Of all of my activities I had planned for my trip to Italy, a day trip to Naples was the one that made me the most nervous. I’d been relaxed since the moment I touched down on the runway, but the reputation of this most mysterious and arcane of Italian cities had me doubting myself against my will. It’s an unpleasant experience when you’ve been anxiety-free for a while, only to feel it creep back again like a an insidious tide, and I’ll admit that it almost made me change my mind – I’d jarred my back by falling off an unseen curb in Herculaneum the day before, and was generally feeling a bit tired from a week of constant travel; surely it was time for a break? Maybe a swim and a sunbathe by the pool, with just a little bit of gelato and pizza for lunch?
But no. I did want to explore Naples, despite the misgivings.
I’ve likened Naples to a stray cat before, and I still think it’s a decent analogy. It’s that moggy who terrorizes the other cats on your street; he looks muscular yet lean, is missing an ear of an eye, is usually striding around like a mini tiger, and the other cats flee at the mere sight of him. Other Italian cities are often pedigrees – Siamese, Persians, beautiful long-haired cats, who look pretty and get plenty of attention from their rightfully-adoring fans. But you kind of like that street cat called Naples, because once you get to know him, you realise that he’s actually quite friendly. You can tickle him under the chin and he’ll purr a bit, even though he’ll still try and look tough doing it. He won’t roll over for you, though, and you quite like that.
Naples has always had a bit of a dodgy reputation. Google for ‘Naples crime’ and you’ll see plenty of tales of fatal stabbings, of shoot-outs with the Camorra (the local mafia), of mass brawls in the Piazza Del Gesu, pickpockets, bag-snatching – the list is fairly endless. And I have no doubt that Naples sees more than its fair share of crime, whether petty or large-scale. British newspaper The Sun, never a reliable source of quality journalism, listed Naples alongside Raqqa in Syria as ‘one of the most dangerous cities in the world’. So should this put you off from visiting?
I decided to be a bit flash, and travel to Naples by sea from my Sorrento base, a decision partly influenced by the train strike the day before, and partly because I just fancied being lazy. Sue me. But to make up for this unnecessary expense and opulence, I’d make up for it by getting to Sorrento’s Marina Piccola as early as possible. So I turned up bright and early at 8am, only to discover that the next boat to Naples wasn’t until 10am. Always check your timetables, folks, and remember that laziness can be a virtue.
It did, however, give me an opportunity to use the Marina toilets, which was an adventure in itself. The ladies is comprised of two toilets – seriously, had the designers of this place never seen the average queue for the ladies’ toilets at any venue ever? As I joined a queue of Chinese ladies, who were presumably travelling en masse to somewhere that wasn’t Naples, I noticed to my dismay that only one of the toilets appeared to be in use. I resigned myself to a long wait.
To my surprise, the door of the other toilet opened about ten minutes later, disgorging a Chinese lady who quickly closed the door behind her, before making a “phee-yeeeeew” gesture complete with waving of a hand in front of her nose, directed at a friend of hers who was ahead of me in the queue. Her friend made no move towards the now-unoccupied toilet. I don’t speak Chinese, but I like to think my interpretation of her saying “don’t go in there, it smells like something died from drowning in camel diarrhea” was somewhat close to the mark, and I firmly resolved to go into the other stall. Finally, my turn came.
Well. I won’t go into too much detail, but the door was held closed with a shoelace. An overflowing bucket by the door contained used sanitary towels. And this was the better choice of toilet. I remained calm. But for the love of anything you consider holy, don’t use the loos at the Marina Piccola.
I recovered from this experience by having a wander around the marina itself, and was delighted to see that Sorrento’s feral cat population had been given brand-new, adorable cat houses for them to rest their weary paws in, with cat-shaped doors which made me squeal in delight. And not only that, but there were official Commune di Sorrento stickers on them, explaining in Italian that the local cat population was being well cared for. My love for Sorrento grew to the point of bursting, showering the place with little heart-shaped confetti.
Less well-protected were the ubiquitous hawkers selling goodies to the tourists milling around the marina. I’d made the decision to dress more like a local today, in the hopes of going unnoticed in Naples like an Italian chameleon – having noticed that the Sorrentines were starting to break out their winter jackets and scarves, despite the temperatures being better than what I experience during your average British summer, I was wearing jeans and a bulky sweater, with my camera stowed safely back at the hotel (today would be an iPhone camera day). And it appeared to work! The hawkers left me alone entirely! And this allowed me to observe them, instead of dodging them.
