Tag Archives: Pickpockets

Naples, The Back Streets

Naples Backstreets 02

“To see Naples as we saw it in the early dawn from far up on the side of Vesuvius, is to see a picture of wonderful beauty. At that distance its dingy buildings looked white, rank on rank of balconies, windows and roofs, they piled themselves up from the blue ocean till the colossal castle of St. Elmo topped the grand white pyramid and gave the picture symmetry, emphasis and completeness

But do not go within the walls and look at it in detail. That takes away some of the romance of the thing.”

Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

Naples Backstreets 06Naples Backstreets 05

On this point I have to disagree with Mark Twain, the back streets are the romance of the thing!

Naples Backstreets 04

Naples, Walking The Back Streets

Naples Backstreets 03.jpg 

“I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly brown tags…”

Peter Sarstedt – ‘Where do you go to my lovely’

There is a famous phrase that claims ‘See Naples and die!’ which originated in the eighteenth century under the Bourbon regime when the city was added to the Grand Tour of Europe and meant that before you passed away you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples which at that time one of the most important cities in all of Europe.  This is where Horatio Nelson met and wooed Emma Hamilton.  Naples was capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until Italian Unification in 1861 and was the wealthiest city in Italy, plundered then by Rome leading to economic decline and a hundred years of neglect.

Some, less charitable, now say that the city is so mad, dangerous and badly polluted that death might possibly be a consequence of a visit there.

But to be fair not everyone is so pessimistic and gloomy about Naples and in 1913 George Bradshaw wrote in his guide ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys”…

“Naples is a bit of heaven that has tumbled to earth.”

The dangerously psychotic cab driver with a personal death wish which included anyone else in his cab at the same time dropped us off at a taxi rank at the City Cathedral and gave us final walking instructions to our accommodation but when we got there we couldn’t find it and I immediately accused him of dropping us off in the wrong place.  Unfairly as it happened because as it turned out it was my fault that I didn’t spot the small plaque on the wall that identified the b&b which was inside a residential apartment block.

My heart sank, in pursuit of a bargain price had I made a massive mistake?  We were too early to book in but we left our bags and set off immediately into the back streets of Naples.

Not the sort of hotel front entrance that we normally expect…

Naples B&BNaples Backstreets 01

I liked it immediately.  I liked it a lot.  At the Centro Storico the warren of alleys with peeling sepia walls were vibrant, chaotic and gloriously dilapidated, the architecture was street stained, the locals loud and boisterous without any sort of volume control, the balconies were bannered with laundry and the driving was appalling.  This was a fabulous place, the beating heart of the city, raw, dirty, passionate, crumbling, secret, corrupt but above all welcoming.

But so dirty, so grubby, so full of street litter that I concluded that although Naples was notorious for crime that we were more likely to be endangered by grime especially as it is well known that refuse collection in Naples is run by Mafia gangs.

The cities of southern Italy are in complete contrast to those in the north, this is a completely different experience, there is no wonderful architecture, no magnificent art except mindless graffiti, here there is no Michelangelo or Leonardo de Vinci, no Raphael or Botticelli, it reminded me immediately of Palermo in Sicily and Bari in Puglia but like a warm mozzarella the city oozes history, charm and adventure.

Not nearly as gloriously grand as Rome, as fabulously splendid as Florence or as dreamily romantic or decadent as Venice but with its own unique character, gritty, grimy, raw and sweaty with a down to earth proletarian charm.

Naples Grafitti

Naples is a traditional South Italian living and working class city with shabby narrow streets, care worn but brightly colour-washed buildings that have ancient coats of paint which have blotched and blurred by successive harsh summers and the result is an artist’s palette, water colours leaking in the rain, everything running, flaking and fusing. The streets between the houses are deep grey gullies decorated by washing lines carelessly strung outside windows and across the pavements like tattered bunting as though in anticipation of an important carnival, dripping and swaying above little shops, street food vendors and small bars.

I was intrigued by the shops,  the greengrocers with outside tables weighed down with plump produce grown in the rich volcanic Vesuvian soil, the mini-markets with a cold cabinet display full of tempting hams and pungent cheeses, the cheap bottles of beer and the shop selling locally produced wine.  Especially the shop selling locally produced wine.  We bought some ludicrously cheap grape juice of course even though there was no way of determining its origin or its vintage or with any confidence whatsoever about its alcohol content or what damage it was likely to inflict on our livers!

Naples Balcony

We walked some more through the pedestrian zone, although the term pedestrian zone  I warn you should not be taken too literally in Naples.  There are generously spaced bollards at each end and if anything motorised can squeeze between them then this appears to be completely acceptable and a visitor certainly needs to have their wits about them when walking casually around these streets that’s for sure.  What makes it even more alarming is that the narrow, winding streets and high buildings make even the most clapped out moped sound like a Ferrari on a Grand Prix starting grid.

