Sexual harassment in Italy: So if you think it’s real awful in the United States …

Italian actress Asia Argento came forward against Harvey Weinstein and the Italian media ran her out of the country. (Photo by Misunderstood)

Italian actress Asia Argento came forward against Harvey Weinstein and the Italian media ran her out of the country. (Photo by Misunderstood)

I remember my first trip to Rome. It was 1978. I was 22 years old and backpacking around the world. It was at night and I sat outside the Termini train station writing in my journal. I looked up. I saw two young women sprinting toward me, their backpacks bobbing up and down behind their long hair.

“CAN YOU PLEASE WALK US TO OUR HOTEL?” one yelled in American English.

“Why? Are you lost?”

“NO!” Then she pointed behind them.

Three men were running toward us. They’d followed them from the time they disembarked their train and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I didn’t have to ask what was the question. I walked them to their nearby hotel without incident. They were visibly shaken. Even I was, and I had just spent three years in a randy college fraternity.

The sexual harassment epidemic that is encompassing the United States like a new STD isn’t confined to the U.S. In 2014 the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights surveyed 42,000 women encompassing every EU country. It reported that one out of every three women had experienced some kind of sexual violence. That includes sexual harassment.

What’s true in the U.S. is true all over the world: Men are pigs. The stories I’ve heard, I’m surprised universal courtship isn’t club her in the head, drag her into a cave, shtoink her and then go draw on a wall.

Here in Italy, local elements complicate the issue. The Catholic Church. The media. The government. Sexual mores are steeped in tradition of a strong mother figure. A male population is weaned on female stereotypes that haven’t changed while women’s independence has. It’s a petri dish of sexual ambiguity where society is not accommodating a growingly angry female population.

How much sexual harassment goes on in Italy?

“A lot. Too much,” Cinzia Mammoliti, a law graduate specializing in criminology, forensic psychopathology and criminal psychology who counsels women victims of violence, wrote me in an email. “There always was, especially inside the home and on the workplace. Italy is a nation where chauvinism still reigns and no matter how much progress there is with equal opportunity there is still a lot to do.”

A 2015-16 survey conducted by Italy’s National Institute for Statistics (ISTAT) revealed that one million Italian women have been victims of sexual blackmail. This isn’t, “Heeeey! Want to go get a glass of wine after work?” This is hanging sex over their heads during a job interview in a country with 11.3 percent unemployment. It’s threatening their current job in exchange for sex. Italy even has a phrase for it.

Molestia sessuale. No translation necessary.

Carlo Tavecchio (Photo by SportCafe 24)

Carlo Tavecchio (Photo by SportCafe 24)

This came to mind this week as I read about the fallout from the Italian national soccer team’s inexcusable pratfall in World Cup qualifying. Carlo Tavecchio, the 74-year-old troll and head of the Italian soccer federation, had just resigned in disgrace.

Then the disgrace got worse.

A former federation executive told Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, that one time Tavecchio called her into his office.

“I went into his office to talk about football,” said the woman, who used the pseudonym Mary. “He did not even give me time to ask, ‘President, how are you?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You look well. I can see you have an active sex life.’ Then, ‘Come here and let me touch your breasts.’

“I was embarrassed. I tried to tell him to stop. But his only answer was to close the curtains of the office.”

She told the paper he continually harassed her and she finally quit. She came forward only when she learned he’d resigned — not fired — and could still take a job elsewhere in the federation.

Harvey Weinstein (Photo by Rolling Stone)

Harvey Weinstein (Photo by Rolling Stone)

American women’s public bull rush atop their #metoo platform has transformed into Italy’s #quellavoltache (#thattimewhen…). Italian actress Asia Argento and Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez were among the 100-plus women accusing disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein of locomotive libido. Fabrizio Lombardo, head of Italian operations for Weinstein’s Miramax company, allegedly sent women to Weinstein’s hotel and then sent intimidating messages, according to La Stampa newspaper. Lombardo denied it and Weinstein claims all the sex was consensual. That’s understandable. All women want sex with a guy who looks like a fat mob goon after a three-day binge and a train wreck.

Weinstein wasn’t the only one.

Argento told La Stampa that an Italian actor-director once told her to come discuss something in his trailer where he pulled out his penis. She was 16.

Italian showgirl Miriana Trevisan recently came forward about an incident 20 years ago in the office of director Giuseppe Tornatore. She told Claudia Torrisi of 50 50, an Italian gender and human rights blog, that he “put me against the wall and started to kiss my neck and my ears and touched my breast aggressively. He may not recall it, but I do.”

Miriam Trevisan (Photo by Blasting News)

Miriam Trevisan (Photo by Blasting News)

She once went into the office of an unnamed Italian TV personality and discussed a potential job. She told Torrisi, “He said I had to be nice to him because we could only talk about work if we were close.” He tried to kiss her but she said no and left the office. On the way out, she saw his assistant who said, “You still have your lipstick on. I think we will never see you again.”

Italian men, however, aren’t nearly as aggressive as they were when I lived off pizza by the slice here nearly 40 years ago. Women say they leer more than touch. However, I still hear horror stories. My American friend, Loren, 38, has had it.

“I saw one of those freaky guys who decides to whip it out,” she told me. “The first time was five years ago. He just whipped it out near Largo Argentina. He purposely looked at me like he was getting off on it.

“Talking about touching you inappropriately, that happens a lot in buses. I told you about the bus experience where some guy rubbed it against me. It was a hardon. You could feel it. It was just disgusting.”

My girlfriend, Marina, said she’s never experienced sexual harassment at her travel magazine but she walks around practically with a STOP sign hanging over her neck. However, what has happened to Loren has happened to her. She won’t get on a public bus in Rome without me.

In many ways it’s worse for American women in Rome than Italian. Some American women come over with the fantasy of, as my actor-friend and fellow-expat Tom Shaker once described, “falling in love with Francesco at Trattoria Yo Mama’s Ass” and then go home and tell their cubicle mate in Anaheim about it.

“Some,” however, doesn’t mean “a lot.” Still, some Italian men see American women more approachable than their Italian brethren who aren’t nearly as sexual as they dress. One frustrated Italian guy once told me at an aperitivo, “The problem with Italian women is they just don’t drink enough.”

“What I find abusive is I’ll find an Italian man will talk differently to an Italian woman rather than an American woman,” Loren said, “thinking the American woman is eager and willing and available for sex.”

Past laws, since improved, haven’t helped much and today the media still doesn’t. After Argento came forward, she became the villain rather than Weinstein. Libero, a Milan-based newspaper, lambasted the accusers, writing, “First they give it away, then they whine and pretend to repent.” On Argento, Libero wrote, “Surrendering to a boss’ advances is prostitution, not rape,” going on to say that sexual blackmail is “a rite of passage for actresses.” During a radio interview, Libero editor Vittorio Feltri went even further.

“Because there was no physical assault, it had to be consensual,” he said. “Besides, she should be thankful he forcibly performed oral sex on her.”

Sure, Vittorio. Lick this.

Keep in mind Italy’s history. It has sucked on a mother’s breast since Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders, fed off the wolf’s teat. Women have been treated like third-class citizens — behind men and men’s pets — in every walk of life. Women weren’t even allowed to vote in Italy until 1946. Until the 1960s a man could kill his wife and call it murder of honor. Rape was considered a crime against morals, not against a person, until 1996. Sexual violence didn’t even used to cover harassment.

