Napoli: Travelogue (October 19, 2012)
11 November, 2012
Naples is a jewel in the rough. So it goes without saying that you need to put up with its roughness to be able to focus on the beauty within. Then, the beauty within will be abundantly evident: in the warmth and generosity of its people; in the unrivalled superiority of its pizza; in the street smarts of its pedestrians; in the architectural legacy of its turbulent history; and in its proximity to the gentle, inviting Mediterranean sea and to nearby islands like Capri.
Naples is a jewel in the rough if you know where to look. But don’t go looking for it right outside of Napoli Centrale train station. For the pampered traveller, walking out of that train station is tantamount to stepping into the city centre of a Third World country for the first time: culture shock. However, what may appear to the virgin eye as total and utter chaos––noise, heat, horns blaring, people and cars intermingled everywhere, traffic lights ignored, street sellers of all colours and stripes hawking everything under the sun except their souls (and maybe even that too)––all this after a while may actually start to make sense, as some sort of organized chaos. And then you may come to understand how much intelligence in each and every one of its actors necessarily keeps the whole production going. Genius. Therein lies the beauty of Naples, Italy; the rough, tough city of the south with a lot of fight in its spirit but a heart of gold.
My visit to Naples was short but sweet. I spent just a day there, the first half ticking off the minutes until I could return to civilization (literally––to Rome), and the second half wishing each moment could last longer. The justification for that starkly different experience in the second half of my stay was partly due to the kind-hearted and affable people I met during that period––from the vendor who offered me my lunch free of charge just because he was happy to meet me; to the shop owner who insisted that a traditional lemon sweet from Capri be part of my local experience; to the local who shared his time and company and showed me the vibrant nightlife that takes over the historic district after nightfall. It was also partly due to getting over the irrational fear of being mugged or kidnapped at any second, to the beautiful weather, and most importantly, to the most delicious pizza I have ever tasted. I ate this pizza at midnight at a little, nondescript place called Pizzeria di Matteo in the historic district; and my only regret is that I was so tired out by the day’s activities at that point that I could not do my food the justice it deserved by inhaling the whole pie. A pie which, incidentally, was so cheap, at three Euros per twelve-inches, that you could die a slow, happy death living on pizza everyday. Which is basically and inevitably what you would do if you lived in Naples, because there seem to be only three choices for meals here: pizza, pizza, and more pizza.
Naples is a great city to test your groundedness as a traveller. Are you travelling on a dream cloud in search of carefully engineered tourist attractions and minimal contact with locals; or are you in search of an authentic experience––close contact with residents, confrontation with less-than-ideal living conditions, traditional food in traditional places, vigilance for petty crime (just like back home, for most of you), making the effort to learn the local language, taking an interest in locals and their preoccupations…. While the first option may be more worry-free and relaxing, in my opinion the second, like Neapolitan pizza, is the far superior choice. I will put it this way: how can you travel to a country and miss getting to know its people? It is important for every tourist to step out of their dream cloud and enter into the rich, unique reality that their host town offers. Naples can help you with that.