NAPLES, ITALY – Luca Simeone rides his bike along the sunny beachfront of Naples while his little daughter sleeps on the baby seat.
It may sound ordinary, but this simple act is revolutionary. Three years ago Naples’ seafront was an urban highway, noisy and smoggy, jammed with car traffic, while smelly trash erupted from garbage bins along streets and alleys. Urban cyclers were regarded as eco-fundamentalists.
Three years later, Naples has a new mayor, clean streets, a wide pedestrian beachfront and a 20-km cycling lane overlooking a beautiful bay. This is the liberated beachfront (“Il lungomare liberato”), as the new mayor, Luigi De Magistris, a former prosecutor and party outsider, calls it.
The liberated beachfront quickly became a paradise for runners, cyclists and also those who love pizza or fish, with the sound of waves as background music and the island of Capri and sleepy Vesuvius volcano framing the view of the bay.
The transformation also allowed Simeone to launch a bike tour business.
“A new era has opened for those who love to ride a bicycle in our city,” said Simeone. “Today we can say that speaking about sustainable and environment friendly tourism, like our project, is reality and not fantasy anymore.”
Bike Tour Napoli offers both an urban route along the city’s UNESCO-protected ancient center and a countryside tour, with organic food tasting included. The tours wind through tiny medieval alleys and past baroque churches, around volcanic lakes of the Pozzuoli area, the Vesuvius volcano and the breathtaking Amalfi coast. The most popular route is a ride past art nouveau villas, parks and up Posillipo hill for a view of Naples and its bay.
Anja Hayek from Germany and Antonio Sorace of Italy recently rode up the hill to enjoy the sunset. “This is the only good way to visit and know Naples,” Hayek said. “I found it very nice this year, the bicycle lanes and the pedestrian area by the sea. I found it very beautiful.”
Sorace added that “visiting Naples by car is impossible due to the traffic. By car you can’t enjoy the alleys and it is difficult to breathe.”
Naples is planning to extend the cycling lanes into the suburbs.
For Simeone, the success of his tours represents more than just business. It’s also a way to stop the brain drain. Youth unemployment in Naples is 50 percent. Migration abroad or to the industrialized north is the norm as talented young people leave to find work. The local mafia syndicate Camorra has long taken advantage of the lack of jobs to gain recruits for illegal businesses.
But the green revolution gives hope to those like Simeone who want to erase the image of Naples as a city of garbage and pollution.
“We bet on a revolution of transportation,” explained De Magistris from his office overlooking the port and a new metro construction site. He recalled his parents trying to squash a childhood love of cycling, saying, “Stop this passion, because in Naples you can’t ride a bicycle in the streets.”
Now, more locals are using bike lanes, pedestrian areas have been improved, and some 2.4 million visitors are staying in Naples hotels each year, with the numbers growing.
The expansion of the metro system will add to the environmental improvements for this city of 1 million (4 million in the metro area). The metro also connects riders to art. At the Toledo station, a ride down the escalators reveals works of bright blue representing the sea. “Oh, it is very beautiful. It is like plunging into the sea,” said Pierre Bonini, a tourist from Paris, at the bottom of the escalator.
But pure blue water is not just an art motif. Thanks to improved wastewater management, pollution has been reduced and vast stretches of the coast have been reclaimed. Neapolitans and tourists now swim again in the bay. And young kayak enthusiasts have launched Kayak Napoli. A few motorboat tours had previously been offered, but they were not allowed — as the kayaks are — to enter the marine park of la Gaiola and the Trentaremi bay, which contains submerged ruins of ancient Roman villas.
Giovanni Brun, founder of Kayak Napoli, brings guests to see the submerged archaeological sites and other beautiful coastal spots. His full moon tour offers a sunset paddle with a return as the moon reflects on the waters of the bay. The trip includes one other special moment: An aperitif of white wine on a secluded beach.