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Rick Steves: A dose of ‘reality travel’ in bella Naples

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As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

Strolling through Naples, I remember my first visit to the city as a wide-eyed 18-year-old. My travel buddy and I had stepped off the train into vast Piazza Garibaldi. A man in a white surgeon’s gown approached me and said: “Please, it is very important. We need blood for a dying baby.” Naples was offering a dose of reality we weren’t expecting on our Italian vacation. We immediately made a U-turn, stepped back into the station, and made a beeline for Greece.

While that delayed my first visit by several years, I’ve been back to Naples many times since. And today, even with its new affluence and stress on law and order, the city remains appalling and captivating at the same time. It’s Italy’s third largest city, as well as its most polluted and crime-ridden. But this tangled urban mess still somehow manages to breathe, laugh, and sing with a joyful Italian accent. Naples offers the closest thing to “reality travel” in Western Europe: churning, fertile, and exuberant.

With more than two million people, Naples has almost no open spaces or parks, which makes its ranking as Europe’s most densely populated city plenty evident.

Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical. But Naples still surprises me with its impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children with good humour and decency. There’s even a name for this love of life on the street: basso living.

In Naples, I spend more time in the local neighbourhoods than the palaces and museums. Since ancient Greek times, the old city centre has been split down the middle by a long, straight street called Spaccanapoli (“split Naples”). Just beyond it, the Spanish Quarter climbs into the hills. And behind the Archaeological Museum is perhaps the most colourful district of all, Sanità.

Walking through the Spaccanapoli neighbourhood, I venture down narrow streets lined with tall apartment buildings, walk in the shade of wet laundry hung out to dry, and slip into time-warp courtyards. Couples artfully make love on Vespas while surrounded by more fights and smiles per cobblestone than anywhere else in Italy. Black-and-white death announcements add to the clutter on the walls of buildings. Widows sell cigarettes from plastic buckets.

I spy a woman overseeing the action from her balcony on the fifth floor. I buy two carrots as a gift and she lowers her bucket to pick them up. One wave populates six stories of balconies, each filling up with its own waving family. A contagious energy fills the air. I snap a photo and suddenly people in each window and balcony are vying for another. Mothers hold up babies, sisters pose arm in arm, a wild-haired pregnant woman stands on a fruit crate holding her bulging stomach, and an old, wrinkled woman fills her paint-starved window frame with a toothy grin.

Around the corner, there’s an entire street lined with shops selling tiny components of fantastic manger scenes, including figurines caricaturing politicians and local celebrities — should I want to add a Putin or a Berlusconi to my Nativity set.

The abundance of gold and silver shops here makes me think this is where stolen jewelry ends up. But I’ve learned that’s not quite true. According to locals, thieves quickly sell their goods and the items are melted down immediately. New pieces go on sale as soon as they cool.

Paint a picture with these thoughts: Naples has the most intact ancient Roman street plan anywhere. Imagine life here in the days of Caesar, with street-side shop fronts that close up to become private homes after dark. Today is just one more page in a 2,000-year-old story of city activity: meetings, beatings, and cheatings; kisses, near misses, and little-boy pisses.

I sit on a bench to survey the scene. An older man with a sloppy slice of pizza joins me. Moments later, a stylish couple on a bike rolls by — she sits on the handlebars, giggling as she faces her man, hands around his neck as he cranes to see where they’re going.

I say: “Bella Italia.”

My bench mate says: “No, bella Napoli.”

I say: “Napoli…is both beautiful and a city of chaos.”

He agrees, but insists: “Bella chaos.”

I agree, “Beautiful chaos.”

— This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at rick@ricksteves.com

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Travel & Escape

American woman faces $2,800 parking bill after leaving car in Toronto during pandemic

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Parking in the city can be costly, but one American woman is learning just how bad it can be after being unable to retrieve her car for nearly a year.

Detroit resident Kim Richardson left her 2004 Honda Element at the Park2Sky lot by Pearson airport in March 2020 before flying out to Europe for a medical procedure. She originally planned to retrieve it within two weeks but partway through her trip, the Canada-US border got closed due to COVID-19 precautions.

Richardson’s return flight was rerouted to Detroit and she’s been unable to return to Toronto since.

What was originally a $100 bill has now inflated to $2,800 as the lot’s owner says he has a business to operate and is owed payment for 11 months of storage. However, Richardson believes she’s being extorted for an issue beyond her control.

Park2Sky personnel claim that several Americans who found themselves in similar predicaments have had their cars shipped home.

“I don’t understand, I don’t know what’s going on here. Business is down, I’m not making any money at all. People who leave their car are paid. She’s the only one that hasn’t paid,” said the owner to CBC News this week.

The stalemate is expected to last a while longer as travel restrictions remain in place and Ontario Provincial Police have said they won’t get involved in a civil matter.

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Travel & Escape

All systems are go for St. Lawrence Cruise Lines in 2021

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KINGSTON — Despite Canada’s newly extended cruise ship ban, Canadians still have a small-ship cruising alternative in 2021 with St. Lawrence Cruise Lines.

The small-ship operator, which sails on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, has confirmed operations for 2021, with overnight cruises on both rivers from May 20 to Oct. 24. A variety of cruises ranging from four to seven nights will depart from Kingston, Ottawa and Quebec City, sailing exclusively in domestic waters with stops at select ports in Ontario and Quebec.

On Feb. 4, Canada’s Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra announced that Canada’s cruise ship ban will be extended until Feb. 28, 2022. This measure, which effectively prohibits cruise vessels carrying more than 100 passengers from operating in Canadian waters, does not impact the small-ship operations of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines and its 32-stateroom CANADIAN EMPRESS.

“We are excited to offer travellers a small ship option for the 2021 season,” said President Jason Clark. “Our overnight cruises stay close to shore in Canadian waters and our COVID-19 Health and Safety program has been recognized for its high standards.”

This past December, the cruise line was awarded the Safe Travels Stamp by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO) for adherence to global standards of health and hygiene. The program includes a wide range of safety measures, including reduced passenger loads, masking, physical distancing and hospital-grade electrostatic disinfecting for both private staterooms and shared spaces. Plus, all staterooms have access to fresh air, climate controls and views of the river.

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Travel & Escape

Here’s How Canada’s ‘Screening Officers’ Will Check On Travellers During Quarantine

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The federal government is reminding all travellers in Canada that “Screening Officers” may pay them a visit post-arrival.

In a statement about the country’s latest travel restrictions, Transport Canada confirmed that newly-trained officials would be tasked with checking up on travellers during their two-week quarantine period.

The role of the Screening Officers will be to visit travellers’ quarantine locations to “establish contact, confirm identify and confirm that travellers are at the place of quarantine they identified upon entry into Canada.”

This is to make sure individuals are complying with Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement.

The checks will be conducted across 35 Canadian cities, having already started in Montreal and Toronto back in January.

The officials will provide “compliance education” and will be able to issue verbal warnings, but stronger enforcement action will be referred to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and then law enforcement for follow-up checks. 

Failing to comply with the Quarantine Act or with Screening Officers’ instructions could result in fines of up to $750,000 or even jail time.

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