One stylishly-dressed seller strode around the crowds waiting for the Capri boat, a tray of bottled water slung casually around his neck. “Water! Very cold! Special price!” he called, inserting himself into people’s personal space, and occasionally, a conversation. Well, people practically threw money at him. Bottles of water, which did indeed have an impressive sheen of condensation on their sides, exchanged hands. He raked it in. And in his wake came a selfie-stick seller, who didn’t appear to speak any English. He gently waved his stick in the air, completely ignored by the crowds who were too busy buying water, or taking selfies (the irony). It seemed that he didn’t want to push himself in. He looked a gentle soul. I felt like buying a selfie stick just to reward him for his understated sales tactics.
10am came, and the boat left exactly on time, skimming across the Bay of Naples and leaving the chaos of the marina far behind, before docking in the greater chaos of Naples’ Molo Beverello.
Is This Naples?
Walking through the busy port of Molo Beverello, and the streets leading up to the centre of Naples, I again noticed that I was being left alone by the hawkers waiting to pounce on obvious tourists – my camouflage was working a treat! Watching tourists nervously trying to avoid people selling stuff in the streets is often like watching a nature documentary (hopefully narrated by David Attenborough) – a herd of antelopes in shorts and t-shirts milling around and trying to avoid selfie stick-wielding lions, who were watching hungrily and licking their jaws. I was the antelope wearing one of those lion-mane wigs you put on your cat. Hawker-free, I wandered freely around the streets of Naples, admiring the Italian art of parking cars.
After walking purposefully past Castel Nuovo, my first stop was the church of Gesu Nuovo, located in the aforementioned Piazza Del Gesu. My grip tightened on my shoulder bag, and I began to feel thankful that I’d left my camera at the hotel. Would there be mobs of Italians locked in street fights, blood running into the gutters like a modern-day gladiatorial contest?
Er, no. It was lovely and peaceful. Locals and tourists alike sat in the cafes on the edge of the piazza, enjoying some morning sun, whilst others took photos of the monument in the middle of the square. Would I go there late at night, when there’s more chance of brawls? No, but that doesn’t stop you from visiting during the day, when it’s completely safe. And this would be the theme for the day – sure, Naples has its problems. But so does everywhere. Name me a city in the world that doesn’t have an area that you’d be a bit hesitant to visit at night. As long as you’re sensible and don’t go into the deepest of backstreets (even the notorious Spanish Quarter isn’t as bad as it’s reputation would lead you to believe), you will have no problems, especially during the day.
Next, I stepped into the Gesu Nuovo, located in an unusual-looking building on the side of the piazza, and immediately regretted leaving my camera back at the hotel.
Second Naples tip: don’t worry so much about your camera getting stolen. Because places like this are worth the risk.
Originally built to be a palace and completed in 1470, it’s now one of the most beautifully ornate churches I’ve ever set foot in. It was busy with worshippers, and tourists who were busy worshipping with their eyes. I never like to outstay my welcome in churches – it’s great to go in and admire the surroundings and help support the building (always leave a donation, folks!), but I never want to get in the way of people who are using the church for its intended purpose.
Today, the pews in front of the statue and remains of St Joseph Moscati were filled with devotees, heads bowed. There was a sense of nervousness and anxiety lurking around this corner of the building. Joseph Moscati was an Italian doctor and scientific researcher who refused to charge the poor for his services, often sending them home with money instead, and who was known as a miracle-worker and able to cure even the most deadly diseases. As I watched, an elderly gentleman shuffled forward to touch the hand of his statue, rubbed to a bright gold by the hands of the faithful, the hopeful, the ones praying for a miracle. I didn’t want to disturb these people any further, and left the church.
Next up was another church, Santa Chiara – not as beautiful as Gesu Nuovo due to being extensively damaged during World War 2, but packed full of historical significance. Although it’s the final resting place of kings, queens, and saints, my particular favourite internee is Salvo D’Acquisto. A carabinieri (policeman) from Naples, he was in temporary command of an area during World War 2 containing a munitions dump, which was being examined by German soldiers. An explosion occurred during the inspection, and two of the soldiers died.
The surviving soldiers were convinced that it had been a deliberate attack carried out by the locals, and duly rounded up 22 confused citizens. D’Acquisto, who had investigated the incident, pleaded that it had been an accident and nothing more. The German soldiers insulted him, then handed the locals shovels in order to dig their own mass grave, executions imminent. Desperate, D’Acquisto finally made a “confession” in which he claimed that he had been solely responsible for the explosion. He was executed by firing squad, at the age of 22.
I made a donation to a fund which promised to clean the graffiti on the outside of the church, and bought a good luck charm from a seller outside.
Streets, Shopping, and Gods
I wandered down the Via Benedetto Croce, taking in the sounds (honking Vespas), sights (mouthwatering pastries and cooked snacks), and smells (deep-fried pizza fritta). And then I dived in a bar! Purely for research purposes, obviously. I’d heard about Bar Nilo being a fun place to visit for football fans, of which I am one, due to its abiding adoration of the Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona.
Maradona almost single-handedly raised Napoli football club to its most successful period, at a time when Italian football was dominated by the teams from the north of the country. He was treated as a saviour. Napoli won league titles that they’d never been expected to win. Maradona developed a little bit of a cocaine problem, made friends who were suspected of being members of the Camarro, and was embroiled in a scandal over his fathering of an illegitimate son. Still it made no dent on his popularity. He was so beloved that when he left the club, Napoli retired the number 10 shirt. You still see his face everywhere in Naples, on posters and artworks and statuettes, even though he left the club in 1992. And Bar Nilo is his shrine.
Named after the statue of the Nile God which is opposite the entrance, the bar is roughly the size of a small bedroom. It contains a long wooden bar, two friendly barmen, a couple of stools, and an actual shrine devoted to this most talented yet troubled of heroes. Asking in Italian if I could take a photo of it (make sure you order a drink if you want to do the same), I received a chorus of “Certo!”
I piped up in Italian that I love football, and showed them the Leicester City keyring which is permanently attached to my bag, receiving a good-natured chuckle. I went out the bar wondering if they were just humouring me, and perhaps the story of the Leicester City miracle hadn’t reached the streets of Naples. On the very next street, I was proved wrong.
Via S. Gregorio Armeno is a street of artists, also known as Christmas Alley. Shops overflow on to the tiny cobbled street, filled with the traditional Neopolitan presepe – the hand-crafted Nativity scenes, which have expanded into becoming Nativity villages. Not just a stable for Neapolitan; here you can buy figures of every variety to inhabit your model Christmas community. I saw blacksmiths, teachers, pizza-makers. And footballers. Lots and lots of footballers.
Maradona was king; his fellow Napoli players mere royalty. Italian national teams players acted as courtiers. Juventus players seemed to be mostly emerging from toilet pans. And there, on one stall, I found something I never expected to find – a fridge magnet depicting the shirt of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy. A year or so previously, it probably would’ve been hard to find anyone outside of the UK who’d even heard of Jamie Vardy, and now they were selling handmade magnets of him in the streets of Naples.
I had to get it. The stallholder tried to mime “two for ten euros” at me, and seemed quite upset that I didn’t want to take him up on the offer of throwing in a statuette of Vardy, which had clearly been made by someone who had never clapped eyes on the man. At first I was a little unsettled by this seemingly unfriendly display, until I realized that it was probably the only chance for a good while that the man was going to have of finding a Leicester City fan wandering past his stall.
Magnet secured in my bag, I wandered up the street feeling suitably Christmassy, and wondering if anyone in my life needed a statue of Donald Trump emerging from a toilet.
At the top of Christmas Alley, I paused for a pizza fritta, which was delicious – quite doughy, but filled with the freshest tomato and buffalo mozzarella that I’ve ever had the privilege to taste. I didn’t so much eat it as much as let it dissolve in my mouth, And whilst this superb Naples delicacy happily slipped down into my stomach, I noticed that I was sitting right by the queue for a tour. Not just any tour, though; it was the queue for Napoli Sotterranea, a tour which takes you 40 metres below the surface, and into the ancient bowels of Naples. The tourists looked eager. The tour sounded fascinating. It would be, I realized, a pretty awesome thing to see.
But. But but but. An uncertain tide of anxiety began to nibble at my toes. What if I got claustrophobic? What if my back, which was aching quite badly at this point, couldn’t take going through the promised tiny passageways? How would I get out if I had a medical emergency? I concluded that I couldn’t do the tour; it seemed too risky. It didn’t seem to be something that I could do. I walked away down the street, feeling uncertain and a bit sad.
