Robert A. Masullo

Imagine a history-filled city of enormous natural beauty. One packed with great architectural structures, many of them filled with incomparable works of art. A city with an amazing musical heritage, a theatrical tradition, a literature, even a language of its own, and a cuisine loved the world over. A city with wonderful year-round weather, situated on one of the most beautiful bays on the planet, and with magnificent mountains and a dramatic volcano on its outskirts.

Wouldn't a country fortunate enough to contain such a city be proud of it? Promote it? Encourage foreigners to visit it?

You might think so.

But such is not the case for Naples, Italy's third largest city, and in many ways its most important cultural treasure. (I say this mindful of how rich all of Italy is in cultural treasures.)

Pick up almost any English-language guidebook of Italy and read its acknowledgment of Naples' attractions. Inevitably, these will be followed by warnings about its dangers, dirtiness and disarray. The same is echoed by travel agents and, alas, residents of other parts of Italy.

Northern Italians speak of Naples as if it were a third-world hardship outpost and even Italians from other parts of the south rarely refer to it kindly. I can recall being sternly warned about going there by acquaintances in Calabria and Sicily.

Nevertheless, German, French and British tourists do not seem to be afraid of Naples. They love the warmth of its people and its spectacular physical beauty. They regularly fill Naples' hotels and provide the backbone of its tourist trade.

Americans, however, are conspicuous by their absence. If they see Naples at all, it usually is on a breezethrough to Capri, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast. Even Italian Americans rarely visit it, despite the fact that as many as a third of them have ancestral roots in or near the city.

What is going on? Is Naples all that bad?

My wife and I decided to find out for ourselves.

After numerous trips to Italy, none of which included a visit to Naples, we elected to spend a week there on our last trip. It turned out to be the best week we have spent in Italy and our only regret is that we didn't budget more time in Naples.

We found a city that knows its own worth but is little concerned with what others think of it. Its people lack most modern-day inhibitions and exude a charm rooted in a no-nonsense view of life. But, it must be added, they are hardly the opera-singing, happy-go-lucky paesani of TV commercials.

Years ago the noted New York author, Pete Hamill, in an article explaining his city to non-New Yorkers, advised visitors to accept it on its own terms. Those who faulted it for not being like Des Moines or Peoria, he suggested, would never appreciate its wonders.

Ditto for Naples. Like New York, Naples is highly idiosyncratic. There is no other city remotely like it, and that includes the usual three sisters of Italian travel … Rome, Florence and Venice.

True, Venice with its watery streets, has a special allure. But only historically is it a city. Today few people actually live there. It has become almost exclusively a tourist attraction, much like Disneyland.

Naples, on the other hand, is a thriving, pulsating metropolis of more than a million people. It welcomes tourists, but doesn't beg for them. Its size means it has the problems of any big city, some of them exacerbated by its age, and yes, that includes petty street crime.

But Naples' virtues, we found, strongly outweigh its negatives. And the negatives have been exaggerated out of all proportion.

Take the street crime, for example. Guidebooks would have you belive the only safe way to walk through Naples' streets is with an armed bodyguard. Nonsense. We spent many hours, day and night, strolling its streets and didn't feel threatened.

Naples, of course, has its share of muggers. But what large city does not? It has no more, percentagewise, than Paris, London or New York. Walking around Naples one is as safe as in any major city in the United States or western Europe. In fact, safer … because Neapolitan street criminals confine themselves almost entirely to stealing. Physically harming tourists, so common in other large cities, is almost unheard of in Naples.

Neapolitan streets, however, are generally narrow and crowded with automobile and pedestrian traffic. At first sight they seemed overwhelming. But once we let ourselves get into the city's rhythm, we found them fascinating.

What seemed crazy, we soon learned, had its own order. Drivers, we noticed, were exceedingly tolerant of people crossing mid-block or other drivers making quirky moves. In this respect, Naples is something like downtown San Francisco, only more so. But such behavior should be enjoyed, not feared. Think of it as part of the "Theater of the streets," one of many things for which Naples is famous.

