Naples is a city I hadn’t heard anything nice of. Now, looking back on it, I wonder how I even considered going there. This is the bloody scene of clan wars of the Camorra, the local mafia organisation. This is one of the most criminal regions of Europe where only a few Northern Italians dare to come. This is the cradle of the most skilled pick-pockets, who can take your wallet, empty it and put it back in your pocket without you even noticing it. This is a dump city where some very dark stories are buried under the tons of industrial waste.
I think of all the terrible things people have told me about Naples and I assume they are the main reason I fell for it. I’m not saying the warnings have been unfounded, quite the opposite – they are all true. This city, though, has so many incredible sides that it manages to balance things off.
Upon arrival at Naples with the high-speed train from Rome, I felt more scared than even before. I had a my “Mary Poppins backpack” on (as an Italian once called it because of the unimaginable amount of things I manage to fit in it). Foresightedly, I had secured it with a lock and I was carrying its key in a tiny pouch hanging from my neck. In short, I had come prepared. There was only one thing I was lacking – any idea of how to get to my hostel.
Walking around the streets, I was looking for someone to ask for directions. It was a market day so the city was “a casino” (that’s how Italians want to describe mad situations). I was inspecting people, wondering who would be safe enough to ask, who I could trust. Finally, I stopped an elderly lady who looked pretty harmless. I told her the street I was searching for.
– Oh, I don’t know, I’m not from here either. Why don’t you ask these young gentlemen, they can surely direct you – she replied politely, pointing at the nearby motorcycle repair shop.
Yeah, like I know what kind of criminal organisation they belong to. However, as they were already looking at me, ready to “help”, I went and told them where I was headed.
– I’m going in that same direction – one of the clients said – hop on my scooter and I’ll take you there.
I did not have much time to think, a courage to decline such a courteous offer – even less. It was my first time riding suck a large scooter and I honestly thought it would be my last. The city traffic almost did not follow any rules. Everything happens on high revolutions, regardless of the traffic lights, the pedestrian crossings and the direction of traffic. I guess you would not believe me if I told you that my belongings and I were dropped in front of the hostel door fully intact.
I arrived at “Giovanni’s home” (yes, he does live here) just in time for lunch. The host had prepared a delightful mushroom risotto and he invited all hostel guests to a meal. I enjoyed the wonderful Italian cuisine in the company of some 20 other youngsters who, just like me, could taste that the dish was seasoned with a touch of black pepper and a lot of love. I could not dream of a better welcoming in Italy. Later, Giovanni gave me a map of the city and told me what, when and how to visit. His words were soaked in admiration for Campania. For the next week, I strictly followed almost all of his recommendations. In our long after dinner conversations, I learned why Italians speak with their hands.
On the following day, I visited the Naples Underground, an impressive chain of enormous tunnels beneath the entire urban area. Neápolis (Νεάπολις, new city) was born over 2500 years ago and its undergrounds keep track of all periods since its inception. The tunnels were used by the Greeks, and later by the Romans, as cisterns to bring water to the city. Nero (54-68 AD), known as the emperor who was “fiddling while Rome was burning”, used to act in the local underground theatre. On one occasion, there was an earthquake during his performance. The audience, scared to death, wanted to leave as soon as possible. Nonetheless, Nero stopped them saying: “That is no more than the gods applauding me.”.
The undergrounds have been used as spa centres and as an air raid shelters during World War II. There was also a brilliant story of some naughty nuns who used to sneak out through them to meet with men. Well, I guess I’ll have to go back to Naples to freshen up my memory.
Minutes before sunset, I was at the Sant’Elmo Castle, looking over the city and its port as the last sun rays caressed the water surface. The only glimpse of Naples that beats this can be seen from a ferry, arriving at dusk.
Pizza Margherita with fresh ingredients, Pozzuoli
I dined at Di Matteo, a popular pizza place any local would suggest you try. There is always a multitude of people, lined up in front of it. People patiently wait for their turn so they can order a traditional Neapolitan pizza, baked in an authentic stone oven. When you enter, you will be greeted by a couple of friendly pizza makers who are tossing some dough in the air. My mom and I managed to prepare an equally delicious pizza at home, although we are yet to learn how to stretch the dough by hand. I shall also mention my all time favourite pizza, which I savoured in Pozzuoli, a town in the outskirts of Naples. The local volcanic sand “pozzolana” was used to make the remarkable dome of the Pantheon in Rome.
I finished my day in Giovanni’s company. He told me about a time when Naples was flourishing. In the 17th century, the city was the second largest in Europe (Paris being the first). It was named the Baroque cultural capital, home to artists such as Bernini and Caravaggio. At that time, Italy wasn’t a united country and the locals of each region spoke different languages. To this day, Italian dialects are so rich and diverse, that they are incomprehensible to the people living in the neighboring region. This is why the hand gestures became a universal language. It was not before 1871 when Italy was united, but the cultural differences remained. They can be easily noted nowadays, above all, in dialects and culinary practices. When the local industries were relocated in the North of Italy, Naples lost its previous glory. Despite the economic issues, the city remains a fantastic place to visit. Under its dim street lights, one can still see the marks of a remarkable past.
Marina Grande, Island of Capri
Useful information: Naples is the capital of the region of Campania and while you’re here you ought to visit the crater of the Vesuvius volcano and the Roman cities of Pompeii and Ercolano, buried under its dust. All three can be reached by the regional Circumvesuviana train. It is in a rather bad state, but it’s cheap and comfortable. Be extremely careful as it’s often crowded and frequented by pickpockets. The islands of Capri, Ischia, and Procida are also worth a visit. They can be easily reached by ferry from the ports in Naples or Sorrento. Don’t miss the Amalfi coast, boasting the colourful town of Positano. Other popular sights include the Royal Palace in Caserta, Salerno and the Greek archeological complex in Paestum.
If you are into cultural tourism, do look into the Campania ArteCard. It includes free transport in the entire region (including underground and intercity trains), entrance to many museums, galleries, etc. You can buy it from any museum and write your personal data on it before use.