No sooner had I swapped the blue world of Lesvos for the green one of CdP, we set off Naples in summer sunshine and spring temperatures. Have I mentioned before how much I love Naples? I know. I tend to repeat myself.
We stayed in a rooftop AirBnB apartment in the Montesanto district, which is bumpy and thronging and loud and packed with stuff. There’s so much stuff on sale (most of it tat, save for the food – fish and vegetables, and tiny shops packed with nuts and dried goods – which is luxuriant like nowhere else), and so much bustle around it, but (again, apart from food) I can’t discern a huge amount of purchasing going on. Displaying wares seems to be an end in itself – part of the Great Theatre.
We spent a large part of those first two beautiful days underground.
At the eerie chambers of the Fontanelle bone-deposit, where you’re hard-pushed to believe that locals have bowed to Church orders and stopped ‘adopting’ skulls to earn themselves heavenly brownie points. If so, what are those shiny coins doing perched on top of the skulls? And those not-so-tattered name cards tucked between the piles of bones? And the tiny bracelets and rosaries carefully positioned between the grisly mounds?
And at the Galleria Borbonica, where military engineers of the 19th century extended the towering subterranean halls of ancient tufa quarries to make a get-away tunnel for the royal family should the down-trodden masses turn against them; and where terrified Neapolitans fled for shelter during World War Two. Multi-purpose (for centuries they were dotted with cisterns which held the city’s water supply) and harder to read, these tunnels nonetheless contain some remains that stop you in your tracks, including banks of loos – perhaps 20 stalls in all – installed for the many thousands of locals who spent weeks and months down there from 1943.
Like enthusiastic visitors we returned to the archeological museum where, as always, we were left speechless both by the magnificence of the collection, and by the pedestrian way it’s displayed. And we did a thorough trawl through Capodimonte, where the new(ish) director had pulled all kinds of things out of storage, to make an interesting point about what goes into and out of fashion (but also, inevitably, showing that storerooms are full of stuff that really doesn’t deserve any more illustrious location). And where the three portraits of Pope Paul III are proof – if proof were needed – that Titian really is hard to beat.
And then the wind got up. Overnight on Friday/Saturday, it sounded like every roof in Naples was being ripped off. Things were slamming everywhere. When I opened the curtains in our roof-top perch on Saturday morning, the air was full of swirling white bits. Ash from an exploding Vesuvius, was my first thought. (Interestingly, the son-in-law of friends with whom we had lunch on Sunday said that that was his first thought too. You’d think that someone born under the volcano, who has lived his whole life there, would be inured to the threatening presence but no: he had found it disturbing.) It wasn’t ash however: it was snow. It went on all day, small amounts falling inexplicably from brilliant blue skies.
Glacial as it was we persevered, visiting the disappointingly bad new virtual museum at Ercolano – a wooly, overwrought ‘experience’ rather than a true learning opp: why do people think that’s a good thing?; checking out the beautiful objects in the newly reopened antiquarium at Herculaneum; and being caught off-guard by the surprisingly wonderful railway museum at Pietrarsa, a fine display of why once upon a time every little boy wanted to be an engine driver. We topped the day of gales off with Il Ballo in Maschera at the sumptuous San Carlo opera house – a special treat.
But as always, it was Naples and its inhabitants that were the main attractions in this astounding city. There were the motorino variations (one mother with three biggish children – all over ten I’d say – on the saddle in front of her; a grossly obese man on a vespetta with a child on each knee; the boy from a bar with two full glasses of water and several coffees on a tray, but not a drip slopped over the sides) all leaping fast over impossibly potholed streets. And there was the group of highschool kids (at an age when the embarassment of cool should have crippled them) in Capodimonte gripped by hilarity, re-enacting the scenes in huge historical paintings.
There are the architectural street invasions: intricate balconies built out quite illegally from front doors to make tiny private balconies for warm-weather communal living in the space where pavements should be. And there are the districts of Naples themselves, actors like any other in the spectacle of the city.
Has Naples become less threatening? Or after all our visits, are we more inured? Not that many years ago we wouldn’t have strolled through Sanità, or the Quartieri Spagnoli but we certainly wouldn’t have done it quite so nonchalantly. The streets are still – in their way – mean, but in an embracing way, if that’s possible. The tipping point between sense of danger and attraction of mesmerising vitality has shifted subtly.
It’s quite amazing how the city has resisted gentrification. The smart(ish) bits are still smart, though even here there are few outward signs of extreme wealth. But the ‘rough’ bits continue to be as chipped and bashed and unplanned and grimy (by which I mean metaphorically and not, I should say, in the sense of trash on the ground: Rome is dirtier nowadays) as it has always been, with no sign that those amazing palazzi are secretly being snapped up and made over inside.