But don't rent a car. We did and found it spent most of the time in a garage. Getting around on foot was easier; if the distances were too far to walk, we took a bus, taxi or funiculare (a train that goes up and down the city's hills). They were cheap, widely available and … most importantly … didn't have to be parked.

Nevertheless, our rental car provided us with the first of many Neapolitan experiences. Driving from the Hertz office to our hotel, we got caught in a traffic snafu that put us in a lane we weren't supposed to be in. Before realizing what we were doing, we were confronted by a barrier … and a policeman.

"Oh, oh,"  I thought. "We're going to get a ticket before we even get to our hotel."

But no. The police officer sensed our predicament; said, "Un momento," and moved the barrier so we could make a U-turn and get back in the traffic flow.

"You're in Napoli, amico," shouted an Italian friend who accompanied us. Although she now lives in Perugia, our friend grew up near Naples and loves the warmth of its people. The officer's action confirmed her faith.

While driving around that first day we found a radio station that played Neapolitan music. This was a pleasant experience as most Italian stations play international rock, much of it non-Italian, and all of it as cacophonous as that heard on the worst American stations.

We tuned in the station again at the hotel. Calling itself "Studio Napoli," after every third or fourth song it played an identification jingle that contained the line: "solo musica napolitana" ("only Neapolitan music").

What other city, we thought, has a musical tradition so vibrant that one of its radio stations could play nothing but the music of the city? We couldn't think of any.

And Studio Napoli did not rely on a steady diet of "O Sole Mio" or other tunes of that ilk; it played contemporary songs with modern beats, whose lyrics were, nevertheless, in the ancient, beautiful, often haunting Neapolitan tongue.

In a bookstore I picked up an Italian-Neapolitan dictionary. At last, I thought, I would be able to find out the meanings of words I heard my second-generation parents (whose own parents came from Naples' outskirts) speak but which they were unable to translate (and of which teachers of standard Italian always expressed ignorance).

It should be noted that while Neapolitans are able to speak the language of their city … and it never ceased to amaze us that a city could maintain a language of its own … they more often speak Italian. Italian is what is used on Neapolitan airwaves, in its newspapers and in most daily transactions.

When I showed the dictionary to a hotel clerk, he laughed, and in perfect Italian said to me: "First, learn Italian better; then work on your Neapolitan.'

A put-down, but a gentle, typically Neapolitan one.

Tourist attractions? Naples has a plethora. With Greek, Roman, French, Spanish and assorted other rulers over more than 2,000 years, these attractions are unbelievably diverse.

Some must-see sites include the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, widely regarded as the world's finest archaeological museum; the Duomo (Cathedral) of San Genarro, where the blood of the city's patron saint (martyred 1,700 years ago) mysteriously liquifies three times a year; the Certosa of San Martino, whose elevated perch offers a magnificent view of the city and whose chambers contain exquisite examples of Neapolitan presepi (Christmas nativity scenes with hundreds of meticulously detailed figurines); and the magnificent Capodimonte, a former royal palace turned into a hilltop art museum.

There is no need, however, to rehash information readily available in guidebooks, even those by anti-Neapolitan writers. Suffice it to say, if you visit Naples you won't lack for interesting and beautiful places to tour.

The point is, simply, don't be afraid of Naples. Discount the negative talk. It is, in our opinion, mainly the product of envy.

See the city for yourself and do so with an open mind. If you can do it with a friendly Neapolitan at your side, as we did, you will appreciate it even more. But no matter how you do it, don't miss this incredible city.

This essay was developed as a part of the effort of The Albany (NY) Area Lodge of The Sons of Italy to make available material that will develop an appreciation and understanding of The Italy-to-USA Avventura. The writers of this essay and other text found on this world wide web site claim sole responsibility for the content of their productions.


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