“Italian women are still suffering from an old point of view and an equally outdated education that still sees them as just brides without an income, who can be supported and happy only if married with children,” Mammoliti wrote. “There (is) just a small number of women that feel they are more than this and that feel accomplished even if they do not have a family depend on them. This way of thinking, in turn, makes women more fragile and easily attackable.”

Then came Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump without a nuclear weapon, who was charged with having affairs with everyone from a teenage belly dancer to underaged prostitutes. He introduced the term “bunga bunga” into the Italian language.

“We have 20 years of a government who basically sexualized every aspect of life,” said Loretta Bondi, a board member of Casa delle Donne (House of Women), a political, social and cultural space for women in Rome. “It’s difficult to basically uproot those kinds of perceptions.”

The Italian woman isn’t as passive and subservient as you think. Bondi, 60, joined her first women’s movement at 16. More women are earning college degrees than men. In more than five years over two stints in Rome, I’ve yet to meet an Italian woman who dreams of staying home and raising kids.

“Let me assure you that women, Italian women, have managed throughout these years to turn perception, turn legislation that would’ve remained stagnant without women’s actions,” Bondi said. “There are a lot of ways you perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination. It’s not just devising very good laws. If you don’t start from the very roots of this phenomenon, chances are that the struggle will continue to be uphill.”

What must change in Italy is women should start idolizing people like Argento. The media onslaught made her flee to Berlin but she struck a blow for Italian women everywhere. They need a guiding light. According to La Stampa, only 20 percent of women talk about sexual harassment. Only 0.7 percent come forward. Who can risk losing a job when they’re so hard to find?

“Sex is still a taboo topic,” Mammoliti wrote, “and in Italy a lot of women are afraid to come forward because of the shame that is attached to it and also because they are afraid to be blamed, which is not such an improbable outcome.”

I asked Bondi her thoughts on the theory that women like Argento have no right to scream foul after a five-year sexual relationship.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Violence can happen at any time of a relationship, even before a relationship is formed. How many women have been killed by their own husband? The fact that you have had any relationship with a partner or a boss doesn’t justify any form of violence.”

This flood of anecdotes figuratively castrating public figures has done more good than any law. It has made men reflect. I looked back on my past and asked myself … was I ever guilty? Fortunately, I have a lifetime fear of rejection. A bachelor my whole life, I always waited for a sign from the woman, even in college. I am terrible at picking up women. I sought phone numbers, not one-night stands. I always had a policy never to date anyone from work. The reason is a simple one that strikes at the heart: mine. If it doesn’t work, you have to look at them every day. Work is tense enough.

That’s why the lack of shame of the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world baffles me. Rejection to them is no more than lint from a dry cleaner. Well, look where that got them. Two stellar show business careers are over, their legacies a disgrace.

Strong women are the reason. And men? It’s not over for us. You’d better think twice before you touch.

“It’s an excellent thing that’s coming out,” Bondi said. “Nothing will help if these issues are wrapped in silence. It does take a lot of courage to come forward, to press charges against a boss, a friend, or somebody who exercises that kind of power. I admire the women who came forward and should not only be encouraged but supported.

“And certainly not degraded.”

Apocalypse now: Why Italy flamed out of World Cup qualifying for first time since 1958

Italy's Ciro Immobile lays stunned after Sweden eliminated Italy Monday. Photo NBC News

Italy’s Ciro Immobile lays stunned after Sweden eliminated Italy Monday. Photo NBC News

The Abbey Theatre Irish Pub sits on a corner of one of the narrow, windy streets near Piazza Navona. Rome doesn’t have sports bars, and this is about as close as it comes. It’s loud. It’s crowded. It’s passionate. Monday night, a passionate crowd turned silent. A nation lowered its head in shame. Upstairs in Abbey I watched a German TV station interview Italians on the national history they just witnessed. As two bubbly, blonde babes in Sweden shirts bounced nearby, I heard an Italian in a sharp business suit mumble into the camera “Disastro storico” (Historic disaster). My comprehension of Italian isn’t great but some words stand out when you watch the national sport hit a low not reached in 60 years.

Abisso (Abyss). Apocalisse (Apocalypse). Che cazzo! (What the fuck?).

They are all being spoken and printed today from the ports of Sicily to the mountain chalets of the Italian Alps. I’m 61 years old. I was a sportswriter for 40 years and have followed sports since the early 1960s. I don’t recall one nation embarrassing itself on a field of play as Italy did this year in World Cup qualifying.

Its 0-0 draw with Sweden in Milan Monday, after losing 1-0 Friday on the road, sealed a fate unthinkable just last year. Italy, a four-time World Cup champion, has gone from taking Germany to a shootout in the quarterfinals of the European Championships to not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1958. The last time Italy didn’t make the world’s biggest sporting event, Americans still drove the Edsel, The Beatles were called the Quarrymen and Khrushchev became premier of the Soviet Union.

Italian fans react to Monday's 0-0 draw with Sweden that eliminated Italy. Photo NBC News

Italian fans react to Monday’s 0-0 draw with Sweden that eliminated Italy. Photo NBC News

The U.S. didn’t qualify, either. It couldn’t finish in the top four of a group of six. But half the U.S. sports fans refer to soccer as kickball. In Italy they refer to it as religion.

Monday’s view of Italy’s players crying on the field in front of a yellow-and-blue background of celebrating Swedes, who hadn’t qualified since 2006, represents a flatlining of a sporting culture. Take out the 2016 Europeans and Italy has done less on the world stage than the U.S. After winning the 2006 World Cup, it couldn’t get out of the group stages in 2010 and 2014. It has one win in six games.

“Italy has been teetering on the brink of disaster for some while in various ways,” Paddy Agnew, an Irish soccer journalist who has lived in Italy since 1986, told me Tuesday morning. “Now they’re not teetering on the brink. They’ve fallen in head first.”

The hysterical Italian media is at fever pitch. My La Gazzetta dello Sport, behind the end-of-the-world headline “FINE” (THE END), wrote, “It is one of the darkest pages of our sporting history; a brutal blow beyond the incalculable damage for a country which lives and breathes football. It’s a sporting equivalent of Titanic.”

The Rome-based Corriere dello Sport, teed it up with the headline “EVERYBODY FIRED!” It added, “It’s an intolerable footballing disgrace; an indelible stain. It’s the end. Apocalypse, tragedy, catastrophe. Call it what you want, but our football is in a serious crisis. We’ve been relegated to Serie B of world football.”

Keep in mind it’s harder for European teams to qualify than in CONCACAF where the U.S. usually just needs to show up reasonably sober. In Europe’s UEFA, teams only automatically qualify if they win their six-team group. The eight best second-place teams meet in home-and-home playoffs. Italy had the same group as Spain. It’s no disgrace to finish second to Spain.

But the way Italy stumbled and bumbled its way into a playoff then went impotent against a Swedish team made up with twice as much heart as talent struck deep into the Italian soul. Italy scored only three goals in its last six games, dating back to June.

In Friday’s first game outside Stockholm, Italy had all the energy of 10 guys waiting for a gondola. The announcers had more enthusiasm. Sweden didn’t get off many shots, either, but out-raced Italy for nearly every ball, roughed up the Italians when they didn’t, scored off a deflection early in the second half and held on for a shocking 1-0 win.

