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Naples: Italy’s Urban Jungle

Naples, Italy

Capture the lively spirit of Naples by walking through its historic core to see its very fresh fish market, crazy traffic, love of soccer, religious fervor, and vibrant street life. Enjoy a pizza in its birthplace.

Complete Video Script

Centuries before Christ, Naples was a thriving Greek commercial center called Neapolis…or, the "new city." Over the ages it became an important center ruled by a series of foreign overlords. In the 18th century, Naples finally became the capital of its own independent kingdom. Then, with the unification of Italy in 1861, Naples fell from being an important political capital to just another provincial town.

Neapolitans lament that after their city joined the newly united Italy, its riches were swallowed up by the new country. As the city's wealth was used to fund the industrial expansion of the north, Naples eventually lost its status and glamour.

Today Italy's third-largest city feels in many places like an urban jungle. Its lack of open spaces or parks makes it Europe's most densely populated city. Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical, in this gritty city. The vast Piazza Garibaldi facing the train station provides an off-putting welcome to those arriving by train.

But get beyond this and Naples surprises the observant traveler with its good humor and decency. It's people have an impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children in the streets.

Southern Italy's leading city, Naples offers a fascinating collection of museums, churches, and eclectic architecture. This tangled mess — as intense an urban scene as anything you'll find in western Europe — still somehow manages to breathe, laugh, and sing…with a captivating Italian accent.

Naples' fish market wiggles and squirts from under one of the city's surviving medieval gates. Each stall is eye-catching. Is the seafood fresh? Most of its still alive. Wandering through this scene, enjoy the playful competition of the singing merchants.

In so many ways, you'll find southern Italy is a distinct culture from the North. People here are more fun-loving and easy-going.

Naples has long suffered from a bad reputation. Unemployment is chronically high, and past local governments set an example that the Mafia would be proud of. But lately, with mayors committed to safety and law and order, the city has more police and feels much safer.

Still, just to be cautions, assume any jostle or commotion is actually a smoke screen created by a thieve team up to no good. Con artists are more clever than you. Also, assume able bodied beggars are actually pick pockets. Keep your money belt hidden.

Neapolitan traffic is thrilling. Red lights are considered discretionary. Pedestrians need to be wary, particularly of the motor scooters. Be careful but be assertive. While many timid tourists get stalled on the curb, I get across quicker by jaywalking in the shadow of confident locals.

Rather than seeing Naples as a long list of sights, see its great archeological museum — which we'll visit later — and then capture the spirit of the city by walking through its historic core.

Spaccanapoli, literally "split Naples," is a perfectly straight street that dates from ancient Greek times. It leads through the colorful heart of the old city.

Echoes of ancient Neapolis survive. The original Greek street plan is remarkably intact and back then, like today…small businesses by day became private homes after hours and life tumbled out of the homes and into the lanes. Today, this scene is just one more page in the 2,000-year-old story of Naples.

And to understand that story, I'm joined by my Neapolitan friend and fellow tour guide, Roberta Mazzarella.

You name it, it occurs right on the streets today, as it has for centuries. Kids turn a wide spot in the sidewalk into a soccer field…walls are crusty with posters and death announcements. Neighborly chit-chat and heated arguments take place curbside. Blue buckets help busy moms connect with the delivery boy. Everyone seems connected by cell phones. And fast food comes in the form of a folded pizza.

The tiny streetside "Chapel of Maradona" is dedicated to Diego Maradona, a soccer star who played for Naples in the 1980s.

Roberta: We love soccer… In Italy soccer’s like a religion, in Napoli especially. Look here, look what we have…Maradona our big superstar the soccer hero. That's his hair. And when we traded him, the city cried…that’s the tears. Lacrime Napoletane!
Rick: So, this the temple of Maradona?
Roberta: …the temple of Maradona.

Even though for many Italians, soccer is like a religion, churches remain an important part of the community. Stepping into the lavishly baroque Jesu Nouvo church you'll learn how, along with sports heroes, Neapolitans have their religious heroes too.

This much-adored statue celebrates Giuseppe Moscati, a Christian doctor famous for helping the poor. A steady stream of the neighborhood faithful remember him and hope he remembers them as a stop here is a part of their daily worship routine.

Moscati was so loved by the local community that when he died in 1927 there was a movement to make him a saint. After it was shown that he had cured two people of deadly diseases he was fast tracked to sainthood in 1987.

The church where the saint preached has made a small museum covered with Ex Voti. These are given as thanks for prayers — in this case to Saint Moscati — that were answered. Each has a symbol of the ailment cured…heart disease, lung problems, a sick child, whatever…

A display shows the great doctor's apartment, his possessions and photos.

A bomb casing hangs in the corner. In 1943, it fell through the dome of Father Moscati's church, but destroyed almost nothing…some say yet another miracle.

The nearby Spanish Quarter is Naples at its rawest and most characteristic. Pause at any street corner to enjoy a vivid slice of Neapolitan life.

And don't forget to look up. With no yards, families make full use of their tiny balconies.

Roberta: This is Basso living.
Rick: Basso living, what does that mean Basso?
Roberta: It can mean low.
Rick: So literally low.
Roberta: Yeah, it's like a small apartment, 2, 3 bedrooms, 4,5, 6, 7,8, 9 people join the family.
Rick: Okay the traditional sort of romantic life in the streets?
Roberta: Life in the streets, yeah. Many people might have money to go away from here, but they still stay here.

No taste of Naples is complete without a pizza. Antica Pizzeria da Michele is a favorite. Baking just the right combination of fresh dough, mozzarella, and tomatoes in traditional wood-burning ovens, this restaurant is considered by many the birthplace of pizza. They brag it takes several years of practice to get the dough just right. Catering to pizza purists, the menu is brief…just two kinds: marinara comes with tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic, no cheese. Margherita celebrates the unification of Italy. Named after the first Italian queen, it comes with the colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese, and a garnish of green basil.

Italians who come to the States are not impressed by thick and fancy pizzas. Judging from the enthusiasm of those munching these hot and tasty pies, what really matters is not the quantity of ingredients but the quality.