The Mole Diaries: Naples
When I found out I was going to the Bay of Naples on my year abroad, I panicked (that’s putting things mildly). My mind was immediately filled with images of dirt, violence and all those tutorials we spent talking about the mafia at university suddenly seemed a lot more close to home. A quick Google search of Torre Annunziata didn’t make things any better.
But there’s a reason why they say “vedi Napoli e poi muori” (“see Naples and die”) and after nine months I feel qualified to say that we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to this city. Probably the most famous in the Mezzogiorno, Naples is one of the most vibrant and colourful cities in Italy; a melting pot of food, culture, and some of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet. But this place has taken a knocking over the years – we hear more often about the mafia, crime and the waste collection problem than we do about sfogliatella, il presepe napoletano and the extraordinary warmth and openness of the people. It’s time to do something about it.
What to take with you
1. WARM CLOTHING
Don’t believe what they tell you – contrary to popular belief it is NOT always scorching hot in the Bay of Naples. In fact, it can get pretty darn cold and you won’t want to find yourself in the situation I did: mid-December without a winter coat or a hot water bottle and the butt of all your friends jokes (“But you’re Scottish, what do you mean you’re cold?!”).
2. An umbrella
In Naples when it rains it pours, and I mean that quite literally. The whole “sole, mare, mandolino” thing is all very well in high summer but in autumn and winter you should prepare for a bucket load of rain.
3. Your iPhone
Seriously, everyone here has one. I went to the trouble of buying an ancient Nokia brick of a phone at the train station in Rome, convinced that if I even so much as flashed an iPhone in public for two seconds it would get stolen. This is rubbish – there are just as many smartphones here as anywhere else.
4. An open mind
OK, so I know this isn’t technically a ‘thing’ but it’s no use going to Naples if you’re not prepared to take the dirt and the grit along with the sun, sea and pizza. Its bad reputation is a stereotype but stereotypes often have a certain reality to them. Naples is a living, breathing city and that isn’t always pretty but it’s more than worth taking time to explore.
What not to miss
1. The food
Anyone who knows the first thing about Naples will know that it’s the home of pizza and any pizza lover will know that the pizza (see atrphoto's pic of Brandi's Pizzeria below) in the Naples is the best in the world (not that I’m biased or anything…). For the best of the best go to Da Michele which is within walking distance from the central station but if you can’t stand queuing (and there’s always a queue) there are plenty of hole in the wall places that will give you an equally good offering of Italy’s most famous export. If you have a sweet tooth then make sure you try Neapolitan sfogliatella (made with pastry and filled with orange flavoured ricotta, almond paste or candied lemon) and you can’t go to Naples without trying the coffee. Il caffè napoletano isn’t just a drink, it’s an art form and any Neapolitan will proudly state that the coffee here is the best in Italy. For the best coffee head to the famous bar/café Gambrinus (underground stop: Toledo) on the corner of Piazza del Plebiscito.
2. The ruins
It’s a massive cliché but if you’re in Naples you really don’t have an excuse not to see Pompei. If you happen to be in Naples during the Christmas period then get yourself to San Gregorio Armeno. Located in the centro storico of Naples near the Spaccanapoli (get off the underground at the stop called Dante) this district is packed at this time of year with shops and stalls selling pieces for the traditional presepe napoletano; a type of Nativity scene that most Neapolitans have in their house that doesn’t just include Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus but also figures from local folklore and even sometimes popular or political figures such as Silvio Berlusconi(!).
3. The churches
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but if you like this sort of thing then Naples (like most Italian cities) also boasts some beautiful churches. Among the ones worth seeing are la Capella Sansevero, la Chiesa di Santa Chiara (especially the beautiful cloisters) and la chiesa del Gesù Nuovo (a superb example of the Baroque style, as we told my extremely disinterested fourth years on a school trip) which are all located in the centro storico within walking distance from one another.
4. Il Vomero
This is one of the most beautiful districts of the city and boasts an unparalleled view of the whole of Naples if you can find the right viewpoint. It’s also one of the more student-y parts of the city and consequently has some great nightlife.
5. Via Toledo
One of Naples’ more fashionable zones this is also the main shopping district.
A long street that literally splits the city in two this area is home to some of Naples’ most recognisable architecture - the famous vicoli; narrow winding streets strewn with washing hung out to dry and echoing with the sounds of people shouting in dialect.
7. The lungomare
The seafront at Naples (see photo by Antonio Manfredonio, below) is one of the most attractive parts of the city. Within walking distance from the underground station at Piazza Amadeo there are plenty of places to eat a pizza looking out over the water or to sit and enjoy the view.
So this isn’t technically Naples but if you plan your journey carefully you can easily make it to the famous Amalfi coast and back in a day. The whole journey from Naples itself should take you a couple of hours but it’s worth it for the view of the coastline from the coach alone.