Alessandro Florenzi mirrors the feeling of his nation after the game. Photo NBC News

Alessandro Florenzi mirrors the feeling of his nation after the game. Photo NBC News

As Monday’s second game approached, I read the papers and was stunned by Italy’s arrogance, its sense of entitlement. Manager Gian Piero Ventura, a 69-year-old journeyman I’ll barbecue below, wailed about the official letting Sweden get too physical. He joined the players’ chorus saying, “We’ll make the World Cup. We’re Italy.”

Yes, you’re Italy. And now, Italy, you suck.

In Monday’s second game, Italy had a sense of desperation that bordered on panic. It dominated possession 76-24 and Sweden’s lone offense was the occasional counter attack. But Sweden’s defense was disciplined and ruthless and it has a great goalkeeper in Robin Olsen who plays for FC Copenhagen. Italy outshot Sweden, 14-1, but Olsen made seven saves and other shots just missed.

Sweden was heavy  underdog against the four-time World Cup champion. Photo NBC News

Sweden was heavy underdog against the four-time World Cup champion. Photo NBC News

Being a lifelong fan of the underdog on the road, I found myself pulling for little Sweden. But I remain baffled by how a nation where soccer is more important to its people than the Vatican, where 12 million tuned in Monday night, could let it slip into depths not known in this generation.

“There are a number of factors,” Agnew said. “One factor is Ventura.”

Ventura today is the most unpopular Italian since Nero. Rome’s Senate won’t declare Ventura a public enemy but I’m surprised he didn’t get fired after the game before he crossed the touch line. Ventura’s appointment last year baffled the nation. Italy went from 48-year-old Antonio Conte, who led Juventus to three straight Serie A titles and Italy to the Euro quarters, to this frumpy fossil whose list of jobs is longer than Hunter Thompson’s police blotter. He has coached 18 Italian clubs in 26 years. He had been fired six times. His claims to fame are earning team promotions five times and staying on at Torino from 2011-16. The most prestigious club he managed was one season at Napoli. The number of games he’d worked outside Italy was seven.

Gian Piero Ventura walks off the field Friday night.

Gian Piero Ventura walks off the field Friday night.

However, he only cost 1.2 million euros. Conte cost 4 million and after Euros left for Chelsea which he led to last season’s Premiership title. Of his 4 million, Puma paid about half as part of its sponsorship deal and wasn’t going to re-up for just anyone. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) approached Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, but his son is a football agent and the conflict of interest prevented it. So out went Conte with his designer suits, wild enthusiasm and wide-open football; in came Ventura with his long parka, haggard look and rigid ways.

This was like replacing Caravaggio with a house painter.

If Ventura was any stiffer in his coaching style, he wouldn’t need a trainer. He’d need a mortician. He stuck to a 3-5-2 formation, which utilizes only two strikers and puts a greater emphasis on defense. That left on the bench one Lorenzo Insigne, the rising 26-year-old star for Napoli which is leading Serie A. He didn’t play Insigne until the second half Friday and he never got off the bench Monday.

Daniele De Rossi, one of three players left from that 2006 World Cup team, could be seen screaming at an assistant coach on the bench to put in the kid. “Metti Insigne. Dobbiamo vincere!” (Put in Insigne. We must win!” La Gazzetta reported him saying.

“In technical terms, Ventura is responsible for what happened,” Agnew said. “In overall terms it’s (Carlo) Tavecchio. The buck has to stop with him.”

Yes, Carlo Tavecchio, FIGC’s 74-year-old president and former Lombardy politician who was elected in 2014 after being convicted five times on charges ranging from forgery to abuse of office. They are Italy’s Dumb and Dumber but on aesthetic terms, Tavecchio’s appointment was more offensive. While campaigning for the position, he complained about the influx of too many foreign players in Serie A, particularly from Africa.

He said — and I am not making this up — “In England they select players based on professionalism, whereas we say that old ‘Opti Poba’ (a hypothetical player) is here now, so let’s take him. He was eating bananas before but now he’s starting for Lazio and that’s OK.”

Yet he still got elected. Some say he became a favorite of the power clubs’ presidents who felt they could manipulate him. The racist remark? It’s normale in today’s Italian soccer.

“Not only is that incredibly insensitive and incredibly racist, but if somebody says that, I ask how can you trust that guy to run the edicola (newsstand) on the corner or the public toilet?” Agnew said. “What are you giving him the most important sports federation in the country for?”

I called Agnew for a couple of reasons. I read him for years when I picked up World Soccer magazine while living in Denver before Rome. He also writes a weekly blog for it and contributes to But he has also been The Irish Times’ Rome general correspondent for the last 30 years. The way football is entwined in Italian society, no one is better at comparing Italian football with Italian life.

“The greed, the cynicism, the corruption of the ruling class in Italian football is nothing different from the greed, the dishonesty, the corruption of the ruling class in Italian politics,” he said. “You have an (74)-year-old man running the Italian Football Federation and running it into the ground. You have an 82-year-old tycoon (former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi) who’s deciding to fight the country even though he’s been in nothing but scandals and court cases for the last 20 years. Italian football, like football anywhere else, is only ever a mirror reflection of what goes on in the country.”

Every finger in Italy is pointing at the FIGC and not the players. Italy is still a reservoir of talent. Italy’s Under-21 team has reached the semifinals in two of its last three World Cups. Ciro Immobile, Lazio’s 27-year-old wunderkind, leads Serie A with 14 goals in 11 games. Yet he was a mere rumor on the field against Sweden.

When Germany bombed out of the 2000 Euros, it tore down its organization and rebuilt it from the youth program up. The Under-16, Under-18 and Under-21 teams all play in the same system as the national team. When they reach the senior level, there is less adjustment. Today, Germany is the defending World Cup champion and is the 5-1 favorite in Russia along with France.

In Italy there is a major disconnect.

“This is a society does not reward meritocracy,” Agnew said. “People who’ve been running Italian football have run it along feudalistic, cronyistic, self interested lines. They’ve never had an overall plan for the good of Italian football. They don’t care about the good of Italian football. They just like to make money.”

The future begins now. As I’ve typed this, I’ve frequently clicked on to see if Ventura has received, as my college football colleague Dennis Dodd astutely refers to, “the big haircut.” Not yet but it’s as inevitable as bells pealing in St. Peter’s.

Waiting unemployed is Carlos Ancelotti, 58, who won league titles with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Arsenal. Roberto Mancini, 52, has won 12 cups and is coaching in obscurity in Russia. Would Max Allegri, 50, look for a new challenge if he wins a fourth straight title for Juventus? Maybe Conte’s clash with Chelsea’s front office will boil over and he could be lured back.

However, they are all on the five-star price list and the FIGC must change its philosophy or find another sponsor if it wants a name that will draw headlines and not head scratches.

In the meantime, next summer will be strange around here. No huge crowds in Piazza Venezia to watch Italy on the big screen. Pubs crowded with only foreigners. Newspapers filled with stories about the French and Germans and Spanish and English. The only Italian in the papers may be the shoe ads.

Meanwhile, at Abbey Pub, I look forward to seeing Swedish meatballs on the menu.

The Baths of Caracalla: But really, how clean were the Ancient Romans?

Terme di Caracalla (235 AD) hosted 6,000-8,000 Romans a day.

