The Guide Book Conundrum

Don’t go to Naples on a Tuesday. Or just give in to peer pressure and don’t go to Naples at all. My loyalty officially lies with the rest of the country.

After an uncomfortable morning in my noisy, suburban cruise-ship of a hotel in Sorrento, I set out to Napoli to see the Archaeological Museum, the one that holds most of the art for Pompeii. Given my penchant for all things volcanic or catacomb-related, you can imagine my excitement level. So I set out from Garibaldi train station with my copy of Rick Steves and almost immediately realized I was turned around. Some neighborhood types looked at me curiously but the ones who offered to help were ten-year-old boys playing soccer. They kept calling me bella and pointing me in the direction of the street behind the playground when a blonde woman pulled me by the elbow toward the actual (and opposite) direction of the museum. I hypocritically gave thanks for the kindness of strangers while clutching my purse tightly.

At the imposing museum I found a guard who informed me that the day was Tuesday and Tuesday is the one day the museum is closed and I could come back tomorrow. Er, no. My initial reaction was to get back to the train and leave. No Farnese Gallery. No secret room. I felt stupid and disappointed. This was the only site I had any interest in seeing. But since I claim to love baroque architecture, perhaps a glimpse of Neopolitan Baroque would be in order. And I had promised myself Neopolitan pizza. So I played a quick mental game of “What Would Rick Steves Do?” and set out with my guide book’s walking tour in hand.

I tried buying a city map from a magazine vendor but it cost seven euros and he wouldn’t let me take off the shrink wrap first. Since about half his wares were porn mags or videos entitled “sex game” there was a higher than average possibility it wouldn’t be my kind of map, so I declined. Following the walking tour, I trekked through gritty streets and past baroque monuments and grimy architecture, dutifully reading about each landmark like a good little tourist.

Santa Chiara was the most colorful surprise of the day. The cloister is decorated with majolica-tiled columns and benches surrounded by seventeenth-century wall paintings on the surrounding structures. The seating areas are interwoven with a grove of trees and shrubs, making it a delightful oasis that feels light-years away from the graffitied monuments just outside the walls. The museum there has fantastic lifelike reliquaries and even some sort of foot relic. There are architectural remnants of the medieval church from before the WWII bombing. There was also a Neopolitan creche tucked into a corner room. It is as intricate and delicate a manger scene as the one at the Met every Christmas, minus the tree. There was also an archaeological excavation on site–a Roman spa. I think it was uncovered after the Allied bombing. Well, Roman baths are not catacombs but the two are remarkably similar in showing life and memory and engineering. The aqueduct aspect of the Roman system is always fascinating to witness.

The church itself was closed. In fact, every church I passed was closed. Oh, Tuesday. So I continued the walking tour through outdoor market stalls selling make-your-own creche figurines and good luck charms, a bookstore with an abundance of Dickens and Danielle Steele (apparently that’s what we English-speakers need because I’ve seen plenty of both), past the statue of the Nile and the shrine to some soccer player. I got a guidebook-approved strawberry gelato at the oldest gelateria in town and looked for my last destination–the promised recommended pizza options at the end of the hours-long tour. One of them actually rolled down its gate and closed up shop while I watched, gelato in hand, from across the street. I asked directions to the other and two people informed me it did not exist anymore. I saw a sign with its name around the corner, but the half-closed gate revealed only some old chairs. Didn’t really look like a restaurant. So either tourists are strongly discouraged from entering or it is just closed. I hung my head in defeat and trudged through the last leg of the town, all the while wishing I hadn’t worn the eternally inappropriate flip-flops or was at least armed with a tetanus shot. I muttered to myself that next time I need Gritty But Cultured, I’ll opt for Sicily.

I was prepared to rant and rave about the inadequacies of my guide book when I noted the tiny “closed Tues.” under the museum entry. Oops. But it was bound to happen sooner or later, and it brings to light the eternal conundrum of how closely to follow a guide book and how much to let your inner wanderer take the reins instead.

I know people who have laminated itineraries weeks before departure and others who can’t even be bothered with reservations. There’s also the eternal question of which books to use and which to bring along on the trip. Should you take print-outs of the important stuff? What about websites? What if you’re going away for six weeks and would need to take a sabbatical just to plan the thing carefully?

In the last month I have tried a variety of strategies to varying degrees of success. Ideally you need a guide book for every city but definitely one for every country. My guide to the entire Mediterrandean just wasn’t detailed enough for Malta and Gozo but was fine for Assisi. All the guidebooks I have used are pretty bad for art. There are Blue Guides, useful for art and architecture but lacking in pictures and charmingly dull in their descriptions, fondly known as the travel guide only an academic could love. Eyewitness books are my favorite for pictures–you know what to look for at least–but the information is fairly shallow. Lonely Planet is good for restaurants and hotels but not for art or culture. Rick Steves is dependable but he’s so doggone positive about everything that it is hard to tell when a site or city isn’t really worth the trouble. He’s just not snarky enough to be completely unbiased and the visuals and maps are not so great. My great guide book revelation came recently when I friend told me about the vast collection of them at the Brooklyn Public Library. They have hundreds of travel guides from various publishers and although they aren’t all up to date, the volume of information available makes for a great trip-planning afternoon.

But the more important element is whether you make good use of your time. Reading the walking tour was entertaining but it made me have to stop frequently to gape and made me stick out as a tourist even more than usual. I did not enjoy the dutiful guidebook approach. I would rather read a little ahead of time, circle the things I want to see on a map, and venture to as many as I can in a logical order. It leaves more time and space for meandering and surprises. The downside is that it does not necessarily minimize time in train stations and still requires some research regarding opening hours and strategy.

I guess in general I would rather go on a treasure hunt for one painting than complete an art walk full of amazing things I don’t care about. There was a two-day span in Florence of trekking to tiny churches on the other side of the river and trying to navigate siesta times for all of them while hunting for Pontormo’s Deposition. On the search I managed to see the Pitti Palace gardens, many back streets, the jewelry stores of the Ponte Veccio, and several baroque chapels. When I at last found the church, I peeked inside and I could almost hear the figures in the painting welcoming me while my inner nine-year-old squealed “Pontormo! Pontormo!” as some tourists put a euro in the box to illuminate the shady chapel. Yes, with a little better research I could have taken a cab straight to the church. But the glee of finding that dim chapel with the airy grandeur of that work of art is irreplacable.

So what’s a traveler to do? Do we pack an extra suitcase full of travel guides? Wing it all the way? Make a list and check it twice? I really could have used an iPad on this trip for ebooks, email, and uploading photos. Maybe in the future it will be a matter of streamlining that way. Until then I will keep collecting tiny adventures wherever I can.

After the Great Neopolitan Debacle, I got turned around again and had to ask directions to Piazza Garibaldi from an old man in a chair. Old men in chairs are generally reliable sources of information because they rarely make cat-calls and obviously know the neighborhood from sitting around in it all day. A younger guy overheard and waved me in the right direction as well, making sure I crossed the treacherous street with him and glancing periodically to make sure I was following along. My pessimistic self held the bag tightly and waited for him to ask for money or something, but both assumptions were completely unjustified. He kept an eye on me until I assured him “va bene, va bene” and stopped at a magazine stand. It’s as if he and the blonde lady were protective toward the uninitiated tourist. You poor, dumb thing. Let me get you where you’re going so our city’s reputation isn’t further sullied by you wandering around and losing your purse. Or perhaps not. Maybe I’ve been too hard on Naples and its shadowy faded grandeur. Either way, I am grateful.

That evening I rode the train back to Sorrento where I finally got to witness a saint’s procession and its accompanying fireworks show. The evening ended in an English Pub with some American sidekicks and the telling of good stories over vacation cocktails.  It was not even remotely Mediterranean or authentic or cultural, but by golly, it was a satisfying end to a long day.

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