Inside, the Santa Chiara Church in Naples is beautiful in its grand simplicity – a vast serenity with elegant stained-glass windows and an earthen-coloured tiled floor.
Outside, its walls and doors are covered in graffiti. Not the hip street art that can give a neighbourhood a contemporary atmosphere. I’m talking about the overt vandalism of sprayed names and rude messages.
And here, in this one spot in the centre of the historic centre of Naples, the entire city has been captured.
Begrimed and neglected on the outside; resplendent and colourful when you go a bit deeper.
Is Naples dangerous?
For as long as I can remember, Naples has not had the best reputation for tourists. There are its associations with the mafia, people always talk about the city’s trash problem, and it’s certainly supposed to be inefficient compared to the major cities in the north of Italy.
I arrived expecting to find that these stereotypes were just tales that get perpetuated by people who have never been – only heard about it secondhand.
I had assumed that some of the other negatives stories about Naples were no longer relevant – that they described how the city used to be, not how I would find it now.
I was wrong.
There is no denying it – Naples is dirty and Naples is dangerous. Everywhere you go, bins overflow with trash and streets have rubbish just piled up against the wall or in the middle of the square.
Walls are covered with scrawled graffiti, gardens are full of weeds, historic buildings are falling apart.
And the crime level is relatively high, with tourists particularly targeted. Pickpocketing, bag-snatching, muggings. This is a reality in Naples – I can promise you – and certainly more than anywhere else I’ve been previously in Italy.
(This is probably a good point to remind you that I always suggest you have travel insurance and I recommend World Nomads.)
But, you know what? Despite all of this, I have come to love Naples.
The real Naples
For every criminal targeting tourists, there are thousands of warm and generous local residents who you’ll meet as you explore Naples.
For every pile of trash, there’s an impressive piece of architecture behind it.
For every wall of graffiti, there is an opulently-decorated church on the inside.
In fact, it’s the chaos and the grit that I think endeared Naples to me right from the start. While cities like Florence or Siena in the north are certainly beautiful, they also come across as a little artificial and a little too clean – as though they have been created just for the hordes of tour groups who visit each day.
With Naples, there is no doubting the authenticity of what you are seeing. This is a city with texture – the good and the bad.
What’s somewhat hard to reconcile is that there are some absolutely gorgeous urban vistas in the city: around Piazza del Plebiscito, for example, or up at Castel Sant’Elmo. But then there just seems to be such a disregard from local authorities and residents to keep their city beautiful.
One of the things I think must be going on is a love of the luxury of life, more than ornamental considerations. (When you see how people drive here and how close pedestrians seem to come to death all the time, perhaps it makes sense that you would want to live in the moment.)
One night, at almost 11 o’clock, the entire neighbourhood where I’m staying erupts in noise with shouting and banging. People are hanging off their balconies screaming, cardboard boxes are being kicked in the street, bottles are being smashed.
The local football team has apparently scored a goal just in time to win an important game.
It’s not the fanaticism that surprises me – that happens everywhere. It’s the noise and the mess that it creates… and that everyone is getting involved! The entire neighbourhood, as a community, has been caught up in emotion with no consideration for the chaos that’s caused.
But I get caught up in it too, the longer I spend here in Naples.
I like that I have to push my way to the bar to get a coffee just like all the locals do.
I like that there’ll be a bit of performance about ordering a pizza but when it comes it will be one of the best I’ve ever eaten.
I like that simply crossing a threshold can take you from hot bright hectic streets and into quiet historic buildings with centuries of amazing art.
I like that every cafe serves an aperol spritz.
So, did I like Naples?
Even the best relationships have some bad times, don’t they? Moments of conflict that just need some forgiveness. Annoying character traits that just need some acceptance.
That’s the way I see Naples. I am glad I have this city in my life now and that we’ve had this time together. It’s not perfect – but at least it’s real.