Terme di Caracalla (235 AD) hosted 6,000-8,000 Romans a day.

Today’s kids probably wonder what it was like for me growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s without Internet, cell phones and the Kardashians. After being retired in Rome for nearly four years, I think back further, like 2,000 years.

What was it like in Ancient Rome, without water treatment, toothpaste and showers?

Rome was the most powerful civilization in man’s history, but how clean were Romans when the toilet flush was 1,300 years from its first plunge? Only the real rich had private baths and the tenements didn’t have running water. Did you know Julius Caesar brushed his teeth with urine?

No, that wasn’t why he was stabbed 23 times. Urine is what Romans used for toothpaste. They made soap out of urine. When someone in Ancient Rome said, “I’m pissed off,” it likely meant he just took a bath.

Baths were big in Ancient Rome. They were all over the city. They still are. I once took a bike ride down the Appia Antica, the ancient road to the sea and along which Spartacus’ rebellious slaves were crucified (see Ancient Rome: Failed Labor Strikes). I passed the remains of huge villas with expansive tiled floors where hot tubs once sat.

A rendition of what the complex looked like in the 3rd century AD.

A rendition of what the complex looked like in the 3rd century AD.

I recently toured Rome’s most famous baths, the second largest in Ancient Rome. Terme di Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla), less than a mile southeast of Circo Massimo, are only a mile from my apartment. I pass them all the time. On a warm fall day, I took the bus up the street and got off next to the complex.

The Terme di Caracalla looks like a sandstone Legoland after your kid went at it with a 9-iron. Tall yellowish towers are interspersed with jagged walls enclosing massive halls with tiled floors.

About 1,700 years ago this place was the new nerve center of Ancient Rome. It covered 62 acres, measuring 337 x 328 meters. It featured 252 columns, 16 at least 12 meters high. Its main bath building was 214 x 110 meters with 44-meter-high ceilings. It had four cold pools, 12 medium pools and seven hot pools. It had an Olympic-size swimming pool 50 meters by 22 meters enclosed by 20-meter high walls. The whole complex could hold 1,600 people at a time and 6,000-8,000 people used it per day. And it was free.

Started in 212 by Emperor Septimius Severus, it was finished by his son, Caracalla, in about 235 AD. It was called one of the Seven Wonders of Rome. The Terme di Caracalla was one giant spa, the Palm Springs of its day.

To understand the importance of Caracalla to Ancient Rome, you must understand the importance of baths to Ancient Romans. Public baths were where Romans got clean. Even in the countryside, Romans, including slaves, would wash every day and would have a thorough bath on every feast day.

The baths were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and often became the hub of the city. The Romans built one of their most elaborate public baths in England where they introduced a sophisticated water system and an array of different pools. The town’s name?


Where the gym once stood.

Where the gym once stood.

I paid my 8 euros at the modest ticket booth, void of the schlocky souvenir store you usually must walk through in many Rome sites. The summer high season is over, leaving the complex to only a few of us. I found myself in the first room, a giant open rectangular space that represented the gymnasium. Workers were refurbishing tile on the old floor. Romans would wrestle, box or do calisthenics before turning right into an adjacent dressing room.

On the other side of the dressing room was where the Olympic-size pool stood. To its right, side by side by side, were the cold, medium and hot pools. Today, the 20-meter walls still stand but holes exist where the pools once were. Fragments of the floors decorated with ancient Roman figures lean against the walls. Grass covers where beautiful tile once lay. The floors of the bath once were colored marble glass brought from the Orient and ringed with bronze and marble statues.

The walls stood 20 meters.

The walls stood 20 meters.

Coal and wood were burnt underground to heat water from an aqueduct that was in use until the 19th century. Slaves worked in tunnels that stretched for hundreds of meters under the baths. Those tunnels are open to the public but the gate was unfortunately closed when I arrived.

The villas on Appia Antica have better preserved pools but the massiveness of Caracalla is stunning. If you close your eyes and let your mind drift (You get good at that after four years living among ancient ruins), you can imagine the buzz, gossip and flirting that went on here 2,000 years ago. At the time in the 3rd century AD, anarchy began creeping into Rome and cracks started appearing in its once impenetrable empire.

One of the old pools.

One of the old pools.

Terme di Caracalla was in use until 530 before the Goths ransacked Rome and cut off the water supply. Shortly thereafter, with the citizenry unwilling to bathe in standing water used by 6,000 other filthy Romans, the baths were abandoned.

Since then it became a burial ground for pilgrims in the 7th century. An earthquake in 847 destroyed much of the building then in the 12th century it was used as a quarry for construction material and a vineyard and garden in the 14th century. Then in the 16th century the archaeologists poured in it from around the world and continue to this day. Its design inspired New York’s Penn Station and Chicago’s Union Station.

As I wandered the huge grounds, I was impressed with how attentive Romans were to hygiene. I read Ancient Romans went to the baths every day, that women used lanolin from sheep wool for sweet-scented skin. But, like Rome, this story has many layers. My research peeled back the silky, rich appearance of the Roman populace to reveal something else.

Piss. Shit. Rats. Parasites. Oh, and one hungry octopus.

Yes, just as Ancient Rome’s opulence and riches hid Rome’s true violence and poverty, Rome’s baths hid the filth underneath. Rome in the 3rd century had 144 public toilets, not nearly enough for a city population of more than 300,000. The latrines fed into a main sewage system designed more for drainage than water treatment.

While historians have praised Ancient Rome for its elaborate sewer and drainage system and its cleansing of public odor, the ancient toilet was a receptacle for embarrassing, gross disasters. Due to the sulphide and methane found underground, you could be sitting on the commode when the ground underneath your derriere explodes. Rats often crawled up through the toilet. Toilet paper was sometimes a communal sponge on a stick.

And then there was the octopus …

The historical website Ancient Origins wrote about an Iberian merchant in Puzzuoli near Naples where he hooked up his toilet to the public sewer. One time an octopus swam from the sea, through the sewer system and up through the toilet into the man’s home where he feasted on pickled fish in the pantry.

Original artwork still adorns the grounds.

Original artwork still adorns the grounds.

Also, Rome spread filth around its empire. According to the journal Parasitology (Yeah, I know. I need a life.), Romans built public baths in nearly every new land they conquered. What else did they bring with them?


“This latest research on the prevalence of ancient parasites suggests that Roman toilets, sewers and sanitation laws had no clear benefit to public health,” said Piers Mitchell, author of the study. “The widespread nature of both intestinal parasites and ectoparasites such as lice also suggests that Roman public baths surprisingly gave no clear health benefit, either.”

Even Roman food added to the filth. The favorite condiment in Ancient Rome, a fish sauce called “garum,” helped spread parasites as well.

Refurbishing tile in the old gymnasium.

Rome still has public baths. Last year I blogged about AcquaMadre, a bath house in the Jewish Ghetto designed on a smaller scale along the lines of those in Ancient Rome. Three years ago I blogged about a huge thermal pool complex in Viterbo north of Rome. I gave my girlfriend, Marina, a gift card for QC Terme, a beautiful spa in Fiumicino near Rome’s airport.

But that is now. Ancient Rome was then. Now I want to do what I’ve been dying to do since researching this blog.

Take a real long, hot shower.

Your Italian island guide for 2018 — but book by Dec. 31 or your travel budget will regret it

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring this Cala Coticcio, is just one of Italy's underrated islands.

