When you think of Italy, what usually comes to mind? Pizza, pasta and gelato? Ancient ruins, cobblestoned narrow streets, and art museums? Crowded piazzas, tourist buses, and endless lines for everything? Let me guess – you’re thinking of Rome, Milan, or Florence. Now imagine a different Italy, overlooked by foreigners, where a very old city lies on a beautiful Mediterranean coast in a shadow of a volcano, rich with castles, museums and inexpensive delicious food. A place so chaotic, that even most passive of travelers will get pulled into their surroundings which are impossible to ignore, making them active participants and often contributors to the overall chaos. Meet Napoli!
I don’t use taxis. People who know me, know that I very rarely use taxis even on business trips when it does not cost me anything. I just like to explore public transport. It puts me immediately in close proximity with locals and gives me a legitimate excuse to stare at them for lengthy amount of time without feeling awkward. In Napoli, the decision to take a cab from the airport to reach the B&B in western side of town was made without a second thought. That alone should speak volumes about Napoli’s public transport. It’s definitely there but figuring it out can be a challenge even for visiting Italians from other cities. There are buses, trams, funiculars, metro, ferries – all of which are operated by different companies (even the metro lines) so there is not one comprehensive source of information which tells you how to use them. The metro stations are infrequent and so are the trains that serve them. Waiting for a bus is sometimes akin to wishing for a miracle – the twenty-some minutes spent pacing back and forth turn even the most civilized optimist into an aggressive pessimist who is ready to do anything to get on that bus. Buying tickets is an adventure in itself as they are only sold at little tobacco shops or newspaper stands which don’t necessarily provide all available ticket options. Buying tickets on a bus can also be a hit or miss so its safer to assume that a ticket is needed before you get on. All that being said, do not take a cab unless traveling to and from the airport and be sure to ask for price before you get inside. Allow yourself to give in to the charm of eternal public transport confusion as it is an important part of true Italian experience.
Castles, Churches, Catacombs
Napoli has three massive castles that can be seen from many places, giving the city instantly a historic look it deserves and proudly wears. One of them, Castel dell’Ovo, is built on a small peninsula and is worth a quick visit for breathtaking (and free!) views of the city and Vesuvio. The other two castles, Castel Nuovo and Castel Sant’Elmo, are also good platforms for Napoli views but I have not had time to visit them. There is a countless number of chuches and basilicas in the city; they are practically around each corner so explore them to your heart’s desire. Something not to miss while in Napoli is a visit to one of its numerous catacombs that can be found underneath some of the castles mentioned earlier or churches. A popular choice is Catacombs of San Gennaro, a two-level underground paleo-Christian burial site (thankfully free of skeletons now). The complex is massive so only guided tours are allowed.
On Lemons & Capri
Most tourists who come to Napoli each year proceed directly to buses that take them to Pompei’s archeological site or, even more often, to the beautiful Amalfi Coast featuring gorgeous scenery where colorful houses are perched over the sea on dramatic cliffs. However, since I was determined to continue my trend in life of avoiding touristy places where possible (and also because bus connections to Amalfi turned out to be predictably confusing and too complicated), I turned my gaze out into the sea, where I saw a hazy outline of an island rising well above the sea level – Capri. The island can be reached by ferry in roughly 40 minutes and possesses equally stunning coastline with dramatic cliffs. In fact, if you search ‘Amalfi Coast’ and ‘Capri’ online, the images you get are practically identical (but don’t take my word for it, look it up!).
If i had to choose one word to describe Capri, it would be ‘lemons’. They are everywhere. You can’t escape them and you can’t resist them. I would not be surprised to find if lemons were somehow trademarked as an official fruit and a symbol of the island. You’ll find them in cold, sweet lemon granitas sold on streets and in limoncello bottles. They are featured on every souvenir being sold, including magnets, ceramics, and prints. Naturally, lemons are also found on trees in various stages of ripeness. Surprisingly, despite the enormous popularity of Italy’s famous gelatos, lemon granitas absolutely rule the territory of icy deliciousness in Capri and also in Napoli. Although lemon-flavored semi-frozen sugary dessert can be found churning away in granita machines on every street corner, take the time to seek out this speciality at quiet cafes away from touristy zones where you’ll get less-sweetened and more flavorful variation. I found however that a lemon granita added to a freshly-squeezed orange juice was a healthier and tastier alternative to the pure version. While in Capri, be sure to take a bus to Anacapri where you can find different views of the island and more reasonably priced restaurants.
La Vera Pizza Napoletana
One of the most delicious things you can eat while in Napoli is an enormous, incredibly thin and soft pizza, slathered with tomato sauce (or dotted with fresh cherry tomatoes) and generous chunks of mozzarella. While you wait for your meal, order a cheap local Campania wine or Italian beer and be prepared to discover that your pizza arrives shortly after you have taken a first sip. According to the True Neapolitan Pizza Association (Associazione Verace Pizza napoletana,AVPN), the authentic Neapolitan pizza’s baking time should not exceed 90 seconds (!). Be sure to look for the official certification from AVPN when choosing a pizzeria to ensure you get the best possible quality because owners of these establishments must comply with a strict set of standards to earn and maintain their status as the makers of la vera pizza Napoletana. Another surprise? The bill. The prices for these freshly made 11-inch pizzas range from 3.5 euro to 6 euro on average. It’s a rare paradox where high quality also means low prices.
One should not forget coffee too because even though it’s absolutely perfect anywhere in Italy, there is a local specialty called nocciola – a hazelnut cream served on top of a shot of espresso. Even more so, one should not pass on an opportunity to try local pastries. A mouthwatering selection is dominated by a clam-shaped puff pastry (see the photo in the header) called Sfogliatelle (Riccia) made from layers upon layers of puffed pastry and filled with a sizable portion of custard-like sweet mixture distinctly tasting of cinnamon. Another sweet symbol of Napoli is a rum-soaked Baba au Rhum served plain or filled with cream.
- Don’t come here in August: it’s hot and locals abandon the city for holidays so you’ll encounter A LOT of closed doors (even in areas with high tourist traffic)
- Do take a ferry for a day trip to Capri, especially if you can’t figure out the way to Amalfi
- If you are too lazy to visit Pompei (or short on time like I was), be sure to visit Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale which has artifacts recovered at the site including incredible mosaics
- Have cash (but don’t carry too much)
- Have fun!