Thursday, July 21, 2016

Naples, Italy

The fourth day of our cruise aboard the MSC Poesia found us sailing down the Gulf of Genova in the Tyrrhenian Sea along the western edge of Italy's magnificent southern coast.  We wouldn't be docking in Naples until noon, so after breakfast we walked about a mile on the top deck track, taking in the ever-changing shoreline.  The one constant was the coastal highway, a ribbon of road that stretches from France to Croatia, hugging the sea like a lifeline.  Sometimes there was nothing but the road, and in some places the rocky coastline forced it to wind its way north like a black snake up into the Appenine Mountains that run like a spine down the middle of Italy's southern peninsula.

The houses along the Italian coast were all made of buff-colored native limestone and often from a distance – especially the aqueducts built by the Romans – they blended right into the surrounding landscape.  It reminded me of the ancient Anasazi villages like Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest.  The lines between man made and natural often blurred, and I found the uniformity of the terrain to be very soothing.

We arrived in Naples right on time at noon after balcony surfing all morning.  The entrance into the busy harbor was sheltered by a long sea wall with a red lighthouse standing like a solitary gate keeper.  The cruise ship terminal was right in the heart of the old town, which is always a convenient bonus, as we would soon find out.

This was a very busy harbor, not unlike Genoa.  There were towering stork-like cranes off-loading large containers from freighters; giant yellow and white car ferries; and luxurious pleasure craft, including the ever-present sleek, dark blue and white Doctor No ships that all of the Russian oligarchs buy in order to show off their opulent lifestyles. There were four of them prominently displayed for all to see.

Naples is the capital of the Campania region and home to over a million people, making it Italy's third largest city, and the biggest in Southern Italy.   They pack 'em in like sardines.

We stood on the crowded top deck as the ship slowly backed into its designated slip.  Cruise ships always try and back in when they are docking in a harbor where there's lots of action and limited space so that it's easier to leave.  Inna and I stood there looking at the enchanting city about a par three away, wanting to quickly get off the ship, but we had to wait at least thirty minutes as the giant cruise liner slowly turned and backed into its slip at the speed of lava running down the side of nearby Mount Vesuvius that could be seen quite clearly to the north.  In 79 AD, the monstrous volcano erupted and covered the thriving cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under ninety feet of rock and ash.  And it has popped its top pretty regularly since then, most recently in 1944.

The seagulls kept us entertained. There were a zillion of them, wheeling in the air as passengers threw bread to them.  It was like an aerial Cirque de Soleil show with screaming white birds dive bombing the little bread nuggets and often free-falling to the water so they could grab a tasty morsel.

Inna was the first to notice the skyscrapers, something we had never seen along the Mediterranean coast.  There weren't that many of them, and they were probably only about thirty stories or so tall, but they had a shiny modern look that you just don't lay eyes on in that part of the world very often.  And it was doubly odd because you could also see the domes and spires of ancient churches scattered throughout the city-scape.

But what dominated the city view was the huge brown castle at the edge of the harbor.  Maschio Angioino Castel, also known as Castel Nuovo (New Castle), rises above the sea and town like a brown mountain, its five towers and connecting parapets just daring any would be attacker to take their best shot.  Napolean did manage to capture Naples in 1806, but he attacked from the north, not the sea.  

For the first (and only) day of our cruise, the weather was cold (about 60), a chilly wet wind was blowing in from the north, and a light drizzle dogged us off-and-on most of the day.   We were so used to sunny warm weather that we didn't dress appropriately.   But it would take us a while to figure that out.

We were once again in the first wave off the boat and we looked like a long line of well-dressed refugees as we made our way through the cruise terminal which was really nothing more than a big parking lot full of honking white cabs.  The drivers were all standing by their cars smoking and bitching. Italians like to bitch.  They wave their arms and yell at one another.  Nothing ever comes of it, but it apparently makes them feel better.

We came to the main street that ran along the harbor.  The noon traffic had turned it into a snarling parking lot.  When the light changed, about two hundred of us crossed the street and headed like lemmings toward the castle, as if drawn by some supernatural force.  The entire area, known as Piazza Municipio, is also the city's main transportation hub and was undergoing some major construction.  There was scaffolding everywhere you looked and a big hole in the ground where workers were erecting something important while water was being pumped out of the gaping crater of muddy red soil.