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring Cala Coticcio, boast some of Italy’s underrated islands.

Here’s a little travel tip for everyone. If you’re planning on traveling in 2018, don’t wait until 2018 to plan your travel. I’ve read numerous places that travel costs will jump next year. Many struggling airlines (that’s become a redundancy in recent years) will increase their airfares to an average of 3.5 percent, according to the 2018 Global Travel Forecast. Hotels will rise 3.7 percent. It’s primarily due to projected higher fuel costs and an increase in travel demand. It all means you start planning your travel sooner.

Like now.

I am here to help. If you’re already tired of fall weather and daydreaming at your desk of sky blue seas and boats docked in secluded coves, you need an island vacation. Instead of the Caribbean, where there’s not much left, or Greece, where there’s not much left unspoiled. Try my recommendation.


Its islands are vastly underrated. Quick. Name two. No, Sicily and Sardinia don’t count. Those are more regions than islands. Sicily and Sardinia have their own islands. OK, you just chose Capri. No, Corsica belongs to France. Can’t think of others? Read on.

Italy’s islands may not have the sugar-white sand of the Caribbean or the variety of Greece, but they have their own charm. Because you totally bombed my little quiz, you know they are naturally less crowded. Many are as unspoiled as they were before Allied and Axis forces bombed mainland Italy into rubble during World War II.

Plus, the food is pretty good.

I have been to seven. I have many more to go. Here’s a little guide, in alphabetical order and unvarnished with some bad mixed with the very good. I have written blogs about some of them and inserted the links if you want more detail and obnoxious commentary. So print it and put it on your wall to ponder as you watch the clock in your office while rain or snow pound the pavement outside.

I wrote that Capri "is the prettiest island in Europe."

I wrote that Capri “is the prettiest island in Europe.”


In my blog from three years ago, I called Capri “the prettiest island in Europe.” It better be. The crowds it gets it should put it on the same level with Bora Bora. It’s not for a number of reasons.

Namely, Capri has no beaches. It is surrounded by rock. Giant boulders and uncomfortable pebbles separate you from some of the bluest water in Europe. It is 27 miles off the coast of Naples and tourism is the lone industry. The only things Capri (pronounced CAH-pree) dumps in the sea are tourists.

You can place your towel on the flattest rock you can find and pretend you’re a Hindu fakir. One beach had lounge chairs selling for 21 euros but they were sold out — in October. I didn’t even see an unoccupied rock to place my beach towel. In Piazza Umberto I, the main square people go to see and be seen, I saw people bumping into people’s forks as they dined. I sometimes waited 30-45 minutes for a minibus that climbs the mountain which composes this island.

In summer, Capri becomes a parody of itself. This is an island 4 miles x 1.8 miles and in summer it gets 10,000 tourists a day. Nowhere on Manhattan island is it this crowded.

But if you don’t come for the beaches or the food, come for the views. That minibus ride is worth the wait, even if your bed & breakfast, as mine was, isn’t on top of the hill. Each switchback the bus made I got a new and improved view of the sea below.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.

For a reverse view, pay the 18 euros for a beach tour of the island. You get a good history lesson from the learned ship captain, and some stop for dips in the sea.

Capri has three parts: Capri town where most tourists congregate, Anacapri where most locals live and the countryside. My B&B, the Alle Ginestre, was in Anacapri and had terrific views of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. I highly recommend finding your lodging in Anacapri. It’s where you’ll find schools and kids kicking soccer balls in the street and locals sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes.

Also, don’t pass up the Torta Caprese, Capri’s local chocolate cake.

he Weather Channel ranked Favignana's waters as the 13th bluest in the world.

The Weather Channel ranked Favignana’s waters as the 13th bluest in the world.


Marina and I went here twice this year, we liked it so much. We went for my birthday in March and again in October, carefully avoiding the summer high season. Favignana’s waters make Capri’s look like the North Sea. The Weather Channel ranked it 13th in its list of Bluest Waters in the World. Favignana earned it. Its water is as turquoise as around French Polynesia.

The largest of the three Egadi Islands, Favignana is an easy get from Rome: a 70-minute flight to Trapani on Sicily’s west coast, then a 30-minute hydroplane ride. What greets you are 14 square miles of island tranquility. It is spider webbed by narrow two-lane roads where the main mode of transportation is bicycle. The island is as flat as an Italian model’s stomach and touring the island isn’t a strain for even the fattest of tourist. Few places in Italy can you spend hours cruising the countryside with the only sounds being the birds above and the sea below.

Cala Azzurra, on the southeast coast, took credit for the No. 13 ranking and it is indeed beautiful. It’s a soft bend of the island seen from a cliff, with a precarious walk down to the rocks. However, Cala Rossa on the northeast coast should push Azzurra for the honor. While most beaches were all rock, like on Capri, last month we did find a sandy beach at Punta San Nicola, even closer to the main town.

Don’t come in March. The water temperature was 52 degrees. In October, the water was swimmable and as clear as any I’ve seen in Europe although not quite as turquoise as in spring.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.

Whenever you go, be sure to hang in Piazza Madrice. It’s Favignana’s nerve center. Go to quaint, friendly Caffe Aegus where you can sip their house Nero d’Avalo and chat with old-timers who left the mainland for Favignana long ago.

We have twice eaten at Trattoria da Papu’, maybe Favignana’s most popular seafood restaurant where the specialty is busiate di profumo di mare. Busiate is western Sicily’s signature pasta, a thick, twisty noodle they cover in a big mess of shellfish. We needed reservations in October, when the large outdoor seating was filled by 9 p.m.

A great place to stay is Isola Mia. It’s a 15-minute walk to the piazza and run by Jose Tammaro, a touring musician, and his wife. Both are affable and friendly and put out a breakfast spread of meats, cheeses and cornettos, Italy’s signature croissants.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.


While tourists flock to Capri, Italians flock to Ischia, Capri’s bigger cousin to the north. It doesn’t have Capri’s view or international cache but it has the sandy beaches and authentic Italian vibe.

I came here in the mid-2000s and stayed in a nice hotel (of which its name escapes me) with a glorious pool not far from an equally tranquil beach. The beach and pool were so mesmerizing, I didn’t bother with what attracts many Italians.

Thermal baths.

Ischia is lousy with them. Take a water taxi to the south side of the island to Maronti beach and the Il Sorgeto cove where a thermal spring awaits. If you want to really pamper yourself at a cheap rate, you can go to Negombo, which sports 12 pools and thermal pools ranging from 75-97 degrees, a private beach and 500 exotic plant species. Price is a very reasonable 33 euros a day.

Ischia’s waterfront is quite lovely despite not offering Capri’s jaw-dropping views from above. Small whitewashed buildings separate the sky-blue bay from cliffs hovering over the town. Dominating the view is Castello Aragones, the 15th century castle built by King Alfonso of Aragon who also added the causeway and accessory ramp that exist to this day. This is a well-worn fortification. Gerone I of the Syracuse republic in Sicily first built a fortress here in 474 BC.

The restaurants are more reasonably priced than in Capri and most offer rabbit (coniglio), a specialty in Ischia. Afterward, wash your palate with Rucolino, a local green liqueur, especially if you have a hankering for licorice.

Like Capri, Ischia is easily reached by a steady stream of hydrofoils from Naples.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.