Getting to and from the airport
Napoli Capodichino is well connected by bus (but not by train) to central Naples. The airport shuttle is called Alibus and can be caught either from outside the terminal at Capodichino or Piazza Garibaldi, depending on which way you’re travelling. Tickets are €4 one way if you buy on the bus and €3 if you buy them beforehand at the tabaccaio. If you prefer to take a taxi it’s a flat rate of €16.
The underground (la metropolitana)
This is your best friend. In a city with the reputation of Naples you’d thing the underground would be a no-go zone for the average tourist. In actual fact it’s currently undergoing a huge renovation project and some of the new stations (Università and Toledo in particular) have been voted amongst the most beautiful in Europe. The underground is very reliable and with lines going from the central station at Piazza Garibaldi to almost all parts of the city it’s easy to see several things in one day. Tickets are priced at a flat rate of €1.30 and can be purchased from the tabaccaio or biglietteria in most stations but if you are coming off the Circumvesuviana and need to get straight on the underground you can use the same ticket.
This line connects Naples to all of its eastern suburbs and the towns around Vesuvius (hence Circumvesuviana). If you’re looking to spend a day wandering around the ruins of Pompei or Herculaneum, you want to laze on the wonderful beaches at Meta di Sorrento and Seiano or you want to explore the quaint tourist town of Sorrento this is how to do it. Tickets vary in price depending on how far along the line you want to go and can be bought either from the ticket offices at Garibaldi or from the stations along the way as well as in many cafés. Napoli > Sorrento is €4.40 one way. Beware – this train can be the stuff of nightmares (I mean that quite literally). An epidemic of passengers travelling without tickets means that the service is old fashioned, unreliable and cramped. From March onwards it’s full of tourists and don’t expect to get a seat if you get on at Garibaldi. This train is definitely an ‘experience’ with buskers and beggars getting on and off as they please and tourists en route to Sorrento filling up the already cramped gangways with their luggage.
Getting to Amalfi
Take the Circumvesuviana all the way to the end of the line at Sorrento and then get a Sita Sud coach to Amalfi (see photo below by vpzone) or Positano. The stop is just outside the Circumvesuviana station at Sorrento and a return ticket, which is valid for 24 hours, allows you to make as many trips as you want in that time for €6.80. The tabaccaio at the station sells tickets for this service.
1. Despite its unprepossessing reputation Naples is the ideal place to practice your Italian. Compared to Florence, Venice and Rome far less people speak English; I once gave directions to some tourists who had been looking for an English speaker for over half an hour.
2. Walk the five minutes from the central station (Garibaldi) to the terminus (Porta Nolana) if you want a seat on the Circumvesuviana. If you’re visiting the ruins don’t just stop at Pompei – the excavations of Herculaneum (Circumvesuviana: Ercolano) and the Villa di Oplonti (Circumvesuviana: Torre Annunziata) are just as interesting and easily reachable from Pompei or from Naples itself.
3. If someone asks you which football team you support say Napoli, punto e basta. Definitely don’t say Juventus - at least not if you value your life!
4. Like most cities in Italy you need to buy your tickets for public transport BEFORE you get on the bus/train with the exception of the airport shuttle bus and some coaches from Sorrento to the Amalfi coast. If you are an EU citizen under 25 and have a passport and/or driving licence with you then take it along when you go to visit Pompei etc. for half price entry. Lots of the museums will also accept your student card for discounted entry as most of them don’t make a distinction between foreign and Italian students.
5. If you want to test out the quality of a particular pizzeria have a margherita – a Neapolitan once told me that the mark of a good pizzaiolo is his margherita.
6. If you ask for un caffè in a bar you’ll get an espresso, no questions asked. For Neapolitans caffè = espresso and if you want anything else you have to be very specific about it.
7. Be streetwise. Even if the bad reputation of the city is somewhat an exaggeration it always pays to be careful, so don’t go around flashing your camera or your wallet and if you’re trying to blend in then it’s probably not advisable to go round wearing shorts and sandals any time before June (most Neapolitans will still be wearing their winter coats at this point and be complaining about being cold!).
Useful words and phrases
Anyone who’s in Naples for more than five minutes will quickly realise that a lot of people here speak more dialect than they do Italian. Whilst at first this might be a problem, if you’re in Naples for any length of time you’ll pick it up, and if you find all those pesky adjective and past participle agreements annoying in Italian then you’ll love Neapolitan because practically all words are truncated.
Here are some useful words and phrases to start with:
Uè! – hi!
Napule – Napoli
Ce verimm aròppo! – see you later!
Guaglione/a – ragazzo/ragazza (boy/girl)
È ‘nu buco in fronte! – it’s a rip off! (literally: a hole in the forehead)
1. Napoli Airport shuttle
2. Circumvesuviana timetable
3. Italian > Neapolitan translator - Not entirely accurate but useful all the same.
4. Napoli Unplugged - Everything you could possibly want to know about Naples in one place.