NAPLES, DANGER, AND RUNNING AWAY WITH THE BUS DRIVER
When traveling, sometimes you just have to take a chance. Our girls’ only trip to Sorrento, Italy for a two-week villa stay was such a time. The villa was a mere 10 minute walk from the Sorrento main square. The late September weather had been perfect. We each had our own en suite room offering stunning views of the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. A colorful garden filled the side yard. And each day, we planned an adventure.
The villa offered easy access to public transportation including local buses, trains, and boats to exciting places like Capri, Amalfi, Positano, and Naples. This day we decided to brave Naples.
We sipped cappuccino at the local café just two minutes from our front door while waiting for the bus. The owner overhead us discussing our excursion to Naples and rushed to the table to warn us about pickpockets…gesturing and pulling his lower lid down, exposing bloodshot eyes, and murmuring, “Guarda guarda.” (Look out, be watchful.) At the same time, he extolled the city of his birth as beautiful, full of history and amazing food. He assured us once we’d seen Naples, we could indeed die. (Or so the saying goes….”See Naples, then die”)
Two of the girls protested after that warning. But I assured them if we walked with confidence, no one would bother us.
The local bus arrived early, pulling up just as we took the last sips of coffee. We hopped on, ‘buon giornoed’ the driver, pushed our tickets into the meter for validation and took seats in the front of the bus just as the driver squealed the vehicle into the already traffic-filled street.
While perusing the map of Naples, the driver asked, “Dove andate oggi?”
“We’re going to Napoli,” I said in my best Italian.
“Napoli! No, no Napoli with only women. I takea you.” His smile showed even white teeth and dimples topped by a set of deep chocolate eyes.
“Hold on gals,” I said. I stood next to the driver, holding onto the pole for balance. He barreled along, looking at me instead of the narrow curved road. He spoke fairly good English, loved Americans, and needed extra money. Steering with one hand, he called his wife and asked permission to escort us to his city. He turned to me with a grin and said, “I takea you in my beeg American car for the day. Twenty euro each. Si?”
I sat down and explained his generous offer. There were the usual doubts about his motives and safety issues.
“Look.” I pointed out. “There are five of us and one of him.”
Carole shook her head. “Hey, he could have five or six dangerous friends.”
“C’mon,” I said. “Look at that face? He’s harmless.” The driver was cute. I guessed him to be about thirty-five. Dressed in his uniform, he appeared average in build. He had the luscious thick black hair and bronzed skin of Naples and his eyes sparkled with mischief. He appeared so trustworthy.
After much discussion, I informed him we’d be happy to accept his offer.
We pulled up to the drop off point at the Sorrento boat docks and waited for the other passengers to leave. We stayed with Eduardo, our new best friend and guide and roared to the bus garage near the Circumvesuviana…the train line to Naples.
Eduardo had a transportation pass. As we walked to the gate to board, he told the ticket takers we were his cousins from America. After many knowing winks and grins, we were allowed to board the train. The hour-long journey, with stops at Pompeii and other small towns, sped by. A young group of high school soccer players engaged us in conversation, bombarding us with questions about America.
The Naples train station was a chaotic madhouse of people hurrying…somewhere. We formed a human chain so we couldn’t be separated. The station had no air conditioning, and the humidity, body heat, and body odors were smothering. The outside air wasn’t much better.
We crossed the street; our lives threatened by Napolitano drivers and entered the city’s main market. The train station’s location…let’s just say there’s no curb appeal and leave it at that. The smell of fresh fish and the wiggling of unknown creatures from the sea gagged me. The vendors screamed to attract customers and the customers screamed back, haggling over prices. Cleaver after cleaver slammed into the live creatures, splattering blood in every direction. Nausea hit me. The others were fascinated. I sidled over to the veggie vendors, leaving Eduardo in a panic when he couldn’t find me.
Since he has finished his night shift, he was hungry and told us he often ate at his favorite pizzeria before going home. “The besta pizza ina Napoli,” he said, licking his lips.
We looked around for a pizzeria, and saw one lone dilapidated building splashed with graffiti. There was no sign, just an open door through which fly after fly zoomed in and out. We entered.
Carole, the nurse in our group, groaned. “Can you spell hepatitis?”
“Hey,” I said, with little conviction. “These hole-in-the-wall places are usually the best.”
