A New Year in An Other Italy

“So where are you now?” It was the standard start to the weekly conversations we  have with family. What used to be time spent talking about the weather and our jobs is now occupied with ritualistic queries about where we are and where we’re headed. Next week, the second answer becomes the first and a new location becomes the destination named second. Ad infinitum, as they may have said during Roman times.

“We’re in Naples.”

“Ooh, nice,” came the reply, drawing out the words as one does when impressed by something glamorous, as if we had mentioned we just bought a Mercedes-Benz or were staying at the Ritz-Carlton.

Listening on speakerphone from across the room, I gave a start. Nice? It was a comment that ran counter to the myriad warnings, smirks, and raised eyebrows given by everyone we spoke to, Italian and otherwise, concerning our planned route through Italy. Nice was not a word one used when discussing Naples. No, definitely not nice.

Struggling to think how one could come to the impression that Naples was a nice place to visit, I came to the conclusion that, like many things, it was Florida’s fault. The younger Floridian town of Naples, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States and home to the second largest proportion of millionaires per capita in the country (not to mention palm trees, golf courses and widows), had apparently not only borrowed the Italian city’s name, but had succeeded in becoming the default image an American thinks of upon hearing the name Naples. I wondered if those beachfront Floridian towns with names like Naples and Venice, developed in the early 20th century to lure second and third generation Italian-Americans away from the wintry northeast,  didn’t just capitalize on snowbird pensions, but their idyllic, unrealistic memory of the Old World as well.

Or perhaps there had been a postcard. Or a very carefully selected route through town, en route to Pompeii, behind the safety of a tour bus window. After all, the original Napoli, as it’s referred to in Italian, does offer some waterfront appeal, particularly as one looks south across the bay to Mount Vesuvius from Castel dell’Ovo, or up into the hills of the Volermo district.

Looking south across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius from the spit of land connecting Castel dell'Ovo with the Chiai neighborhood in Naples.
Looking south across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius from the spit of land connecting Castel dell’Ovo with the Chiai neighborhood in Naples. The castle is on a peninsula to the right, the city is to the left.

The rest of Naples, however, does not look like this. It’s a gritty, graffiti-covered labyrinth of rutted cobblestone streets snaking their way past the crumbling facade of unappealing post-war, multi-family homes whose ubiquitous clotheslines and flapping laundry are the only ornamentation. It’s a city where even the cathedrals and statues are not spared from the rampant vandalism; where one walks through litter and broken glass as if it were leaves on a forest trail. No, Naples is not nice. It’s a city by a sea whose salty air can’t be smelled above the noxious fumes of rampaging motorbikes and the pungent rivulets of garbage juice flowing through the cracks in the basalt paving stones.

And that’s just the area where it’s reasonably safe for tourists to go.

A small trash fire in front of a cathedral in the historic quarter on Via dei Tribunali, one of the most popular streets for tourists to visit in Naples.
A small trash fire in front of a cathedral in the historic quarter on Via dei Tribunali, one of the most popular streets for tourists to visit in Naples.

Naples, a perpetual contender for Europe’s highest murder rate, is comprised of thirty quarters. Venture away from the five districts nearest the castles and historic quarter (Volermo, Chiai, Montecalvario, San Ferdinano, and San Giuseppe) and you quickly enter a different, far more dangerous place with even less appeal than I’ve described. In short, you enter the territories of the Mafia clans, the very neighborhoods that fuel the vast criminal network that controls so much of southern Italy. Roberto Saviano, a son of Naples, in his critically-acclaimed investigative book “Gomorrah: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System” writes:

It’s strange how no matter whom you’re talking to, no matter about what, as soon as you say you’re going away, you receive all sorts of good wishes, congratulations and enthusiastic responses: “Good for you, you’re doing the right thing, I’d leave too.” You don’t need to supply any details or explain what you’re going to do. Whatever the reason, it will be better than the reasons you have for sticking around here.

