Bourbon Tunnels

‘Don’t ever say you’re dying of hunger; you have no clue what it means.’ That little gem gave me something to think about: those throwaway comments I make without thinking, the idioms I use without thought or reflection. It would be a difficult world if I had to weigh every word I spoke against some measure of propriety. Admittedly I try, but I don’t always succeed. Thoughtlessness is a very human thing.

IMG_6135 (2) (800x600)In the Bourbon Tunnels (Tunnel Borbonica) in Naples last week (the city’s No. 2 tourist attraction according to Trip Advisor), I heard tell of a man who had scribbled his name on a wall as a 10-year-old child during the War and was tracked down when the tunnels were excavated. He was one of the hundreds of people who lived underneath the city during WWII. Many, some 540, still lived there in 1946, their homes above ground destroyed in the bombings leaving them with no place else to go.

IMG_6123 (2) (800x600)I climbed down the 91 steps, 25 m beneath the streets of Naples and toured the network of tunnels that served as hospitals and homes during the War. Originally a waterway, the canals were filled in with soil  to allow people to live there. The walls were waterproofed. Toilets (cubicles with holes in the ground for the working-class folk and cubicles with ceramic seats for the rich – great to see that the class divide wasn’t dented by the bombs) are spread throughout and remnants of a life that spoke of hardship and necessity are on display. Bed-frames, kids toys, perfume bottles, cooking utensils, all rusted and worn, paint a picture of what life must have been like in these interconnected caverns with their 10-m high ceilings.

With an average temperature of 15 deg C, and 90% humidity, it wasn’t the healthiest place to live, but considering the alternative, for many there was no choice. Graffiti on the walls proclaim noi vivi – we are still alive,a poignant reminder of how good we have it today and how little most of us know of hardship. Cut-off from the outside world, the only way they knew that the bombs were dropping on the city above them was when the electricity died and the lights dimmed. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like – not claustrophobic in the classic tunnel sense but more like being in a prison, all the while telling yourself that you were safe and yet unable to go outside and taste the air.

IMG_6113 (2) (800x600)The tunnels were originally built in the 1850s at the behest of King Ferdinand II as a military passage for troops linking the Palace to Via Morelli. He feared a revolution and wanted an escape route. But just two years after the excavation began, the Bourbon dynasty fell and excavation ceased. Linked to the underground aqueducts, they came in useful during the War as air-raid shelters and semi-permanent homes for many.

Trip Advisor reviews rate this the No. 2 attraction in Naples. Was it worth a visit? Certainly. Would I rave about it? Yes, as I have a war-thing going and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was almost up there with the shelters in Malta.  But No. 2? C’mon lads. What about the majolica, or the Charnel House?


The art in public transport

Naples is an eminently walkable city, once you get your bearings, and are quick-witted enough to dodge the vespas and the Clios as they barrel along the narrow streets, driven by those who believe that horsepower rules and pedestrians are disposable.

The buses seemed a little complicated and although usually my transport mode of choice, I  was a little intimidated. So I walked. Everywhere. English is not as widely spoken as I had thought and the few times I stopped to ask directions, it was like looking at a deer caught in the headlights, such was the terror that speaking English evoked. I’m well used to miming though, but admittedly found miming ‘dead’ to find the cemetery was a little challenging. No matter. I eventually got to where I was going and the detours were delightful.

The metro looked handy enough (the trains don’t run nearly as often as they do in Budapest). And like Budapest’s Metro 4, they’re built to impress. Lines 1 and 6 have stops on them referred to as Art Stations. And, by all accounts, the L1 Toledo stop was voted the most beautiful in Europe back in 2012. I got to see Mater Dei – which came in at No. 13 on that same Daily Telegraph list. And it was impressive.

IMG_6151 (600x800)At the Dante station, a coat and hat with many many pairs of shoes trapped behind some random railway tracks caught my eye. I spent quite some time looking at it and finally decided that for me, it represented a never-ending journey, one of constant movement trapped within a rigid framework so that although we have the illusion of progress, we’re making little headway. But hey – art is subjective. Apparently, Grecian artist Jannis Kounellis had  ‘travel as an existentialist condition’ in mind when he created this piece. And I should admit that I’m not altogether sure what that means.

IMG_6215 (800x600)But if I had to take one thing from Naples and bring it to Budapest, it wouldn’t the pizza or the orgasmic canoli or the mozzarella; it would be its eagerness to teach its tourists how to speak Italian … while waiting for their train. What a brilliant idea! How quickly my Hungarian would improve if my waiting time was spent actively engaged in learning the language.