Our plan as usual was to catch the red City Sightseeing Napoli Hop-On - Hop-Off Bus and check out the city before venturing forth on foot. And the bus tour began at the castle, so there wasn't a lot of guess or foot work involved.  Surprisingly, most of the cruise passengers were not doing the bus tour, so there wasn't much of a crowd.  It looked like the vast majority were either checking out the castle or going shopping. Shopping could wait.  And while I like castles, to be honest, they are all really cool from the outside, but pretty much the same from the inside, other than the view from the top of the walls.

Inna and I had already done our homework and knew that Naples was so big they offered three different tours, and we were going to take two of them.  The cost for an all day pass was the same no matter how many lines you took, about $25 per person.  We decided to ride the Blue Line first.  It ran along the the western coast.  There were twelve stops and it lasted a couple of hours.

The trip started with a swing through several blocks of high-end luxury apartment buildings.  The impressive structures were all identical: five stories with floor-to-ceiling curved windows, wrought iron balconies, and rooftop garden patios.  What set them apart was the color scheme. There were browns, reds, yellows, and tans.  Cafes lined the palm tree-dotted street, and I felt like I was riding through a movie set for a film entitled "Mediterranean Vacation".

The bus soon turned back toward the coast and the wind and driving rain hit us like a sledge hammer.  Everyone on the open deck quickly headed for cover down below, including Inna.   Within a few minutes, I was the only one left on the top and I felt like I was sailing through a storm.  As a sailor, I have a high tolerance for foul weather.  It wasn't really all that cold, probably in the high fifties with the wind chill, and I didn't care if I got wet.  We weren't planning on getting off the bus, so what did it matter?

As we slowly passed through the waterfront area of town there were marinas filled with hundreds of pleasure craft, but few fishing vessels like you usually see around the Med.  But there were plenty of small food trucks, selling fresh produce.  And several weddings were in full swing, even on a dreary Monday afternoon.  We passed several large parties of happy revelers in full wedding regalia.

We passed a luxurious waterfront park called the Villa Comunale, framed by the Piazza Vittoria on east end and the Piazza della Repubblica on the west, with the city's world famous Acquario (Aquarium) in the middle, housed inside a large building with copper-blue horse statues out front that looked like the sort of place where dignitaries had once divided up the world.

The bus climbed the treacherously narrow coast highway, passing villas that hugged the limestone cliffs like millionaire nests.  This was definitely uptown.  

But what jumped out at me were the variety of trees.  There were exotics and evergreens that clearly resembled pines and cedars.  But many of the trees lining the road were unknown to me.  And everywhere I looked there were flowers in bloom. People in Naples really go in for flowers and they color the streets like candy, especially from window flower boxes.  Geraniums were very popular.  It was a riot of color.

The rain stopped and the cool wind soon dried me out.  The villas of the rich and famous gave way to the type of apartment houses one often sees along a popular seaside resort, mostly three or four floor buildings of bright colors hugging the road and facing the sea.  They definitely crammed a lot of people into every available space along the rocky coast.

People started coming back to the top of the bus once they realized the rain had stopped and Inna joined me reluctantly.  She shivered as we wound through small urban villages and I hugged her close.  And always on our left was Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, sitting in the mist like a steam pot mountain cone on the island of Sicily.  It was impossible to tell the clouds from the constant volcanic steam erupting from its depths.  We would be visiting the great beast the next day when we stopped in Messina.  

When we got to the end of the line at stop number six, in the tiny village of Posillipo, there was nice-but-nothing-special view of the densely-populated valley and hills to the west and we decided to just ride back to the castle without getting off.  The Blue Tour was definitely worth the ride, but there wasn't any one particular thing to look at or explore, other than maybe the Catacombs which appeared to be closed.  It's more about riding along the enchanting Mediterranean Sea and seeing how the other half lives.

"I want to go back to the ship and get a jacket and change into dry clothes," said Inna when we got off at the castle, leaving no room for disagreement.

On our way to the ship we followed a street lined with a wide variety of small shops.  I made a note of a liquor store I planned to stop by at the end of the day.

It took us about an hour to walk back to the boat, change into warmer clothes, and then return to the castle for our second tour.  This was the Red Route that did several interconnected loops through the heart of the old city, passing some truly spectacular old museums, palaces, forts, and plazas adorned with lush gardens and monuments to famous Italian men.  The Duomo Cathedral in the Piazzo Carracciolo, Palace Pitti, and the Santa Chiara Church in the Piazza del Gesu were breathtakingly beautiful and well worth a look-see.