She rolled her eyes.
We followed our guide up a steep dark narrow stairway and entered into a space of enticing aromas.
A large man covered in a white apron, splattered with something red, (we hoped it was sauce), greeted Eduardo with a flurry of hugs and kisses. He was just plain jolly.
Our guide introduced him as Fernando. “Nando,” he called. Nando’s round-stain-covered-aproned-body led us into the main part of the restaurant. It was like another world, all sounds of Naples shut out. The room had the typical red-checkered table cloths and candles in chianti-basketed wine bottles. The scents of sauces and fresh bread swirling through the air caused our stomachs to constrict with hunger and we sat at the table in an aromatic daze.
“No tourists here, only locals,” said our host. He rattled off an order in Italian, I translated, and we managed to communicate with ease. The conversation was animated and filled with heart-pumping excitement. Then, with a flourish, the food began to arrive.
“Dissa ona ona da housa,” beamed Nando. He placed a plate of pizza fritta (fried pizza dough drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepperocini (hot red peppers).
We’d heard about this, even eaten it in “Italian” restaurants in the States. But this? This was pizza fritta heaven.
We munched, dripped, licked our fingers, sighed, and made a variety of orgasmic food noises. A chilled red wine of Naples soothed our throats. Fresh-baked aromatic bread arrived. We each pulled pieces and savored the flavor. When the antipasti came, we dropped the bread and dove in.
“Olives fresh from Naples.” They were soaked in olive oil and special herbs.
By now the six of us had polished off several liters of water, some wine and all of the served “beginnings” when the salad and pizza arrived. The pizza was steaming and savory. Napolitano pizza perfumed with cheeses and tomato sauces, salami (our pepperoni), freshly made sausage with enough kick to jolt one out of a chair, mushrooms fresh from the market. We devoured all three pizzas.
A plate of fresh fruit and cheese continued our orgy. Our faces hurt from the constant smiling, eating, and happy conversation.
Between each course, a beaming Nando arrived at our table to make sure the Le Donne degli Stati Uniti were satisfied.
We groaned a unified “Si.” Nando proclaimed, “Brava, bravissima. Mangi. Mangi piu.” Wonderful, very wonderful, eat, eat more. And off he’d go.
Two hours later, Nando presented us with his homemade strawberry gelato and some cappuccino. We didn’t feel full. Just satisfied and happy. That’s the way it is at meal time in Italy. No rushing, lots of laughter, plenty of food eaten slowly.
We departed amid shouts of Ciao, come back, hugs and cheek kisses and bounded down the stairs into the open air market, ready to see Naples.
After a short walk, we arrived at Eduardo’s “beeg” American-style car. The gals sighed. This was gonna be tough. The car was “beeg” for Italy standards, but I pondered how five women and a driver were going to fit in this Fiat station wagon.
I heard mumbling, felt a glare or two directed at me as they conceded I should sit in the front because I spoke Italian. Worked for me.
After considerable wiggling and squeezing, realizing seat belts were useless; Teri (our youngest and thinnest traveler) graciously offered to sit in the back of the car where the groceries and luggage were usually placed. Jan, Pat and Carole squished into the middle seats, and I slid into the front seat, pulling it forward until my keens bumped against the dashboard. I ignored their mutterings of me as a Principessa and chatted with Eduardo.
He made a U turn as if unaware of the horns and fist-shaking drivers coming in the other direction and off we went on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Teri whimpered when she was body-slammed again the back window.
In Naples, red lights are a suggestion. Stop signs, a still-unsolved enigma. The roundabout, with their two-hundred-plus arrows haphazardly pointing hither and yon, were a challenge. Drivers drove too fast to read them. There was always the option of going around and around until you found the tiny signage required and attempted to head in that direction.
Naples is loud, chaotic and disorganized. Drivers honk, skid, scream their tires, brake on a dime (and sometimes a fender), made rude gestures with their hands and more rude comments with their mouth. In fact, it’s known as “the City of the Chaos.” Some sections have no rules, no sidewalks, no traffic signs, no traffic lights. It seems to work. The pedestrian, motorbikes and cars share the narrow streets and accidents are somewhat rare.
