Tuesday, June 19, 2007

See Naples and die

Vedi Napoli e poi Muori.

"See Naples and die" was coined during the reign of the Bourbons of Naples, according to the first link that came up when I googled the phrase. It means that before you die you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples. Having recently returned from Naples, I guess I can die now, although I'm not eager to do so. Perhaps I should have postponed my trip a little longer. But I loved, loved Naples, in all of its run-down, grimy, chaotic glory. In many ways it is Geneva's opposite. If Geneva is the clean, law-abiding, orderly, and somewhat boring child, Naples is its naughty but infinitely more charming sibling.

Mark Twain had something to say about Naples, of course, in The Innocents Abroad (1869).

"See Naples and die." Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently...The streets are generally about wide enough for one wagon, and how they do swarm with people! It is Broadway repeated in every street, in every court, in every alley! Such masses, such throngs, such multitudes of hurrying, bustling, struggling humanity! We never saw the like of it, hardly even in New York, I think. There are seldom any sidewalks, and when there are, they are not often wide enough to pass a man on without caroming on him. So everybody walks in the street--and where the street is wide enough, carriages are forever dashing along. Why a thousand people are not run over and crippled every day is a mystery that no man can solve. But if there is an eighth wonder in the world, it must be the dwelling-houses of Naples. I honestly believe a good majority of them are a hundred feet high! And the solid brick walls are seven feet through. You go up nine flights of stairs before you get to the "first" floor. No, not nine, but there or thereabouts. There is a little bird-cage of an iron railing in front of every window clear away up, up, up, among the eternal clouds, where the roof is, and there is always somebody looking out of every window--people of ordinary size looking out from the first floor, people a shade smaller from the second, people that look a little smaller yet from the third--and from thence upward they grow smaller and smaller by a regularly graduated diminution, till the folks in the topmost windows seem more like birds in an uncommonly tall martin- box than any thing else. The perspective of one of these narrow cracks of streets, with its rows of tall houses stretching away till they come together in the distance like railway tracks; its clothes-lines crossing over at all altitudes and waving their bannered raggedness over the swarms of people below; and the white-dressed women perched in balcony railings all the way from the pavement up to the heavens--a perspective like that is really worth going into Neapolitan details to see.

If you replace the references to wagons with cars and Vespas carrying two or three people (including babies too young to hold on by themselves), you have a pretty good idea of what Naples is like today. Folks were celebrating because their football team, the Mastiffs, had regained their Level A status; the streets near my hotel were festooned with sky-blue banners and balloons.

On the evening I arrived, there was a celebration just down the street from my hotel (Hotel Neopolis; highly recommended BTW). A crowd gathered on via dei Tribunali, one of the three original east-west thoroughfares of the Greek city of Neapolis. On one side of the street, people set off fireworks from the high stone steps of a late sixteenth-century church adorned with pillars from a Greek temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux. On the other side of the street, in the courtyard outside San Lorenzo Maggiore (a 13th century church) a band played rousing music, young boys paraded red banners, and in the middle was a saint standing on a bed of flowers atop a car. (There's a photo above. It's not very good, because it was fairly dark outside.) I later learned that this celebration was in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, who died on that date in 1231.

How could you not love this city?

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