Before we’d even arrived into the ancient Italian port city of Napoli – that’s Naples to the English speaking world – people either from home or online were telling us to watch our backs and to watch out especially to our pockets as the city we were about to enter has a shady side and a criminal culture that you really need to watch out for.
Well, we feel that it’s about time that people heard the truth about one of Italy’s most fantastic and misunderstood cities.
Dispelling The Myth
When we arrived into the city and checked into our fantastic art hotel, one of the staff got talking to us and queried just what we’d heard about the city, and how we felt being there. Not being shy, we told him exactly what everyone had been telling us; that it’s dangerous, don’t go out at night, don’t wander out of the centre, etc.
He was incredibly disappointed, but completely unsurprised by what we were telling him.
It seems that most people before they arrive in to the city are told the same thing, that Naples is dangerous to tourists and most likely they’ll have heard the popular Hollywood word ‘Mafia‘ thrown in to scare them a little.
The truth is – he explained – was that in reality, Naples isn’t all that dissimilar to many large cities and metropolises around the world – such as London and New York – and had just as much crime and trouble as everywhere else, the only difference being that over time, the worst stories have been picked up, circulated, and over the decades and centuries that Naples has been a centre for trade; has built into the fear-mongering behemoth it is today.
What he wanted, he explained, was for more people to see the true side to life in Napoli, that if you’re cautious and as sensible as you might be in other cities; then there is a whole beating heart and soul to Napoli that goes unnoticed and unrecognised because of a age-old bad reputation.
Between us, we discussed just how we could get up, close and personal with the people of Napoli, those who don’t live in the rich coastal townhouses, but instead keep the city running regardless of their near poverty.
Play It Safe
Having drawn up a plan of places we could go a little further into the suburbs, and having taken the same sensible steps for our money, passport, etc; as we would for any other city, we stepped out the hotel and began our walk towards the opposite side of town, deep into the lives of the locals.
It wasn’t long before we started to come into contact with a side of the city very different from the 100 year old townhouses, the yachts and the boutique fashion stores all selling Gucci products we’d seen so far; in fact, I don’t think there are many outlets of Versace that have huge piles of rubbish outside them.
As Franca explained to me at the time; a few years ago Naples had a huge disposal and rubbish problem, with bags bring dumped where every people could find space as the local garbage men couldn’t keep up with the sheer output at the time. Thankfully, what you see above is a significant improvement on how bad the situation was at the time, but it still comes as quite the contrast to what you see on the more often seen tourist districts of the city.
The reason that I decided to show this side of the city is because as soon as we started to step over the invisible border of the city into this more ‘typical‘ Neapolitan part, I immediately felt more connect to the real people that lived there.
There are no people in expensive suits or flash cars, they’re as much like both you and I. Together, we knew that the further we delved into the suburbs, the more we’d learn – and we were right
Falling Apart, But People Still Care
Getting deeper into the suburbs we found that the further we went, the further into disuse the buildings became. Some were empty and boarded up, others were just falling to pieces almost before our eyes as we watched. It seemed to us that when things began to break, that’s how they stayed, not until they were fixed, but just the way they stayed until they fell apart enough that they just faded away and disappeared.
What we were beginning to discover was that the reason things disappeared in this way was that it’s not that things are left to rot because nobody cares, but rather that no one can really afford to do anything to stop the rotting and gradual disappearance of plaster on buildings, the wood rotting in door frames or whole buildings that were once regarded as palaces 200 years ago with magnificent staircases that are now greying and moulding amongst the smog and salty sea air.
Sure, there are those people who don’t care about what’s happening to the area around them and if it falls apart, well, whatever; just why should they care anyway?
We know those people exist, of course, but not all of the people in Napoli are like that. In fact, once you walk down some of the side streets and past the small altars and shrines to the Virgin Mary and a whole host of other saints that the people of Naples still tie their lives around, you do see what people really care about.
A Life To Live
Walking down one particular alley way between two towering sets of apartments we couldn’t help but look through the open doorways and windows to catch a glimpse of the way people live their lives and what we saw inside was fantastic.
We saw room after tiny room of groups of women all surrounding a table and working away over sewing, or laundry, making pasta or any other activity; anything that they could do almost blindfolded so that they could work on what really mattered – talking, laughing and gossiping with the others.
The people inside of those rooms don’t care much for the quality of the place they’re in because what matters most are the people who fill it. They don’t need a huge big screen tv on the wall to zone out in front of, they’re more than content with sitting as a collection of mothers, daughters and ageing grandmothers with the soft sound of an old radio playing in the background.
Through on doorway we saw two men working away at some dough that would be put to use later in the day, and as we stopped to watch them work they were full of smiles.
In fact, when we asked to take a picture, one of the men was so happy and grinning from ear-to-ear at the chance that he grabbed his girlfriend who was nearby and stood ready for a picture!
Neither of us could stop ourselves from smiling at just how happy everyone was, and this guy especially and even in my loose understanding of Italian managed to gather that he was really proudly telling us that his girlfriend was pregnant!
The Truth Is…
The truth is that you should never form an opinion on the back of hearsay and just as our great host at the hotel was trying to explain, it’s actually these more localised areas of the city that hold all of the things that make it different. It’s how people manage with little, but have a life full of a lot of smiles, fun and warmth that make Naples special.
Nobody really want’s to harm you, and it’s only if you go striding off into the suburbs with your £2000 camera around your neck and your most expensive holiday clothes on that perhaps people might give you a little trouble, but for the most part, if you’re sensible then you’ve nothing to worry about.
The rewards of putting a little bit of trust into humanity and just getting right into things far out way any concerns we had, from the people we met, the things we saw and (especially great for us street art loving travellers) the street art that we found.
Stay Safe, See The World
If you want to see the world, if you want to see Napoli – do. Don’t be put off by what you see on the news or read in the papers. Don’t even let this post sway your thoughts. What we’d rather is that people like yourself decide to visit Naples to make an opinion of your own, so that you can see just how safe we really think it is, and for you to meet the people that make this city what it is. Just remember to take precautions like you would anywhere else, and don’t forget to let us know how right we were when you return from your trip to the city.