A few months back, I reminisced about Piemonte and its capital, Turin, where the slow food movement was born and life is governed by il dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing. Flip that on its head and you get Naples, a noisy, colorful, delicious*, in your face Italian experience like no other. Sure, coffee bars and cafes are filled with leisurely cappuccino drinking, socially engaged humans, often with excitable hands swirling smoke and flicking cigarette ashes over late breakfasts and later dinners. But first impressions are more likely laced with the frenetic pace immediately realized upon airport arrival where the social and motorized chaos begins. Driving into the city, the air is punctuated with horn honking, crisscross traffic featuring formula one wannabe racers that zoom around Neapolitan streets.
Naples is a city of survivors, from 470 BC onward, they’ve been ruled, dominated and influenced by Spain, France, and Greece, to name a few A list invaders. Modern Neapolitans are as time tested, resilient and enduringly hospitable as their lava rock streets on which their city is built. With over 500 churches, two castles, an exhaustive history both religious and secular, it’s a city worth discovering. Mount Vesuvius looms large nearby, slyly dormant yet a visible tower of volcanic power. Hiking its rim is uniquely thrilling; the spectacular long range views are worth the climb. Neighboring archaeological attractions Pompeii and Herculaneum are short trips from the city, each worth its own day to explore.
Our 4 star hotel was a welcome retreat, overlooking a quiet plaza, a well situated, comfy base with lovely rooftop cafe. Minutes away was Quartieri Spagnoli and its spider web of alleyways, a pizza pie mecca. Yes, you have to watch your pockets and backs in this urban maze but your taste buds will thank you for venturing forth. We stumbled onto a vintage pizzeria, complete with wood fired ovens. Our reward was a juicy pie of fresh tomatoes, cheese and hand made dough, a mouth party with every bite. Along with a pitcher of wine, this gastronomic delight totaled 11EUR for two. So worth the walkabout!
Naples is a patchwork of neighborhoods, each with its own unique attractions. Shopping options are plentiful, ranging from storefront specialty shops and high end designer boutiques to pop up carts with touristic tchotchkes, peppered with Maradona shrines. Though controversial and deceased over 2 years, Diego Maradona is immortalized as a futbol (soccer) icon and ambassador for the oppressed, forever imbedded in the Napoli psyche.
Hiring a local guide for the next day proved smarter than we thought. With street signs hidden or nonexistent, we never could have mapped the ground we covered with our local expert. Endearing as she was knowledgeable and passionate about her home town, Laura led us through plazas peppered with hidden gardens, local fish and produce markets. She introduced us to street vendors creating delicacies such as cuoppo (cone shaped fried delights) right before our eyes. Tops on our list: zucchini flowers, seasoned, breaded and fried, perfecto! Laura was the ideal Neapolitan host and emblematic of the hospitality encountered throughout our stay.
Strolling Spaccanapoli, the street which divides the city in two, the essence of Naples is revealed…local baristas, mom and pop shops, churches aplenty, and of course, Vespas zipping through pedronale zonas (pedestrian zones). Mopeds, motor bikes, or any two wheeled amplified conveyances have their own rules and code. And there are a million of them. They pretty much drive anywhere they want, over sidewalks, blitzing outdoor cafes, zigzagging around tables and rearranging creatures in their way, from cursing old ladies to screeching cats.
Later, Laura assisted us in finding the Funiculare Montesanto up to Castel Sant Elmo, a medieval fortress overlooking the city with glorious overlooks on the city below.
Back out on the main drag, we dodged Naples traffic, a heavy metal tarantella of cars, scooters, trucks and tour buses, all melting into frighteningly colorful and largely successful bizarre patterns that simply would not work anywhere else.
Where to go to find some peace? The waterfront. Sidewalk cafes dot the Bay of Naples seaside esplanade with empty seats beckoning. Sipping local paper cups of wine, we watched locals motoring out on their small craft at sunset, while sailboats drifted across gentle waves. Mentally and physically refreshing!
Is it worth the trip? Only if your travel dreams include unrivalled cultural and historic immersions, or consuming the perfect pizza pie, or being treated to the ultimate Italian hospitality of proud Neapolitans. If that sounds intriguing, then go, visit this jumbled jewel of Campania. Andiamo!