It’s closer to Africa than it is to mainland Italy and has made international news as the first stop in refugees’ desperate, and often, ill-fated boat journeys. Waters around this island are littered with drowning victims.

When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, it was before the big wave of refugees poured in. I came to seek an Italian island experience with sugar-white sand beaches like the Caribbean and the kind of heat that requires an act of the military to get you up from said sand.

Lampedusa is 180 miles south of Sicily and easily reached with flights from Rome via Palermo. I was told by a Rome friend that Lampedusa was the perfect “simple Island” getaway. I wrote in my journal that “The only thing simple about Lampedusa was it simply sucks.”

It is 160 miles off the coast of Tunisia and is dry as a lunar landscape and just as barren. I went in August 2002 and I could not see a speck of sand under the cheek-to-cheek, towel-to-towel flesh mob on the beaches. The village of Lampedusa was chock-a-block with souvenir shops, T-shirt emporiums and hack singers butchering “Time in a Bottle.” It looked like a satire on Italian tourism.

What no one writes about is the island’s main mode of transport, the motorino, seemingly has no regulations. Each one is as noise as a Harley 1800 cruising a California freeway. With people buzzing around the island until 3 a.m., Lampedusa is the only island I’ve visited that’s noisier than Manhattan. It was like being on the infield of the Indy 500 or living inside a bumble bee’s nest. I couldn’t get away from it.

The north side of the island is as desolate as the south side is overcrowded. At the time, a putrid public dump extinguished any delicious aromas drifting up from the Mediterranean below. I don’t recall seeing a single village.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it's not crowded.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it’s not crowded.

Still, after five days I warmed to Lampedusa. Its beaches are worth it. Spiaggia di Coniglio has been ranked among the top 10 in the world. It’s a gorgeous slice of white sand in a cove you’ve seen in tourist posters. I saw an equally good beach at Cala Madonna 15 miles out of town. Just go in September after the mobs have left.

The island is governed by Sicily meaning it’s Sicilian meaning you get the great Sicilian desserts. Stroll along Via Roma, the main drag, with a granita or a cassata. Or sit outside in one of the plethora of cafes and eat one of the famed cannolis.

Also, even if it is crowded, it’s crowded with Italians. You still feel you’re getting away from wherever you’re from. You have no worries about getting in a bar fight about politics.

Parco Nazionale dell'Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia contain just some of Italy's underrated islands.

Parco Nazionale dell’Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia.


Again, if you come to Sardinia, do NOT come in the summer, particularly August. Italians pour over from the mainland during one of their two extended vacations a year. It’s as crowded as a pope’s coronation.

After visiting Lampedusa in 2002, later that September I took the boat from Civitavecchia, 50 miles northwest of Rome, to Sardinia. Prices were less than August. So were the crowds. The water was just as warm. The sun just as bright.

The highlight of a trip that had me circumvent the north half of the island and cross back through the spectacular Sardi hinterland, was a side trip to Arcipelago di La Maddalena. It’s a series of seven islands, the lone lands still existing from a valley that once connected Sardinia with Corsica, seven miles to the north, and is now under water.

Located off Sardinia’s northeast coast, a 15-minute ferry ride from the town of Palau, Maddalena is subject to winds. While in September they were low, the winds carved natural formations in the granite that make the beaches unique in Europe.

They also formed numerous individual bays bordered by cozy, romantic beaches. I just looked in my journal from that week 15 years ago and I called the beaches on the island, “the best I’ve seen in Southern Europe outside Santorini.” I wrote further:

“Each turn of the road had a car park where you could pull over and take pictures of tiny bays individually carved by wind-washed rock.The water was (so) clear you could see the bottom 50 feet down and four shades of blue: cobalt, royal, turquoise, blue-green.”

If you haven’t heard much about Maddalena, it may because its romantic image is smudged by the presence of a huge U.S. naval base. An anchor the size of some tuna boats sits on shore as your ferry approaches. The Navy doesn’t have an overriding presence. Locals I talked to said the sailors are respectful, mature and reasonably sober.

A big consideration with Maddalena: a car is a must. Sardinia’s public transportation is extremely limited and I saw nothing on Maddalena. A rental car is highly recommended.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.


Tired of the crowds and heat of Rome? Come to Ponza. It’s the closest island to the capital. Just take a regional train 50 minutes from Rome’s Termini station to the town of Anzio, Emperor Nero’s birthplace, and then a 90-minute to 2 ½-hour ferry ride, depending on the boat.

Ponza is a volcanic island which has its pluses and minuses. The biggest plus is its jagged outline provides tons of tiny, secluded coves; the biggest negative is hardened volcanic ash is lousy for sunbathing. Still, find a spare rock and lay down a towel. The Tyrrhenian Sea is a gorgeous blue and warm from June through September.

I went one September and loved the laid-back nature of Ponza town, void of package tourists and side-by-side souvenir stands. Its quaint harbor is backed by small buildings of red and blue and yellow and white. Ponza is popular for Romans seeking a weekend away but during the week it is your own paradise to explore.

A good public transportation system took me to the north side of the island where I had lunch with local villagers before descending down a narrow, switchback path to a beautiful secluded cove below. No entry fee. No lounge chairs. Just a royal blue sea and plenty of space to lay down a towel, however precarious it may be to lay on it.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.

I splurged and stayed at the luxurious four-star Hotel Chiaia di Luna, featuring a head-turning swimming pool overlooking the bay, port and Palmarola, the other inhabited island nearby. It also had 2,000 meters of terrace and free shuttle service to the port.
Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film "Il Postino." Photo by Marina Pascucci

Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film “Il Postino.” Photo by Marina Pascucci


This is what island life was like in Italy in the 1950s. Fishermen mending fishing nets on old boats. Eating a pizza on a quiet, semi-secluded harbor. Old men in hats sipping wine and chatting on street corners. This step back in time is the polar opposite of the jet-set theme park that is Capri 10 miles to the south.

“Il Postino,” the movie about the love-sick postman in 1950 that was Oscar nominated for Best Picture in 1995, was filmed here. It hasn’t changed much since. The same pink dockside building where the postman hung out still exists on the harbor where I had a couple of great Sicilian pizzas for 4-8 euros.

Marina and I came here in May to celebrate our two-year anniversary. It lived up to its hype as a romantic paradise. We dined on a limestone cliff above the harbor at La Lampara where the ravioli al sapore di mare (ravioli stuffed with shrimp and ricotta cheese) was simply the best ravioli of my life. Nearly every menu features mussels and calamari as thick as lobster tails.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.

We took a bus up to the north end of the island where we spent a day combing the sandy beach and sipping cocktails at a dockside bar in the sun. Procida (PRO-chee-duh) is big with the boating crowd but doesn’t have the stuffiness of towns where you’re measured by the size of your yacht.

Topping the romantic weekend was a stay at the four-star Albergo La Vigna, high above a hill where a courtyard looks down at the sea below. Highlighting La Vigna is a spa you can block off for a, um, private hour to yourselves.

Naples: Italy’s most chaotic city is a walk through a violent past via two tough neighborhoods

The Spanish Quarters has been Naples' most notorious neighborhood for 400 years. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Spanish Quarters has been Naples’ most notorious neighborhood for 400 years. Photo by Marina Pascucci

NAPLES, Italy — Italy has always been a feminine country. That’s a compliment. Its beautiful. It’s seductive. It’s warm. If you think about it, Rome’s seven hills even resemble breasts; New York’s skyscrapers resemble penises. It all fits. So it’s natural to compare Italy’s cities with women. Milan is the snooty catwalk model, dressed for the gods with an attitude to match. Rome is the sexy showgirl. Her revealing outfit and engaging smile promises a week you’ll never forget. Florence? She loves the arts. She’s into nature. She wears comfortable shoes.

