We met Giacomo the Italian on a sea kayaking excursion in Alaska last year and got to know him over a few dinners. We learnt Giacomo was an actor and performer who also taught and produced opera. He told us how he tends to be cast as the serial killer in his productions because “his face is so unusual”. We stayed in touch and let him know of our plans in Italy. Although he alternates his time between Rome and Milan, he suggested we join him for his production of Don Giovanni in Naples. So we booked the train from Florence and away we went.
There’s no shortage of literature bagging Naples and giving all sorts of advice to tourists to be careful of this and that. Naturally, this was all in the back of the mind when booking a hotel. We asked Giacomo for suggestions, but the hotel he frequents was substantially out of our budget. Turning to Trip Advisor, we went with ‘number 14 rated’ UNA Napoli, as it was close to the train station. Reviews said the hotel was great, but just not to visit the city.
Naples is a different place and may as well be a different country compared to northern Italy. First impressions reminded me of arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam. However, in Hanoi the traffic follows a kind of pattern. There’s no pattern in Naples, except that you don’t obey the road rules. It took us ages to cross the main road to the hotel with our bags, but we got there eventually.
I had read that Naples had cleaned up its rubbish problem. If that’s true, it must’ve been pretty bad before! At midnight, we watched the rubbish truck come down the street. The truck was followed by a bobcat scooping up loose rubbish into big piles to put into the truck. The bobcat was followed by a small sweeping truck. Finally, the small truck was followed by men on foot with leaf blowers and brooms. The ‘Naples waste management issue’ has been around a while and peaked in the summer of 2008. The rubbish collection and dumping are controlled by the Camorra, the powerful local mafia, who supposedly make 20 billion euros a year from the rubbish industry in Campania. The Camorra have taken action to try and maintain their stranglehold on the landfills and collection of rubbish (allegedly including deliberately dumping rubbish in the streets). The Berlusconi government has been credited with cleaning up the problem – the army was called in at one point to pick up rubbish (like Grammar boys on detention, but probably less effective). Unfortunately the city and its people have paid a heavy price for the problem, including much higher risks of cancer due to the burning of rubbish containing nasty chemicals. But enough of that.
We made it to the Museo Archiologico Nazionale di Napoli (Italy’s main archeological museum) in plenty of time for Don Giovanni and found Giacomo, who was very pleased to see us, but also flat out organising his performance. Without the slick ponytail we knew him with, and wearing a “the good, the bad, and the ugly” t-shirt, he was at his fashionable Italian best.
The opera was fantastic and something very memorable for us. This was a casual, free performance (they did three over two days) and the audience of around 100 either sat on the floor or stood around the room, which housed some marble statues. The actors were all professionals from the Naples region and the girls wore dresses originally owned by Giacomo’s Grandma. Of course the voices were incredible, but the acting wasn’t bad either. At times Em and I exchanged glances from our front row possy, wondering how many layers of clothing were going to be shed… It was a great way to see opera (not that I have really seen much opera), but something has to be said for being so close to the action. Here are some photos and a short clip of the performance filmed on the iPhone (which will certainly not do justice to the voices).
The lunchtime performance meant plenty of time to explore the rest of Naples.
We wandered around the Museum for a bit, seeing the ‘must sees’. Em was losing interest until she stumbled into the ‘Secret Room’ displaying pornographic drawings and sculptures recovered from excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum (read lots of penises).
Some more aimless wandering through the Centro Storico to the water, followed by gazing at Mt Vesuvius.
The best thing to do in Naples is just to watch life go by – the crazy scooters, the heated discussions, the even more heated Sunday football. We found a place overlooking the water and serving authentic Napoli pizza and even managed to get service before the TV was changed to the football and all work stopped completely.
Naples is a crazy place. It has lots of problems and is not surprisingly avoided by most visitors to Italy. Nonetheless, it has an energy to it, not like any other city we have seen. Em would say I’m being too generous here. But I think if you want to experience all of Italy, you can’t skip Naples.