People tried to scare me off Naples – if the thieves didn’t get me, they said, then the traffic would. Well, I can’t deny that crossing the street was a terrifying prospect and I think I would still be the train station if it wasn’t for some kind Napolitanos who took the lead. One look at me, with my big backpack, and they knew I was totally out of my element. With an enthusiastic “come on!” I was led across the disastrous, traffic filled mess of the Piazza Garibaldi towards my hostel. So far, so good.
I’m staying at the Hostel Mancini, a hostel with incredibly friendly staff, located on the second floor of an old building. My room has a balcony that overlooks the busy street market below, the noise of traffic horns, scooters and shouting voices creating an interesting symphony. This is the Italy of the old black and white movies, laundry high overhead and chaos winning the fight. After checking in, one of the owners of the hostel quickly pulled out a map, devising a suggested itinerary and showing me where to find some of Naples’ points of interest. I was planning to go to the Naples Archaeological Museum where many of the best mosaics from Pompeii ended up.
It took a while to get to the museum on foot, dodging black market vendors and trying to cross the street. I grabbed a quick slice of pizza and a pop, priced at €2. This is less than half what I would have paid in Venice, a pretty fair indication that Naples isn’t really on the tourist trail just yet. The number one guidebook of English speaking visitors, I noted, was the Rick Steves Italy guide. He’s a fan of Naples and encourages his readers to leave their preconceptions behind in Rome and to head south.
The museum itself appeared to be huge, at least from the outside. A board showed that a few of the galleries were closed, but it didn’t look like any of the Pompeii stuff was. I paid the €8 for my ticket and wandered around, starting off with the Farnese collection on the main floor. This was really interesting because it contained a number of Roman statues, but it very clearly stated which parts were reconstructions (including approximate dates) and which were original. I’ve never seen a museum clearly spell out the reconstructed aspects of their collection like this. One statue, the Farnese bull, shows a scene from mythology and there was a colour coded diagram on the wall that showed exactly which parts were added when. It’s actually the largest sculpture recovered from antiquity to date (who knows what else is out there) and the level of detail was extraordinary.
One statue, of Hercules, had the fully reconstructed version and then showed some extra legs that were added by a student of Michelangelo before being replaced by other legs.
I followed the signs for the Pompeii collection and went to the second floor where I was greeted by an enormous 3D plaster map of the site. I walked around, took a couple of photos and tried to reconcile the area of the map with what I knew of the site’s layout. Moving on, I went to see the rest of the collection and was instead greeted by barriers signifying the exhibition was closed. I went downstairs where, fortunately, the Pompeii mosaics were stored so that I could at least see those. Although it’s disappointing you can’t see the mosaics in their former glory, where they were found, it makes sense that they would remove the most significant and the most beautiful in order to try to protect and preserve them.
The mosaic area is also where the “secret room” is hidden. At the very back of the exhibit, with a warning that children under 14 need to be accompanied by adults, are the erotic pieces found during the excavations. This part of the collection used to require special permission in the form of an approved permit to visit but, starting in April 2000, the collection was permanently opened to any interested visitor. There were all sorts of instructional mosaics, decorative items and even signs that would hang outside of stores and homes. These signs also include penis sculptures that would be attached to the home or shop, jutting proudly into the streetscape. Apparently the male sexual organ was a sign of power and good fortune, so adding penis sculptures everywhere wasn’t a sexual decision, but rather a superstitious one.
I talked to the information desk as I was finishing up my tour and they told me that although it would be busy, if I came back late that night the Pompeii exhibit should be open. She told me it would be closed Sunday and “possibly” closed Monday, due to staff shortages. I’m a fairly cynical person, so I was surprised that they would close the second Pompeii exhibit but keep several rooms (with Italian-only informational plaques) containing glass items or small terracotta things open. I would suspect that the majority of foreign visitors to the museum are there for the Pompeii exhibit, not the random glass exhibit. Frustrating.
Heading back out into the streets, I walked down the route suggested by the hostel to see a bit more of the city. It was teeming with people, all of them out on the streets, enjoying the day. There was a heavy police presence, much to the annoyance of those in the black market trade. I was impressed by their ingenuity, however, with easily transportable goods and series of seemingly unspoken signals between vendors should the cops be within view. Prices in Naples were reasonable and despite seeing H&M and Zara there seemed to be very few chain stores.
Wandering down, almost to the water, I passed the preparations for Nutella’s 50th anniversary party. There was a major celebration planned for May 18th with free Nutella, balloons and a free evening concert. The only performer whose name I recognized was Mike, a British artist who has been famously influenced by Freddie Mercury. I had no plans to attend the party as I would be in Pompeii, but the square where things were being set up was much smaller than I expected.
The hostel had a free pasta dinner that evening, cheap wine (if you were so inclined) and there was a guy who worked in the hostel named Patrick from Montreal. I asked the owner when I checked in whether he was French or English and he responded with French – so I assumed that he probably figured out a way to get a good hockey stream. Sure enough, when I got back to the hostel shortly before 7 and met Patrick (who was English), he told me he had a good site for streaming and that he would have dinner ready to go between the first and second periods. I settled in for the first game of the third round which, as we all know, was an unmitigated disaster for Montreal.
There was usually an evening tour of the old centre but the hostel was full of 14 year old Austrian schoolchildren, so Patrick and I were the only ones who ventured out into the darkened streets of Naples. I had been advised not to bring a purse, so I slid a wallet into a zippered pocket and headed out. We stopped at a few of Patrick’s regular haunts, picking up cheap beer at one stop and wine at the other. He had more drinks but I had a big day of Pompeii ahead so I preferred to soak in the atmosphere. And what an atmosphere there was! Naples was teeming with life, even at this late hour, as the youth of the city took over the piazza’s (public squares), eating and drinking in the warm spring air. No one seemed to be sitting inside at bars, instead they bought their drinks and brought it outside, mingling with hundreds of their peers.
To compare Venice and Naples is to compare night and day. Venice was beautiful, unique and had that twinge of sadness to it while Naples was dirty, messy, chaotic and teeming with vibrant life. I was surprised at how much I liked the chaos of Naples and am now slightly disappointed I won’t have more time to venture deeper into Southern Italy. To all of those who said not to go south of Rome – you don’t know what you’re missing.
Also, as a last word: I actually saw someone drive a Vespa scooter through a building. Opened the door, drove in… this place is nuts.