Dean Martin sings wistfully of amore in old Napoli, but everything I had been told about Naples had me prepared to be mugged the instant I stepped off the train. Current and former study abroad students advised me to get off the train, go directly to a pizzeria, and get back on the train immediately. Do not wander, do not explore, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Rick Steves warns travelers to guard against pickpockets, swindlers, and mafiosos; Napoli is the home of the Camorra crime organization. All of these doom and gloom warnings had me imagining Naples as some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland where dark-haired men brawled and shouted in the streets, tossing pizzas and snatching wallets along the way.
I couldn’t see the swaggering mobsters of my imagination from the train station windows, but since I arrived alone on Friday, I headed for the McDonalds in the station – just to be safe. Two of my roommates were arriving from Barcelona and meeting me at the train station, but I had a few hours to kill before their arrival, so I munched on salty, familiar fries and read my book to while away the time.
I met up with Angela and Stephanie without any difficulty. We checked our backpacks at the train station and set out on a quest for pizza. After weaving our way through hordes of immigrant street vendors and random loiterers, we found a storefront to duck into while deciphering Rick Steves’ map of Naples. We made our way to the most famous pizzeria in the city, Antica Pizzeria da Michele, and found a line of locals stretching out the door. Michele’s rival is Pizzeria Trianon, which has been luring customers across the street since 1923. We decided to spend our euros at Trianon – what a treat! After we scarfed down our pizzas, we grabbed delicious gelato to go from Gelateria Polo Nord just around the corner.
Despite the heaps of trash around the bases of statues and the abundance of men skulking around the streets, I was hesitant to pass judgment on Naples. I didn’t see very much of Italy’s third-largest city, and to be honest, the ten-block radius around Roma Termini Station isn’t very nice either. Angela and Stephanie are both taking a class called “Sociology of Southern Italy,” so I asked them to tell me more about Naples over our lunch.
The mafia, “Cosa Nostra,” is the upper class, Godfather-type mob of Sicily. The Camorra, Naples’ criminal syndicate, is different. It came into being after WWII, and instead of being family-linked like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Calabrese ‘Ndrangheta, the Camorra has a loosely clan-based structure. Because Cammoristi are blue-collar average Giuseppes (not related by blood), the clans are much more likely to be violent, and publicly so. Because of the Camorra, Naples went through a bad, bloody period in the 1980s, commonly referred to as the Dark Ages. In the 1990s, an infusion of money for infrastructure rebuilding revitalized Naples as it was set to host an international conference. This period was called the Neapolitan Renaissance, and things weren’t so bad. Then, in 2004, two of the Camorra clans began feuding. This feud marks the beginning of Naples’ current state, a period experts are simply calling “hell.” Over 3,000 people, including many innocent bystanders, have been murdered in Naples in the past 10 years.
I’m still cautious about condemning Naples based on my experience of a small portion of the city in just a few hours, but Angela’s background on the Camorra helped me to understand why things are the way they are. The Camorra is behind Naples’ garbage crisis, which explains why the city was absolutely filthy. Naples’ unemployment rate is at about 30%, so that explains the throngs of loafers. Although the safety situation is less than desirable, Naples is definitely worth a stop for lunch and a history lesson.