If there was one thing we agreed on it was this; we are NOT driving in Naples or Rome.
Well, friends, that was some wisdom we should’ve listened to.
We wake excited to see our friends and keen to explore the many sites of the region. Our guidebook has been helping me through the night feeds, so I’m full of ideas and plans. Also that mountain road is tricky so we’re keen to avoid going up and down it several times in a day and it’s due to rain today so not exactly beach weather. We’ve therefore decided to go into central Naples once we’ve picked Jo and Alex up from the airport and after discovering the airport parking isn’t secure, have a last minute parking booking in Naples. ‘It’s fine if I know where I’m going, I just don’t want to be driving around the city looking for a parking space’…famous last words…
The mountain road is as tricky as before, we hit 30 minutes of rush hour traffic at the bottom of it, experience the Italian hobby of lane straddling throughout our motorway journey and then at the airport end up doing a pickup at a bus stop as the drop off area can’t be located…but…Eliza sleeps through all of that so the car is relatively peaceful and it’s great to see Jo and Alex.
I jump in the back to deal with Eliza if she wakes and Jo takes the navigator’s seat- turns out I’m very grateful for this. So, Naples is full of roads and exits so close together that neither our sat nav James nor Jo’s Google maps phone can accurately distinguish between them, or when it does, we can’t work out which one it means. This provides a bit of an adventure with several detours while mopeds pass us on all sides, no one uses an indicator and people pull in and out of parking spaces and turnings with no particular warning, as for roundabouts, well I’ll tell you about those later.
Eventually we arrive at what transpires to be very central parking, enter and take a ticket (but we’ve already paid online…is this right?) and get out to explore Naples.
Jo has free data so continues her navigator’s role through the day, leading us to the various bits we want to see. First off though, Eliza’s hungry so it’s a stop off for a morning beer and gelato- how better to welcome our friends to Italy? We’ve found our way into the narrow pedestrianised streets of the centre, with cobbled streets and large churches intermingled with little eateries and shops. Pedestrianised that is, until someone on a moped or in a car fancies driving down them and then everyone’s moving out the way to let them pass- all a bit bizarre and chaotic but the vibe is pretty cool and I’m enjoying it. We have a bit of a catch up and everyone has a cuddle with Eliza while we look at the map of the city and consider our options for the day- it turns out the archaeological museum is closed on Tuesdays which was the main place we wanted to visit as it houses all the main mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii.
Just as we’re set to leave, the rain hits so we duck into the nearest attraction- an underground tour of the city. Eliza wows the women with her beauty while we make use of the free toilets and by the time the tour is setting off, the rain has stopped and we’ve still not really understood what we would see underground so we duck back out and continue exploring.
The other attractions I’m keen to see are a church with a carving of someone draped in a veil that looks very realistic, also closed on Tuesdays, and a cemetery full of piles of unclaimed skulls and bones that some locals visit and take care of in the hope it will bring them good fortune. This is pretty far away so we decide to take a gentle walk in that direction, stopping to peruse anything that takes our fancy on the way. This takes us out of the narrow, lively streets, past one of the most famous pizzerias in Naples which has people queueing everywhere in the street for it, and into larger roads with grander looking tall buildings in warm tones with pretty shutters. It’s uphill almost all of the way and then we find a tall staircase we need to descend and we’re almost there. The staircase seems to bring us out of the fancy bit and into the very poor part of Naples and I’m reminded of the guide book warning to not leave the main touristy areas and wonder if this is what it means.
It turns out ok though and we soon come across the pretty church with the underground cemetery behind. It’s quiet, with only one other couple there, which adds to the atmosphere. It sits in a tall cavern with bones piled up along the walls in every direction. I again feel a little like I’m in an episode of Buffy and we joke that we hope it’s not going to give Eliza nightmares later. There are skulls and piles of bones of all sizes and a little chapel inside the cave to one side. We also find a clothed statue of an angel with its head missing, which is more than a little unsettling in the setting and I’m wondering what the best soundtrack to our experience would be.
Back out in the sunlight and Eliza’s hungry. Now please, Right Now…so we stop in front of the church in the neighbourhood we still find a bit dodgy for a feed and then brace ourselves for the climb up the stairwell, commenting on how close the fancy and poor parts of the city are. The rest of the group also have some toilet and hunger needs so we set out to find somewhere for a late lunch. Some checking of all the recommended pizzerias on Jo’s map tells us that the one we passed with the massive queue is the nearest to us, a mere 30 minute walk away, so we set off back toward the centre. There’s some rain on the way and by the time we arrive I think Jo’s walking with crossed legs so it’s more than a little disappointing to find that the waitlist for the pizzeria is already closed. The next nearest recommended one doesn’t seem to have a toilet so we decide to duck into one in between the two with a clear and available seating area.
