When you arrive at the Napoli Centrale train station, you are immediately taken aback: grit, trash, homelessness, graffiti. It is loud. It is dirty. You don’t feel entirely safe. Massive amounts of laundry hangs drying from the windows of apartments nearby. Seedy hotels dot the periphery. “Why did we stop here?” you think. Ten years ago, Napoli Centrale was a transfer station on our way to a much different Italy: the Amalfi Coast, which is not many kilometers away, but entirely a world away. Ten years ago, the train station area was even scarier than it is today.
Melissa’s parents met in Naples in the 1960s. Despite our initial impressions, on our tour of Italy this spring and on what would have been her Dad’s 95th birthday, we decided to make Naples a stop, not just a transfer. I’ll be honest, we had low expectations. They told many stories of Naples, but most centered around Navy life and of the parties at the Officers Club at the naval base. They loved it here, but the stories weren’t about Naples, they were about hijinks and the good times of the era.
As we left the train station, our driver dragged our luggage across the blankets of homeless encampments and as he pulled away from the train station and the neighborhood got worse and worse, I thought, surely there’s something better around the bend. This bend, nope. That one, hmmm…. not so much. Where exactly are we staying? And then we arrived at our hotel, on the periphery of the Piazza Municipio and at the foot of the Spanish Quarter, things were looking up.
The Spanish quarter contains some of the narrowest alleyways and streets that I’ve ever seen in Europe… and that’s saying something. Motorbikes whip past you on what you thought was a pedestrian only road and then a white repair truck appears and you squeeze up against the wall to let him pass. The narrow streets give way, at their ends, to views of the Vomero Hill above which overlooks the city and its harbor and to Mount Vesuvius beyond. The harbor is a docking place for cruise ships and ferries and the gateway to the towns of the Amalfi Coast: Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and its twisting and turning cliff side roads; to the islands of Ischia and Capri and to a hub of Italian history: Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii.
Once the largest and most prestigious city in Italy, modern day Naples doesn’t truly ever entirely shake the first impression obtained upon arrival at the train station. Homeless men and their dogs line the set back doorways of closed shops or vacant buildings on even the nicest shopping streets. Aggressive beggars approach from a dark corner asking for money as you walk out of a restaurant. Dumpsters overflow with trash like they haven’t been collected in weeks (and they probably haven’t, as this region has a massive waste removal problem). Graffiti adorns nearly every structure from steel shopfront security doors to the sides of churches. Motorbikes race at you as you cross at a crosswalk, making you double check that the green man indicator showing you that the right of way is yours is still green, nearly missing you as they breeze by. If you were disembarking from a cruise ship coming to Europe for the first time and this was the first port of call and you stepped into the frenetic chaos, you might think: why would anyone go to Europe? But you need to look past that, if you want to enjoy your time in Naples. And there’s just something to like about it, beyond just the Neapolitan pizza. It’s hard to describe. It’s an energy. It’s a spirit. It’s unapologetic. It’s an authenticity.
After many successful walking tours with Rick Steves buzzing in our ears in Rome, we elected to bring Rick along with us here, as well. His two hour walking tour of Naples is a great way to get yourself oriented to the city. But more than that, it gives you an appreciation for its places and the people. It takes you from the Museum of Archeology (more on that in a bit), down the Via Toledo past a statue of Dante Alighieri (and his pet pigeons atop his head). You turn down the narrow Via Pasquale Scura as it changes names into other streets but the locals call this one long, narrow straight lane spaccanapoli: “Naples Splitter” as it cuts across Naples’ old town. Spaccanapoli drives you straight into the heart of Naples and deposits you at various piazzas and churches including the Museo Cappella Sansevero (more on this also coming) past pastry shops, aperol bars and souvenir shops where you can buy presepe (nativity sets) or phallic cornicello good luck charms. Rick leaves you in the heart of Camorra (Naples mafia) territory to taste pizza were it was allegedly invented at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele.
The Archaeology Museum. Well, if you were in doubt, which you well may be, this is a reason to visit Naples. It is magnificent, with rooms filled with statues from the Baths of Caracalla, to mosaics rescued from the ash of Pompeii to the “secret room” filled with Pompeii era porn. This museum is a gem. In Naples, we found the food to be cheap but the museum admission not. Nonetheless, its worth every penny of the inflated admission rate.
The Capella Sansevero. Dan Brown fans, this is the place for you. Full of Christian and freemason imagery and symbology this chapel built as a private tomb for the Sansevero family has some of the most amazing marble artwork we’ve ever seen. The statue of Christ lying in his shroud just after crucifixion looks almost real. The net of the fisherman to his right is remarkably carved and makes you think – how did he carve that net without chipping the body of the fisherman wrapped within. The ceiling, from the altar, takes on a 3-D appearance despite its flat surface. We almost skipped a visit because, as previously mentioned, Naples’ museum rates are higher than most European museums we’ve visited and that would have been a mistake. No photos allowed, so you’ll just have to visit for yourselves vs. journeying with us vicariously.
But back to the people… Stop off on the tour, pause the recording to browse in a shop or to quaff an aperol spritz at a local bar or to taste the delicious sfogliatella pastry and argue about which is better: pistachio or chantilly (pistachio was). We found the Neapolitan people to all be so incredibly welcoming: from waitstaff to hotel reception to taxi drivers to the umbrella vendor. You wouldn’t expect to come across such cheery kindness in a place where the stacks of trash can be taller than the person standing next to it, but they all look past the grit, past the graffiti, dogshit and dirt. They smile and enjoy their truly authentic Italian life experience and welcome you into their city.
So, Wayne and Marcia, it may not be your Naples we heard about at the Officers Club in the mad men era of the 60s, but now we get it. And happy birthday.