“…but I know that every single city in Italy is a little world,” my friend Alberto said, after explaining he had never been to Napoli, despite being a Verona native. There is a significant cultural split between the south and the north parts of Italy, and never is it so apparent in contrasting Milan with Naples.
The things I hear about the south, from Southerners living in the north, is that it is great for visiting, but there are no job opportunities. This may be so, but for every moment Milan is just a bit sterile, a bit serious, Naples is warm, vibrant, and seems carefree despite its economic challenges.
The city has earned a rightful reputation for being dirty, but I didn’t find it any worse than Genova or Rome. Surely it is polluted and the drive from the airport is lined with grandiose shanties. But once you enter the urban fabric, there is something magical which is hard for me to explain. Feelings of New Orleans crept around in my head, along with influences I would attribute to the city’s Spanish heritage.
Warnings about pickpockets and crooked taxi drivers are probably legitimately earned too, though we had no issues. Mostly we were on foot, exploring the city’s compact neighborhoods and intimate streets that were filled with commerce, retail, and busy street life. More than Rome (and less sprawling than the capital), and certainly more than Milan. Surprisingly, few tourists but many natives and residents, going about their lives.
Perhaps it is charming also thanks to ample tree cover, variations in elevation and street layout (grid vs. anything but) and plenty of hilltop neighborhoods. We reached the Vomero/Vanvitelli area by funicular railway, though it is also connected to the city’s subway. Here we found Castel Sant’Elmo, where views of Mount Vesuvius are epic. Unfortunately we didn’t have time enough to visit the volcano.
What we did do was explore the city and eat—any mention of Naples would be incomplete without a nod to the city’s food. My impression after surveying the selection and observing the natives is that the most important specialties come from pasticcerias and pizzerias. In other words, lots of carbohydrates.
And they were fantastic.
Mike, Lauren, and I went all in to consume as much sfogliatelle and pizze as we could manage. My favorites were the ones with salame piccante (spicy pepperoni) and some paired vegetable like eggplant (melanzane) or olives.
Elsewhere we found delicious gelato in interesting flavors like buttered toast with marmalade and mixed nut (pistachio, almond, and hazelnut) at Casa Infante, and Neapolitan coffee brand Toraldo, which is bold and stronger than what you find in Milan, to keep you awake through the frequent food comas.
Each morning we started with cappuccinos and pastries from Gran Bar Riviera, just a block from where we were staying in the Chiaia neighborhood and with a great patio view of the royal gardens (Villa Comunale).
Across town, in the center of a triangle between metro stops Cavour, Garibaldi, and Università is Pio Monte della Misericordia, an ancient chapel where Caravaggio’s Le Sette Opere della Misericordia, a soaring work commissioned for the church in 1607, depicts the seven works of mercy as defined in Catholicism.
It is an arresting sight, even for someone not remotely moved by religious history. His objective skill is evident, with amazing detail in the lighting and contours of his subjects’ bodies. Sitting, considering its place in history and home, nestled among the back streets of Naples, far from the tourist paths, made it even more special to be there. Thanks to Mike for insisting we go see it!
Two things were obvious in Napoli: history is a way of life there, and Neapolitans are infamous creatives, inventors, and intellectuals with a rich history of influence from Spain, Greece, Rome, and others. For those not so versed in World War II history (myself included), Naples was apparently the first Italian city to rebel against German occupation and win liberation even before the Allied forces entered the country.
The other inherent theme in Napoli is the purity of “Italian-ness.” To all of us, it felt like the stereotypical Italy—chaos, good food, art and history, scooters, and elegant people.
I am now acquainted with most of the key Italian cities: Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence (in 2008), Genova, and now Naples. While each has an appeal, many are diluted by a consistent deluge of tourists from around the world. Moving in packs with bright sneakers and cameras, they may prop up the national economy for shopping and hotels, but ultimately they detract from the authentic experience that, ironically, so many of them seek.
Naples was completely different. We spotted only a handful of obvious tourists, and only in the most trafficked spots and as part of our English-speaking walking tour. I really enjoyed our <48 hour weekend there, and would recommend it for anyone in search of a lesser-seen side of Italy.
Here is my map of Naples Spots.