Nothing quite prepares you for Napoli. Stepping out of the Toledo metro station on the Via Toledo I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, I came here for a long weekend solely on the recommendation of my Italian tutor. I’d heard the rumours about Naples; chaos, rubbish piled high, petty and organised crime are some of the stereotypes that are frequently bandied about. What I found though, was a sheer unbridled energy and passion. Never have I been anywhere and felt so energised just from the atmosphere. Walking the narrow, historic streets was like receiving 100,000 volts of electricity through my entire sensory system. It’s a city like no other, where the simple act of existing is something to be celebrated. The Napoletani embrace life and live it to the fullest. I found chaos, but not the kind I was expecting. Life here is lived at 100 miles per hour with the riotous cacophony of car horns and shouting locals as the soundtrack. The entire city is a piece of avant-garde theatre played out on the magnificent stage of the gulf of Naples with Vesuvius as the backdrop.
Naples wears its considerable history and culture lightly. There’s certainly an impressive roster of things to visit but for me, Naples should be visited for the atmosphere rather than the sights. You should come here to take an espresso al bar, shoulder to shoulder with the locals in Caffé Mexico, you should come for the incredible pizza at Sorbillo’s, you should come for old world grandeur at Gran Caffé Gambrinus, you should come for the quite staggering views from up high in the Quartiere Vomero and you should come here to experience a way of life completely unlike what you’re used to.
As a quintessential Englishman abroad, Naples was a considerable culture shock for a city only a couple of hours away. I saw plenty of the sights in the city: I walked almost 40 miles in 3 and a half days but what sticks with me from my visit wasn’t the Duomo or the Opera House, which are impressive, but the city itself.
My time in Naples is a collection of fantastic memories; crossing the road was an adventure in its own right. Waiting at a zebra crossing here was exactly that, waiting. You need to simply walk across the road and hope for the best. The cars and motorbikes don’t slow their approach they just slightly adjust their course around you. It was scary yet perversely exciting and I was surprised at how quickly I adapted, crossing the road with reckless abandon like a local in no time.
Another true Neapolitan experience is going to Sorbillo’s for a pizza. Naples is the birthplace of pizza and it’s considered an art form here. I went to several pizzerias but Sorbillo’s was the best, both for the pizza and the atmosphere. You cannot make a reservation so I made my way there 10 minutes before it opened and joined around 30 people waiting for the doors to open. The first time I was lucky, I joined the queue, which was orderly and satisfied the Brit in me immensely and I was admitted without fuss. On my second visit I was given a guided tour by a disinterested waitress, unsuccessfully trying to find me a table. She told to put my name down and wait outside.
As the sky darkened and the evening progressed with lights flickering on in the Via dei Tribunali, more and more people began to arrive and this time there was no orderly queue. A scrum of around 60 people began to cluster around the door. It was chaotic and completely at odds to anything I’d ever experienced at home. The guy with the clipboard was struggling to maintain order, shouting at people to calm down in his harsh Neapolitan accent. Pizza here is taken seriously and at one point it seemed as if a riot was about to break out but luckily my name was called and I slinked inside and left the mob behind.
I stayed in the Quartieri Spagnoli, or Spanish quarter, an area made up of tight, warren-like streets and standing on my balcony watching life play out below me was a show in itself; Vespas zipped through the claustrophobic alleyways, washing hung between the balconies, swaying in the breeze, groups of young men were standing around, smoking and discussing the football, gesticulating wildly whilst doing so and Italian mammas sat outside in the sun watching the world go by. It was everything you would expect an Italian city to be, orderly chaos in streets in a state of elegant decay.
The fondest memory I have from here though was when I took the funicular up to the Vomero district from Chiaia, the most affluent neighbourhood in Naples. From up here you have the most stunning views of the city with the bay of Naples and the great hulk of a volcano, Vesuvius spread out before you. I’ve mentioned before that I always try to see a city from up high and this is the most naturally beautiful panorama I’ve ever seen. This was on my final day. I was tired and my feet hurt but I stood there for a good 20 minutes, finally enjoying some peace and quiet, realising I’d loved every minute of my time here. The view punctuating an incredible time spent in this incredible city.
I arrived in Naples not really sure what to expect, I had no preconceptions unlike when I went to Seville and my experience was all the more rewarding for it. I was maybe even slightly cautious because of the negative things I’d heard about the city but I experienced a city full of locals with an unrivalled zest for life. Neapolitans have a somewhat fractious relationship with their countrymen in the North. They are viewed as insular and are dismissed as terroni (peasants, basically) but I found a passionate and friendly people. All cities are more than the sum of their sights; for me, what makes a city is its people and the citizens of Naples certainly make their city worthy of a visit.
There are some fascinating landmarks and fun things to do but I’d recommend coming here with no planned itinerary. Put any notion of organised crime and danger out of your mind, the only thing you really need to worry about is the kamikaze driving. I guarantee you’ll find the most exciting, exhilarating and exhausting city you’re ever likely to visit. Criminally under-rated amongst the great Italian cities, for a country with an embarrassment of cultural riches, Napoli may well be its greatest masterpiece.
Thanks for reading.