We have Neapolitan style pizzas which are soft and doughy rather than crisp based- and in my case soggy with fresh tomato juice- I’m unimpressed and Zaza is a bit tricky so it’s not quite the pizza dream I’d hoped for. Everyone’s looking a bit tired (Zaza hadn’t slept well the night before and Jo and Alex had a 2am start to catch their flight) so we decide to make our way back to the car.
On the way we pass a sign for Caravaggio, which Marie is immediately attracted to and we go in to take a look. It’s one of his most famous paintings ‘The Works of Mercy’ and it too is displayed in the location for which is was originally commissioned (bought by a group of aristocrats who set up a charity in 1601 so as to preserve the church and the painting). This time I am taken by it and can now say I’m a Caravaggio fan. It’s lit beautifully and there’s a lot going on to try to figure out and understand. Caravaggio was commissioned to represent the seven acts of mercy in a painting and set out to do so using acts and imagery from day to day life in Naples. The image that is initially most intriguing is on the right of the painting, a woman feeding an older man (a prisoner) from her breast. There are also images of people being given water, food, clothing and shelter and an image of dead bodies being cared for. In the exhibition each element of the painting is explained and I imagine it conveying its meaning well to churchgoers at the time. There’s Mary, Jesus and Angels at the top of the painting, but unlike most religious art I’ve seen in Italy and France, there isn’t a Saint at the centre of it and I like the mix of things going on rather than a central focal point.
After this, we return to the car park to begin a somewhat lengthy discussion around how to leave the car park with the people in the ticket office. We gather that we probably shouldn’t have a ticket, but don’t know how else we could have entered. They agree to let us out at the barrier but first want to see our reservation, so we’re ducking in and out of the underground parking lot to get signal on our phones and find which email account the confirmation has gone to. The guy ends up looking at the booking on my phone about three times, going through it with his colleague a couple of times then eventually seems satisfied at tells us to go quickly to the exit barrier with the car and he’ll let us out. If only it were that simple- we arrive at the exit barrier and, as if we’ve not had the previous 20 minute discussion, he asks for our registration number- which we give him three times, he asks again so we assume he means the reference number so find that again and start giving him that, then discover it is in fact the car registration number and eventually the barrier lifts to unleash the doom that is driving in Naples.
Sat Nav James leads us from our fairly central car park right to the central train station of Naples, which is unsurprisingly rammed with people, mopeds and cars. Everything seems at a standstill yet people are beeping all over the place and driving into eachother’s lanes. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen and I’m not sure words can quite describe the horror of it. Marie is a complete legend for driving it and I’m once again grateful to be in the back with Zaza. I don’t know how long it takes us to inch our way through, nor how we manage it without anyone driving into us or scraping our car- every single car we saw in Naples is covered in dents- but we somehow make it past the station and up to a roundabout. Well. This is a whole new level of crazy, there’s buses perpendicular to the flow of traffic, cars taking spaces beside buses in their blind spot and in the space the bus is going to have to use to make the turn, people carving new lanes right in front of us, cutting our route off completely, and meanwhile people calmly crossing the road, weaving amongst all the chaos.
All we can do is offer words of encouragement and support from the back and relief ensues when we’re heading out of the city onto the motorway… Oh no wait, there’s a traffic guy directing traffic into four or five lanes for the toll, to queue for one open toll gate- What?! – Someone is actually, deliberately, creating another situation of traffic merging…no, aggressively competing…for one lane again, just when we thought we were through it.
Finally though, we are through it and onto the seemingly calmer motorway when we find ourselves stopped behind someone who has decided to come to a complete stop in the slow lane, without the acceleration power to get ourselves back out of it and surrounded by car users who see our situation and remain on the lane next to us to give us no option to escape – great- Marie is almost losing it at this point and eventually decides to ‘just go’, much to the annoyance of a nearby motorist, despite him having plenty of space to move aside.
Jo and Alex are perhaps then lulled into a false sense of security before the madness of the mountain road ensues, which Marie has already described, and which is certainly feeling no safer a second time around. We arrive home somewhat haggard and I make dinner while everyone recovers from the ordeal, to a much needed early night.