I recently visited Naples on a scorching hot day and after some sightseeing I decided to take a dip in its mythological sea, where it is said mermaids still live. I headed to the city’s main beach of Posillipo, the most popular among locals. What I found was Dante’s Inferno.
Screaming teenagers and loud, furious mothers holding sweaty kids in their arms were yelling at the cop at the beach entrance in a tight Neapolitan dialect I couldn’t understand. But their body language was very clear.
The mayor of Naples has decided to cap the number of sunbathers on Posillipo’s beaches and nearby inlets, in an attempt to preserve the coastal environment from the tourist summer rampage. People must now book online for a spot on the sand and can only enter via specific private beach clubs. But Neapolitans have a hard time abiding by rules.
Since it’s day one of the new restrictions, the poor cop turned a blind eye to the mass of angry, wild beachgoers and let in more people than were strictly allowed. I had no idea about the new restrictions, but blending into the crowd, with a towel round my neck and flip-flops, I was able to get in anyway.
The sand burned. I was panting and couldn’t wait to jump in the water. But first I had to make my way through the “labyrinth of flesh” sprawled on the sand, sunbathers squashed together, almost one on top of the other. I zig-zagged past a family with eight children who had just finished eating their spaghetti co ’a Pummarola ’ncopp (with tomato sauce), and which had then set about platefuls of meatballs followed by watermelon slices – fullface in – the oozy seeds sliding down their necks.
Another family had set-up two camping tents for the children to play in, and had brought along coffee and limoncello. A group of friends had connected their iPhone to a boom box.
Images of Dante’s Divine Comedy came to my mind, those hellish scenes where souls are burning and screaming, trapped within their own sins and passions. The air smelt of sweat mixed with suntan lotion and cigarettes.
I managed to find a tiny spot for my towel. But I could only sit, no way to lie down without hitting my head on the feet of the couple behind me. Posillipo’s beach is rather small and above it sits an abandoned rather ghostly 17th-century palazzo, commissioned by a duchess who left it incomplete. It gave me the creeps.
I wanted so badly to take off my clothes and dive into the translucent water, but all I could do was sit there paralysed. My sunblock had started to wear off and my head was spinning. At one point I felt like screaming.
There’s nothing worse than craving the cool water knowing that you’ll first have to climb over a wall of other people.
I gave up. But as I got up to leave, a 23-year-old Neapolitan student named Paolo asked me for a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but we started chatting. He had shaved eyebrows, and earrings.
“I hate these new beach restrictions,” he said. “Posillipo belongs to all Neapolitans. The city hall can’t cap the numbers. But who cares? My friends and I will still get in without booking and paying. We can swim to the beach from a dinghy or my grandpa’s old fishing boat. Some things in Naples you can’t change,” he told me.
That’s what I call “Neapolitan creativity”. It struck me all of a sudden that there’s always a way out of messy, unpleasant situations.
So I asked Paolo to “escort” me to the water. He started yelling incomprehensible words to open up a passage in between all that suntanning flesh, and somehow we made it to the sea. Sweat was trickling down my back, my skin was sticky.
I dived in. Paradiso