There would be endless things to make over. You can be so caught up in Neapolitan decay that you fail to study what it is that’s decaying: the superb noble palaces which have been sliced up and had carbuncles added and which are barely recognisable, but in fact the bones of aristocratic wealth and architectural splendour are still there. Around the corner from where we were staying, what remains of Palazzo Spinelli di Tarsia is an extraordinary square – once a private inner courtyard and now a chaotic carpark. The magnificent gardens of this noble house once spilt down a slope now covered by slapdash construction. The prince of Tarsia opened his huge library to the public three days a week. Where is it now? Part of the Neapolitan jigsaw puzzle.
Salita Capodimonte which plunges steeply past ancient tufa road cuttings and the ageless homes of the poor from the museum back down towards the centro; the Salute district with its nervous, jerky, quivering energy; and the Quartieri Spagnoli which were, I think, what I found most changed. You couldn’t call them gentrified: they’re too tough for that. But to stroll through clean-swept streets and pick up cakes to take to lunch was another world from the Quartieri of 20 years ago or so when I wrote my Time Out guide. Then, dark men stood at the entrance to every alleyway to clock who came and went, the streets were debris-strewn, and the street-level lock-ups which have now returned to their original roles as garages and storage spaces were the homes of the poorest of the Neapolitan poor. Without shedding any napoletanità, times have changed.
And so to wrap up my Greek island experience, which came to an end ten days ago. I watched at the lighthouse three times. Each time, a boat. I nearly let the third one slip by.
Dawn was just breaking and there was a fishing boat below where I could see the fish writhing through the night vision equipment as the man pulled in his nets: metallic and mesmerising. So when I swung around to the east for my final scan it was by sheer luck that I saw the low dark line sliding along the sea surface towards the bay at Tsonia. I woke Catarina. She confirmed and began signaling the presence of the dinghy which had now quite vanished behind the headland.
We’d been there all night. We were cold and dropping with fatigue. The Hellenic coastguard boat which had been loitering further round the coast arrived and swung its searchlight about. Nothing. For a long moment, we doubted what we’d seen. Catarina thought she heard a shriek, but the gulls were already on the wing, and it’s not easy to tell a human cry from that of a hungry seagull.
The fisherman who had distracted me for too long now came to our aid. Yes, he radioed in, he’d definitely seen a boat passing by. And so MoChara, the rhib belonging to Refugee Rescue, sped across to comb the coastline. The crew had discounted an empty, deflated dinghy run up on to a little beach in the bay, until they realised that there were a few still-inflated black rubber rings lying about, and some empty biscuit packets.
The group was found shortly after. They’d clambered up the steep hill. The shriek may have come from a woman who had given birth three days previously, who dropped her infant into the icy water as she clambered off the dinghy. The baby was cold but unharmed. No one in the leaking dinghy had been wearing lifevests. They had been bailing frantically for 90 minutes. But they were all safe.
Not so two nights later when our Lighthouse Relief night-spotters had already packed up and left the bitter spot above the lighthouse where a gale was blowing and the chances of anyone making the crossing were next to zero. Except they did. A small group was found in Tsonia town crying and shouting that a child was lost. Again, no life vests. Again, a deflating dinghy. In the end 48 people were found in the woods. It’s still a mystery how so many fitted into such a small craft. One child – a girl of nine or ten – had gone overboard as the dinghy neared the shore. Mo Chara and the coastguard worked all day; divers arrived from Mytilini. But she was never found.
Of course you know that what killed that child was a ‘system’ that is heartless and inhumane. But there are so many ways that everyone in Skala managed to blame themselves. A couple of psychiatrists from International Rescue Committee came to talk us all through it – something which I was very dubious about at first but in fact they managed to steer the group through an important dialogue. Still, those parents trying to give their children a better life now have to live with the pain of having sacrificed one in the effort. It’s not how the world should go.
To end on a happier note, earlier that same evening another leaky dinghy was intercepted on the water by a Portuguese Frontex boat which towed them into Skala harbour. (I shall avoid dwelling on the rights and wrongs of towing leaking overcrowded boats, and then keeping their terrified passengers on board while going through a raft of silly bureaucratic procedures.) While the first batch of arrivals was being ferried up to the transit camp, I stayed behind on the port with a small group of mainly young Afghan men, all of them quietly smiling and gentle in the way I’ve come to associate with Afghans. (How did that country produce both these people and the Taliban?) At one point two of them came towards me looking anxious. It took me a while to understand what was worrying them: they couldn’t find a bin to throw their empty plastic water bottles into… an oddly civilised thing to be anxious about when you’ve just crossed the Aegean in a leaky dinghy.
LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF URGENTLY NEEDS FUNDS TO CONTINUE ITS VITAL EMERGENCY RESPONSE WORK ON THE NORTHERN COAST OF LESVOS AND ITS PSYCHOSOCIAL SUPPORT PROGRAMMES IN RITSONA REFUGEE CAMP NORTH OF ATHENS. ANY DONATIONS TO THEIR GLOBAL GIVING CAMPAIGN WILL BE MUCH APPRECIATED. PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD.