Naples, good and bad

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Yes, I know. Another long lapse in blogging, with very little excuse except somewhat inconvenient internet access and lack of motivation. Though I’ve been in Greece for a week now, and you may be wondering what happened in the marathon, I’ve got a few more things to say about Italy. So here goes. (News on the marathon will follow smartly. In brief: it was fine.)

Naples is not exactly, shall we say, the Venice of the south. The chief form of outdoor decoration seems to be drying laundry, which festoons virtually every residential building in the city. And the strip between the central station and my hostel was grim. It felt like a never-ended parade of construction barriers, over-priced clothing stores and street hawkers selling purses, scarves, fishing rods, posters, pirated DVDs, sunglasses, jewelry, hats, belts, cell phones, random circuit boards, wallets, and, in one particularly memorable case, a selection of wigs hanging from a circular rack suspended from a tree. I’m sure there are perfectly lovely parts of Naples. I have to believe there must be. Either that, or everyone who lives there must have had a state-sponsored lobotomy to be able to stand the place.

Festive Naples

Still, it was a springboard to Pompeii, which was really excellent. In fact Pompeii was everything that I’d hoped the Roman Forum would be. (And it turned out that I arrived on a day when entry to the sight was free. When I asked why I was told it was a “special day” which I guess had something to do with All Saints Day (Sunday) but I never really got an explanation.). And since I was so harsh with the Forum audioguide, I have to say that the Pompeii audioguide and map was everything the Forum one wasn’t. That is to say that it was easily possible to divine your location by consulting the map, which even had little 3D images of some of the more important buildings so you could look and think, “Aha, large open space with a curved wall at the back and a little do-hickey in the middle. This must be the Sanctuario di Lari Publicci.” And you’d be right. And the streets had signs, and the important audio points were marked on the sides of the buildings. It was excellent.

The Pompeii Foro (forum), with Vesuvius cleverly framed in the background

And of course the site is brilliant – everything you think it will be, but probably bigger than you imagined. It really was a city. The site covers 66 hectares, of which 44 have been excavated, and most of that is open to the public. You wander down street after street and it’s really well-preserved and a bit ghostly and quite amazing. I think I was there for about 5 hours. There are even original frescoes still visible on some walls. There are lots more photos at Flickr.

An original fresco that was buried by the volcano in 79 A.D.

The next day I had a choice: I could either head out on the bus again for a quick trip up Vesuvius, or stay in the city and go to the Archeological Museum. I figured I wouldn’t see a lot in the museum that I hadn’t already seen at Pompeii (the constantly-repeated phrase in the Pompeii audioguide was “…the original of which is on display at the Archeological Museum in Naples…). And it’s not very often you get to climb an active volcano. So, though the trip back to Naples to catch the 16:24 train south would be a bit of a rush, I opted for Vesuvius.

It turned out to be more interesting in theory than in practice, because it's not like the crater is filled with a satisfyingly molten sea of lava spewing forth Volkswagen-sized chunks of rock. In fact the only evidence of its incendiary potential were few wisps of steam/smoke emanating from the side of the crater, and a decidedly sulfurous smell in the air. But at least it was a pleasant day out, and there are great views of the Bay of Naples from the top of the mountain, and I met a nice Canadian couple to chat with.

Me, sitting on a volcano

So Vesuvius was nice, but the connections to get back to Naples were annoying. This meant that by about 4:00pm I was racing to catch a 16:24 train south, and I mean racing. I may not have been sprinting, but I had 40+ pounds of gear on my back and I was close to a jog. And I was trying to find a replacement for my plug apaters, both of which gave up the ghost within about 20 minutes of each other. (Ok, the demise of one of them may possibly have been hastened by my forcibly jamming it into a socket it clearly did not want to go in to until something went CRACK and bits of it fell off and the remaining bits had to be removed from the socket with the aid of a crescent wrench provided by my helpful hostel roommate, Anya.) Anyways, the point is that I was in a hurry, and it was warm, and I had all my belongings on my back, and I’d hiked up a volcano earlier that day so I was a bit done in it already.

Miraculously, I got to the station in time after stopping at two different stores and finding a plug adapter for only €5.00. And then things started to go pear-shaped. I marched up to the window to buy my ticket and the woman behind the counter tried to tell me something about my train that involved the word sopresso, and I really didn’t understand, and finally she directed my over past the McDonald’s. I thought she was gesturing to the ticket machines (she wasn’t), so I went over and bought my ticket at the machine. Then I went over to the newsstand to buy a nice English newspaper, paid for the paper, and promptly left it at the newsstand.

