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Naples: Lively Streets and Sights


Naples and Marseille: The two European cities that forever have shared a reputation as colorful, dangerous, chaotic, not-for-the-fainthearted seaports.


But these days, the historic center of Marseille seems a quieter dressed-for-company place, while the historic center of Naples, despite having lots of visitors, still seems a brash, lively and colorful spot, often teeming with motion, and not quite sure it cares what you think, while making you welcome.


All impressions of cities you don't live in, of course, are subject to correction; I'm reminded of the possibly fictional travel-guide writer who was careful never to spend more than two weeks anywhere before writing a book about it: "If I stayed longer, I would know too much." I always leave a new city feeling I know it, but of course I only know the quarter I've 'lived' in and a few highlights.


Which is by way of saying that I need to go to Naples again, to hold my memory of flavors and faces and sights and sounds against reality, and to explore more; in a week, you only get the appetizer. Maybe a look at the pastas, but never the meat.


We arrived in Naples by the overnight train from Catania, Sicily, arriving at our small third-floor hotel in via Santa Chiara, in the heart of old Naples at 8:30 on a Sunday morning; we'd carefully made arrangements to pay for the night before so we'd be able to check in right away. The hotel is about 50 yards down the street in the picture above, there was no traffic but early church-goers and late partyers, and there was no answer to the doorbell.


We ended up spending the next hour sitting on our luggage making phone calls, giving up in frustration, and just looking around to see if there were anyplace open to get a coffee and pastry. Promptly at 9:30, a young man on a Vespa stopped short in front of us and said, sounding surprised, 'Gli Americani! Sei arrivato!' 'Yes,' we replied. 'We are the Americans.' Later we found enough language between us to discover that he hadn't really believed we meant to arrive at 8:30, why would anyone want to arrive that early?


He settled us in, provided us with coupons for breakfast at a nearby cafe, and gave us a map to help us find our later-in-the-day food tour. Ironically, after finding our way out of the winding streets to a more updated and genteel area to meet the guide, and enjoy a fancy sfogliatella and coffee, she promptly led us back to our home base.


One of the stops on the tour was what is alleged to be the oldest pizza parlor in the world, in business since 1738 as a street vendor and as a pizzeria since1830; it goes by the name Ancient Pizzeria of Port Alba. 


Things don't look much different than in this picture from about 1900; note the sign is for a competitor a few doors away, the New Pizzeria of Port Alba. Ironically, the Ancient bakes on; the New is long since gone.


The quarter is full of churches, sometimes several facing the same square, always a puzzle to me considering they don't even represent different denominations. The plazas in front of them are often serving as informal markets, some for souvenirs, some for food, others for a wide variety of crafts.


That includes an amazing variety of little red 'cornicelli,' a goat horn made of anything from wood to stained ivory to fine metals and mostly to plastic. It's often worn as a pendant to ward off the 'evil eye' and promote virility. Another stand nearby was offering cheap carnival masks; we were there a month too late for that!


The city's churches don't get much of a respite from graffiti, though some is a lot more political than this. 


Such as this one, with its question: "Are you waiting for Prince Charming?" and its answer: "Do Like Cicciolina," the Hungarian-born Italian porn star and political campaigner, who was definitely not waiting for Prince Charming. The two hashtags are often connected with feminist posts.


Not graffiti, but a warning. With crowded streets and famously lax trash collection, rats are a problem. The sign identifies a 'De-Ratted Zone' and warns anyone ingesting the rat poison to take Vitamin K quickly and call the poison center.


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We were out shopping one day, when we started noticing signs, and then sounds, and soon realized we were now spectators at a small parade, in honor of San Giuseppe, St Joseph, for whom this part of the historic center is named. March 19 is his day, and the day of the march. 


No good holiday can come without a treat, and for San Giuseppe, zeppole, bits of fried dough are the tradition. Three small zeppole for €1 or one large for €2. We had more than one order of the small. How many calories can small have?


Some streets can be a bit quieter, even a little ominous-seeming. This one, with a statue of Pulcinella, is ominously named: Alley of the Fig Tree of Purgatory.


Pulcinella is a common figure in Neapolitan puppet shows and history. His name derives from 'chicken' and 'rooster.' The character is the true 'man of the people,' expressing the views of the masses, often in crude fashion. Note the shiny nose: Depending on who you listen to, rubbing the nose either brings good luck...or ensures you'll "get lucky" tonight.


If Purgatory isn't ominous enough, Naples offers a way to go down below. Not to actual Hell, of course, but to a series of ancient tunnels and cisterns that once assured a city water supply as well as storage and refuge, starting around the fourth century. We skipped; low temperature year-round was not on our March agenda.


More stuff of all sorts for sale; there are hundreds of 'hole-in-the-wall' shops including many for stand-up or take-away food, continuing an old tradition; more than half the identified businesses in Pompei were what we would call snack bars.


No explanation. Outside a church.


A crowded early spring balcony of many.


Definitely back on my bucket list!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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