After 2 days in Rome, Jarelle and I took a train down to Naples, the gateway to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. We had one evening to spend there.
A Mediterranean Behemoth…
Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with first settlements being recorded two millenia BC. Today, it is the 9th most most populous metropolis in Europe, and its historic city centre is the largest in Europe, and rightfully listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Kingdom of Naples ruled supreme south of the Roman Papal States, before the unification of Italy in 1861. Its navy, in particular, was a powerhouse in the Mediterranean sea, and we got to witness some of that history through the imposing maritime fort, Castel dell’Ovo:
However, sadly, the impression that this city gives today is that it has somewhat been left behind by the economic advancement of the north of Italy. Unsurprisingly, the Napoli football club (a religion here) has a strong historic rivalry with the clubs of the North such as Rome, Juventus and AC Milan.
While Naples is one of the main cargo ports in the Mediterranean sea, and has experienced significant growth since World War II, the truth is that a lot of its infrastructure is dilapidated, corruption and organized crime is rampant. While not wanting to perpetrate stereotypes, this is perfectly illustrated in the critically-acclaimed and very realistic 2008 Italian movie Gomorrah. These beautiful photos by YouTuber and photographer Josh Katz also give a sense of the rundown state of some parts of the city:
A lot of its population also experiences a problematic high level of joblessness. This was made real to us by our AirBnb hosts, Piera and Andrea, a lovely young couple who pushed me to practice my nascent Italian with them.
One of the first things Andrea told us as we were walking to the apartment was the dire situation of the job market here in Naples. He personally has to work on a 10-hour/week contract (as a painter), making very little money. He would like to work more, but the work is just not there. Given that it’s hard to survive on a few hundred dollars a month, they are renting their apartment on Airbnb to make ends meets. While their flat is somewhat modern, the building itself was obviously neglected.
We would observe this lack of investment in buildings maintenance later on, when we passed through streets with walls absolutely covered in ugly graffiti. This harkens back to Naples’ decades-long issue with waste management, due in part to wasted public money, lack of government waste disposal programs, and the mafia keeping an iron fist on the garbage business (leading to catastrophic health consequences).
However, the city is not all bad, and these negative aspects are more systemic than anything else. I just pointed these things out to echo a statement made by world traveler Gregory Diehl in his book Travel As Transformation:
“Negative cultural biases are sometimes at least partially based in reality. You will find unsavory aspects of any population if you look hard enough. You may choose to ignore these observations and retain a politically proper outlook. [But] extremes on either end, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped, pleasant and unpleasant, give context to the traveler’s experience of reality.”
All the President’s
While we only stayed a few hours, we did experience some sun rays of culture, kind spirit, and resourcefulness:
Culinarily, Naples is synonymous with pizza, which originated in the city. Since we were spending only one night in Naples, surely we had to taste the city’s best pizza right? We headed to the most famous pizzeria in town (I don’t remember which one it was, but it might have been Antica Pizzeria da Michele) and what else did we expected? There was a one-hour queue in front of it. So what did we do? We headed to the 2nd best one: Pizzeria di Matteo. This one was recommended to us by our AirBnB hosts, and they told us a funny story about this place: Bill Clinton ate there one day. The chef that made his pizza that night quit and opened his owned restaurant a few blocks down, and named it… wait for it… Pizzeria del Presidente.
However, Pizzeria di Matteo also had a really long queue, so we resigned ourselves to go eat seafood. We ended up in a quiet restaurant serving simple plates with a background of old traditional Neapolitan music. Not bad either for an experience of the local culture. The food wasn’t amazing, but at the end, the owner offered us free glasses of local liquor. When I tipped mine over, he poured me another one, which was very kind of him.
We then walked the street and arrived an intriguing cocktail bar. When I mentioned resourcefulness earlier, this is what I’m talking about: this place is actually a library during the day. At night, they turn it into bar, dim the lights, and put some speakers, as you sip cocktails, lounging in some comfy couches surrounded by books, while listening to some delightful nu jazz.
Discovering Neapolitan Coffee Customs (and More of Humans’ Generosity)
Finally, the following morning, we got coffee at the espresso bar where Andrea had picked us up (curiously named ‘Mexico’). When I mentioned in my Rome article that Italians take their coffee seriously, I meant it: these baristas had headgear and the whole shebang, and were manning with military precision a row of stainless steel coffee machines built like tanks.
It is this morning, that I was introduced to a local custom which I didn’t understand at the time: the way you order coffee in Italy is that you go to the cashier, pay for your coffee and get a small ticket in exchange, go to the barista and give your ticket, and you get your coffee.
But here in Naples, I witnessed an extra step which I hadn’t seen elsewhere. As people finished their coffee and left, they all left their ticket on the counter and added a 1 or 2€ coin on it. My baffled mind was thinking: “but, didn’t we already pay for the coffee? Is this a tip for the outstanding work done by the barista?” So, caught between a rock and a hard place, I left 50 cents, not really knowing what was appropriate.
It was only much later that an Italian friend told me what this was all about: this is the “pay-it-forward” system: you leave your coffee ticket on the counter with 1-2€ for somebody not as fortunate as you to be able to come in and get a free coffee. There goes the kind and generous spirit of Neapolitans I alluded to!
While we had to drive south for further adventures in Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, I would have stayed longer in Naples. There are a lot of very impressive historic and cultural monuments we didn’t get to experience but are definitely worth the detour. We did see the beautiful Piazza del Plebiscito and the exterior of the Royal Palace of Naples.
We also (at least Jarelle did) handstands in front of the Castel Nuovo:
But we did miss the San Martino Monastery, the Capodimonte Royal Palace, Santa Chiara and the Catacombs of San Gennaro. You can read more about these places on this page.