Naples: Less Garbage, Just As Much to Love

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27 Dec 2013, Naples, Italy --- Italy, Campania, Naples. Detail of the cityscape in the historic centre. --- Image by ? Ken Scicluna/JAI/Corbis Photo: Ken Scicluna/JAI/Corbis

The first time I visited Naples, I did not fall in love. I arrived at night, and the darkness of the streets intimidated me. So did the graffiti and the way trash erupted, Mt. Vesuvius–style, from the Dumpsters. I even felt intrigued, but a little anxious, by the loudness of a parade that passed down the Spaccanapoli made up of 20 people chanting and waving flags. I still can’t remember if the procession was in honor of a saint’s day or a soccer win; both, in Naples, have almost equally religious undertones. Compared to Rome, whose chaos is contained by rules you learn the longer you live there, Naples seemed like an explosion. It overwhelmed me.

Then I visited again. And again.

By my third trip there, I was a convert. I recommended a stop to anyone who would listen. Italian friends ribbed me for how much I adored the city, one historically almost as maligned in Italy as it is abroad; they threatened to set me up with a napolitano, just to make sure I’d never leave the country. (I also spread word to anyone I could that garbage there is no longer an issue. In every visit I’ve made in the past few years, there has been less garbage spilling onto the streets than, say, in midtown Manhattan on a Sunday night.)

No, Naples is not a city that reveals its allure all at once. Perhaps that’s part of its charm. Step off the train and stroll aimlessly just around Piazza Garibaldi, a square thick with construction, traffic, and vendors hawking fake Prada, and you’ll want to jump back on and not get off until you’re in Switzerland. Instead, swallow and wade in. (Just keep one hand on your wallet.) I always make a stop at the piazza’s Caffè Mexico, where baristi in crisp, white hats crank out coffee that comes perfectly roasted, already sweetened, and piping hot. And at Pasticceria Attanasio, whose sfogliatelle — baked fresh all day long, 6:30 a.m. up until 8 p.m. — are one of few pastries in Italy that I still dream about. 

Still, I didn’t fall in love with Naples at the train station. I fell in love with it at Piazza Bellini, where students gather under the leafy terraces of cafés for a Campari spritz and the occasional joint, ignoring equally both the little boy kicking a soccer ball in the corner and the ancient Greek walls, dating to the fourth century BC, that lie a stone’s throw away. I fell in love with Naples while standing in front of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child, completely alone, in the Bourbon palace turned museum that is the Capodimonte. I fell in love with it while walking through the massive street market at Via dei Vergini, where scooters whiz past grandmothers buying the day’s produce. While standing, stunned, in front of the marble grouping of the 12-foot-tall Farnese Bull, the largest ancient sculpture ever found. While seeing a woman lower a basket from her fourth-floor window to a vendor in the alley below, who carefully took out the coins and replaced them with a box of cigarettes — while businessmen in sharp suits and shiny shoes squealed past in motorini on their way to office jobs. While clinking glasses, surrounded by the city’s most beautiful and stylish people, at a seaside bar overlooking the massive Castel dell’Ovo. While wandering through massive, Baroque churches, incense from the last ceremony still floating on the air. While eating pizza. (And baba al rhum. And fritti. And fish. And … )

What I’ve always found most endearing and engaging about Naples, though, isn’t even its treasure trove of hidden-gem attractions, of which the Capodimonte and Archaeological Museum make up only a fraction. And it isn’t just the contrast of the modern city with how life, in some ways, still is lived as it would have been in medieval or even ancient Roman times. 

It’s also the people. Like the stylish woman I interviewed for a story who was one of the founders of a cultural association, a funky spot where you could drink wine and listen to a literature reading while being surrounded by contemporary installations in the gallery. As I left, she took both of my hands and told me to look her up next time I came to the city; she wanted to be friends. Or even the taxi driver whose face fell when, on the alert after years of dealing with Roman drivers, I double-checked a price with him. “It’s not Rome here,” he said, after a beat. “We’re honest in Naples.”

Of course, warm, kind people are everywhere. And so, when people ask why I love Naples so much, I always say the same thing: The sense of energy here is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Day or night, the streets are almost electric. And that means you never know what will happen, what you’ll see. I’ve seen a salsa class on a hidden piazza at 10 p.m. on a Monday, twenty- and thirtysomethings spinning on the cobblestones. I’ve had a little boy pop out of a cardboard box on the street next to me, him and his friends erupting with glee when I was startled, shouting, “We scared you! We scared you!” I’ve been plied with wine by the owner of a store selling vino sfuso, even though he knew full well I had no need for a big jug to take home. I’ve seen scooters zoom past me carrying families of four or five. I’ve been told by a policeman that a road was closed and to send our car the wrong way up a one-way street; every time a scooter or car came barreling down at us in the opposite direction, more curious children and grandmothers in housedresses popped out of their doorways, watching the foreigners try to take on their city. By the end of that trip, my friends and I joked we needed to make T-shirts with the tagline “Anything can happen in Naples!” Because anything can.

But no matter what happens, you know you’re guaranteed warm greetings and top-notch food and world-class art and architecture and ruins — and an energy that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

And that’s why I capitulated to bella Napoli. It drew me in by exceeding my expectations, and then some; it is compelling and fascinating and beautiful, but it doesn’t tell you all that right up front. It can be an extraordinarily challenging city. But it’s also one that will never, ever bore you. And when you’re talking about a love affair, what could be more important?