144 years ago when the idea of the grand tour through undiscovered southern Europe was at its height, Mark Twain published his ' Innocents Abroad.' About Naples he remarked: 'I will observe here, in passing, that the contrasts between opulence and poverty, and magnificence and misery, are more frequent and more striking in Naples than in Paris even. One must go to the Bois de Boulogne to see fashionable dressing, splendid equipages and stunning liveries, and to the Faubourg St. Antoine to see vice, misery, hunger, rags, dirt--but in the thoroughfares of Naples these things are all mixed together. Naked boys of nine years and the fancy-dressed children of luxury; shreds and tatters, and brilliant uniforms; jackass-carts and state-carriages; beggars, Princes and Bishops, jostle each other in every street.'
Naples remains a wonderful, terrible city rolled into one. Driving through the heart of the city earlier this week I wondered that whilst Naples has modernised in part, the basic character of the place remains unaltered through the generations.
Shantytown shacks with plastic sheeting for walls and corrugated roofs, lean up against modern banks and factories. Factories built right up against the road that make things you would never want to buy. Angry graffiti on every surface, even the moving ones of train and bus. Billboards so numerous they stand one in front of the other, blocking, vying for your attention. Beautiful, sculpted gods smiling down on the poor, offering unobtainable dreams or transport to exotic, unreachable places. Raise your eyes and TV ariels gather en masse, pointing skyward, standing tall like skeletal meercats crowded on the apartment roofs.
Piles of rubbish on every corner, and lining every street. In fact, rubbish everywhere, up against every wall and verge like filthy snowdrifts of litter.
The traffic choking. Mopeds weaving between buses and cars on the cobbled streets. Chaos reigns, although there seems to be some unseen order for the initiated, the constant sound of the horn and obscenities shouted from car windows providing the background music.
Immigrants are walking, carrying goods, down narrow alleys to the markets that spread across the central piazzas. Standing out against the early morning rush are the beautiful young. Texting, preening, self assured and self obsessed, clothed in designer labels. Their hair, both men and women so unbelievably smooth and glossy they must have risen before dawn to arrange it. The old already sitting,watching, smoking, another day in the same spot as the world passes by their front row seat.
In the tiniest corner between road and train track, with room just for a mat, a man runs his business, selling whatever he has been able to buy at dawn. Who can brave the traffic to cross to his makeshift store? He claims his pitch early, eking out a bare living in the shadow of the glass and chrome financial centre.
Shabby high blocks of once grand housing look down on a city rotting, wasting. The modern facades and men in sharp suits unable to mask the decline, like decaying teeth in a once beautiful face, that still somehow retains a shadow of her youthful glory.
And whilst the city comes to life at the start of another day of heat and bustle, just like all the others that have gone before; That lethal half mountain Vesuvius looms darkly behind. Overdue, watching, waiting, forgotten by the millions who build their lives like ants on the volcanic slopes.