And then, I turned back. I can’t really explain why. Maybe I wanted to push myself, and get rid of those doubts (which all sounded a bit silly, now). Maybe I was getting used to being more relaxed, less anxious, and I didn’t like being confronted with my old worrying ways. But I went back, and bought myself a ticket before I could convince myself to do otherwise.
It was superb. And it only cost 10 euros!
Our first stop, after descending down a staircase to a depth of 40 metres, was a quarry dating back to when Naples was a Greek colony called Neapolis. Chunks of rock had been carved out from the sides, as other corridors led off to where they became aqueducts and cisterns for the city above. The working conditions here had been perilous; if any of the Greek workers fell in to the water, alone in the darkness, there was no way for them to escape.
The tunnels had also been used as a shelter during World War 2 to protect citizens from the bombings above, and some of their possessions still remained, such as toy cars which had seen Italian tots pedaling around their underground world. A tank illustrated the war which had been happening above ground, and I wondered how on earth they’d managed to get it down here, until our guide explained that it had been made by the students of the local university. It was quite literally a souped-up Fiat 500.
We were also shown the Hypogeum Gardens – yes, a garden far beneath the surface. Flowers grew quite beautifully at a humidity rating of 98-100%, and monitoring equipment kept an eye of the progress of vegetables and other plants. I thought it was wonderful that the tunnels were being used for scientific research, as our guide told us of the other proposals for the site; one German architect had suggested using the tunnels as a children’s playground, which was a lovely concept, but perhaps not practical in 4 kilometres of dark tunnels stretching beneath the city. Though I suspect some parents would possibly welcome the break.
“Now comes the fun part!” said our guide brightly, a phrase which always fills me with fear. “This is where we take candles, and go into the very small passageways. They are quite hard to move through, if you are claustrophobic or nervous, you might want to wait here where it is more open, and we will pick you up later.”
I do not like small spaces. I also do not like setting fire to myself. But I had fears to conquer. And waiting there by myself? Fuck, no.
I took a candle housed in a small Romanesque terracotta holder, and held it out with trembling hands for it to be lit. And then I stuck to that guide like glue. We shuffled sideways down tiny gaps cut into the rock (I have never been quite so glad to be small and thin); it was so tight that you could barely move your feet sideways in order to shuffle. Bare rock grazed your legs and arms. But every so often you’d hear running water, and catch a glimpse through the rock of a subterranean stream. And then you’d emerge into one of the cisterns, and it was just ridiculously beautiful.
Squeezing down the passageways became fun. I started to feel like an explorer, or at the very least, a spelunker. I didn’t worry if the guide disappeared off ahead, around a dark corner, and I managed not to set fire to anyone. When we emerged, we were taken to see the remains of the Theatre of Nero, where the emperor himself used to perform. It was hidden among modern buildings, literally beneath someone’s kitchen, a jewel in the rough. The modern and ancient wrapped around each other, encapsulating the ethos of Naples itself.
I emerged out into the open air again, thoroughly entertained and informed. But it was time to be making a move back toward the harbour, and the boat back.
The City Of The Sun
As I queued, I listened to a conversation that was going on behind me (isn’t eavesdropping just one of the unspoken delights of international travel?) between a Dutch couple, and an American lawyer who looked uncannily like Samuel L. Jackson.
“Where have you visited on your trip?” the Dutch couple asked. The American took a thoughtful breath.
“I’ve been to Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome, and Naples,” he said in a softly-spoken voice. “Florence and Siena were beautiful; magical. They feel like another world. But I think my favourite is right here.”
“Really? Naples?”, the Dutch lady asked, sounding astounded.
“Yeah. I like the attitude here.” He shrugged. “People think I’m crazy.”
I don’t, I thought. Another fan of the street cat, another person who had looked into that mean cat’s eyes, and found a friendly kitty looking back.
Don’t be put off by Naples’s reputation. Yes, you have to watch yourself in certain areas. Don’t fall into tourist errors, keep an eye on your belongings without being too obsessive about it. Avoid certain parts at night. Blend in, and do what the locals do. And above all, don’t think of Naples as being some dangerous warzone which is out to get you – all you’ll do is worry too much, and ruin your experience. It has charm. The inhabitants are friendly and approachable. Some parts of it are downright beautiful.
Remember if not as a city of crime, but think instead of its other nickname – the City Of The Sun.
Have you visited Naples? Does the reputation put you off? Share your experiences in the comments!