The Naples Riviera by Herbert M Vaughan

The Naples Riviera by Herbert M Vaughan is a travel book published in 1908. I read it recently during a trip to Naples, itself. When using old guide books in contemporary trips, it can happen that the traveler finds a must-see site has been demolished in the intervening years, but nowadays a cursory check via a search engine can avoid such embarrassment. But what can be gleaned from reading what are now historical accounts of travel is a sense of perspective that is almost always missing from much tourist literature. Yes, the historical fact is always available, but its interpretation is always a variable, and it is this variability that immediately enriches an experience of travel.

Vaughan describes Naples, Amalfi, Sorrento, Capri, Ischia and the nearby bays as seen at the start of the twentieth century. His account indicates that these descriptions were contemporary, but also that they not being experienced for the first time. This is clearly an experienced traveler. It is interesting to note that he regularly advises that certain areas have become overpopulated with foreigners, or regularly crowded with tourists, or more likely to serve an English Sunday lunch than any local speciality. Gone, perhaps, are the barefoot luggage carriers who are generally women and who apparently queue up near the ferry hoping to earn a living by carrying tourists’ suitcases up the hill on their heads. Gone also, perhaps, are the traditional dances, such as the tarantella, that Vaughan claims the locals strike up spontaneously at any time of day and in almost any place.

A surprising observation comes early in the text, when the author refers to the city of Naples, itself, as having been largely rebuilt, and thus containing predominantly modern buildings. The author immediately reveals his preference for a particular period of the city’s history, a preference that looks down on the baroque modernization of Gothic spaces, perhaps questionIng even that the Renaissance should ever have descended into mannerism.

There is mild surprise when the author lists the number of places in the Campania region where malaria is either still endemic or was endemic until just before the account was written. Vaughan then discusses the possible causes of the disease. A modern reader, when confronted with the apparent contradictions of contemporary mores, is perhaps gently surprised. When confronted with the author’s incredulity at the idea of malaria being spread by mosquitoes, one approaches the state of being flabbergasted. But the modern search engine can again come into his own to remind the contemporary traveler that it was less than a decade before the writing of Vaughan’s book that the causational link had been confirmed. One lives and one learns.

Sitting in the narrow and sometimes hectic overcrowding of the matrix of the Spanish quarter near Via Toledo, the contemporary traveler is often confronted with the rasping noise and the odour of unburnt two-stroke as motorbikes speed past on what seemed to be collision courses, both with one another and pedestrians alike. The largely unhelmeted riders remind one of the fact Naples that was a lucrative market for diagonally striped T-shirts when the wearing of seatbelts in cars became compulsory. One is also minded to speculate what the experience of Vaughan in the streets might have been without the noise of the internal combustion engine and the smell of unburnt fuel. Vaughan of course reminds us that before two wheels there were four legs and that these modes of transport used to leave different evidence of their passing, which also had effects on the nose.

When Vaughan visits Pompeii and Herculaneum, his descriptions are lyrical and vivid. But again the contemporary traveler realizes that it that the experience of these places in the early twentieth century was significantly much less than it is now, since much of the excavation and archaeological work has been done in the intervening century. Anyone who, like Vaughan, wants to contemplate what life might have been like in these ancient Roman towns with their single room shops and narrow streets need only pause for a while in Naples old town or in the Spanish quarter, where, apart from the motorbikes, life probably looks pretty similar to what might have been transacted along those ancient streets. From a distance the city even looks red and yellow, the same colors the decorated most of the dwellings in the two ruined cities.

Vaughan’s description of Naples Riviera comes across as surprisingly modern. It confirms that whenever and wherever we travel it is the experience that matters, the here and now, and crucially how that changes us, rather than confirms what we expected or anticipated when we decided to go there. In an age where we are told that travel experience can be bought as a package, it is interesting and instructive to travel through the eyes of another, both refreshing and enlightening to share another visitor’s insight from a different time as we explore a new any new experience of travel.