Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Naples, Italy

Posted on 12/14/03

On a clear day you can... Oh wait, there aren't any clear days.

I had initially only intended to stay in Naples long enough to get on a ferry to Sicily. Several reliable sources had reported that Naples was an unequivocal shithole. My feelings were that in the previous six months, I had categorically filled my shithole quota for several decades. But then in the days before I hit town, a few people had told me that Naples had a bad rap. I even ran into a native Neapolitan who was nearly brought to tears while singing the praises of his home town. So at the last minute, I dipped into Lonely Planet to sort out accommodations. Things looked up immediately. Lonely Planet raved more ardently about Six Small Rooms, a hostel in the heart of Naples, than any other place I had read about previously.

The train journey from Rome to Naples was a quick 90 minutes. Although Six Small Rooms was within reasonable walking distance of the train station, I knew that the immediate vicinity around the Naples train station was a free-for-all of thievery, hustlers, junkies or a scary combination of the three. And those who weren’t in the aforementioned demographics were selling stuff that was so hot and illegal that if one were caught with the same in the States, the authorities are sanctioned to take your ass straight to the Chair.

I wanted nothing to do with this action while I was carrying/dragging all of my very expensive Earthly possessions. Although it probably meant more physical exertion than just biting the bullet and walking, my plan was to descend into the metro and bypass all of that ugliness 30 feet underground by jockeying through two metro stops on two different lines and resurface four blocks from the hostel in a less seedy part of town. Unfortunately, Naples decided to have a transportation strike two hours before I arrived. I was left to either try my luck with the aggressive, unlicensed taxi drivers or walk the gauntlet through the worst neighborhood in Naples. I chose the later.

Castle Nuovo

I got into character for the trek by messing up my hair to Unpredictable, Armed Drifter standards, putting on my trashed sunglasses and screwing on my best “Fuck-off Face” before setting off at a remarkably fast pace, considering the weight of my luggage. All around me I could hear hustlers greeting other train station departees with a hilariously all-purpose opening line; “Hash/coca/cellphone?” I was moving too fast and looking too crazy to personally attract this kind of attention. Instead, I ran into an even more troublesome snag when I made the sad discovery that the most direct route to the hostel turned out to be on the worst cobblestone street I had seen in all of Europe. The effort I was putting into dragging the Barge slightly uphill, over loosely packed, irregular cobblestones put me in into such a horribly pained, sweaty state that my feigned “Fuck-off Face” was dropped in favor of the very genuine “I Am So Close To A Gruesome Death That I Won’t Think Twice About Taking You With Me You Fuck.” This attitude was probably the only that saved me from serious hustler/thief/junkie related grief during the 20 minute walk to the hostel. The streets were a swarm of action and everywhere I looked people were taking long, interested looks at my baggage until I shot a look at them and then they didn’t look at my baggage anymore.

As if the walk to the hostel wasn’t enough of a near death experience, the pinnacle of misery was waiting for me at the end. Six Small Rooms was at the top of a four story apartment building with steps almost as bad as Casa de Huespedes in Barcelona. When I reached the top, Patrick the Irish clerk sat patiently as I wheezed out my information between gasps for air. This was clearly a universally common issue with all recent arrivals. Even just carrying yourself up those stairs was enough to wind a guy with the air quality being what it is in Naples. While it was a distant second to Andorra la Vella’s Guaranteed-Emphazema-By-30 fumes, it was still not near enough to keep one’s blood/oxygen at minimum desired levels during minor exercise.

Six Small Rooms had the most intimate, family-like atmosphere I had seen in all of Europe. This close ambience was due to the hostel being run out of a roomy apartment. There were four bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. Hence Six Small Rooms. The clerks and the residents alike fell into an amiable kindred groove, cooking meals, playing cards and watching movies together every night. The place was only about 1/2 full while I was there, making the personal space ratio just right, though I think during high season it would be a little cramped, not to mention steaming with the unrelenting, soaring heat that southern Italy endures June through September.

My first 36 hours in Naples involved several hair-pulling, painful, fruitless writing sessions. I had only succeeded in getting down crappy notes for Florence and Rome and I decided that I should beautify the material before it got too stale in my head. The problem was that my general exhaustion was now manifesting itself in exasperating dearth of concentration capacity. Every sentence was forced. Simple, every day words like “escalator” bobbed and weaved just beyond the reach of my higher consciousness. I rode my thesaurus incessantly and was still struggling to find an acceptable color to express my feelings. I tried all my tricks for jump-starting my brain. Cool, vigorous showers, Coke and chocolate benders, jumping around, pounding my chest and wailing like a Norwegian Tarzan… Actually the close quarters of the hostel prevented me from doing that last one. When you’re in a close knit group, developing an unhinged repute can be very alienating.

