[Continuing the reuse of my “Don’t Go There” series, the Naples installment was written while I quietly whimpered in a corner of my hostel in November 2003. Unlike Berlin, Naples has apparently gotten worse in the interval since I visited.]
I’d initially only intended to stay in Naples long enough to break the Guinness World Record for Sprinting the Length of a City While Carrying Two Heavy Bags, before diving onto the ferry to Sicily. I’d formulated this plan on the strength of several reliable sources warning me that Naples was an unequivocal shithole and my feelings were that in the previous six months of backpacking Europe, I’d categorically filled my Shithole Quota.
However, in the days before I hit town, a few people had swayed me, enthusiastically ensuring me that Naples had been given a bad rap. I even ran into a native Neapolitan who was very nearly reduced to tears while singing the praises of his home town. So at the last minute, I dipped into my 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 accommodations options that I had read about previously.
Although Six Small Rooms was within reasonable walking distance of the train station, I had it on good authority that the immediate vicinity around the Naples train station, Piazza Garibaldi in particular, was a free-for-all of thievery, hustlers, junkies and a few entrepreneurs employing a scary combination of all three. Those who weren’t in the aforementioned demographics were selling stuff that was so recently stolen that you could detect what the former owners had had for breakfast.
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 time and physical exertion than simply walking, my plan was to descend into the metro system without ever leaving the train station, bypassing all of that ugliness 30 feet underground, 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 latter.
I got into character for the perilous journey by messing up my hair to Unpredictable, Armed Drifter standards, changing into my dirtiest, smelliest shirt, which I donned inside-out and backwards for good measure, putting on my trashed sunglasses and screwing on my best “Fuck-off Face.” Thusly prepare, I crossed myself for the first time in my life, burst out of the train station and hurried across the piazza at a inhumanly fast pace considering the weight of my luggage.
All around me I could hear hustlers accosting other train station departees with a hilarious, all-purpose opening line: “Hash/coca/cell phone?” I was moving too fast, with teeth clenched in an ear-to-ear grimace and looking too all-around crazy to personally attract this kind of attention. Instead, I ran into an unexpected, vexing snag when I made the sad discovery that Via San Biagio del Librai, the most direct street to the hostel, was one of the worst cobblestoned streets I had seen in all of Europe. The effort I was putting into dragging the Barge (my over-sized wheelie bag) slightly uphill, over loosely packed, irregular cobblestones put me in into such a pained, fatigued, sweaty state that my feigned “Fuck-off” face was dropped in favor of a very genuine “I Am So Close To A Gruesome Death That I Won’t Think Twice About Taking You With Me You Rat Bastard” expression. The streets were a shoulder-to-shoulder swarm of people/scooters/cars/stray animals and almost every time I looked up I caught guys taking long, intrigued looks at my baggage.
I made it the hostel in about 12 minutes, with all my belongings intact. However, the pinnacle of misery was waiting for me just inside the door. Six Small Rooms was at the top of four astoundingly steep flights of stairs. In my already beaten state, it took 10 minutes and two rest stops to climb the near-vertical, narrow staircase. Patrick the hostel’s Irish clerk waited good-naturedly as I slumped over the desk and wheezed out my personal information between gasps for air. He smiled sympathetically and informed me that my physical condition was common among recent arrivals. I later discovered that scaling those stairs carrying nothing but a gelato was enough to wind a guy with the air quality being what it is in Naples.
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 dorm bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. 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 during high season I imagined that it would be a little cramped, not to mention steaming with the unrelenting heat that southern Italy endures June through September.
After getting appropriately settled, I set out to find the gems of Naples. The problem was, there really weren’t any. And if there were, the supreme effort that was required to get your ass anywhere in Naples completely traumatized you, over-shadowing whatever it was you wanted to see.
I had gotten a very keen taste for the streets of Naples during the harrowing walk from the train station and quick pizza run soon after my arrival. Lonely Planet reported that Naples was one of the most densely populated, high paced, chaotic cities in all of Europe – further research revealed that Naples actually ranks quite high in worldwide population density levels – and it would either embrace you or ruthlessly destroy you. I feel ass-backwards onto the destroyed side of the fence.
Despite being the third largest city in Italy, the state of the frantic Naples street scene made even the unhinged streets of Rome seem like Quaalude, Montana. 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.” Nothing had changed. It was like Cook ill-wrote it yesterday.
To be fair, I should clarify my perspective and illustrate the delicate state of my mental and physical health at that stage in my voyage. I was six months into a balls-out, high speed tour of western Europe, trying to keep pace with a supremely ambitious, short-sighted and admittedly obtuse self-induced schedule that left me with precious few, genuine rest breaks. Anyone who has backpacked and lived out of hostels for a couple months knows how draining it can be. Take the general exhaustion involved with budget backpacking and imagine doing it for six, virtually uninterrupted, months. Then pile on several hours of writing duties and digital picture processing each night. Now pretend that you’re a 33 year old, out of shape American hauling almost his body weight in luggage.
Why yes, I am an idiot! Tell me something that I don’t know, Gomer.
As such, I had long since smashed into the wall of mental and physical fatigue, exploded pathetically, but determinedly out the other side and was now hobbling forward, with slow, dumb progress toward the goal line: a three week break back in Minneapolis at Christmas (and possible institutionalization).