Meanwhile, Naples is Italy’s slut. Its best days are in the past but she still has a lusty air about her. She looks sweaty and tired and is scruffy around the edges. A cigarette hangs from the corner of her mouth. Yet in a moment’s notice she can turn on the charm and be the funnest day you’ll ever have. And after a few glasses of Aglianico wine, she starts looking pretty good again.

As Naples digressed, Italy’s famous proverb for its third-largest city still holds true:

“See Naples and die.”

You can take that proverb two ways, of course. Experience the city by the bay and fade away knowing you’ve seen the best the planet has to offer. Or you can experience the city by the bay and get gunned down.

Naples’ history of violence stretches back to when it was swapped out between the Greeks, Byzantines and Normans, then when the Spanish treated it as its own public torture chamber and most recently as the Camorra crime family destroyed Naples’ rep on the silver screen. Italians view Naples as Americans view Detroit — except Naples’ pizza is better.

However, I’ve always loved Naples like the woman it once was and still can be. I love its lustiness, its passion, its chaos. I love how every conversation among Neapolitans sounds like they’re accusing each other of sleeping with each others’ wives. Its notorious drivers really aren’t homicidal, and the subway is clean and efficient. They may have the most passionate soccer fans in Italy. Also, the pizza is indeed stupendous. Yeah, its bay front has lost its luster from the time when Ancient Romans built villas on what was considered the most beautiful bay in Europe. It’s more of a bustling ferry harbor than a romantic rendezvous point these days, and Naples is short on jaw-dropping churches and museums. But it’s Italy’s most mysterious city, cloaked in a cloud of poverty and danger that puts you on edge more than any city in the country.

Elena Ferrante wrote four novels about life in post-war Naples.

Elena Ferrante wrote four novels about life in post-war Naples.

Marina, my adventurous girlfriend and photographer supreme, and I came down last weekend on the lure of the written word. Marina was reading Part IV of Elena Ferrante’s terrific four-book series about life in poverty in Naples after World War II. I came to explore the Spanish Quarters, Naples’ most notorious neighborhood illuminated even more by Peter Robb’s exhaustive tome on the city, “Street Fight in Naples,” which I just finished.

We had both been to Naples numerous times. I remember my first trip in 2001. It was before Christmas and the churches were all decorated with presepi, the miniature nativity scenes popular all over Italy. I walked toward one to get a closer look. The vision seemed blurred. As I approached I learned why.

The window was pockmarked with bullet holes.

Other times Naples served as a tasty connection on my way to Bay of Naples islands such as Ischia, Capri and Procida or sojourns down the Amalfi Coast to the south. I’d leave enough time to stop at Da Michele, arguably the best — and possibly first — pizzeria in all of Italy.

Rione Luzzatti. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Rione Luzzatti. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Naples is convenient. It’s only a 65-minute train ride from Rome, and we emerged from Stazione Centrale to searing heat. Fall has arrived in Italy and in Rome I’m wearing long-sleeve shirts for the first time in six months. I looked at Naples’ temperature on my cell phone. It read 75 degrees. It felt like 95. Naples always feel like it’s 95.

Welcome to Italy’s third circle of hell.

We didn’t cross the River Styx. Instead we crossed Piazza Garibaldi which is much dirtier. The smell of urine hit me like descending a New York subway staircase on a hot summer night. We walked east down Via Taddeo da Sessa, away from the crowds in Centro Storico west of the train station. We walked below Napoli Poggioreale, the prison which houses many of the Camorra crime gang who actually get convicted.

Marina was leading me to Rione Luzzatti, the teeming ghetto where Ferrante grew up. I have a perverse fascination with the soft underbelly of touristy cities. I like to peel back the layer the city doesn’t want outsiders to see, such as last year when I wrote a three-part series about Tor Bella Monaca, Rome’s most dangerous neighborhood [LINK].

Rione Luzzatti is far from tourists in  Naples. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Rione Luzzatti is far from tourists in Naples. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Rione Luzzatti has the same feel of a neighborhood that has lost its soul. Apartment buildings with peeled paint expose bricks that look ready to fall at any moment. Pink and green walls haven’t seen a coat of paint since the Germans bombed the city. Laundry hangs from every window sill. Holes pockmark the walls. Four potted plants with pretty flowers look so terribly out of place on a balcony, like a fashion model in prison.

Some old tired-looking women sat on folding chairs in front of shops without customers. Six youths sat on the stoop of a municipality. In the back of a church is a concrete volleyball court. Barbed wire surrounds vacant courtyards.

We saw a piazza where chubby little boys in Napoli’s sky blue soccer jerseys kicked around a soccer ball next to a truck selling panzaratti, big pieces of fried bread covered with sugar. Locals ate and gossiped in a dialect as foreign to Marina as it was to me.

“This is the true Naples,” Marina said.

A motor scooter in Rione Luzzatti. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A motor scooter in Rione Luzzatti. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We walked into a giant, beat-up courtyard between two apartment complexes. Rocks. Dead grass. Litter. Looking again out of place was a beautiful glass display case showing the Madonna of Lourdes from 1957, surrounded by pink and yellow flowers. Nearby was a motor scooter.

“Typical Vespa,” Marina said.

We walked by another motor scooter on blocks.

“This is a typical Vespa for Naples.”

Elena Ferrante was born in 1944 and writes about Elena Greco and her friendship with Lila Cerullo growing up in Rione Luzzatti where the Camorra had a constant presence. The series follows Greco’s path to university in Pisa to become a writer. The series continues through the 2000s when the Camorra grew in strength.

Religion still plays a big role in Naples. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Religion still plays a big role in Naples. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Modern Naples tries to identify itself with pizza, its bay and its warm hospitality. But as much as anything it’s identified with the Camorra, Italy’s oldest organized-crime syndicate that dates back 400 years. It became immortalized in journalist Roberto Saviano’s 2006 book “Gomorrah,” a detailed look at an organization that made a fortune on drugs and knock-off clothes and intimidated the bejesus out of anyone who stood in its path. How does having quick-drying cement poured down your throat grab you? That’s one of the Camorra’s methods of elimination.

The book spun into a popular TV series that belies Italy’s reputation as a peaceful country. This is Naples. It’s where certain neighborhoods still kiss the muzzle of a gun and the top authority on the block does not wear a badge.

The Camorra, or, as the Neapolitan dialect refers to it, O’sistema (The System), is still alive and very well today. The Wall Street Journal reported that since the 1990s Northern Italian businesses have paid the Camorra to dump their industrial toxic waste rather than pay higher rates for safer disposal means. The Camorra has reportedly dumped 10 million tons of industrial nuclear waste, causing cancer to rise dramatically in Naples’ outskirts, particularly among children.

From Jan. 1-Feb. 8, 2016, nine people were shot and killed in connection with the Camorra. Eight more were gunned down from May 25-June 4. Even the army marched in.

