Summer comes suddenly in Southern Italy. You go to bed one evening in your pyjamas, or whatever attire you may favour in bed, pull the sheet up to your neck and drift off to z-land, just as you do every other night, and then wake up at dawn to find that you have kicked the sodden sheet to the floor in your sleep, and that you are lying on your side, your ear filling up with sweat. Your pillow is drenched and the bedclothes underneath you are wringing.
Although it’s only 6 o’clock, there’s nothing for it but to get up and have a shower. How I love this time of year, when you wake up before the alarm rings and the day seems so much longer! And, because the roads are only half as traffic-choked as they are at other times of the year – the Neapolitans along with the rest of Italy and a sizeable chunk of France having closed everything down and taken their summer vacations en masse – you have more than a fighting chance of actually getting to visit some of Naples’ magnificent museums and churches – provided, of course, that those responsible for opening them have not buggered off on holiday too.
Something quite astonishing happens to Naples in July and August. Rather like that moment in “The Wizard of Oz”, in which Dorothy leaves the grey monotony of Kansas City behind her and walks into a colourful world of brainless scarecrows, cowardly lions and heartless tin-men, Naples bursts into a thousand hues. Things that had always been there, but which I had never noticed in the winter monochrome, suddenly stood out from the background, and grabbed me as I walked past: dinky little altars dedicated to the Madonna or a favourite saint, bedecked with rosaries and candles, perhaps with an image of a defunct relative or two; immense 1960s apartment blocks, co-existing beside historical buildings in various architectural styles, all of which, just a few weeks earlier, I could have sworn were gun-metal grey in colour, but which now revealed themselves in all their Technicolor glory: pinks, russets, sandstones, ambers, all of them bleached to white as the sun rose higher and higher in the sky. Even the graffiti looked colourful and less like vandalism on a sun-drenched summer’s day.
One afternoon, I took a stroll down to the historical centre and the Spanish Quarters. Neapolitans and ex-pats alike had told me that this was a no-go area on account of its elevated crime rate. Being easily identifiable as a foreigner, I would be a natural target. But, leaving my money, gold rings and watch at home, I threw caution to the wind and went down on foot to Piazza Dante. Buses seemed to be very few and far between in this season and, besides, they were smelly in summer. The historical centre was the very cliché of Italian backstreet life as it manifested itself in films like Walt Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp”.
Washing lines laden with bedsheets and underwear criss-crossed dark, dank streets that were so narrow that lovers leaning out of windows on either side could steal a kiss across them. Brides and grooms and all their relatives spilled from churches, one after another, as if on a production line, and posed for photographs in the streets and by monuments. Blood red tomatoes and chilli peppers in red, orange and yellow dried in the sun next to stalls that sold green and black olives from huge, white plastic barrels. Men sold watermelons, whole or halved, from curious three-wheeled vehicles that looked like lightweight lorries constructed around the body of a Vespa.
In the Spanish Quarters themselves, I came across various examples of the famous Neapolitan bassi. These are single-roomed apartments on the ground floor, in which whole families are forced to live together, sometimes up to ten in one room. There are thousands of these bassi in this part of town; they are totally unfit for human habitation and a disgrace to Naples and to Italy, but they are not without their poetry to an observer like me who doesn’t have to live in them. On a day like this one, they were thrown open wide to let in a little precious light, and to allow the inhabitants to act out their lives in the open streets. Wobbly chairs and tables had been set up outside, along with pot plants and tiny wooden cages with singing wild birds that made me feel sad. Several old women were cooking in big pots in the open air and the atmosphere was fragrant with basil and tomato. Semi-naked children scampered around and scantily clad teenage girls with beautiful, deep, dark eyes and raven hair eyed me suspiciously, as did their muscular, unshaven brothers. Old men smoked and gossiped, some drank wine and played cards, slamming them down onto rickety tables with a flourish.
As awful as the bassi were, there was no doubt that the people who lived there made the best use of the space that they possibly could. Within the space of an hour or two, I saw the bassi transform themselves from kitchen into dining room and I was sure that, if I lingered until the evening, I would see them turn into bedrooms. I decided not to do so. I was clearly not welcome here and the atmosphere was turning more hostile by the minute. Whereas in years gone by, the younger generation of these quarters might well have plied a trade – legal or bordering on illegality – in an attempt to bring in a meagre income, it was far more common for them these days to turn to delinquency – drug pushing, mugging and trickery. It was just another aspect of the arte dell’arrangiarsi, the art of getting by, for which the Neapolitans are well-known throughout Italy.
I felt that I was attracting the wrong sort of attention and so I hurriedly made my way back to the main street of Via Toledo, sat on a bench with a beer, and watched young mothers fighting over the cheap and cheerful clothes piled up on street side-stalls under green canvas umbrellas to protect them, and the stall-holders, from the sun’s scorching rays. I took a final stroll around, visited a church or two, most notably the baroque Gesù Nuovo, ludicrously over the top, but still compelling, and the movingly simple Gothic church of Santa Chiara, with her beautiful majolica-tiled cloister and garden of roses and fruit trees.
And then I made my way back up to Vomero, again on foot. I was in a very good mood indeed. The Naples I had seen this morning was so very different from the Naples I had come to detest in February. It might as well have been two different cities. And just as I hated the one, so I was fascinated by the other.