The lilting notes of a mandolin wave their way through the air, soaring past the clotheslines and up into the perfect serenity of the pale blue sky, where they sustain the lazy seagulls circling in the distance. Waves lap at the concrete piers, adding a whisper to the roar of the old city at your back. The sun and the sounds, the breeze and force a smile on your lips.
You know we’re talking about Napoli. The city of a thousand colors has been immortalized by countless poets and cinematographers, writers and painters. To see Napoli is to die, they would have you believe, and they are not lying: the old lady of the Mediterranean is a strikingly beautiful experience, even amongst the gorgeous, art-laden capitals of Europe.
There are many ways to enjoy this bubbling, picturesque ode to human nature and insanity: from the sea, by boat, riding its public transportation systems, or even simply strolling down its avenues for a spot of afternoon shopping. The truth is, no matter how many of those you tried, you won’t truly get to know the lady of the Mediterranean unless you walk her streets after a strong summer rain.
The short, sudden squalls that occasionally wash over the city are a much welcome relief from the unforgiving heat and high humidity of high summer. Napoli is built in a gulf, with a mountain range at its back; it’s a cauldron. When the rain comes, it’s brutal, warm and plentiful, but short lived.
Once the rain stops, step out of Napoli Centrale into Garibaldi station as the clouds clear overhead and the sounds of traffic and people arguing come back to full strength after being so mercifully muted. The smell in the air won’t let itself be ignored much longer. It’s the powerful musty scent of ancient dust, kicked up into the air by heavy globs of rain that refreshed the atmosphere.
As you look over to the famous statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, which most people here will only know as “Peppino on his horse”, don’t be daunted by the mess of cars and roads and buses and tents: this square was not meant for you. It wasn’t meant for the cars driving alongside its borders, or for the desperate souls trying to exit its two central parkings. It wasn’t designed for the buses that force their way in and out of the flow of traffic to service their passengers. Yet, you’ll cross it, as do the cars and the buses and the ubiquitous mopeds.
Walk alongside the right edge of the square, through the illegal stands bustling around you. It’s a rare opportunity to take a look at the tents and benches without being bothered by the natives, who are currently preoccupied with putting away the umbrellas and ponchos that were being sold during the rain. You’d normally be unable to take a few steps without being offered the deal of a lifetime on the latest mobiles and laptops, which only tourists take because the natives know full well that they’d be buying nothing but a “pacco”: carefully shaped and wrapped bricks in the shape of whatever you think you were buying.
Daunting as it looks from central station, Piazza Garibaldi will soon be behind you as you cross into Corso Umberto I, one of Napoli’s longest promenades. Here, traffic is nicely contained and the sidewalks wide enough to allow entire groups of students and tourists to pass unhindered around the little stalls and stands that dot the landscape.
By now you’ll notice that you haven’t had to mind where you step once. There is no water on the ground, only few puddles, and even those are confined to badly built concrete corners. In between the dusty stone slabs on the pavement and the sun you’re starting to feel on your skin barely minutes after it stopped raining, Napoli hungrily drunk up the water.