It's night-time in Via Manzoni, Naples, it's the mid-Eighties, and if you want to find a parking space, you'll be lucky.
The cars are lined up in a solid row from the hill of Vomero all the way down to Posillipo, and well into the deep green of the Park of Remembrance. "The girls never wanted to go there," remembers Marcello, aged 45, a Neapolitan teacher. "You had to... feign that you ended up in Via Manzoni almost by accident, while looking for a scenic spot and hoping that the sparkle of the stars on the Gulf would do the rest." He hasn't forgotten how he made the transition to adulthood on the reclining seats of a tiny car in Via Manzoni. Beside him, parked on sidewalks cracked by the roots of pine trees, a city was making love under the same stars – or cursing the awkward gear lever, while trying to conjure up the best position allowed by the cabin of a sub-compact Fiat.
This amorous pastime sparked a thriving retail business. Makeshift stands selling unusual goods sprung up along the road, offering Scotch tape and old newspapers, contraband Marlboro, pirated music cassettes and coffee liqueur. "The first time," says Alfonso, aged 50 and a former habitué of Via Manzoni, "I was so naïve that I didn't even think about the need to affix newspapers to windows. But after a while, through the fogged glass, I saw the gleeful face of a voyeur. The next time, then, I went there equipped with a reel of adhesive tape and two copies of Il Mattino brought from home. While we were making love, the headlines passed under my eyes as in a frightful dream: the couples' killer just released; birth rate increasing – many babies on arrival; Naples' soccer team risks demotion to the lower League...".
The practice was initiated in the Sixties, after brothels were shut down in Italy in 1958, and by youngsters who, thanks to the mass motorisation of the late Fifties, discovered in shuttered cars (of their own or purloined from their fathers) the only private space for intimacy, far from the small condos saturated with parents, grandparents and siblings. It really exploded as a phenomenon in the poor and violent Naples of the Eighties: unemployment made it impossible to afford a daytime motel room, and couples felt safer gathering in special places where numbers gave them some protection from robbers.
Nowadays, there's no trace of this lustful past in the Park of Remembrance. Refurbished, with its gates closed to cars, it just hosts grandpas playing cards, nannies pushing children on swings and vagrant lonely souls. The law has made it harder for people who want to make love in their cars: a recent ruling of the highest Italian court, the Cassazione, stated that having sex in a car without covering the windows is a crime punishable with imprisonment of up to three years. Yet up the road, after years of decline, Via Manzoni is once more the street of love: due to the economic crisis that has increased youth unemployment in the south of Italy (over 40 per cent in 2010), two-thirds of young people between 18 and 34 years have been forced to stay at home with their parents. And so it is that in this, the most fertile and densely populated province of Italy (where you'll find 2,631 inhabitants per square kilometre), once again it seems that the only way to enjoy a modicum of privacy is to seal oneself in a car.
Lino, aged 30, knows Via Manzoni well. "For me the car always had a special charm. It's like the belly of the beast: a space hardly five feet in width where anything can happen." He concedes, though, that the first time he faced the stars of the Gulf, he'd been driven there by a woman. Times have changed – now you can even recline the car seats flat. But the gear stick, assures Lino, is still a pain in the neck.