After all of the horrible things I heard about Naples (it’s ‘dirty and scary’ one eloquent fellow traveler told me in Dubai), it was reassuring to step out of the Toledo metro station (called one of the most beautiful in the world) and see a vibrant pedestrian street. While my goals were to see Pompeii and Herculaneum, Naples itself has a few treasures well worth a stop. The marbles at Sansevero Chapel are truly amazing. While the veiled Christ is (rightfully) called one of the greatest sculptures in the world, I was most fond of “Disillusion,” a piece in which a man desperately tries to remove an intricate marble fishing net from himself. I was also pleased to see the Bourbon Tunnel, named for the Bourbon-dynasty king who built it to escape in case of riots. This tunnel complex was expanded over the years and functioned as a bomb shelter (and home) for thousands of people during World War II and as an impound lot for the Naples police for a few decades after the war.
If anything, Naples made me feel conflicted. Safety laws keep dangerous vehicles off the road for everyone’s benefit. However, you could tell that some of the vehicles in the Bourbon Tunnel, from the taxicab with jury-rigged illegal electric turn signals (its mechanical ones were not permitted anymore) to the crazy motorcycle / vehicle delivery vehicle (still chained up and taken for ‘not fitting in any particular vehicle category’) belonged to people who were trying to make an honest living. In addition, I thought it was funny that there were (obviously) unlicensed street vendors with quick-collapse stands that they would duck into the alleyway with (not even totally out of sight) whenever a police patrol passed. Again, these people are trying to make a living, but at the same time it is understandable that the city wants to keep walkways clear and to stop the sale of counterfeit, untested goods. The nice thing about the delicious pizza in Naples is that it distracts you from such moral dilemmas.
I stayed in Portici, which is walking distance to Herculaneum. At first I didn’t understand at first why I had to walk down a ramp through a dark tunnel to reach that site. It turns out that that 15 meter high wall of rock surrounding the site was the material that buried the city (and actually still covers a lot of it). It was amazing to walk through both sites as you could still see frescoes and mosaics (some extremely well preserved) as well as more utilitarian items such as the counters restaurants would heat and serve food from. Lest you begin to think the sites are all fun and games, the scared looking skeletons (at Herculaneum) and plasters (at Pompeii) remind you these places witnessed a great tragedy. Still, it is amazing to walk down a Roman street and see what the average person may have seen on an everyday basis.