When I first started travelling, I had this insatiable need to see everything. The older I got, the more I realised that cities aren’t going anywhere, meno male. If I don’t get to see it all, I can go back, and go back again. So when I next visit Naples, I plan to spend an entire day underground looking at the art and learning Italian.

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Grubby, dirty, and graffitied to within an inch of its life, Naples is a city you’ll either love or hate. There are no half-measures. I knew this even before I came, such was the degree of polarity expressed by friends who’d already visited with more hating it than loving it. I had zero expectations and these expectations were more than met. I’m in the LOVE NAPLES camp – love it so much that were it not for the complete absence of any sort of order, I’d even consider moving there. And perhaps I might, in time, even get used to the chaos.

IMG_6077 (2) (800x600)IMG_6074 (2) (589x800)It’s a dirty city. The streets are littered with cigarette butts and beer tops. Bins overflow. Every wall within writing reach is covered in graffiti – not the Bansky type though;  more of the ‘I wuz ‘ere’ banality that gives the art a bad name. Not even churches are spared. In fairness, there is the occasional gem, but for the most part, it’s names and dates and monosyllabic words. Grime aside, it’s full of life with a tangible  energy that makes it vibrate. The locals, who by all accounts consider themselves Neapolitan first and Italian second,  take an inordinate pride in their city and there’s no quicker way to please than to tell them how much you love it, too.

IMG_6079 (2) (800x600)We stayed in the Old Town, Centrico Storno, on Piazza Bellini. It’s a favourite hangout of Napoli football fans and at night, people spill out of the tiny bars onto the streets in what at first seems like a loud, rambunctious melée but in actuality is just the locals having  a good time. All are drinking, few are drunk. The roofs and bonnets of parked cars double as tables and although it was chilly enough, tables inside were empty – the street is where it’s at. Now that’s something I doubt I could get used to. My standing around days are over.

Naples was once Europe’s second city, after Paris, a description it’s long since lost. While its people are beautiful, their style is more urchin cool than catwalk. They are a law unto themselves and patterns of behaviour, if there are any, are not easily discernible. Queues don’t exist. Social propriety, or the absence thereof, borders on an appearance of rudeness. There is no holding back with opinions [shop assistant to me: your pronunciation is soooooooooo bad].  And what they want takes priority [Waiter to me: Just order a pizza. We are busy]. In some places you pay immediately; in others you pay whenever the humour takes the waiter, regardless of whether or not you’re finished; and in more still, you might be waiting all night before you can find someone to give your money to. They like blanket pricing and a little consistency – all drinks, be they alcoholic or not, are €2.50 or €5.

IMG_6108 (2) (600x800)With coffees and drinks paired with nuts, crisps, pastries, bruschetta, and the odd ham and cheese sambo, you could quite happily go about your day without ever having a proper meal. But when you do – it has to be pizza. The home of the Margarita, Naples is famous for it pizza – that is something everyone I spoke to recommended to do. Eat pizza. And the toppings are generous and exotic. But the opening hours are hit and miss. No patterns. So take it when you can get it. IMG_6105 (2) (600x800)IMG_6069 (600x800)It’s narrow medieval streets are strung with laundry, that had one either the time or the inclination to ‘read’ would speak volumes as to who lived inside. Given the small cars and vespas that drive at breakneck speed through the veins of the city, it’s a wonder that the laundry is ever clean.

There are many police, many different uniforms. Italian policing has to be as convoluted as it comes, with state, provincial and municipal police to name just three. In Naples, one particular lot fascinated. A weird mutation of Captain von Trapp and General Patton – it was hard to know whether they’d shoot or yodel.

We had three days and based on accounts from others who had been before us, we all set to desert the city and head to Sorrento or Pompeii or up the Amalfi coast. But we never  made it outside the city limits. Naples – a great city with so much to offer. Should I ever get tired of Budapest, that’s where I’d head to next.



2015 Grateful 41

‘Ask the Pope to say a prayer for us.’ So went the Viber message I received earlier this evening from a Hungarian friend of mine (a Leinster supporter) who was chomping at the bit while watching the lads attempt to nail the Six Nations. She was sitting in a bar in Budapest. I was on the streets of Naples. She was watching Paul O’Connell. I was watching the Pope. I asked. He obliged. The rest is history.

We’d arrived in Naples anxious to find a pub to watch the match ourselves. I enquired at the information desk at the airport as to where might we go to watch the rubgy today.

Que? What rugby? There is no rugby in Naples. Just football.

A sharp reminder of provincial Italy at its best. I told the duo on the desk that Italy was playing, too. But to no avail. So we tossed caution to the wind and got a taxi, willing to pay ten times the bus fare to get into the city as soon as possible.

