By Ed Perkins

You can easily spend hours observing the scene in Naples Photographer: Rick Steves
The Scene in Naples
Photographer: Rick Steves

All my life, Naples has been the symbol of chaos, stress, and culture shock for European travel. I remember my first visit as a wide-eyed 18-year-old to this quintessential southern Italian city. My travel buddy and I stepped off the train into the same vast Piazza Garibaldi that 35 years later still strikes visitors as a big paved hellhole. On that first trip, a man in a white surgeons' gown approached me and said, "Please, we need blood for a dying baby." We immediately did a U-turn, stepped back into the station, and made a beeline for Greece.

Today, Naples, even with its new affluence and stress on law and order, remains uniquely thrilling. With more than 2 million people, Naples is the third-largest city in Italy. It also has almost no open spaces or parks, which makes its position as Europe's most densely populated city plenty evident. Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical in Italy's grittiest, most polluted, and most crime-ridden city. But Naples surprises the observant traveler with its impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children in the streets with good humor and decency. One of my favorite sightseeing experiences anywhere in Italy is simply wandering the streets here.

I recently returned to Naples, where I spent an hour and took probably a hundred photos just observing the teens on motorcycles in the vertical neighborhoods of the Spaccanapoli district. Every few yards a couple of James-Dean-cool guys leaned against lampposts while three or four girls, straddling the same motorbike, cruised by as if playing "Neapolitan Idol."

There's always something crazy going on in Naples. This year will be remembered for the great and stinky garbage strike. Everyone who knew I was going to Naples seemed to be obsessed with it. Sure there were minibus-sized garbage mounds parked on the curb every couple of blocks. It's easy to make a big newspaper stink about it, but locals seemed to just hold their noses, knowing that someday this little piece of Naples chaos would be dealt with. I smelled nothing.

On the street I ran across the "Chapel of Maradona" -- a tiny niche on the wall dedicated to Diego Maradona, a soccer star that played for Naples in the 1980s. Locals consider soccer almost a religion, and this guy was practically a deity. You can even see a "hair of Diego" and a teardrop from the city when he went to another team for more money.

Around the corner there's an entire street lined with shops that sell tiny components of fantastic manger scenes, including figurines caricaturing local politicians and celebrities -- should you want to add Bush, Clinton, or Berlusconi to your nativity set. There are also many gold and silver shops, though this is where stolen jewelry ends up. According to locals, thieves quickly sell their goods, the items are melted down immediately, and new pieces go on sale as soon as they cool.

Naples has the most intact street plan of any ancient Roman city. I like to imagine this place during those times, with street-side shop fronts that closed up after dark, turning into private homes. Today, it's just one more page in a 2,000-year-old story of a city: kisses, near misses, and all kinds of meetings, beatings, and cheatings.

You name it, it occurs right on the streets today, as it has since ancient times. People ooze from crusty corners. Black-and-white death announcements add to the clutter on the walls. Widows sell cigarettes from buckets. For a peek behind the scenes in the shade of wet laundry, venture down a few side streets. Buy two carrots as a gift for the woman on the fifth floor, if she'll lower her bucket to pick them up.

While trying to find cheap eats near major sights for my guidebook users, I wandered behind the Archaeological Museum and met exuberant Pasquale -- owner of the tiny Salumeria Pasquale Carrino. Rather than ask the cheapskate "how much" question, I just let fun-loving and flamboyant Pasquale build me his best sandwich. I watched enthralled, as he turned sandwich-making into a show. After demonstrating the freshness of his rolls as if squeezing the Charmin, he assembled the components, laying on a careful pavement of salami, bringing over a fluffy mozzarella ball as if performing a kidney transplant, slicing a tomato with rapid-fire machine precision, and lovingly pitting the olives by hand before ornamenting his masterpiece with them. He then finished it all off with a celebratory drizzle of the best oil. Five euros and a smile later, I was on the street in search of a suitable bench upon which to enjoy my affordable and memorable Neapolitan lunch.

The pulse of Italy throbs in Naples. Like Cairo or Bombay, it's appalling and captivating at the same time, the closest thing to "reality travel" that you'll find in Western Europe. But this tangled mess still somehow manages to breathe, laugh, and sing -- with a captivating Italian accent.


© Rick Steves

Travel | Naples: Italy in the Extreme | Rick Steves' European Travels