Even in top form, the perpetual sensory-overload that is Naples can be maddening and irksome, but in my frail condition it was full on frightening. Cars, motorcycles, scooters, people and animals were coming at me so fast that my head couldn’t keep up with the action that my eyes were sending to it. This condition was aggravated by the jittery knowledge that one is never, ever completely safe from injury when you venture out of the house 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. Humans and animals aside, the sidewalks are fair game for anything on two wheels and sometimes cars if they feel that they’ve 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 opposite direction aren’t going to stop. When Italy passed a mandatory seatbelt law, the Neapolitans rebelled, avoiding spot-checks by wearing t-shirts with shoulder belts stenciled on them.
These are seriously unbalance drivers and you need to be in razor-sharp form just to step out for a gelato. I found religion in Naples. As Lonely Planet accurately foretells, you need the power of prayer to cross the street.
As if the danger-level and constant bumping of shoulders and elbows weren’t exasperating enough, Naples is also a city of unusual weirdness. Crazy, uncanny things happen in the streets of Naples that would confound people from anywhere else, but would likely draw an indifferent shrug and a dismissive solicitation of a cigarette from a local. I had been a resident of Six Small Rooms for less than 20 minutes, still seeing spots from the stair climb in fact, when a fellow hostel resident walked in and reported that he had just nearly been killed by a bag of chocolate chip cookies that fell out of the sky and missed caving in his skull by three inches.
A bag of chocolate chip cookies.
Fell from the sky.
Almost crushed his head like an egg.
That’s freakout material of the first order people.
Apparently he had just been innocently walking down the street, avoiding dog shit and side swipes by sidewalk-bound scooters and with absolutely no warning this bag of cookies plummeted from the clear blue sky – actually in Naples it’s more of a soupy, polluted, asthma-inducing sky – just in front of his nose and landed directly where his next footfall was going to hit.
I was aghast and speechless by this fantastic incident. Patrick however, sniffed and with as straight a face as there has ever been, simply asked if he could have one of the cookies. I understood at this moment that Naples had an entirely different scale of what was common and what was out-of-the-madcap-ordinary, which only succeeded in petrifying me even further.
Wishing I’d had the foresight to bring a re-breather, I embarked on my first exploration of the city, heading toward the disappointing harbor, only almost dying 17 times on the way, and then cutting into the market area. Calling this place a “market” is about as absurd a misnomer as “Coffee Shop” is for an Amsterdam hash bar. The conspicuous sale of stolen and contraband goods was alarming. Guys would have a cutting-edge digital camera just laying out on a table. No box, no manuals, no cables. Just the camera. At least in that case you would get something. If you decide to go slightly more legit and give your business to a guy selling a camera that’s still in the box, it would behoove you the check the contents before completing the transaction or you might end up walking away with a 100 euro, neatly packaged rock.
Heading back to the hostel, I stopped to snap the only pictures that I would take in Naples that didn’t involve some kind of disturbing street scene, peculiarity or near disaster. I have to admit that the 13th-century Castel Nuovo is fantastically impressive. Despite being surround by screaming traffic, unsightly parking lots and ferry loading docks, it manages to command complete attention from all sides and is so colossal and formidable that one will likely fall into an involuntary reverie while admiring it and wonder how the hell they built something so extraordinary 800 years ago. Then, of course you’ll be unpleasantly ripped back to reality by a motorcycle jumping the curb and screaming by two inches from your toes.
I returned to Six Small Rooms in time for a debriefing on how the men in southern Italy were even more aggressive in their desire to bed as many women as possible than the guys in the north, something that everyone had previously thought was impossible. A young Canadian woman led the discussion by describing her walk home from a museum. A man latched onto her two steps out of the exit and followed her all the way to the hostel, a distance of about 10 blocks, offering relentless propositions to bring her home for what he assured her would be supremely satisfying sex. As is common with Italian men, simply giving a firm “no” is completely useless, so she proceeded to attempt everything short of calling the police to shake the guy. Ducking into stores, faking a dangerously contagious sickness, telling him that she was on her way to meet up with her husband, brother and father. The man never batted an eye and was even kind enough to patiently explain that illicit sexual romps were the norm and indeed the height of etiquette in Italy. She didn’t even go out for ice cream without an escort after that.
The next day I asked around for advice on where I might find something pleasing without having to worry about asphyxiation or looking both ways before rounding every corner. I was directed up the hill to the spiffier, quieter Vomero neighborhood where I did indeed find calmer streets and fractionally fresher air. I had intended to stop in for a visit at Saint Elmo Castle which is gnarly looking and clearly visible from almost any spot on the hillside, but I somehow got myself into an inescapable series of dead ends, where the only road that didn’t end in a 10 foot wall or a cliff headed back down 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 headed back downhill, through a maze of ancient, randomly planned streets and neighborhoods before being amazingly deposited back into the city at almost the exact point that I first started climbing the hill.
After devoting three days to finding something, anything to like about Naples, I felt that I had done my duty. The hostel was friendly, fun and good company, but otherwise the city was an overwhelming, filthy shithole, exactly as I had been prudently warned.
Don’t Go to Naples