After a brisk 4 days in Rome we headed south to the Campania region of Italy. Most people visiting Campania head directly to the Amalfi coast and its scenic towns like Sorrento and Positano. We had other plans and we set off for Naples. Naples has a serious – and completely undeserved – image problem. Everyone told us that Naples is dangerous, dirty, and full of criminals and pickpockets who will stab you. The Internet is full of negative press with articles like ‘Why no one wants to travel to Naples’.
I sincerely do not understand this image of Naples. Sure, there’s a bit of garbage and riff-raff , but Naples is a fabulous urban environment– far exceeding expectations and definitely in my top 5 cities of the trip. It is a young, frenetic, and passionate city, with hustler types zooming around on mopeds 3-passengers deep. Neapolitans eat most meals out and the street food is exquisite, accessible, and really damn cheap. Lovely espresso and sweets can be found on every street corner and we haven’t eaten so well for so cheap since Asia. The walls of alley ways are embedded with gaudy Virgin Madonna shrines reminiscent of Buddhist ancestor shrines. Actually, Naples reminds me a lot of Ho Chi Minh City so perhaps it’s not surprising that we loved it.
Neapolitan Street Food
We did a street food tour our first evening in Naples and it was the perfect way to get the lay of the land. We ate bread-crumb biscuits, mozzarella di bufala, and the best margarita pizza at Pizzeria dal Presidente (evidently Bill Clinton ate there – I’m skeptical). For sweets we ate Naples’s signature pastry, the sfogliatella, which is basically a crunchy puff pastry stuffed with orange scented ricotta cheese. My favorite vendor was an old lady who makes a famous fizzy lemonade. She’s been making it at the same stall on the same marble countertop for 77 years. Think about that – she started making lemonades during WWII and she’s still at it. The marble countertop has a deep pit in the middle from the 77-years worth of fizzy lemonades that have flowed over it. Wow.
The best part of our food tour, however, was the company – specifically a mesmerizing family from the British midlands we nicknamed ‘The Roonies’. They were characters. Ma Roonie (age approx. 35-45) was dressed like a demented pixie at Burning Man – pink hot pants, pink hair, a belly shirt, and copious glitter. Pa Roonie (age approx. 45) was a Cockney-plumber-meathead; an interesting hybrid, really, and an unexpected spousal choice for a pixie. There were two lil’ Roonies, (age approx. 8 and 11), sporting extremely tight t-shirts, serious hiking boots, and fanny packs with water bottles that Ma and Pa compulsively filled with Liptons iced tea.
The lil’ Roonies were miniature Karl Pilkingtons, and their solemn demeanor and thick Cockney accents made everything they said an unintentional punch line. In addition to working through golf ball sized suckers, their goal for the evening seemed to be to ‘nab’ various cutleries at each food stop. “Just nabbed it,” each lil’ Roonie would announce as he displayed a new acquisition and stashed it in his fanny pack. Ma Roonie continually mentioned some mosaics she’d seen depicting a man with ‘two willies’ and Pa Roonie seemed on the verge of a ‘roid rage collapse at any minute. Another woman on the tour was a proper stiff-upper lip Brit who just happened to be from the same crappy town in the midlands as the Roonies. When she found this out her face crumpled and I really thought Ma Roonie was going to hug her. Thanks for the great evening, Roonies!!! We’ll never forget you.
The San Gennaro and San Gaudioso Catacombs
Naples was hot so it was fortuitous that there are some cool underground attractions (pun intended). Naples has several ancient catacomb systems, the best preserved of which are San Gennaro and San Gaudioso. Originally built around 200 AD, the catacombs house lovely Greek era frescos and some of the oldest Christian paintings in the world. In the late Middle Ages the catacombs were buried in a huge mudslide and the complexes were mostly forgotten (except for a period of super creepy revival at San Gaudioso during the 1700s, see below).
The San Gennaro complex is fairly tame and felt like a lovely old church (albeit underground). The many passages split off to beautifully decorated private tombs and the central chapel houses the remains of Naples’ first patron saint, St. Agrippinus. The San Gaudioso catacomb, however, is very macabre and catacomb-y. Unlike the San Gennaro complex, San Gaudioso was partially uncovered in the 1700s and was briefly used between 1740 and 1763. It became fashionable for wealthy Neapolitans to commission bizarre funerary displays where the deceased’s head was displayed above a fresco painted skeleton body. The frescos depict outfits and accessories to denote profession for social standing and are often framed with glib quotes like, “Today it was my turn, tomorrow it will be yours.” It’s creepy.
The modern-day revival and restoration of the catacombs is a wonderful story of grassroots activism. A group of childhood friends who grew up near the catacombs took it upon themselves to preserve this part of Naples’ heritage, and in 2006 founded a non-profit agency called Cooperativa La Paranza to fund their work. The whole thing – excavation, preservation, and the tourist infrastructure – is done without government funding and provides employment and investment for the surrounding neighborhood. This is a very poor area of Naples and the pride that everyone takes in this project is very uplifting.
Underground Roman Market
We also visited an underground Roman era agora, or marketplace. Like the catacombs, this Roman marketplace was buried in a mudslide and abandoned. Medieval churches were built on top of the site and the structures were forgotten for centuries. The vast complex of ancient streets was discovered after WWII when construction workers noticed that parts of the floor echoed as if they were hollow. Excavation began in 1990 and now the site is accessible through the basement of a quiet church. It’s incredible that you can descend down a narrow staircase and be inside a perfectly preserved Roman market. The function of various shops and stalls is still evident, and our guide took us to a laundry facility, a bakery, and the fish cleaning area – pretty amazing.
To complete our ancient cities experience we made a day trip from Naples to the archeological site at Pompeii for yet another hot and dusty day of Roman ruins. We’re definitely a bit ‘Roman-ruin’-ed out by this point (seriously, how did they build soooo much), but Pompeii was objectively very cool. Covered in a thick ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii is one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world. The city still bears the hallmarks of being an ancient trading city and the streets show grooves from wheels of trader’s wagons. The city was full of commerce, and shops, temples, restaurants, and of course the famous brothels line the many streets. Visiting such a well-preserved site really lets you imagine the scale and feel of what it was like to walk the ancient streets in its heyday, and despite Roman-overload it was pretty interesting.
See how long this blog post is? I could write about Naples all day. We saw and ate so many great things during our time there – I really love Naples. After 5 days in the frenetic city, we took a ferry to our next destination, the quiet island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily.