Before traveling to Italy, I was warned not to venture south of Rome to Naples. I was told it was dirty, dangerous, and often unpleasant. However, I had also heard of its astounding historical and natural scenes. Some even said that Naples is home to the best pizza in the world (okay, I’ll admit it—that was Eat Pray Love).
Despite many ill-advised recommendations, I decided to visit Naples anyway, so that I could form my own conclusions about this “notorious” Italian city.
I arrived at Naples in the pouring rain, without a clear sense of direction, a map, or a waterproof camera. Eventually I found my hostel. It was run by the sweetest old man. He gave me an overview of the city and handed me a map on which he marked the three zones of Naples that I would do best to avoid.
“If you stay where I told you, and you do not carry your camera, wallet, and lots of money, then you will be fine,” he said. Simple enough.
So the next day I ventured out with a few people from the hostel to explore Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The hike up Mount Vesuvius is an easy one—even tour buses carrying large groups of senior citizens were making the trip up to the crater. However, for those desperately in need of respite, there are spots along the trail that sell overpriced ice cream bars. I have heard that the view from the crater is spectacular, but I was never quite able to witness it for myself. On the day that I was there clouds covered everything in sight; I could not see a thing.
Next, we went to the Pompeii ruins. Many recommend seeing Pompeii on a day trip rather than an overnight stay. I soon understood why. The place was desolate outside of the archaeological park, and in the dark I would imagine that Pompeii is not very enjoyable. To describe Pompeii in one word, it is immense. The grounds are expansive, and it took a good two hours to finally find the infamous brothel and still-by-lava bodies. Yet, it was worth it because Pompeii’s ruins were truly spectacular.
I have found that Naples is a great city to tour for a leisurely day. There are fewer tourists due to its “reputation” as a place of violence. Even though, in reality, there are more documented robberies and homicides in Rome, Florence, and Milan, than there are in Naples. Another great thing about Naples is that you really do have to use your Italian in order to get by; while this can be a challenge, it is also extremely beneficial if you are trying to become fluent in the language.
One of the greatest sites that I discovered while in Naples was the Capella Sansevero, holding Giuseppe Sammartino’s famous sculpture “Christ Veiled under the Shroud.” The impeccably carved shroud over Jesus has incredible detail, and the emotion in his face is uncanny—truly worth the €5 to see. The Duomo di Napoli, or main cathedral, is an amazing church hidden along the same street.
The city also has a distinct charm about it, despite claims of it being dirty. On every block there is at least one shrine to the Holy Trinity. I also once witnessed a group of soccer players being given sanctity by the Pope.
And then the pizza…Madonna mia, la pizza! This is not the pizza you get in New York that claims to be “Napoli style”. This is a breed in and of itself. Let me preface by saying that in Naples the main ingredients, tomato and cheese, are amazing to begin with. The cheese was so fresh, it actually tasted of milk. Furthermore, in Italy, not just any restaurant can say it is an authentic pizzeria (yes, there are Domino’s in Italy). To have the title of an official pizzeria, the ovens and cooking techniques must by inspected by the government to make sure they are superb.
Unfortunately, Da Michele, the restaurant that Julia Roberts proclaimed had the best pizza in the world, is now too popular to visit. Instead, I recommend Gino Sorbello and Di Matteo pizzerias, conveniently located within two blocks of each other along Via Tribunali. Be sure to get Di Matteo’s roasted buffalo mozzarella with cherry tomato pizzas—perhaps the best thing that I have ever tasted. The desserts were also good, although be warned that babà, a rum soaked pastry, really is rum soaked (I mean, dripping). It might not the wisest choice after dinner with a bottle of red or early in the morning, but during any other time of the day, do indulge! These places are the real deal. Napoleon Margherita pizza for €3.30 (and a pretty good bottle of vino for only €4), or a frozen pizza in tourist-filled Rome for €7 or €8? I’ll take Naples any day.
Naples is a perfect combination of people, sites, history, and especially pizza, something I never would have known if I did not take the trip there myself.
Story and Photos by Carolyn Balk