Finally on to Naples! Now I have heard 2 versions... one that it is a chaotic, dirty, crime-ridden mess, and two that it is one of the most beautiful cities in Italy.... obviously I will have to see for myself!
We took the standard Metro train (line 2) from Pozzuoli to Naples, which, in theory, takes about 30 minutes... but could take much longer for no apparent reason as this train likes to just stop for awhile every now and again. Do not take this train if you have an appointment that you need to be on time for! But if you just want to arrive in Naples at some random point in time during the day, it is fine. Welcome to Southern Italy.
The train dropped us off in the Chiaia district of Naples which is pretty much the opposite of everything you have ever heard about this city. Large, tree lined boulevards, gorgeous palazzos, and all of the major designers from Prada to Gucci to Louis Vuitton... there was even a nice Umbrian representation from our high end designers like Brunello Cucinelli and Luisa Spagnoli.
But I did not come to Naples to see the same shops I can see in every major city. I want to eat! So we walk along through the center for two very important first stops: Sfogliatella Mary and Gran Caffè Gambrinus. I have eaten a few sfogliatelle in my day, but never hot out of the oven, crispy pastry, with warm, steaming lemon scented sweet ricotta on the inside... I now fully understand what all of the fuss is about. Don't let your eyes be bigger than your stomach - there is a lot to eat in Naples so do yourself a favor and keep moving.
Up next is an espresso from Gran Caffe Gambrinus, one of the most famous, historic bar-caffetterie in Naples, known as a meeting place for the cultural elite of Italy. Apart from the beautiful 19th century decor, you will be amazed by the service. The day I was there, the long bar was packed with people 5 deep, and 3 men all in their 60s & 70s (maybe even 80s) served us in minutes - these guys will put any coffee house anywhere in the world to shame. And the coffee..... it takes a few extra seconds to make a true caffè Napoletano with the traditional manual lever machine, but it is worth the wait. Served in a screaming hot porcelain tazzina, the stiff crema on top is enough to bring tears to any coffee lover's eyes.
Moving deeper into the centro antico, the streets narrow and the air becomes laden with the perfumes of deep fried food and pizza. So we stop again for a snack (why not?). This time a frittatina napoletana. I don't even know how to begin describing this... I only know that 4 days later, I am still full from having eaten it! Basically it is gooey macaroni and cheese (but made with broken spaghetti) formed into a ball and stuffed with meat ragù. Then closed back up, breaded, and..... fried. You get the picture. Across from the frittatina place was a (self described) enoteca.... this is one of those 'only in Napoli' type places - a guy with a few bottles (wine, prosecco, beer) sitting on top of a barrel with plastic cups. Everything that could be misspelled was and everything cost either €1 or €1.50. Sooooo, yeah, why not?
We decided that maybe it was time for a little culture break to aid the digestion so we dove into the Napoli Sotterranea, or Naples Underground. Here you can do a guided or self guided tour through 2400 years of history - into the real 'old town' of Naples! We also popped into the Chiesa di Gesu Nuovo a church which looks like a fascist war barracks from the outside, but inside holds a bomb of Baroque religious art and architecture. And of course, no visit to Naples would be complete without a trip down Via San Gregorio Armeno, aka, Christmas Alley. Here you will meet all of your Nativity scene needs, as it is packed with workshops and stores hocking everything from made in China holy family knick knacks to elaborate handmade porcelain and silk models. This was the busiest, most congested street in all of Naples.
Believe it or not, all of the above was accomplished before 1:00pm, and believe it or not, it was now lunch time and we were starting to feel a little peckish... Naples is the first and only city I have ever been in in Italy (so far) that did not completely empty out at 1:00, especially on a Sunday. Usually, this is when restaurants open for lunch and anyone in town either dives in hoping for a place or heads home. Honestly, other than pizzerie, I didn't really even see a whole lot of restaurants in the old historic part of Naples... and this is because this area is known for its Street Food (of which we had been partaking all morning). Walking back up Spaccanapoli, the main road of this quarter, we stopped at a Friggitoria with a huge line (mob of people), so, we got in it too. We pushed our way up to get paper cones overflowing with fritto misto (mixed fried fish & vegetables and of course, fried dough).
Do I want to explode at this point? Ummm.... yes. We took a break at another local bar for a much needed digestivo and another amazing caffè, this time sweetened, at Bar Mexico, before meandering our way back through the byways of Naples.
The food portion of the day was pretty much over now, so how about a little shopping? One aspect that really stuck out for me were all of the small, locally owned artisan shops, especially the Sartorie - you can find amazing tailored men's clothing all over the city - I was actually a little jealous - the women's clothing were all pretty standard... but the men's....!
A walk along the waterfront to take in a cloudy view of Vesuvius and Capri and our day in Napoli was complete. So what is missing from this anecdote? Crime, trash, chaos.... I didn't see any of this. Naples is a city, and like any city, it has a certain grime to it, but I found it to be much cleaner than Rome. I also didn't see any obvious pickpockets and gypsies like I do in Florence and Rome. Obviously there are bad areas in Naples, really bad, but they are far enough from the historic center and you wouldn't go walking around looking for trouble in those neighborhoods, just like you wouldn't go walking around in South Central LA...common sense. The town moves at a frenetic pace as it is densely populated but I didn't feel overrun (of course, I was visiting in January... I don't think I would have enjoyed myself as much with the added tourists and heat of July). I found Naples to be vibrant, lively and completely charming, not to mention delicious, and I cannot wait to return!
Grazie Mille to Bryan & Ellen Barletto for guiding us through Pozzuoli and Naples!!!