Typical "street" in Naples.

Finally, I just threw up my arms, surrendered and set out to find the gems of Naples. The problem was, there really weren’t any. I had gotten a very keen taste for the streets of Naples in the prior 36 hours while cutting out to get pizza, caffeine or visit the internet café. Lonely Planet reported that Naples was one of the most densely populated, high paced, chaotic cities in all of Europe and it would either embrace you or destroy you. I fell into the latter category. Despite being only the third largest city in Italy, the state of the frantic Naples street scene made Rome seem like Quaalude, Wyoming. Take Rome’s hysterical ambiance, double it, add two parts dog shit, halve the number of mufflers, triple the number of people who wouldn’t think twice about running you over to gain two seconds on their drive and that’s Naples. Oh yeah, cut the amount of usable oxygen in half. That about sums it up. The 1884 edition of “Cook’s Tourist Handbook” offered the following; “Naples is an ill-built, ill-paved, ill-lighted, ill-drained, ill-watched, ill-governed and ill-ventilated city.” Little has changed in 120 years and I was simply not in the mood for it.

At this stage in my voyage I had all but hit the wall as far as mental fatigue was concerned. It was like being horribly hungover all the time. My brain refused to fire faster than about 30% capacity. In this state, the sensory-overload that is Naples was pretty much incapacitating. Things on the street were coming at me so fast that I was never quite sure if I was in danger of being run down by vehicles or people. My head couldn’t keep up with the action that my eyes were sending to it. This condition was aggravated by the knowledge that you are never, ever reasonably safe from injury in Naples. You are in just as much danger of being killed walking down the sidewalk as you are lying in the middle of the street. The sidewalks are fair game for anything on two wheels and sometimes cars if they feel that they have waited in traffic long enough. Traffic lights, when they work, are heeded by so few people that drivers actually slow down a little when approaching a green light because there’s an even chance that the people approaching the red from the other direction are not going to stop. When Italy passed a mandatory seatbelt law, it was the Neapolitans that fabricated t-shirts with shoulder belts stenciled on them. These are seriously unbalance drivers and you need to be in razor-sharp form just to cross the street for a gelato.

Naples is also a city of unusual weirdness. I had been a resident of Six Small Rooms for less than 20 minutes before someone came in and jovially recounted how he had just nearly had his skull caved in by a plummeting bag of chocolate chip cookies. Apparently he had just been walking down the street and this bag of cookies rocketed out of the sky, just in front of his nose and landed directly where his next footfall was intended. I was aghast and speechless by this fantastic incident. Patrick however, with as straight a face as there has ever been, simply asked if he could have one. I understood at this moment that Naples had an entirely different definition of what was common and what was out-of-the-madcap-ordinary.

I took a long walk to the disappointing harbor, only almost dying 17 times on the way, and then cut into the market area. Calling this place a “market” is about as absurd a moniker as “Coffee Shop” is for an Amsterdam hash bar. The conspicuous sale of stolen and contraband goods is alarming. Guys will have a five megapixel digital camera, laying out on sale. No box, no manuals, no cables. Just the camera. At least in that case you get something. If you decide to go slightly more legit by buying a camera that is still in the box, it would behoove you the check the box before completing the transaction or you may end up walking away with a 100 euro, nicely packaged rock.

After a very long time trying to find a single redeeming quality about Naples and coming up empty, I asked around Six Small Rooms for advice on where I might find something pleasing without having to worry about asphyxiation or looking both ways before rounding every corner. They directed me up the hill to the spiffier, quieter Vomero neighborhood where I did indeed find calmer streets and fresher air. I had intended to stop in for a visit at Saint Elmo Castle, but I somehow got myself into an inescapable series of dead ends, where the only road that didn’t end in a wall or a cliff headed back down the hill into the city center. It was going on 4:00PM and the sun would shortly dip out of sight. The last thing I wanted was to be lost in Naples in the dark, so I walked downhill, through a series of strangely planned, throwback neighborhoods (pictured) before being deposited back into the city at almost the exact point that I first started climbing the hill.

Having made two serious stabs at finding something, anything to like about Naples, I felt that I hand done my duty. The hostel was friendly, fun and good company, but it was time to move on. Next stop Sicily.

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