Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Napoli sucks...but I still kinda like it. (or, "Crime, pizza, and corpses")

After experiencing the many ruins and surprising likeability of Roma, our plan was to head south. Napoli was the next logical place to stop, given our awareness that it is said to have the best and most authentic pizza in Italy. We also were told to watch our backs and belongings, and to check our naivete at the door.

After all the places in the world I've traveled and scoffed at the "danger" about which I had been warned, I was not too concerned about Napoli. I figured it'd be a little bit run down, a little bit sketchy. Well, it was that to about the Nth power. Usually there's a "bad" part of town, but in Napoli, it was almost as if every part of town could be described that way. The people literally seemed to glare at us as we walked the streets, and few seemed to be happy in their own environment. I understand there is a VERY strong Mafia family or two or three in Napoli; with the exception of a very small upscale shopping district, the entire town seems to be falling apart, in disrepair, sadly past its prime. There is a palpable lawlessness permeating the city, just begging you to leave your valuable belongings safely tucked away in your backpack at the hostel, carrying only the Euros you think you'll need for the day. You think twice about pulling out your fancy digital camera to take photos of the shabby yet historic architecture and guarded, hostile inhabitants. You wish you'd have backed up your camera's memory card before going out on the town, so that when your camera is stolen by force, you at least won't lose the photos too.

That said, Napoli had some charm as well. The setting is beautiful, on a hillside, with streets ascending, descending, and curving around to afford you views of the sea and the city at many a corner. The word around Rome was right, too...the pizza was AMAZING. The crust was chewy and flavorful, the mozzarella and toppings fresh. There was a slight burnt taste imparted by the oven...I'm not sure if it was cooked on wood or stone, but it doesn't matter. Buonissimo!!! We also made a long 30 minute trek at night up the hill to a very fancy gelateria/pasteleria. Gelato is my new favorite vice, closely followed by a ricotta or a cioccolato pastry of some type. It's a good thing we're walking all over Italy, or I'd have already gained 25 lbs. It's probably only five thus far.

The hostel in Napoli was amazing...La Controra backpackers' hostel pays attention to its guests' needs, and the office staff is amazing. It had a gorgeous inner courtyard, super comfortable beds, and was painted with bright and contrasting colors throughout. The polished and friendly vibe inside the hostel is one hundred percent different than the rough and downtrodden vibe on the street, making me wonder if the vibe on the street is just an act and that behind closed doors Napolitanos are a friendly, helpful, smiling lot. Or perhaps the hostel staff faked it. Whatever...it's one of the best hostels either Trip or I have ever stayed at.

We met some great Slovakian friends called Stefi and Maros, a sister and brother duo that were our roommates. We got along famously and ended up sharing a day together, first taking the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii to witness the excavation site of the ancient village that was covered with ash during Mt. Vesuvius' 79 A.D. eruption, and later sharing pizza and beer together at our new favorite pizza establishment, Vesi Pizzeria.

Pompeii was astounding...the volcano literally looms RIGHT ABOVE the town. When it began to rain during our exploration of the old city, I almost could imagine it was ash falling. We had a tour guide, Ettore (Hector in English), who was a crazy Italian guy. He was full of information, but he said a number of things that made his 10 guests cringe as, apparently, political correctness is NOT a trait required in Italy. A few women may have been offended, though they pretended to laugh at his remarks.

Some of you may have seen photos of the bodies that have been discovered at Pompeii. As we learned, the bodies were burned and mostly decomposed after being encased in burning pumice stone/ash; what we witnessed, and what you see in the photos above are plaster casts of the bodies made during excavation. When they find a cavity where a decomposed body used to be, they fill it with plaster, and break off the outer layers, which leaves a plaster form in the shape of the body. In some of the bodies you could still see bones, particularly skulls with the very visible suture lines. There were pregnant mothers, protective fathers, chained up dogs, little babies...all have been unearthed and are on display. Amazing.

We're off next to Palermo, Sicily, way down south. We're taking a loooooooong train, but we paid the extra 17 Euros each (about 25 bucks) for first class, so let's hope that it ends up being worth it.

Ciao once again...