The first time I saw Naples it was the most exotic place I had ever known. The brightness of the sun, the sounds and sights and, well, yes, the smells were simply overwhelming for someone from northern Europe. People moved in what seemed like stop motion: now here, now there, hands up, hands higher up and waving against the cracked off-white paint of the houses, faces distorted by the need to communicate emotions I had no chance of imagining.
We ate spaghetti with a dressing that tasted like some of the more ambiguous smells of the alleyways we had traversed on our way to the funicular railway which took us to this restaurant at the top of a hill overlooking the city. Our ship was a smudge in the distance and the tablecloth was in dire need of bleaching. The very fact that a twelve-year-old boy noticed the tablecloth will give you an idea how… extreme everything was. My parents looked at the carved mother-of-pearl cameo jewellery presented for their delectation by shifty-eyed moustachioed men who came to the table and my father bought a ring with a white face on a pink background for my mother. He paid far too much.
The second and only other time I saw Naples was in 1978, on a hot sunny day as well. On the ring road I steered the XS1100 with the full Vetter Windjammer fairing and luggage through between the lines of Fiat 500s, locally known as Topolinos which were coming to a stop at the tollbooths (the first ones we had encountered; south of Naples there were no tolls) when suddenly all of their door flew open. Fiat 500s have no air conditioning, so the occupants open the doors whenever they stop for a bit of air flow, instead. I did not know this.
Yamaha XS1100 brakes, I discovered once again, were pretty damn good for the times. I managed to only tap a couple of open doors, and the owners shrugged explosively and laughed, much like the Neapolitans I remembered from 1959. Bringing their hands up and spreading all ten fingers with a snap, they seemed to be giving me permission to dent their tiny cars.
The smells in the streets once we had found our way off the ring road were somewhat more penetrating than I recalled, but that was easily accounted for by the piles of garbage that narrowed streets to single lanes and obliterated footpaths. We had arrived during one of Naples’ garbage strikes, noxious events orchestrated, so I was told later, by the Camorra. The bloke at the service station who had a brother driving cabs in Melbourne didn’t seem particularly disturbed by the stink or the obstruction, only objecting to my use of the term ‘Mafia’.
“No, no, it is the Camorra,” he insisted in a theatrically hushed voice while tapping the nozzle of the petrol pump on the Yamaha’s tank so no fuel would drip onto the paint. “The Mafia!” His dismissive shrug told me all I needed to know.
At his suggestion we passed on staying in Naples. He laughed immoderately when I asked about camping. “Not here! Go to Pozzuoli,” he said. “There is a camping with a swimming!”
Pozzuoli has two major claims to fame. It is Italy’s most seismically active place, and Sophia Loren grew up there. It is at the centre of the Campi Flegrei caldera and has been famous for its anomalous subsidence and upheaval documented since the Roman period. That is what my computer just told me. At the time, all I knew was that the water of the swimming pool came from a hot spring, which made it a pleasant place to spend the evening. I didn’t meet Sophia Loren until much later, in Singapore. She looked marvellous and was very gracious.
Both Mrs Bear and I liked Camping Internazionale Vulcano Solfatara a great deal, not least for the warm pool. You must remember that we had been on the road for nearly four months and in out-of-season French and Spanish campsites and North Africa hot, or even warm, water had been as rare as a Mafiosi at a Camorra staff meeting. The ‘camping’ also had a shop which offered not only local vegetables and fruit, but all the other food groups considered vital by Italians: pasta, bread, olive oil and wine. Best of all it was open on Sunday. In most Italian towns, Sunday shopping was restricted to flowers – presumably for the inescapable visits to the cemetery – and wine. You could always buy wine.
We had a five-litre plastic container which we refilled whenever necessary with the local vintage. This was not only convenient but also staggeringly cheap. And while keeping the fermented juice of the grape in a grey plastic container is not exactly affording it any respect, it tasted pretty good. I had found out long before that bulk vin ordinaire, or its equivalent in Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia (as it was then) and Greece tends to be more drinkable than cheap bottled wine.
My memories of Naples might be strangely mixed, and I would definitely not endorse the sentiment that one should see Naples and die, but I’m happy to recommend Pozzuoli’s up-and-down ambiance. And wine from plastic bulk containers.
(Photos The Bear & Mrs Bear)