IMG_6035 (800x600)En route we  encountered a problem. The city was closed. The Pope was here visiting for the day. Security was heightened, as last year, apparently, he had excommunicated some Mafia heads. And Naples is a serious Mafia city. I didn’t know that…

But then, this morning, when I was leaving for the airport, I ran into my neighbour. He asked (in Hungarian) where I was going. I said France.
Lovely, says he. Paris?
No, Naples, says I.
That’s in Italy, Mary, says he.
I knew that… I did.

IMG_6036 (800x600)Any, back to the Pope. We had to detour. And detour. And then the detours ran out of detours and we had to walk. Fortunately for us, our hotel was in same direction as the route the popemobile was taking. The streets were lined with people waving €1 flags. Toddlers and teens. Three, four generations, all waiting patiently for a glimpse of the man. They might have been waiting for hours. We waited some 15 minutes.  Just to see. And we saw. Himself. In all his glory.

pope (800x577)It was all over in a flash. He had passed by, to the cheers of an adoring crowd, when I realised that I hadn’t actually seen him at all. I’d been too busy trying to get a photo. Other than a vague notion that he was wearing white, I couldn’t have told you what he looked like. I had no feel for him. I’d missed the essence. And I was so annoyed with myself.

IMG_6050 (600x800)The crowd, en masse, turned to their phones to see if they, too, had managed to capture him in photo or on video. Some were delighted; others not so impressed. Some older people who had come to see the man rather than capture the moment had smiles on their faces and some looked a tad moved. It was then that I  remembered a Venetian travel writer saying that to see Venice you need to leave your camera at home. He had a point. I’d missed him. And I might never get to see him again.

IMG_6043 (800x600)As the popemobile turned the corner, we continued our climb to the hotel, following in its wake. But the crowds weren’t moving. We stopped to ask why. He was going to a church at the top of the hill and would be back this way again, in 20 minutes. We walked on and happened upon the very church he was in. This was my second chance.

This time, when he came out of the church and got into this popemobile, I looked through the maze of extended arms brandishing iPhones and camera and looked at the man. As he passed by, I saw him – the head of the church to which I belong – and a man who is doing so much to return that church to the people. Today he visited Poggio Reale – a prison that holds nearly twice the number of people it was built to hold. Of the 2500 inmates, 90 got to have lunch with him – including transexuals, homosexuals, and those with AIDS. I bet that’s something not many of them ever imagined doing. [I wonder how they were chosen? Was it a lottery?] I bet they’re grateful for the change of pace that this particular Saturday brought with it.

This week, I’m grateful, too. For the unexpected. For those unplanned moments. For those unanticipated meetings. And for the potential they can hold. I saw Pope John Paul II back in 1970s Ireland but I was miles away from him. Today, I stood within 15 feet of Pope Francis. That day had been planned and anticipated for months. Today was a complete surprise. I wonder if there’s a lesson for me there.







Life is too short to stay in one place

These last two days have been awash with emails and phone calls and texts and Facebook messages in an attempt to take advantage of Wizz Air’s 20% discount on all flights and flight+hotel packages out of Budapest. Had they (Wizz) not emailed me and told me that this offer was available, I’d have been none the wiser and might have been somewhat more productive than I have been in the last 48 hours.

I had my heart set on five days in Cyprus but that wasn’t to be. Those I asked weren’t free or had been there before and were in no rush to go back or couldn’t give the immediate commitment I needed. Cluj was another option – it’s high on my list for 2015 – but again, there was little interest out there. Sofia, too.

naplesA chance email about something completely unrelated opened up a conversation with one friend on travel. Negotiations started. Cities were considered and discounted. We needed somewhere neither of us had been before so we settled on Naples. The fact that I’m going to Italy for a week in April was neither here nor there. Flights were booked. Advantage was taken of the 20% discount, and I’m already scheduling my carb days to allow copious slices of pizza. Mission accomplished. Need to travel satisfied.

parisThen last night, I ran into another friend who was having a similar itch to go somewhere new. Anywhere. Just for a weekend. The ‘I couldn’t possibly justify another trip in March’ crossed my mind but was so fleeting it didn’t gain any traction. I remembered a hotel voucher I had for the K&K hotel group and thought of Paris. They’ve never been. I’ve been but years ago  and I didn’t like it. I’ve been promising it a second try for decades.  So we’re booked.

I blame it all on the Wizz Air marketing department. It’s their fault. What can I say? Some women spend their money on designer shoes and handbags – I prefer to spend mine on airplane seats and hotel rooms – when they’re on sale, of course. Life is too short to stay in one place. And as Robert Louis Stevenson supposedly said: I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.