At three o’clock we thought our room must surely be ready but no, we had another thirty minutes or so to wait so we found a bar and ordered afternoon drinks and waited.  When I say waited I really mean I worried because as time passed by I was not so optimistic about the accommodation and how much trouble I might be in.

After a beer to muster courage we returned to our b&b, my heart beating fast enough to contribute to a marching band but I needn’t have worried because it was absolutely wonderful.  It turns out that this was once the house of a member of the Neapolitan nobility (a long time ago of course) and we were allocated a room on the front with a special balcony that had been installed two hundred years earlier to provide a grand view of the Cathedral Square outside.

I was so relieved that I immediately opened the bottle of wine and as we declared it completely acceptable considered our dining options for later.  After a short debate we agreed that as we were in Naples then it just had to be pizza.  It had to be pizza! Of course it had to be pizza!

Our room is balcony top right…

Catherdal B&B Balcony Naples

Catalonia, Barcelona and the Bus Touristic – Part Two

Barcelona Catalonia Spain

“A change had come upon Barcelona since my previous visit.  Then there had been little sense of danger by daytime….Now however, harm hung on the air like a rancid smell” – Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

It didn’t take very long for the tour bus to arrive and we took seats again on the upper deck as the vehicle made its way towards one of Barcelona’s great public squares, the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of the hill of Montjuïc and which was developed  in 1929 for the World’s Fair Exhibition.

Barcelona went to a lot of trouble to host this event as it was almost in some sort of competition with the Andalusian city of Seville which hosted the Ibero-American Exposition in the same year and in preparation for that built the Plaza Espana as a showcase for Spain and its regions.  To compete with this Barcelona constructed a whole new boulevard and exhibition palace and the Palau Nacional which is now the National Art Gallery of Catalonia.

Declining to get off at either of these two stops we carried on a little further up the slopes of Montjuïc and then got off to visit Poble Espanyol which was also built for the 1929 exhibition and is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster with various bits of Spanish architecture and heritage stitched together in one open air museum.  Whilst this may work at Beamish in County Durham in the UK which restricts itself to the North East of England or St Fagans in South Wales where the exhibits come from a relatively small geographical area it is quite something else to try and bring together all of the differing cultural heritage of a country as diverse as Spain into one setting and succeed.

Pobol Espanyol, Barcelona Catalonia Spain

I found it to be a rather odd sort of place that aspires to celebrate the various regions of Spain but, for me anyway, failed to effectively capture the spirit of the country and it isn’t really a museum but rather a collection of shops and restaurants claiming to sell and serve regional specialities.  For anyone who has been to Disney World EPCOT World Showcase you will probably know what I mean.

The Disney view of the World doesn’t include Spain in the World Showcase, which is an oversight if you ask me, but if it did then something like Poble Espanyol would be exactly what it would most likely look like.

An interesting thing about Poble Espanyol is that it claims to introduce the visitor to the heritage and culture of each of the Autonomous Communities of Spain and yet it only showcases fifteen of the seventeen and as we left I couldn’t help wondering why the Canary Islands and La Rioja didn’t rate a mention or at least a shop?

Returning to the tourist bus we were driven now past the Olympic Stadiums, the Museum of local artist Joan Miró and then down to the seafront and the World Trade Centre which turned out to be a huge shopping mall so after thirty minutes or so in there we walked through and towards the beach area of Barceloneta which was busy today and decorated from one end to the other with  sun beds and brightly patterned parasols so we didn’t stay long.

We were now at the seafront end of La Rambla so we checked and secured our wallets, purses and cameras and walked along it keeping a constantly vigilant eye open for all of the pickpocket tricks that we had read about and I had previously been a victim of.

We were completely paranoid, two bags of nerves, eyes swivelling madly from side to side and showing suspicion of anyone who came within a metre or so of our personal space and we were glad that after about half way along we were able to leave the boulevard and turn towards Barcelona Cathedral – not Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrda Familia but the medieval Gothic Cathedral that stands in the heart of the city.  It was a good cathedral and I came away with the nagging thought about why Gaudi thought that Barcelona might need a second?

After the Cathedral there was only one last place to visit and this was the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palau de la Música Catalana which was designed and built in the Modernista style at the beginning of the twentieth century and has today become another symbol of Catalan nationalism.

It had been a long day and by now we were all touristed out so we cut back across La Rambla and through the University area back to our hotel whilst all the time looking for somewhere suitable to eat later.  My preference was for a chic looking bistro but nearby Kim took a fancy to a restaurant with a distinctly artisan character and I think that even at this early stage the decision was already made.

And so it was and we returned there later and enjoyed a very good meal at an exceptionally reasonable price although back at the room later when I reviewed the day’s expenditure I think I discovered the reason why, because they had forgotten to charge us for the bottle of Rioja that we had enjoyed as an accompaniment to the excellent seafood paella.

Petite Xaica Restaurant Barcelona Catalonia Restaurant