After a short scary ride, we pulled alongside the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Eduardo, tired and hot after his bus shift and long lunch, wanted to go home and shower. We stumbled from the car, hoping against hope he wasn’t abandoning us, and purchased our tickets. We had an hour to see a museum that would take a week to explore. So we concentrated on the collection from Pompeii. Having explored Pompeii two days earlier, we now saw the silver, coffee urns, dishes, and art work that had been excavated. The utensils and coffee urns were similar to what we use today, just much more ornate. Keeping an eye on the clock, I reminded everyone we had to meet our guide for the rest of the private tour, lest we find ourselves unable to die. (The Napolitano people take this saying seriously…See Naples and Die.)
There he was, waiting for us, freshly showered, gorgeous dark hair slicked back, clean-shaven, and scented with a divine citrus aftershave. His uniform had given way to an open-necked blue shirt over crisp pressed jeans. If we thought him adorable before…!
We scrunched into the car while he gave us his itinerary. We whizzed past most of the sights, yet we saw Naples through the eyes of a native…an experience not to be missed.
After viewing many elegant neighborhoods with massive white and yellow villas perched high in the hills, away from the chaos of the city, we made our next stop at Capodimonte Museum and Park. It housed Italy’s richest picture gallery and a collection of majolica (Italy’s exquisite Italian pottery and porcelain) all in the setting of King Charles III’s hunting lodge. In the park, we met Eduardo’s family… his lovely red-haired wife and two children. He shared his desire to save his money and come to America so his children could attend one of our great universities. Gone was the notion that all Italian men are Lotharios. Here we found a true and loving family.
It was late afternoon and we were flying low past churches. Eduardo pointed out the San Lorenzo Maggiore, a 12th century medieval church with Greek and Roman remains underneath. And to add to the beauty, perched on the steps of the church was a wedding party…and a bank of incredible flowers to celebrate this couple’s day.
No tour of Naples is complete without seeing the Duomo, a Gothic cathedral dedicated to the patron Saint, San Gennaro. Evidently his blood liquefied on a certain day. Italians always find a reason to celebrate. And that day, Eduardo informed us, was one huge party.
Naples is claustrophobic, dangerous, decadent, and in places dirty, yet fascinating, intriguing and a must-see if you want to know the South of Italy. It is here you’ll find a wonderful church next to a wretched house. It’s called flavor.
I asked Eduardo about the Camorra (the Naples Mafia), which gives the city its dangerous reputation. “Non c’e problems. Guada, guarda.” Not a problem for tourists. Just be watchful.
Our last stop was at the Galleria and Piazza Plebiscito. It’s a massive set of buildings which housed the former King of Italy. Now it’s an elegant mall, with chic restaurants and shops. Our final treat with Eduardo was a baba’ – Naples famous pastry generously soaked with run. Did I say generously? Oh my! The aroma from surrounding pastry and coffee shops, pizzerias, and sauce were enticing and saturated our skin like perfume.
Like the gentleman he was, Eduardo escorted us and watched as we embarked onto the boat to Sorrento. I still have his card and my Italian friends call him and keep in touch. He always tells them he is waiting in Naples to see us again.
As the boat pulled away, we noted that each of our grandfather’s had left for America from this very spot, with the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius as their last glimpse of Italy. Now, the cacophony of the city fading away, Naples was bathed in a golden glow.
I looked at my friends and smiled. “I guess we can die now, right?”
THINGS NOT TO MISS IN NAPLES:
A VISIT TO Pompeii and Herculaneum
www.Touritaly.org/pompeii and www.lifeinitaly.com/tourist/campania/Herculaneum
Chestnuts on an open fire
The Baba’ and espresso at Gamrinus Cafe.
The pizza Margherita, invented here. Google the phrase, Pizza Marcherita.
Authentic buffalo mozzarella cheese, made from buffalo milk. They raise these critters outside the city.
A true made-the-old-fashioned-way espresso at Gambrinus. www.caffegambrinus.com
The Duomo- www.cuomodinapoli.it
Every museum in the city
The Spaccanaopli District – pure chaos but wonderful – www.eyeflare.com/article/Naples/
The People, the singing, the music. It is spontaneous and wonderful. In fact, it is said that if you are Napolitano and cannot sing, you MUST die. Lots of reasons to die in this incredible city.
Enjoy and buona vacanza!