Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The India of Europe

"I read somewhere," Ian murmured in my ear as we stared out the window of our Naples public bus on the chaos in Garibaldi Square, "that Italy is the India of Europe. And I think I see why."

Neither one of us has been to India, so we can't really say, but Naples is certainly chaotic in an order of magnitude larger than anywhere else we've been, or are likely to be, in Europe. Start with our drive from the airport to our hotel--getting on the freeway, the taxi driver calmly and confidently passed another car on the on-ramp, with inches to spare between the other car and the guard rail.

The next morning, the man at the reception desk at our hotel told us that the easiest way to the train station was to catch a bus a couple blocks away. He said it would be 1 Euro . . . and he maybe also said it would take 90 minutes. Of course, I had chosen this hotel online because it claimed to be close to the airport (it was 30 minutes, and considering the airport is basically in the center of town this wasn't, in fact, close) and the train station, and they also had a shuttle to the train station (the man at the reception looked blank when I asked about the train station, before remembering the bus). We walked to the bus along garbage-strew, grafittied streets that smelled and looked much like Nairobi. The bus stop was easy to spot, however, and someone was already waiting for it, so that seemed like a good sign. When it eventually came, we found the process of paying for our rides to be a bit opaque. After a couple of stops, I got up and went to the driver with our two Euro coins, and asked if I could pay him. He shrugged non-committally, and so I left and lurched back to Ian, still holding the coins.

Sometime later, as we approached the center of town, we came upon a march or demonstration blocking several streets, and piles and piles of trash everywhere else, as if there'd been a garbage truck derby sometime overnight. The driver went, evidently, off course, because suddenly people were standing up, distressed, and pushing the stop button time and time again.

About 20 minutes later we made our way another block or two to Garibaldi Square, where most of the rest of the people got off huffily. Ian and I could see, eventually, though the chaos, the train station across the square, separated from us by about 20 or 30 lanes of traffic that clearly was dying to careen about the huge roundabout recklessly, but couldn't because of the volume of cars. A couple police officers waved their hands around ineffectually, "directing traffic." We conferred briefly, and decided we had a much better chance of arriving at the train station alive if we stayed in the bus.

30 minutes later we arrived at the train station (never having paid for our bus ride) and then we had the pleasure of trying to find train tickets to Amalfi. I'd read somewhere that the best way to get to Ravello, which was our ultimate destination, was to take the train from Naples to Amalfi and then take the local bus up the hill to Ravello. We tried several times to buy tickets to Amalfi, and were eventually put on a train to Salerno, and told we would transfer there to Amalfi. It turned out, of course, that the reason we couldn't get a train directly to Amalfi from Naples is that there isn't one. That is, Amalfi doesn't have a train at all.

In Salerno, we found a bus ticket office, and they sent us out to an island in front of the train station. "You can buy the tickets on the bus," we think they said. Things were looking bleak indeed, though, as bus after bus wasn't the one we wanted, and the drivers looked dismissively at us in the way of people who are bored with you because you clearly have no idea what you're doing, until Ian pointed out that we hadn't had any food, or more to the point, any coffee yet that day and dragged me back into the station to a cafe where I broke my fast with an excellent spicy salami sandwich and a cappucino.

It turns out you can't buy tickets on the bus; fortunately, no one ever asked for ours so it didn't matter, and about an hour and a windy, windy, sick-making narrow, cliff-top road later, we had arrived in Amalfi. We had time to get our first of several gelatos (Malaga for me, limon for Ian) before another sick-making ride up to Ravello.

Ravello was gorgeous, and hot, and steep, and friendly, and the wedding we attended was like a fairytale with friends and family from the US and Taiwan and a lot of excellent food on two warm nights at clifftops on the Amalfi Coast, and then we headed back to Naples.

Someone at a tourist information booth in Amalfi said that there was a bus every afternoon at 3 from Amalfi to Naples, so we decided to do that rather than go to Salerno and take the train back and retrace our steps. Of course, when we actually arrived from Ravello to Amafi, nowhere could we see any sign (posted, that is) of a bus to Naples in the afternoon. It was the first day of the new posted bus schedule, so we weren't terribly surprised to see that the tourist office info was out of date.

So we had our last of several gelatos (I had Melone and Schiocolato, Ian maybe had Lemone again), and decided to take the bus to Salerno and then try to get a bus to the airport from there (we had seen one on our way to Ravello, so it seemed not completely unlikely that we could catch one ourselves). Around 3pm we wandered over to the bus stop, and saw, of course, a bus to Naples. So we got on.

Things were fairly uneventful, aside from the glorious, soaring, sick-making clifftop roads along the Amalfi Coast, until we were about level with Pompei, just southeast of Naples. And then, on the motorway, the bus caught fire. We noticed at first that the bus driver was talking frantically on his phone, then we noticed that people were looking out the rear window. Then suddenly things smelled very, very hot, and the bus was pulling over on a flyover on the motorway and everyone was pushing (and I mean really pushing) in a panic to get off.

We all made it off safely, smelling of burnt brakes or clutch or whatever it was, and I started to laugh. Of course, because this is the way of this sort of world, the driver was able to contact another bus going the same way and within ten minutes we were picked up and on our way back to Garibaldi Square.

Back at the train station, we asked at information for the best way to get to the airport and were given the name of a bus, and told to pay onboard. At the bus stop we could see that two different buses went to the airport, so we got on the first one. Which was, of course, another city bus that you had to buy tickets for somewhere else. Which only one person, of all the other riders on the bus, did. There was a lovely middle-aged Italian woman who got on with her suitcase when we did, who was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of a free ride (we, at this point, had realized no one paid), and she went around to every other passenger on the bus and asked if she could buy a ticket. Mostly they looked baffled--like why would she want to?--but some also looked amused. And then we arrived at the airport, and checked in, and took our cribbage to the outside deck of the business lounge, and breathed big sighs of relief.

Since we were only in Italy for 3 nights, for an event that was very well-organized, we hadn't bothered to buy a guidebook, or even a map, or even look at a map of any part of the area we were going to be in (aside from the partial map of the Amalfi Coast included in the invitations). And it was fun--to find our way around by feel, and by instinct, and by luck. Naples is a crazy, crazy place--it's as if, being in Italy, the EU decided it must not need money or programs or assistance of any kind, and as a result it's the most 3rd world city, by far, of any I've ever seen in Europe, even including Athens. It was the perfect adventure for the middle of our, really, remarkably staid and safe summer of nomadism. But I can't say I really recommend it.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Thanks for the description of your travels in Italy. I appreciate a chance to recognize what a comparatively calm, rational, and well-organized country we actually lived in over the last two years.