Write to Me from Naples

“As they say here, ‘Vedi Napoli e poi muori! – See Naples and die!'”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

Napoli is probably best known for being the birthplace of pizza (or at least attributed to putting it on the world map with the Pizza Margherita). It’s known as a major port city, a neighbor to Vesuvio and Pompei, and one of Italy’s largest, most densely populated urban areas. It’s the last major hub on your way to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, and it has the largest UNESCO-declared historic city center in Europe. It also has a reputation for being the homebase of one of Italy’s three largest mafia organizations.

The city evokes an odd mix of emotions. You might feel uncomfortable walking up a certain street, and you might feel safe walking down another. There might be graffiti all over one neighborhood, and another might look rather well kept. It’s a city full of antipodes, but that only contributes to the experience, an assault on your senses. Once you’ve acclimated, make a checklist of must-try foods: Baba (cake soaked in rum!), Sfogliatelle, Caffè alla Nocciola (on my list of faves), Pizza, Pastiera (if you go around Easter time), and Bignè di San Giussepe.

With a happy belly, you can go about your day touring the myriad churches in this city. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised there are still so many beautiful churches here…and perhaps even more surprised that the mafia shows respect in these places of worship. They say La Camorra won’t enter San Gennaro (the Naples Cathedral). Sadly, photographs are not permitted in all the churches: I’m unable to share the Cristo Velato with you as the Pietatella is one of those no photography zones. You’d want to see the Cristo for yourself anyway. It’s one of those sculptures even a great camera might not be able to properly capture. It’s intricate and lifelike, and definitely something you want to add to your sightseeing list in Naples.

The churches are numerous enough to be a tour all their own. Even better, you can actually round a good number of them without doing too much walking. The city may be notorious for its crime rate, but you can’t deny the architecture here. The art even extends into the new metro system – each stop has its own theme, and the walls are still so pristine you might almost forget graffiti is rampant in the streets above (at least, for the time being). Here’s a glimpse of what you might see.

 

 

From the Galleria Umberto (just a short walk from the metro stop and almost across the street from Quartieri Spagnoli, the Spanish Quarters) to Pizzeria Sorbillo* (it’s the best, the locals say), the city hums with life and resiliency.

Admittedly, my first experience of Naples a couple of years ago was its train station on my way to Positano. It was not a city that immediately struck me as a place I wanted to tour. This time, however, a local acquaintance took us around; once you look beyond the rough edges, you see the beautiful city so many people speak of. So you can go and confine yourself to more touristy areas, or you can go experience the real Naples. In all its colorful, boisterous, chaotic, delicious glory.

 

*Definitely come here for pizza. Bring your appetite because the pizza is bigger than the plate – a plate as big as a platter. It’s not quite the same thin crust pizza you’ll find in most other major cities; rather, it’s a softer variety, where the crust has absorbed a little more sauce. You may have to wait outside a bit for a table, but the buildings provide shade from above and the passerby provide entertainment from below. Just 300 meters away (more or less) another pizzeria boasts having once hosted President Bill Clinton.