When I declared to anyone on the ship who would listen that I was ‘soooo excited’ that we were docking in Naples, I mostly heard back replies along the lines of ‘I hate Naples, it’s a dangerous place,’ ‘I won’t bother getting off the ship that day,’ and ‘Naples is dirty.’ In fact, not one person who’d visited the city before had anything positive to say about it. Well, how awkward. And downright miserable! Surely it couldn’t be that bad, I pondered, and refused to let the Negative Nancys get me down. When we eventually arrived in the city, the silhouette of Vesuvius visible across the bay at one end of the ship, and the layers of hills built up with higgledy-piggledy houses spread out at the other end, myself and two pals flung ourselves onto land as early as possible to get as much exploration time in as possible before we had to return to work.
To ride or not to ride. What’s your view on horses?
There we were, me and my two singer-pals strolling merrily along, when we bumped into a horse. More specifically, a horse, a trap, and a man named Salvatore. Now I do have my reservations about using animals to get around, particularly as a tourism tool (Donkeys in Santorini, anyone? Camels in Lanzarote?), however Salvatore didn’t seem too fussed about whether we got a ride with him or not, being far more interested in what Giorgio (that’s the horse) was doing, and the other two seemed very much up for the idea; so the three of us made a collective decision to just go with it. I’m not gonna lie, in hindsight all three of us were unsure about whether a horse and trap ride through Naples was actually an ethical choice, but at the very least it at least seemed as if Giorgio’s life was a pleasant one.
Related: Two Days in Santorini
Next thing you know, we were clattering down the packed roads of Naples at full speed, whizzing round corners and picking up speed at every downhill climb. Every time we slowed down slightly, Salvatore would turn around on his perch in front of us with a matter of fact but inquiring look and give a questioning ‘thumbs up?’ gesture, only rotating again to face the way we were going when we gave a definitive ‘thumbs up,’ in reply, coupled with a reassuring nod back at him. What a diamond.
We made it to a wide open square, at which point Salvatore and Giorgio decided we should head into the middle of it, and subsequently directly into the pathway of a military marching band. Next thing you know, policemen came running, gesturing at Salvatore to reverse the hell off of that square and make way for the marchers! Well let me tell you this for free, reversing into (albeit slow) oncoming traffic in a pony and trap, is quite the full on experience, especially as it had to be done 6-point turn style. Poor Giorgio. Salvatore turned around as he paused between the third and fourth point of the turn to give a ‘thumbs up?’ Oh yes, very much thumbs up, ta Salvatore.
Related: What to do in Lanzarote
In short, the vibe on the streets of Naples is a chaotic, frantic one. Horns blast out left right and centre and cars and mopeds seem to dart across the other traffic whenever they please. Don’t get me wrong, if I was driving through the city myself I’d probably have a heart attack, but as a mere passenger I was having a whale of a time!
Eventually we sped down a long smooth road by the seafront, and as we clip-clopped along it at a far steadier pace, we heard multiple cries of ‘Ciaou Giorgio!!!’ from voices inside bars and restaurants. Our horse was clearly a very well-respected chap around these parts. Eventually we slowed down outside one restaurant, where a waiter ran out with a bag of bread. ‘Ciaou!!’ I thought ‘free bread, score!!’ But it turned out the free bread was for Giorgio the local celebrity, not us peasants in the back. My stomach gave a rumble. The waiter gave Giorgio a pat on the nose and off we went, finally rounding up our tour back where we started at the castle.
What to eat…Neapolitan Pizza and other delightful treats
Naples is officially the birthplace of pizza, and therefore this was the one stop in Italy that we were absolutely determined we should find one. (Don’t get me wrong, we were more than open to the idea of eating pizza in the rest of the country, too, but Naples being the city where it was officially invented made us doubly keen to eat one here) We headed for the restaurant that Giorgio’s number one fan had ran out of, because the smell of baking dough had been particularly delightful whilst trotting last here, and sat at a white-clothed table looking out towards the sea and the Castel dell’Ovo.
And let me tell you this for free- we were not disappointed, oh no siree! For a pizza to be officially declared as ‘Neopolitan’ it should ideally be made using tomatoes that grow on volcanic plains to the South of Mount Vesuvius, and with mozzarella from semi-wild water buffalo, with dough kneaded and rolled by hand (ie, the use of rolling pins is absolutely forbidden.) It all seems very rules-and-regulationy for a dish so simple, but the rules and regulations clearly work as it was without a doubt the best pizza I’ve ever tasted in my entire life. And guys; I’ve eaten a fair few pizzas in my time.
