Driving into Naples boosts my adrenaline, not only for the inevitable wrong turn, sudden one-way streets, and jarring onslaught of honkey horns, but because the city and people effuse a sense of vibrancy more than any other place in Italy. This town is reckless, tough, complex, mysterious, superstitious and sometimes comical. It would make a great setting for a Scooby Doo episode.
It’s a big city, the third largest in Italy. It is laid out like a plate of spaghetti with miles of roads noodling in every direction. Cars and motor scooters zoom up and down and sideways with no concept of staying within a lane. The bordering buildings decorated with graffiti often rise high enough over the streets to block out the sunlight. Laundry hangs from nearly every window, but it’s hard to believe that anyone is ever inside because the sidewalks and cafes are so full.
This is my fourth visit to Naples. I know I’m here when I see an entire family brazenly swerve through traffic on a single moped or when a stranger approaches and reminds me to hold my purse and camera tightly or when every block I pass displays a shrine honoring Jesus or the neighborhood Catholic saint. The four days passed quickly here. And as we drove out of town with white knuckles clutching the steering wheel, I wanted to plan another visit.
At first glance, Naples doesn’t strike me as beautiful, but there is so much to love, and the most obvious is pizza. Naples claims to have invented it. Whether or not that is true, it is undisputedly the best in the country. We had a great lunch at Da Michele, a 130-year-old pizzeria that offers only two choices: margarita or marinara. We arrived to find a crowd amassed at the entrance with customers waiting for a table. We got a number and within an hour, we were ordering three pizzas.
During the rest of our stay in Naples, we visited churches, climbed to the top of a castle, spent an hour t00 long in the archeological museum, and ordered lots of coffee and gelato. The boys’ highlight was a little street called Via San Gregorio Armeno that was lined with shops on both sides selling tiny figures for nativity scenes. While there was the occasional Baby Jesus, most of the items for sale were more Neapolitan such as little pizza ovens or a group of old men playing cards and other incongruent accompaniments to the stable and shepherds.
After three days in the city, we decided to take the train out to Pompeii. This, of course, is the ancient Roman city that was buried in ash and toxic gas from Mt. Vesuvius back on August 24, 79AD. What’s so amazing about this place is that all the details of daily life have been preserved so well. We saw the locker room of the bath house, the ovens of a bakery and the beds in the brothel. There were so many similarities between this ancient life and ours, but we wondered how the people couldn’t save themselves. Our tour guide explained that most of the 20,000 inhabitants did escape after the initial explosion, but the following day, around 2,000 came back to collect their belongings, and that’s when a second eruption occurred. Eventually, the city was covered in 5 meters of ash and debris, but it was the poisonous gas that caused the most death. Our guide assured the boys that it was a painless death, and that the Pompeiians just got very sleepy before nodding off forever.
And finally, we spent an afternoon on the Almafi Coast before heading back to Perugia. We figured that since it was only about 45 miles from Naples, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Italy’s most beautiful coastline. We had no idea that the traffic would keep us in the car longer than the beach. When we finally arrived in Positano, a small village perched on the steep Almafi cliffs, we were dying for a cold drink and a beach recliner. After parking the car, we hiked down 342 stairs to a cute restaurant overlooking some chairs and umbrellas for rent. We ordered wine and marinated anchovies then took a quick dip in the Mediterranean Sea. The Almafi coast is not only famous for it’s beauty, but for it’s lemons. It’s said that the people here take better care of their lemons than their children.