We stuck around for the four days straddling the New Year’s festivities for which Naples is known for. Italians from all over the country made their way to Piazza del Plebiscito for nine hours of live music and entertainment, a party that didn’t wrap up until six in the morning. Like so many of the Capodanno revelers, we took the train, leaving our bikes in Rome. Not only was it extraordinarily windy during our time in Naples, but very cold as well, with snow flurries in the air on two of the days we were there. The route would also have taken us through some of the aforementioned Camorristi-infested neighborhoods, only to plunge us into an area so unfit for cycling that we, for the first time in memory, went four days without seeing a single bicycle. We were glad we left them behind.

The historic quarter is home to a large number of churches and tremendous amounts of graffiti.
The historic quarter is home to a large number of churches and tremendous amounts of graffiti.

Our guesthouse, for which we needed four separate keys to access, was within a ten minute walk of the square where the party would be. It was just two blocks off the main shopping street in Naples, where counterfeit leather bags and designer perfumes were sold on collapsible tables outside legitimate stores for one-fifth of the price inside. A shop downstairs from our room repaired (rigged?) slot and video poker machines. The incessant roar of 500cc scooters–no cute Vespas in these parts–echoed throughout the narrow, hilly streets of our temporary neighborhood. It wasn’t the only noise we’d hear during our stay.

Naples is known for its trash problems. We're told things are much, much better these days than a few years ago. Let that sink in while you look at this photo.
Naples is known for its trash problems. People say things are much, much better these days than a few years ago.

The owner of our guesthouse explained a few important things to us concerning our New Year’s stay in Naples. For starters, Italians receive what amounts to a thirteenth monthly paycheck, tredicesima, at Christmas. Neapolitans, we were told, spend this money on fireworks. Temporary fireworks shops were set up on every street corner by mid-morning and staffed well into the dark, their wares being exploded round the clock throughout the neighborhood. Never were you out of earshot of the explosives. And not those little firecrackers you sometimes see lit off in packs of 25. No, these were cherry bombs, M-80s, and other explosives that were deemed illegal several decades ago in the United States. In the narrow streets of Montecalvario, the reverberations of the M-80 bombardment, explosives originally developed by the U.S. military to simulate artillery fire, were constant and, when combined with the rapid fire blasts of lesser fireworks lit in bunches, simulated an aural warzone.  The imitation sounds of mortars, assault rifles, and flares were all there. The siege lasted for days.

The usage of fireworks was so constant and so widespread that the city of Naples, home to a nationally-televised New Year’s celebration (think Times Square in New York City) doesn’t set off their own fireworks until 2 a.m. so as to not compete with the people lighting their own off. We were in the Capodanno crowd, along with well over a hundred thousand other people, and hastily-emptied bottles of cheap Prosecco were tossed to the ground as lighters throughout the crowd were struck. Fireworks began rocketing into the air from all directions: roman candles, small mortars, sparklers, balloon-like lanterns, and firecrackers began going off all around us. There was barely room to turn in place, the crowd was packed so tight, yet that didn’t stop the pyrotechnics.

A small burst of fireworks at midnight in Naples. The main show didn't go off until 2 a.m.
A small burst of fireworks at midnight in Naples. The main show didn’t go off until 2 a.m.

By the morning of January 1st, centuries-old streets were stained with gunpowder residue and a couple visiting from northern Italy, proudly told us what a successful Capodanno it was for Naples: there weren’t any fireworks-related deaths. “Usually there are three or four,” the woman said.

Minutes before the new year in Naples. And yes, that is a Stinky Spoke hat.
Minutes before the new year in Naples. And yes, that is my Stinky Spoke hat.

Fireworks aren’t the only thing to watch out for on New Year’s in Naples. Another tip we were given, in addition to the fireworks warning, was to only walk in the center of the street at midnight. “Neapolitans,” the lady of the guesthouse explained, “take the phrase ‘out with the old and in with the new’ quite literally. At midnight, they throw bottles and glasses from their balconies down onto the street. Some will throw their dinner plates and even pots and pans too. Some people even throw furniture or small appliances. Anything they wish to get rid of, so you should really stay in the square or go inside at midnight.”

Hearing this reminded me instantly of being a kid in New Jersey and going out on the front steps and banging our pans together as the clock struck midnight. I always thought it was a really odd thing to do. But it suddenly made a bit more sense. Though I can’t be sure where this tradition originated in my family, the fact that my grandmother’s family came from Naples at least allows me to wonder if, unbeknownst to us, we were tapping into our own distant, faint, Neapolitan roots. I’d like to think so.