I checked the departures board and discovered that my train was listed as “SOP”, which I guess is short for sopresso, so I figured it was time to consult the phrasebook. Obviously this was an important word in my life at the moment. The phrasebook did not list sopresso but noted, helpfully, that sopresa means surprise. This did not sound good, but I checked again and at least sopresso didn’t mean late or cancelled. It was around this time that I realized I didn’t have my newspaper, so I went back to the newsstand and the nice man there told me that sopresso does in fact mean cancelled. This definition was accompanied by the universal hand-drawn-across-the-throat gesture, so there could be no doubt. Well, at least I had the paper.

I went back to the ticket desk and asked what I was supposed to do with my €14.90 ticket for a train that was sopresso and the woman simply directed me to the Customer Service office. (Ha!). Instead I bought another ticket for the next train, spending another €15.33. Then I went to Customer Service where I found out that the first train wasn’t running but it had been replaced by a bus. And there would be no refund. Of course.

So I’d raced around to get to the station, spent a bunch of money I didn’t need to, and now had about 90 minutes to kill in the dreary and ill-appointed central station of Naples. I was very tired and drippingly sweaty and utterly fed up with Trenitalia and Naples and the country in general. So I lifted the bag again and headed back out into Piazza Garibaldi. And really, Garibaldi is (bad language coming here) a SHIT HOLE. It’s like a giant cross between a bus stop and a parking lot and a flea market and a garbage dump. I turned right and fought past the street hawkers and their knock-off sunglasses and handbags and crap, and then I saw it: the LP-recommended restaurant for trying the local pastry specialty sfoglitelle. So of course I went right in. I ordered a sfoglitelle coco (turned out to be coconut, not chocolate – of course, stupid mistake) and a café macchiato. I stood at the counter and had my coffee and pastry, and looked at the paper, and things started to be betterr. I was only out about €15 after all, and I would still get to my destination in reasonable time, and on a faster train. It wasn’t so bad.

It was when I left the café that the real magic happened. I looked up in the sky, and there was a big flock of birds whirling around. And then I remembered someone telling me about how starlings do that in huge numbers, and how it was a shame I hadn’t seen it. And there it was. The flock was big, but it kept being joined by more and more smaller flocks, and it wheeled and turned and swooped and folded back on itself and it was just fantastic. I looked around to see if any denizens of Garibaldi had noticed this and just one other older man was watching. I wandered a bit to keep them in view, dodging scooters and stray dogs, and finally sat on a cement block and just stared. Garibaldi was still being very Garibaldi, complete with a guy pissing against the opposite side of the rank of overflowing dumpsters just to enhance the ambience, but it honestly didn’t matter. I was so happy with those birds.

Really, I can’t describe to you how lovely it was. There were thousands of birds, and watching them was hypnotic. It reminded me of screensaver derived from a computer simulation of some kind of brilliant mathematical equation. It was so perfect it was hard to believe it was organic beings. And it kept going and going, and the sun was setting, and I finally got out my camera and got a bit of video, which does an ok job of showing what I mean.

It was a like a lot of Italy. It can be maddening and stupid and pointless. You can forget to carry ID with you and not be allowed internet access as a result. Or wait for half an hour at a random and unscheduled bus stop so that the woman who runs the shop there can flog her father’s book about Pompeii. Or be forced to surge into oncoming traffic like a madman just to get across the street. But then you get across the street and you’re staring at 2,000 year-old ruins. Or a nice bus driver that seemed angry and gruff drives you a couple of miles out of his way to take you back to where you should have got off in the first place. Or you get served a plate of pasta in a little restaurant and it’s a miracle on a plate. Or you see those fantastic birds.

So I suppose Naples wasn’t so bad after all. But I think someone still owes me €14.90 for that stupid train ticket. Sopresso indeed. Bah.


Phonella said...

Oh! I am really glad that you took the time to write this post. You know, it reads like a good book and the finding of the spirituality of those soaring birds in the midst of all that drab disgusting stuff is so awe-inspiring.

Thank you so much Pam for sharing Naples (and of course everything else). Now what about the marathon?

FLF said...

Checked up on you online. Not a bad showing for no training (or shall we say little dedicated training and great carbo loading). They have now opened the 2010 website... want to register for the 2500th (truly) anniversary, and run it again? Cheers Pam, and enjoy so R and R at an idyllic Greek island

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