The Camorra isn’t like the Cosa Nostra in Sicily or the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria. Those are closer-knit families. The Camorra is a loose collection of gangs fighting turf wars in and around Naples. The latest trend crime officials see are baby gangs, with armed soldiers as young as 12 and bosses of 16.

Saviano, who has been under police protection ever since his book’s publication, recently told La Repubblica, the Rome-based national newspaper, “Here normal government is a daily war linked to drugs fought by combatants who are not even of age and supported by the tradition of omerta (mafia code of silence). We must stop treating Naples like a normal city. It’s not one. Neapolitans are forced to keep their heads down because they are living under gunfire.”

From Sicily to the Alps, everyone in Italy considers Naples Italy’s most dangerous city. That’s a little misleading. Much of it is due to the Camorra’s ferocious reputation which solidifies every week on Italian televisions. However, the Camorra is not a threat to outsiders. Unless you screw them on a business deal or one of their wives, you’re going to be safe. From a world standpoint, Naples isn’t bad. According to the Crime Index’s mid-2017 report, Naples is the 65th most dangerous city in the world, behind such places as Marseille, France, and Townsville, Australia. Naples isn’t even the most dangerous city in Italy, according to the Index. Catania, Sicily, somehow, is higher at No. 61.

Naples is, however, No. 1 in Italy in robberies, according to ISTAT, Italy’s statistical arm, and it’s in dire financial straits. It is $1.36 billion in debt and has an unemployment rate of 22.6 percent compared to Italy’s 10.7. Unemployment among youth is 53.6 percent. Bloomberg Press compared Naples to Detroit, and you know that’s not a good sign.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Naples’ reputation for mind-bending chaos is well earned. This place makes Rome look like Geneva. Unwilling to walk back in the heat, we took a seat at a bus stop on the main road. Behind the bench were empty Peroni beer bottles, plastic water bottles, cigarettes boxes, an old shirt. Then again, I don’t remember seeing a trash can anywhere in the neighborhood.

At this lovely garden spot we waited. And waited. And waited. The bench offered no shelter for a sun that always feels in Naples as if it’s 100 yards above you instead of 100 million miles. No buses. In one hour we saw one go the opposite direction. Finally a car pulled up and an old man behind the wheel asked us, “Going to the train station? I’ll give you a ride for a euro each.”

I thanked the man and told him we waited an hour for a bus. He smiled and said, “When the pope passes, the bus passes.” He explained that he drives around the neighborhood and gives rides to people tired of waiting. In the back seat was a young couple: a pretty long-haired blonde with a bolt in her lower lip and a boy with a ball cap and sagging black jeans.

The four of us got out and entered Piazza Garibaldi. This has become a nerve center for African immigrants and the side streets spoking into the piazza are filled with more black faces than South Bronx.

The girl looked behind us and said, “Guarda,” and pulled down the skin below her eye with her thumb, the Italian gesture for “watch out.”

The Spanish Quarters. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Spanish Quarters. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We took the beautiful Metro subway, complete with white and turquoise mosaics on the walls, to the Toledo station, the jump off point for the Spanish Quarters. We didn’t have to ask for directions. We knew we had arrived when we saw a maze of alleys covered in laundry and banners strung across passageways so narrow that people in buildings on opposite sides could shake hands. This is what happens when the streets are laid out 3,000 years ago by Greeks who merely needed space for horses and wheelbarrows. What the Greeks didn’t know was that today 14,000 people would be crammed into 8.6 million square feet, just a little larger than Disneyland.

Whole chickens hung by their feet in butcher shops. Red chili peppers covered a street stand. The smell of garlic and pork filled the air.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

“This is like a casbah,” Marina said.

Just past a piazza we entered the maw of a huge mob waiting to get into Trattoria Da Nennella. Plates on the outdoor tables were filled with crayfish the size of lobsters and cascading baskets of fresh fruit.

“Real Neapolitan food and cheap prices,” said a woman with a Neapolitan accent waiting to get in.

Saving ourselves for Da Michele later, we took an outdoor table at a tiny bar called Pisa Dog. Cuban music blared from inside where a youth served us up a draft beer and a bitter for all of 6 euros. We sat next to two young Frenchmen in for the big Napoli-Inter Milan soccer match that night. Naples, despite its unemployment and constant cloud of Camorra, is in a good mood. Napoli is in first place and favored by many to win only its third title in history and its first since 1990. In Italy, soccer can make you forget.

Me and Marina at Pisa Dog in the Spanish Quarters.

Me and Marina at Pisa Dog in the Spanish Quarters.

We talked about Italian soccer and American politics in brilliant sunshine with cool music, cooler drinks and a lively, happy crowd. We could’ve been in Rome’s Piazza Navona, Paris’ Montparnasse or Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.

But we were in Naples’ Spanish Quarters, a neighborhood with a history as notorious and violent as any in Europe.

It took its name from being the headquarters of the Spanish garrison when Spain ruled Naples from 1503-1860. The Spanish used this central location to help quell any Neapolitan revolts. They wanted Naples to be its new Mediterranean metropolis but it found a run-down city with a lousy infrastructure, crowded neighborhoods lacking in water, sewage and housing. The center of Naples was Via Toledo, still the nerve center of the Spanish Quarters. For 400 years it has represented Naples at its most chaotic. The French writer, Stendhal, visited in 1817 and called it “the most crowded and the gayest street in the universe.”

Unemployment for youth in Naples is 53.6 percent. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Unemployment for youth in Naples is 53.6 percent. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It housed the Spanish garrison for more than 300 years as they liked the location under the mulberry trees above the royal palace, the port and Castel Nuovo, the 13th century castle. The Spanish laid out narrower parallel streets and built atop the neighborhood. Soon, the Spanish Quarters in the 16th century was arguably the most crowded neighborhood in Europe.

With the influx of foreign military personnel, the biggest industry in the Spanish Quarters became sex. Wrote Robb in “Street Fight in Naples”: “A woman from the Quarters was a prostitute unless she could show reason to believe otherwise.” Fights often broke out between the Spanish and Neapolitans and killings were frequent. A Spanish soldier had a better chance surviving on the battlefield than in a dark alley facing a jealous Neapolitan with a sharp knife. The neighborhood became a European center for transvestite prostitution.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Spanish Naples was a trap its inhabitants could never escape from,” Robb wrote.

In 1651, the Spanish crown had enough and moved the military’s barracks elsewhere. However, the Spanish Quarters’ reputation remains to this day and Camorra lieutenants are among the regular mob.

The Spanish would go on to abuse Naples on a level astounding even in the blood-stained history of colonization. Besides taxing the locals to their fedoras and discouraging Neapolitans for any business initiative, Spain turned the Market Square, south of the train station, into an outdoor torture chamber during the Inquisition. People were beheaded, burned at the stake and quartered for offending God or the king of Spain.

Spain finally relinquished control to general Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Kingdom of Italy in 1860 but the chaos remains. Even modernization hasn’t helped. At Da Michele, we waited an hour to get in and an hour for our pizzas. A Maltese couple next to us had to flee to their waiting cruise ship before their pizzas arrived.

Naples is loud and friendly. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Naples is loud and friendly. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But like pizza, you can overdo Naples. It’s good in small doses, a wild, unpredictable night that may not be fit for a diary or blog later. Like the tired old woman who has seen better days, Naples will always hang in there, sitting on the bay, hot and sweaty and friendly.

Just don’t turn your back on her.