastic bags and broken bottles - although you can bet there was a lot of that - but heavy duty rubbish like mattresses. I'm not being unfair on Naples here and picking on a single stray mattress and making an example of it - there were scores of mattress scattered around the various streets. Sodden, battered, filthy mattress, sometimes blocking pavements.

In fairness to the Naples civilians, they clearly had tried to use bins, but virtually every bin I saw was many aeons beyond mere overflowing. The actual bin was invisible within the festering piles of bags and bottles; they were like slow-motion volcanoes of garbage, mimicking the real thing of Vesuvius, which looms over the city, waiting to one day strike again. Go ahead, Vesuvius, go ahead.

Football was on and I was keen to see the game: Ivory Coast versus Colombia. Danielle preferred to take shelter within the safety of the hotel but I ventured out. Anywhere would do, anywhere with a TV and the football: this was Italy, surely it would be easy. Darting across the angry, crazy roads, I wandered the godforsaken streets for a bar. Weirdly, Naples appears to call their shops "bars" - none of them were showing the football. I found my attention diverted by the sheer awfulness that surrounded me. I've been to some pretty poor places in my life, some pretty miserable holes that fill me with despair: how can people live like this? Naples is right up there. Granted, it's not Port Harcourt, it's not Luanda, it's not Malabo, but wow, it's closer to all these than Paris, London, or Milan. It's a rubbish dump with some buildings poking out: the many layers of graffiti are the only thing holding up much of it. Entire streets are lined with shops selling nothing, just absolute tat, cheap plastic crap - this is Third World style. I am shocked this is Europe, and Italy at that. Naples is worse than Athens. The only place in Europe I can compare it to, from my own experience, in Albania, in 2001.

Eventually I found the football - playing in a betting shop. For 90 minutes, I stood with about twenty glum Africans as they watched Ivory Coast get beaten 2-1.

Later in the evening, we managed to find - and this is relative only - a nicer part of the city. It might have passed for a rough part of Genoa. We watched the England game sitting outside a bar, and I mellowed a little. "Maybe Naples isn't so bad," I thought.

But of course it was.

Everything is so dirty, so chaotic, and so exhausting. We did a little sightseeing and saw the main cathedral. Children were playing football against its graffiti-covered facade. We explored the streets of the old city. Naples has a very ancient history. You wouldn't know it from the streets though, not from a casual stroll. It has the feel of a makeshift city that hasn't been fixed in decades. Potentially beautiful buildings are stained and broken. It's like nobody cares. Weird-looking people hung around with dogs, seemingly content to let them bark and fight. The weather was beautiful but still everything was grim. Naples has the sense of a depressed post-civilisation anarchy.

The best bit of Naples is underground. The city is built upon many layers of history, and so beneath today's street level is a massive series of chambers and caverns and tunnels. We did a tour of some. During World War 2, they were used as shelters, but otherwise were used as rubbish dumps. When the tunnels were eventually reopened to the public, there was too much rubbish to excavate, so Naples just built over it. Naples overground is filled with rubbish, and the underground is built upon 5 metres of it.

In fact, that's not quite the best bit. The best bit of Naples is one of the things it is famous for: pizza. I am often sceptical about the boasts of any city or country that claims to to the best of anything, especially something so apparently simple as pizza. But Naples truly delivers. The pizza was outstanding. Almost everywhere I ate, I had the best pizza I have ever eaten in my life - puffy, doughy pizza with simple, fresh toppings. Slices of heaven in the midst of hell. Is the pizza good enough to make me want to return to Naples? Hmm. Maybe.

A well-hidden latent potential for Naples certainly exists. The main difference between Naples and other third world cities is that Naples has centuries, millennia, of culture and history. I don't doubt that if I was to be shown around by a local guide then my eyes would be opened to the city. But as a random tourist wandering around armed only with a Lonely Planet, Naples offers nothing (except pizza). Everywhere else in Italy is better. Naples takes the crown of the worst place Danielle and I have visited on these travels

1 comment:

  1. After reading this I had a look at Naples on Google street view. It does indeed seem to confirm everything that you wrote: peeling stucco, graffiti, rubbish, buildings seemingly held together by a hotchpotch of varied third-rate building materials. What a shame. I believe Naples has a serious problem with corruption and organised crime at the highest levels of civic office which contributes (or should I say causes) all of this.

    As you say, I am pretty sure there are many historic and architectural gems there, but who wants to sift through squalor in order to attempt to appreciate them?

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