The next morning, over breakfast at our guesthouse, a photographer from London commented, “You’ll either love Naples, or you’ll hate it. There’s no middle ground with such a city.” Though I can see why he’d say this, I have to admit that I’m still on the fence.

A final image to leave town with, and hopefully the one I remember the most years from now.
A final image to leave town with, and hopefully the one I remember the most years from now.

We spent the first day of 2015 struggling in vain to avoid stepping in the broken glass strewn across the streets, all the while trying to form an opinion on this city. Sure, there are the issues with the garbage and the graffiti and both major and minor crime, but this is also a place that’s alive. Unlike Florence or Siena or even Rome, Naples has a lived-in aspect that is endearing. It’s not putting on airs. Life here is hard and ugly and you’re never more than a half-step from being run over by a motorbike, but it’s also the birthplace of pizza, a city where even the nicest restaurants will serve you a bowl of fried doughy zeppole as an appetizer, and where anchovies are added to everything, turning any dish into an alice delight.

So no, I don’t hate Naples. Nor do I love it. Kristin and I discussed the city’s pros and cons over a final pair of margherita pizzas — red, white, and green for the Italian flag and named after Queen Margherita in 1889 — and decided that we’d return. We’d come back to eat. We’d come to shop. And then we’d get the hell out of town and be thankful we don’t live there.

Just as my ancestors did.

Special Thanks: Kristin and I finished up 2014 with a wonderful day-trip to Pompeii, followed by a terrific meal celebrating her birthday. Kristin would like to issue a personal thank you to family and friends who sent along some birthday cheer. It means so much to be remembered, even when out of sight. Similarly, we also want to thank my mountain biking friend Chris Newman for his generosity. There’s nothing better than hearing from someone we didn’t even realize was following this blog. We also want to thank Mark Gifford, a Wyoming resident who sneakily picked up our tab at a pub last weekend where a bunch of Americans had gathered to watch the NFL. Lastly, we have to thank two tour companies in Rome. We were fortunate to enjoy two excellent tours with Angel Tours, one of Vatican City and another of Rome, the latter of which was a Christmas gift from one cyclist to another. Thank you Sean! And though we didn’t end up using Amazing Rome Tours due to a scheduling conflict, the company’s manager, Nicola, put us up in his lovely apartment for two nights, cooked for us, and took us on an excellent, private tour of Rome’s parks and aqueducts. You guys were the best and anyone going to Rome should not hesitate to contact either of these companies!

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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

6 Comments
  1. Love seeing the Stinky Spoke beanie getting such a grand tour. Alas, mine has had a much more boring existence. Happy New Year!

  2. Hi,

    I’m faithfully reading all the updates and following your trip. I enjoy it. Doug, I am not sure if I’m just getting to know your voice better or your writing level is improving (not that it was ever bad) but I’m enjoying it more and more! Thanks for taking the time to share.

    1. Thanks Nate. I really appreciate the kind words. I was intentionally holding back on a lot of the early blog posts in effort to keep them shorter and more photo-centric, but once I realized we weren’t necessarily going to be posting more frequently than every two weeks, I decided to go with longer, more story-based posts in effort to give my writing muscles a bit more of a workout. Thanks for reading, as always!

  3. Doug and Kristin – Happy New Year, and Kristin – Happy Birthday! Wow, what a detailed vision I now have of Naples. I never knew how life was there. I hope the aroma of nitrate during the fireworks masked the smell of garbage fermenting in the streets. Falling down could have resulted in some pain or worse, with all that broken glass! I’m glad you departed Naples in good health. Great photo of you both on New Year’s Eve! Stay well!

    1. Thanks Dad! Happy New Year to you too! We didn’t have any near-falls, fortunately, but it broke our hearts to see people out walking their dogs. I don’t know how the dogs managed. Naples is a tough place to like and a tricky place to write about without relying too heavily on mafioso stories. Speaking of which, the book Gomorrah that I referenced in the post is absolutely fantastic (in a shockingly disturbing way). There was a movie based on the book, which I haven’t seen, but I definitely recommend reading the book. The author has been under 24/7 police protection since its publication over eight years ago.

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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