Thursday, April 15, 2004

Veronese reactions to mention of Naples come in two forms, each the inverse of the other. Depending on the bent of the individual, one either hears “Ah, it’s a beautiful city, and you will eat so well (but watch the pickpockets)” or “It’s a crime-infested dirty hell-hole” grudging followed, when pressed, with the acknowledgement that, yeah, the food is great and it’s much more alive than here.

If I were so disposed, my first impressions could have reinforced the second outlook, with the emphasis on the negative. Not only was Piazza Garibaldi noisy, dirty, ugly and hawk-infested (hawk meaning those infernal “good price for you” salesmen, not the birds, obviously), it was also pissing down. I had been transported to another world: where Verona is spacious, Naples was claustraphobic; where Verona is calm Naples was chaotic; where Verona is smart, Naples was urban and where Verona is sunny Naples was, apparantly, wet. I couldn’t wait.

Urban is, for me, the word that best summises the city. Tall overcrowded buildings held up – and sometimes together – by endless scaffolding sit next door to grandoise colonial sea-view apartments. On each corner appears a run-down church or, if not, then a shrine. Or maybe the church is just out-of-view, stuck up on top of – or even underneath – something else. Kids play football under the roofs of wonderful and ornate shopping centres. A day’s wandering had me convinced that I was amongst the condemed, but, wow, what condemnation! One has no choice but to come alive to the sights, the smells and, most obviously, the noises of the city; if you don’t, then you’ll quite literally do the opposite when a scooter – probably carrying three generations of the same family – zooms around a corner and straight over you. Fuck, we were nearly run over by a police car doing a hand-break turn around the corner of a one-way street – in the wrong bloody direction.

Correspondingly, service in the restaurants was curt and simple. On one occasion we were placed sharing a table with a family of three, whom we quickly established must be northerners because we could understand at least some of what they were saying. Unlike us, they weren’t impressed by the large, busy and food-stained waiter asking them what they wanted to drink and then, whilst they dithered, deciding for them: “Half a litre of house red and a bottle of mineral water, yes?”. He had vanished before they could compose themselves sufficiently to reply.

Bean soup, grilled swordfish, fresh artichokes, margherita pizza, linguine with seafood... never have I eaten so well, so consistently and so cheaply. An inventive Neapolitan chef created the pizza in honour of the visit of Queen Margherita and consequently Naples takes the production of the famous dough topped with tomatoes and cheese – the simplest ideas are always the best – very seriously; any place not displaying the vera pizza logo outside is making unwelcome compromises in its cooking, and I suspect that this is one Italian institution that shows an uncharacteristic efficiency in pouncing on members that break its code. My pizza was different to the ones here in Verona – even to those I’ve had in Rome – and, it should be said, even better. Why is Pizza Hut still in business?

Moving on from the pizzeria we found a jazz club. There is – at least during the winter – little live music in Verona and so we revelled in watching a Swing-Jazz group perform an excellent set. The music and even the venue may not have been classically Neapolitan but something must be, and so it was when we realised that the 5-metre wide stage was going to host an 11-piece band, complete with drums and grand piano. They may not have literally been so, but with a low ceiling and brass instruments tooting away from all corners the band, like the buildings of the city, seemed to be playing on top of one another.

The morning after we spurned Capri to go instead to the less visited Procida, a small fishing island a short boat trip from the city. Public transport is by way of the microtaxi, a three-wheeled car/van hybrid, and the peace was a welcome break from the road-runner sounds of whizzing scooters that so quickly became familiar back in the city.

And as for the big tourist attraction... well, you can read about Pompeii anywhere, so all all I’ll add is that it’s much bigger than I expected and the Roman Arena there isn’t as impressive as the one in Verona; indeed, it fits the two city’s personalities that the one in the peaceful town of Verona is less damaged. But I bet the one down south saw more drama.

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