Naples (Napoli) is a feisty Nonno of a city – a chaotic melting pot of natural beauty, architecture, and infinite historical, cultural, and gastronomical phenomena. With its million inhabitants, it is Italy’s the third most populated city. Its geographic juxtaposition is spectacular – with the celebrated view of the Gulf of Naples and the extraordinary islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida. The city is poised beneath the watchful eye of Vesuvius, the capricious volcano that so violently erupted in 79 BC, covering the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano).
My first visit to Naples is tattooed to memory due to the colorful cast of characters who populated this chapter of my life. I was working on a German cruise ship as a production singer (my best stories begin with this line!). I had fallen in love with the Neapolitan Maitre D’ of the ship’s 5-star restaurant, as one does…Handsome (of course!) and very Continental, he spoke 5 languages – German with the guests and English with me. I spent a blissful summer with Sergio cruising the Baltics and Scandinavia before our ship re-positioned to the Mediterranean for the fall itinerary. My sister, Brenda, came onboard for this cruise as a guest, which was excellent as she could bear witness to the bizarre transformation of my boyfriend as our ship approached his homeland.
The original plan for our day in Naples was to explore the city on foot and by taxi with Sergio as our guide. Unfortunately, due to a last-minute lunch booking Sergio had to stay onboard, meaning Brenda and I would have explore Naples without the aid of a local chaperone. This left Sergio absolutely fuming and my sister and I completely unfazed. We made our way to the gangway with our big cameras, sunglasses, and Cosmopolitan Bravado. My boyfriend took one look at us and went ballistic! He ranted at us in (suddenly) broken English that we looked like gullible American tourists and were easy prey for muggers and pickpockets. “Oh c’mon,” I quipped, “I’m from New York.” …”You tink you so smaaaart ‘cause a you from New York – -we taught dem everting day know ‘bout robbin’ an stealin’ — we bin doin’ it for tousand years!!!!”
Fine, fine, fine…camera in the bag, wallet in my purse’s inner lining…Sergio insisted on walking us from the port to the nearest pedestrian zone and nearby shopping Galleria. He then mapped out for us where we were ‘permitted’ to walk and which sidestreets (the cool-looking ones of course) were strictly ‘off limits’! I’ve never seen anyone’s behavior change to quickly and in such immediate response to a change of circumstance and culture. My beautiful cosmopolitan boyfriend turned into a screaming bossy lunatic. The running dialogue between my sister and I and the joke for the rest of the day was, “Hey, that alleyway/side street/piazza looks really cool – too bad we’re not allowed there.” My sister punctuated the day with the comment, “If you guys ever get married you better stay as far as possible away from Naples.”
Fast-forwarding to the present: I must admit that Sergio was right! Naples is the gateway to historic treasure and incredible natural beauty, but the city itself, especially the port area, is a portentous eyesore. Muggers and pickpockets line the thoroughfare separating the port from the beginning of town and the taxi-drivers are the worst possible cliché of liars and con artists.
On my first visit this season, I decided to take the regional train south to the coastal city of Sorrento. Guests had been asking me all week how to get their ‘on their own’ and I had been providing instructions and train schedules on based on information I found online. Now was chance to check my work. The Naples Garibaldi main train station in August is a big fat hairy mess. The express trains are located on the upper level and the local trains lower level, as the man at the information counter screamed at me. The local trains are naturally in greater states of disrepair than the express…kind of like the NY subway in the 70’s and 80’s.
None of this is cause to love Italy any less, however. I love speaking Italian! Or rather, I love the feeling that if I gesticulate wildly I’m actually speaking Italian – which it turns out I do not. I went to the ticket counter for the local trains (Circumvesuviano) and said, “Sorrento, para favore” with my best Italian phonetics. To indicate that I wanted a roundtrip fare I pointed to the ticket agent and then to myself. To drive my point home I did this twice. He printed my tickets and gave me my change. Only when I went to the turnstile to validate my ticket did I realize that the agent printed four one-way tickets. My train was due in the station and I didn’t have time to scalp the extras, there was certainly no point in trying to straighten out the surplus with the ticket agent, since this is what my hands apparently asked for. It cost just 4-Euros one-way to get to Sorrento by local train, 16-euros if you don’t sign well. I guess I don’t speak Italian after all…so much for cosmopolitan bravado.
A mere 75-minute train ride from Naples, Sorrento is a magnificent cliff-side municipality, abounding in history – pretty much like the rest of Italy, but most people come here for the views, the food, the resorts, and the proximity via ferry and hydrofoil to other spectacular locales along the Amalfi Coast. I spent the afternoon on foot, exploring the narrow backstreets behind Sorrento’s Piazza Tasso (Main Square), and visiting one of the cruise lines’ “recommended” shops and its owner.
I ‘recommend’ the whole city and wish I could have stayed longer. My ship was scheduled to depart at 5pm, and I needed to be on a train back to Naples by 2:30. The downside of seeing the world by cruise ship is the time constraints imposed by port departure and arrival. Still, I was reeling at the array of beauty, bounty, and madness I had experienced in a few short hours!
So what happened with the Italian guy? Mr. Continental was a very nice guy and dazzling to boot. However, underneath the neatly trimmed beard and Bruno Magli Nappa Leather footwear he turned out to be…a bit…unreflecting. Or perhaps to be fair, WE discovered, within 6-months, that we had very little in common beyond the excitement of a shipboard romance.
I have only fond memories of him and our time together; I even added the song, Mambo Italiano to my repertoire in his honor.
“A boy went back to Napoli because he missed the scenery…”
And for good reason: Napoli, tu si’ nu babà!