Sitting in the back seat of a Honda Accord that has seen better days, my forehead is pressed against the glass of the rear passenger window as we whip abruptly left and right through the streets of Naples, Italy. The colorful street life is going by in a blur. Three women clinging to a scooter brush past us and the two passengers grin gleefully at me while the driver, talking on a cell phone, blasts through an intersection barely missing a city bus. An elderly woman walking a tiny dog is scolding a shopkeeper for something related to the fruit and vegetables he has in crates on the sidewalk, and four men are playing cards on a folding table a foot from the busy street.
It’s fascinating chaos that I’m grateful to witness without driving. Five of us are packed into the small sedan, and our driver, Jerry Gathof, a civilian oceanographer for the US Naval Sixth Fleet Command in Naples, is at the wheel. A resident of Campania for the last four years, Gathof has no idea what streets will take us to our destination, but he is confident nonetheless, and we are enjoying the wild ride.
Swinging up a steep boulevard into the toney neighborhood of Vomero – often described as one of the better places to live in Naples, our drive becomes a hill climb as we ascend a residential street. Finally a tiny brown sign indicates we are within walking distance of our destination, and our driver deftly squeezes the Honda between two vehicles parked alongside the street.
Jumping out on the street side, I hurry to shut the door and duck an on-coming car tearing down the hillside. Groans of disgust emanate from the sidewalk and I look over to see my travel companions frantically working to remove doggie deposits from their shoes. The entire sidewalk is littered with animal waste for two blocks as we climb up closer to the top of Vomero.
This is Naples, not Florence or Rome, and with the character, color and striking personality of a city that has survived despite a lack of favoritism or tourism, Naples comes with grit. It is a sometimes edgy landscape that you must embrace, or just bypass for more pristine pastures.
Hiking up the hill and around a corner, we arrive at the vast Castel Sant Elmo. A medieval fortress believed to have been built as a palatial private residence sometime in the 12th century, the fortress morphed over the centuries into a military installation. Re-invented as a huge, hexagon shaped castle surrounded by a moat, the castle was constructed for the marines by a controversial architect during the 1530’s, but was later restored several times and continued to serve as a military outpost and prison for centuries. Eventually the property was turned over to the Provence of Campania and underwent a seven-year restoration in the 1970’s that restored the original parapet walkways and internal chambers of the castle.
Now the home of a museum, 700-seat auditorium and art gallery, the most outstanding feature of Castel Sant Elmo is its lofty position lording over Naples. The view is a 360 degree circle that stretches from Sorrento on the coast, to the shores of Gaeta in the northwest. The islands of Capri, Ishia and Procida are framed by an expanse of ocean stretching to infinity. From the southern view over the city, the historic street of Spaccanapoli, derived from the original grid of the Greco-Roman city of Neapolis, is dramatically obvious and it’s easy to see why it is described as the street that “divides” Naples simply because of its conspicuous appearance.
From this vantage point, Mt. Vesuvius is regal as part of the backdrop, and on a clear day the volcano that devastated the area centuries ago is both handsome and forbidding. Watching the cruise ships floating below in the Port of Naples, I wonder how many passengers will ever experience this place. The land excursions of Naples typically include Pompeii and the Island of Capri. Which means many visitors to southern Italy will never get to see the magnificent coast line from the medieval fortress that has lorded over Naples for centuries.