This week, my Napolitana friend Laura Vinti writes about her passion for travel, and a new program to help travelers connect with people in the places they visit.
I see traveling as a sort of spiritual quest. This might sound pompous and self-important, but I’m unapologetic about it — when I visit a city, I’m after its soul.
Now, faced with this confrontational approach, every city I visit tends to defend itself by doing what charming cities do best: dazzle the visitor by flaunting its beauty, throw at them magnificent palaces, glittering mosaics and frescoes, and daring towers (sometimes leaning too, for added measure), hoping thereby to make the visitor forget their Spiritual Quest and settle for aesthetic intoxication instead.
Well, I don’t fall for it. I take pleasure in all the beautiful sights, and then I aim for the heart – the forgotten alleys, the unexpected quirks, the intimate secrets, the stories you don’t find in travel guides, the places where the locals go for their morning coffee, the corners that offer shelter to star-crossed lovers. I want to uncover the city’s dark side, understand its personality, learn the inside jokes, really get to know the locals. But all too often I come up empty.
However, I now have a new weapon in my urban soul-seeker arsenal. Thanks to a great initiative which is spreading its wings (pun intended) throughout the world, I’m enlisting angels in my quest: Angels for Travelers, no less, whose aim is to unite the globe-trotters of the world into a global community of friends.
Angels for Travelers is an exciting and ever-growing network which gives travelers free access to a trove of insider knowledge by providing them with local friends at any stage of their trip, even before they arrive at their destination.
As Stefano Consiglio, professor of Organization Theory at the University of Naples and founder of “Angels”, says, “Angels for Travelers is a web travel community focused around the assumption that someone who wants to visit a new city is looking for a social experience. And what is better than to be guided by people living there?”
This idea was sparked by an episode he witnessed on a city bus during a recent trash crisis in Naples. “Two Spanish travelers were asking some fellow passengers about the nearest bus stop to their hostel. Soon, more people joined in to help the tourists out. It seemed that the group was attempting to distract the tourists from the garbage piling up every
street corner, while at the same time redirecting their attention to the many treasures of our city.” He found this so striking, because the common assumption is that Neapolitans lack civic pride. “I started to think about how people can contribute to the improvement of their community, especially in a situation of serious crisis.”
Seeing how the passengers were eager to assist the tourists, he wondered about ways to channel this positive energy and do something useful for his city and for the local community. The idea of the “Angels” was born.
However, when he illustrated his idea to friends, they were skeptical: who would be willing to invest their time in helping people they didn’t know? As it turned out, many were more than willing: only two months after the launching of the platform, already 190 Neapolitan Angels were ready to give advice to travelers arriving in the city.
“People are happy to share and more generous than we might give them credit for,” says Stefano.
Capitalizing on their Neapolitan success, in 2010 Stefano and his staff decided to update the web platform in order to allow people from everywhere in the world to become Angels for their own city. The idea spread and now there are more than 4,000 Angels in 350 cities in the world, including New York, Paris and London, ready to share tips and insights about their hometown with new friends.
Last June, I met with one of the Neapolitan Angels, Amedeo Colella, to try the Angels’ experience first-hand. He turned out to be the author of “Manuale di Napoletanità”, a delightful collection of 365 half-serious, half-joking lessons on Naples and ‘being Neapolitan’.
I asked him what he would suggest to an American of Neapolitan descent who wishes to unveil the authentic city of his ancestors.
“They should get in touch with its desperation and its poverty: the shady alleys where families of six or more share two bedrooms in a basement apartment, the second-hand markets where you can buy clothes by the kilo; they should look for the sites where Raffaele Viviani, the 19th century actor and playwright of the poor and forgotten, set his plays, and get a sense of the suffering that pushed his or her forebears to leave their country in search of a better life.”
To move on to a lighter topic, I steered the conversation toward food. It always works, and in Naples more than anywhere else: we Neapolitans love to cook, love to eat, and love to talk about food.
Since both Amedeo and I know that in our city true understanding passes through one’s stomach, we agreed that our ideal traveler will have to try a sfogliatella (a typical Neapolitan pastry made with ricotta) at Attanasio’s, near the main train station, or at least taste a babà (a yeast dough soaked with a rum and sugar syrup) at “Il capriccio” in Via Carbonara.
Mission accomplished, spiritual needs satisfied, we ended our conversation with an espresso shot at Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante: a worthy way to mark my entry into the Angels for Travelers’ community.
To find out more about Angels for Travelers visit their website: http://www.angeliperviaggiatori.com
To listen to Stefano’s talk about Angels for Travelers at TED go to (http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxNapoli-Stefano-Consiglio-An)
The photos depict some of the sights recommended by Amedeo, all situated in the narrow streets of the ancient Greek grid of Naples.
Laura Vinti is a native Neapolitan living in the greater Washington, DC area. An MFA student in Fiction, she’s writing a historical novel set in 1500s Naples.