There is nothing in the Western world which quite prepares the Naples neophyte for the sensory overload of the city. The one in Italy, not the one in Florida. Neapolitan driving is a prime example of paravehicular traffic, where, instead of formal rules, drivers react to their immediate vicinity. The result is a densely packed flow of cars, buses, scooters and pedestrians which appears utterly chaotic at first sight.
It’s anything but. I received my first exposure to this uniquely beautiful superorganism in the best possible way. After a long, sunny drive from Genoa, all the way down Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast, my wife Natalie and I hit Naples and a ferocious late-spring thunderstorm at the same time. The city was entirely overwhelming, a spaghetti of overpasses, crude oil tanks, huge piles of trash, constant honking, rain falling so hard the wipers couldn’t keep up. Then our two lanes became three lanes by the simple act of cars forming a new lane of traffic down the middle. Then the three lanes became four lanes. There were people zipping around on scooters, holding umbrellas. Buses arrived at various intersections. Being notoriously unable to multitask, I would have totally freaked, but Natalie had driven in Naples before and her banged-up little Fiat also happened to be the perfect car for the job. After a few tense minutes on Via Galileo Ferraris, after she’d picked up the rhythm of the place and I’d figured out our location, we couldn’t help but admire the sheer beauty of it all.
When you stop and think about it—not in the middle of a road in Naples, please—this is how city traffic should behave. Highways need formal rules because of the great speeds but city traffic is slow and it’s so random that no set of formal rules can govern it. This sense of realism rules Naples where people do nothing but react to their surroundings. As a result, if you adapt to its manic rhythm, you will be perfectly safe. You can step into traffic and cars will stop and let you through. You can drive into an intersection and you’ll make it through. Yes, you have to pay attention and take responsibility but the rewards will be traffic which never stops moving, not for you, not for others.
There are downsides, of course. Every car in Naples is banged up on all sides. You can leave the city and drive down to the Amalfi Coast to see your fancy Ferraris and Maseratis but nobody drives a fancy car in Naples. It wouldn’t stay fancy after a day or two. And perhaps this would never work in a litigious society. Perhaps it’s a Naples thing, which, frankly, is a sheer lunacy of a megalopolis. Sprawling in the shadow of a very active volcano, ruled by a centuries-old crime syndicate, high on espresso and sfogliatelle, Naples is a live wire of three million people who perhaps couldn’t have their traffic any other way.
All I know is that leaving Naples for any other city, watching cars stand in their docile little bubbles of empty space, I feel like the rest of the world has yet to discover something beautiful.