Every Italian city has its own unique style of architecture and they all are quite different.  But the center of Naples reminded me of Marseille, France.  It was lovely in an ancient, we've made history, sort of way, but it was also dirty and unkempt in many places.  Gaudy advertising banners hung from landmark buildings (other than the churches).  Many of the parks were overgrown and looked like no one ever cut the grass or trimmed the bushes.  Weeds grew up between the pavement stones. There was lots of trash and quite a few of the poor areas looked totally Third World.  These enclaves of poverty had been repeatedly tagged by gangs.  It was a strange visual mix where you could have ghetto shacks sitting right across from wonders like the ornate Piazza Sanita Church.  This juxtaposition of wealth and extreme poverty hit us right between the eyes wherever we went in Naples, and it was both disconcerting and depressing.  The Catholic Church seemed to be doing quite well, but not so much for many of the Catholic people.

The highlight of the Red Route was at the far end of the loop, at stop number six, the Capodimonte, sitting at the tippy-top of town where the Museo de Bosco di Capodimonte and the Observatorio Astronomico framed an expansive manicured lawn and garden lined with tall palm trees overlooking EVERYTHING and beyond.  We spent an hour strolling the wooded gardens and staring in wonder at the jewel-like world below the overlook.  We got a little lost when we ventured out of the park and ended up having to backtrack before finally getting directions from two handsome police officers on statuesque horses.  They flirted with Inna and nodded knowingly when I told them we were from Baltimore, Maryland where the Preakness horse race had been run the previous Saturday.

We waited on a shady bench for the last bus of the day and took it back to the City's main shopping district, the Corso Umberto, where trendy antique stores and all the best shops offered the finest of the finest. Italians dress much nicer than Americans and their clothes are usually Italian made and quite stylish, so most of the shops were quite busy. Inna went into several stores to look around while I sat on a stone wall and people watched.  General impressions of Napoli life washed over me in waves.

Scooters far outnumber cars and they dart in and out of traffic like suicidal water bugs.

There were very few dogs.  And most of the ones we saw were pit bulls, goldens, or labs.  Dachshunds easily won the small dog category.

I was struck by the fact that everybody smokes all the time.  So much for the myth of the health conscious Europeans. 

Italians also eat tons of bread.  It's a real mystery how they aren't fat given they devour so much pasta and sugary delights.

Italians are really loud, especially the men.  A lot of the time it sounds like they are arguing when they are just talking about their lives or the latest football match.

As I sat there, checking out the comely coeds walking from the Universita, I pondered the key cultural divide in Italy.  North versus South.  And that geographical gulf dominates Italian politics and life much as it does in the United States.  Northerners, like in Bologna, are very industrious, while the people of the South tend to be pretty chill. This motivational difference in lifestyles tends to run across Europe. And it generates a lot of bad blood.  The people who live in the North think their Southern neighbors are lazy and slow-witted.  They deeply resent having their tax dollars flow South to those who they assume (often incorrectly) live off government relief.  The people who live in the South think the Northerners are greedy, money-grubbing burghers obsessed with nothing but work and accumulating the trappings of wealth.

The cultural anthropologist Jarred Diamond in his very entertaining and enlightening book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" extensively chronicles this curious cultural dynamic.  People who live in warmer climates tend to be more relaxed and less productive.  Production and innovation have historically come from people living in colder climates.  And, interestingly, art tends to blossom where it is warm.

I don't know what to make of this North/South split.  But as a tourist it does matter at times because unlike Northern Europe, many people in the South do not speak English.  And customer service was pretty much non-existent; unlike anything you would generally see in the United States.  The people who served us  waiters, bus drivers, shop keepers  were often border line rude and uniformly insolent.  It was like they all hated their jobs and the tourists who fed them.  They wanted our money, but they didn't want to have anything else to do with us.  There was a general attitude of "anything goes".  And we were pretty much on our own.  Good luck.

But in the end, none of this cultural crap matters very much.  Because you are constantly enjoying fascinating sights, eating great food, and surrounded by juicy history.  It all works itself out.  So, be patient.  Don't judge.  Just enjoy the incredible ride.

We stopped at a small liquor store along the harbor on our way back to the ship where we bought some beer and wine.  And that night after a yummy dinner, we sat on our balcony, and while passing through the twinkling Straits of Messina, between Italy and Sicily, we had to pinch ourselves to make sure were weren't dreaming. 

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