Tom Hodgkinson visits the city at the foot of the Vesuvius and finds mopeds, graffiti and an over-priced phone charger
My son Arthur is living in Naples during his year of+f and on Wednesday, which was my 51st birthday, I flew out to see him.
I took the bus from Naples airport to Piazza Garibaldi, where a statue of the so-called unifier of Italy stands and migrants from Africa and Pakistan and poor Italians sell bric a brac from shopping carts. The first thing you notice is the mopeds: everywhere there are crazy mopeds weaving in and out of the traffic and narrowly avoiding pedestrians. I saw two teenage girls on a moped, no helmets, grinning as they elegantly swerved to avoid a poor bemused tourist.
Then you notice the graffiti. Graffiti everywhere. Graffiti on ancient Roman walls and medieval buildings. Huge 17th century doors of oak scrawled with the words “Tourists go home” was one example.
I dragged my wheeled suitcase along an artery called Corso Umberto which made me think of Umberto Eco. Little boys shouted to each other and dodged through the traffic, vaulting expertly over the central reservation. I smelled pipe smoke, urine, weed. I turned right on to Via Duomo and, having no smartphone, called the B&B for directions.
My B&B is on the busy and narrow road of Via San Biagio dei Librai. It is in a palazzo, behind a great graffiti-covered pair of doors, a smaller door within them. On the left as you enter is a great stone plaque with a long Latin inscription. There are lots of cats in the courtyard. The owner is a philosopher with a library of books on Barthes and Nietzsche for the edification of his guests. He explains that Naples is really a Greek city and became Roman only relatively recently – about two thousand years ago.
Via San Biagio dei Librai is vividly described in Italian writer Anna Maria Ortense’s book, Evening Descends Upon The Hills, first published in 1953. Gone are the legless cripples in carts, donkeys and swarms of dwarves she mentions. But the intense aliveness of the street remains:
“I had never before seen so many beings together, walking or hanging out, colliding and fleeing one another, greeting one another from their windows and calling out from the shops, bargaining over the price of goods, or yelling out a prayer.”
This is what it is like. And I forgot to bargain. I went out to buy a charger for my dumbphone. I wandered into a tiny phone shop and the charming dark-haired girl charged me 10 euros with a smile. When Arthur arrived, I told him this and he laughed. “They should have only charged two! They saw you coming.”
Later we had the best pizza I have ever eaten. It cost five euros.
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