Naples: It is what it is

I was leaning against a lamppost close to the Central Station, hearing music, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. A street vendor asked me if I wanted to buy a Mickey Mouse shaped cigarette lighter. Not knowing how to say ‘oxymoron’ in Italian (for the record, it is ‘ossimoro’), I replied instead with a “No, grazie”. Noticing I was not Italian, the street vendor switched to English and asked me where I was from. “Portugal”, I said. “As soon as my wife can drag our son away from that toy store, we will continue sightseeing Naples”. ─ “Sightseeing? Naples? Why?”, he machine-gunned back, before walking away shaking his head.

I popped the headphones back into my ears and pondered his question. A fitting song had just started:

“New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down
New York, you’re safer and you’re wasting my time
Our records all show you were filthy but fine”  

I have never visited New York in the eighties, so I will have to take James Murphy’s word that the city was indeed better with grime and under the rule of the Five Families. In my head, Naples today is not that different from New York of yesterday, as it also has no shortage of trash and extortion by the Camorra, the local Mafia.

Apart from crime lords – which I assume form only a minute part of our readership – I expect that most Neapolitans would prefer a tidier and safer city. However, who are we – mere travellers visiting the city for a few fleeting moments – to opine on what is best?

Best or worst, good or bad, and other ranking duos have no place in travelling. Much like one does not judge a painting in a museum by its colour palette, one should not shoehorn a city into pretty and ugly categories.

─ “It is what it is”, I said to Jules the moment she exited the toy store, with a grumpy Gabriel in tow. ─ “You hate that expression, what are you going on about?”, she replied, puzzled. I do indeed have a pet peeve with blasé expressions, but this one seemed to suit Naples.

─ “It is indeed a fitting expression”, agreed Jules, after I took her through my reasoning. “There is always beauty in the unfamiliar. Often it will not conform to our preconceptions of what it pretty and what is not, nor should it. Travelling should be about expanding our horizons, rather than looking for places we like”, she added.

There is of course beauty – the obvious, pretty kind of beauty – in Naples. But, unless one is ushered blindfolded, from basilica to church, from the seaside to the views of Vesuvius, and from pizza napolitana to gelato, there is no way to avoid the rest of Naples.

Nor should it be avoided. The rest of Naples – the grimy narrow alleys, the scruffy buildings, the chaotic traffic – are stretch marks in one of the world’s oldest cities. Something that has survived Mount Vesuvius for over two-thousand years will continue to endure, impervious to travel guides and opinionated tourists.


We visited Naples back in 2019, which is why you won’t find any hint of social distancing and masks on these photographs. You can find them (plus others that did not fit this text) here, under a Creative Commons license (meaning that you can use them freely but are required to credit the author).

19 thoughts on “Naples: It is what it is

  1. Looking at those photos makes me miss traveling so much. I love exploring back alleys just as much as I do main avenues. Sometimes the most interesting things unfold in the former, and for some reason those photos of yours capturing Naples’ gritty side transport me back to Kathmandu. I remember getting lost in the city’s labyrinths, but I saw beauty in almost every corner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see what you mean! I went back to your Kathmandu posts and can see the same type of warmth in your images.

      We’re hopping back in a plane today for the first time since the pandemic broke. Just a domestic flight to the Azores, let’s see how it goes!

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, the pizza… 🙂

      We arrived late and famished to Naples, and went straight into the restaurant closest to our apartment. It was a shabby place with lopsided tables strewn across the sidewalk, ah but the pizza… 🙂

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Chaotic and a little overwhelming, for around the bay there is the most perfect beauty by anyone’s definition. It’s more than 20 years since I was there, and yes, it left an impression. 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Amalfi Coast? That’s where we headed after Naples and will soon write about it!

      Well, ‘soon’ is perhaps misleading, as this blog doesn’t quite have the punctuality of a Swiss train… not even that of an Italian one, actually 🙂

      – Verne


  3. I love it how you went about shooting Napoli: as it is, with a hint of mystery and drama and brutality. It brings to mind Elena Ferrante’s novels but I have yet to visit it. Beautiful light in those tight streets. And a special thank you for including the link to your site where more photos are displayed. A real pleasure. If you come closer to Tuscany, do tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks M^3! These photos are a bit of a departure from our usual style (hey, we didn’t even remove power cables this time!), glad you like them 🙂

      Going back to Tuscany is on our short(ish) list, as the last time we were there was more than 10 years ago, will indeed tell!

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This says it for me: “best or worst, good or bad, and other ranking duos have no place in travelling”. We travel to see the world, not for the pretty but for *all* it offers, and I suspect that it is the grimy alleys and scruffy buildings are what would appeal to me most – as your wonderful photos show.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Alison! I understand you started your travels in Italy and actually changed trains in Naples on your way to Sorrento? The commuter train ride you describe – scruffy and packed to the brim yet lively – is what Naples is all about 🙂

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the Circumversuviana – 33 stops and it stopped at 29 of them. Maybe I’ll get back to Italy one day and explore Naples. And Sicily. Oh and Portugal is high on the list!

        Liked by 1 person

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