When planning a trip to Italy, Naples hadn’t crossed my mind. Roman ruins? Absolutely. The Florentine Renaissance? A must. Exploring the romantic canals of Venice? Sign me up. But Naples? It simply wasn’t on my radar, but after my trip there I can confidently say it’s worth visiting. Here’s a glimpse of Naples for those bold enough to visit this fast-paced and bold Italian city.
I didn’t know much about the southern city except that it was the birthplace of pizza. That was enough to get me interested. The real reason for deciding to visit Naples was to get acquainted with my Italian bloodline, and meet distant relatives who live in the area.
What I found in Naples was a multi-faceted city ranging from breathtaking and awe-inspiring to dirty and obscene. I’m just going to come right out and say it: Naples is gritty. However, there are a variety of beautiful gems tucked throughout the city that are worth appreciating. I’ll admit it, our introduction to La Dolce Vita was not like the romantic Italian Fellini film, but more like an awkward but comical Farrelly Brothers flick. If you can get past the rough façade, you will see that there is beauty beyond what meets the eye.
My mom initiated our trip to Naples as she wanted to chase down our family’s old Italian roots, which were in San Giorgio Albanese, a quiet town about 300 km south of Naples. How does one transport themselves from Naples to San Giorgio? A sane mind would recommend a short flight, or perhaps a train… because any traveler whose done their research will find out that to drive in Naples, is to die in Naples… This is particularly scary late at night when you’re trying to find your hotel and you accidentally drive down the busiest pedestrian thoroughfare in Naples because you mistook it for a side street. (Yes, that happened!)
The streets of Southern Italy are chaotic, stop signs and signals are optional, pedestrians are irrelevant and every driver behind the wheel seems to have a death wish. Alas, we were up for the challenge.
What was supposed to be a four hour drive through Italian mountain country turned into 15 hours when part of the mountain was blocked off. It was well worth the wrinkle as we got to explore the sweet and quiet town of San Giorgio Albanese.
We were told that upon driving into the town two men sitting outside of a corner store would know where to take us. Ominous and vague, it was true. The unofficial gatekeepers were a few men smoking and talking outside of a corner store who happily took us to our relatives.
We sat down with our familia and despite the huge language barrier, they served us freshly baked pastries and homemade limoncello as we laughed and tried our best to communicate with hand gestures while looking at pictures of our ancestors. This was one for the books.
In regards to sights one must revel in before they die, also known as the ever expanding bucket list, historical ruins are at the top of my list. A major highlight of the trip was exploring the unearthed ancient city of Pompeii, often referred to as a “city frozen in time.” We opted to head to Pompeii mid morning so we could take our time exploring the huge site. We drove our rented car, which amazingly had zero dents from our road trip, and headed 30 miles south of Napoli to Pompeii.
In 79 a.d. this sophisticated Roman trade city was buried under layers of sleet, ash and pumice after the violent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which virtually consumed the city into the underbelly of the earth. It was excavated in the 18th century, and we enjoyed walking the cobble stoned streets of Pompeii while our guide explained to us what daily life was like in this once industrious and thriving town.
The sun was setting over Mt. Vesuvius and our bellies were hungry so we drove back to Naples and enjoyed dinner at a cafe near our hotel.
The next morning, after our breakfast of café, sweet breads, and cheese, we went Medieval! We set out to visit the castles of Naples. We approached the Castel Nuovo which we were disappointed to find was closed for the day. Alas, we turned our seaside gaze west to find that there was another castle just down the road; the infamous Castel dell’Ovo, aka the Egg Castle, whose name was born from rich medieval theology.
We strolled along the coastal street, passed through the vast architectural Piazza del Plebiscito, stopped in the harbor to watch some Italian kids splashing around in the water, and passed our way across the bridge to the egg castle. This twenty minute walk is one of the moments I remember most fondly. I love when a town is small enough to explore on foot because you catch a glimpse of local life and avoid dealing with the battlefield of taxi’s and families piled on mopeds.
We climbed to the terrace to view the town from the sea in all its colors and layers. In the evening we took the freight car up to the top of the hill where we walked about a mile or less to Castel Sant’Elmo. We (accidently) crashed a private party and got to enjoy an Italian band playing old American standards. The view from the summit of Sant’Elmo was breathtaking with glittering lights of the city beneath us. I love castles, from their fortifications to their towering lookouts, the vast history plays out in my mind taking me to a imaginative medieval wonderland.
While most tourists favor popular Italian destinations like Rome and Florence, Naples offers something completely unique: bold and unapologetic authenticity. Naples is a vibrant and tenacious place with a fast-paced climate. There is something for everyone in this hard-boiled city. When the fatigue sets in from exploring the city, the anecdote lies in the ocean splashing onto the Amalfi Coast. I leave you with three gleaming reasons of why I believe you should, despite the glittering attraction of more traversed tourists hotspots, visit Southern Italy: pizza, castles and Pompeii.
Love Italy? Check out my reflections from studying abroad in Florence, Italy!