Another classic dish from the Campania region of Italy- er, that’s where Naples is, FYI- is Sfogliatella. These are downright delicious creations, made of thin layers of pastry that look very similar to the shape of a shell or lobster-tail, and are normally filled with orange flavoured ricotta. (Although these days you’ll see many a sfogliatella filled with Nutella instead, as that chocolatey goodness is all the rage round here.) We found a pastry shop to sample a few at which turned out to be so ridiculously cheap- around €3 for my coffee and two pastries- that I considered buying six more to smuggle back on to the ship with me.
Is it actually dirty and dangerous?
Even on the overcast but sticky day in October that we spent in Naples, it was packed with tourists wandering around, and I can imagine that during the Summer the whole place could potentially become a hot and sweaty mess. The Camorra, a mafia-type organisation, is still kind of a big deal around here, and has been since the 17th century. As well as your usual sorts of criminal activity, including a significant number of murders over the years, the Camorra legitimately own all contracts for the city’s waste disposal and have spent years bribing politicians and then disposing of toxic waste by dumping it at various roadsides and illegal landfills. Huge amounts of cancer-causing chemicals have been released into the atmosphere, affecting the health of the people who live here, as well as local farmland and animals. Although the situation is a lot better these days than it was in the 90s, I can see why Naples might have earned its reputation as a ‘dirty’ city.
But in terms of safety when it comes to the Camorra, it’s highly, highly unlikely that as a tourist you would become a target for any kind of criminal activity. These guys are highly secretive and way more into big business than petty theft. Maybe it helped that I was with two guys and not going solo, but even when walking in the back streets of the city, although I felt very much like an outsider, I didn’t once feel unsafe, and crime is actually far less frequent here than Rome or Milan; both of which are cities which definitely don’t share Naples’ reputation for being dangerous.
Walking the tourist hotspots
After our cross-city canter featuring Salvatore and his thumbs-up quality control, plus our stops for pizza and pastries, we didn’t have a lot of hours left before it was time to return to the ship and get rehearsing. So we decided we wanted to see a combination of tourist hotspots and off-the-beaten path areas that maybe people don’t head to as often.
The Piazza Del Plebescito is a big old square in the historic part of the city, built out of volcanic rock in the mid 1800s. (It’s also the big old square that Salvatore decided it would be a good idea to drive Giorgio the horse into. Good lad.) Lined with historic buildings galore, it’s crowning glory is the Royal Palace of Naples, whose wall is inlaid with a line-up of statues of everyone who ruled the Kingdom of Naples from the 12th century until Italy was unified. A very grand affair, and on top of its beaut exterior, it’s also worth noting that this place has an actual party wing. Brilliant.
Related: Two Days in Rome
If you’re more of a shopping fan than a history buff, the Galleria Umberto I is definitely the most majestically stunning shopping mall I’ve ever set foot in…and also the oldest. I mean…who knew that such a thing actually existed in 1887!? Not I, pals. The glass-domed, marble-floored structure is absolutely full on stunning; if the Eastbourne Arndale looked like this I’d be far more tempted to go, that’s for sure.
And if you can’t head across the bay to see the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum, there are castles galore in the city which although not quite as ancient as these perfectly preserved Roman towns, they’re still rather antique compared to the 18th century palaces and shopping malls that we saw elsewhere. In fact, officially, there are a grand total of seven castles within the city. Now that’s rather a lot of castles, though I only managed to see three- the ominous Castel Nuovo near the port, with a legendary crocodile pit in the dungeon, the Castel dell’Ovo, with a legendary egg buried in the foundations to guarantee the city’s safety, and the Castel Sant’Elmo which sits on a hill overlooking the city and as far as I’m aware has absolutely nothing buried underneath it.
Wandering the back streets
The Quartieri Spagnoli is a place like no other I’ve ever seen before. And definitely a place I didn’t expect to find in Italy. This was the gem of the one day that I had here, and a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of the touristy areas of the historic city. When we saw a steep stone staircase winding up into layers upon layers of ramshackle buildings crisscrossed with washing lines, it was obvious to all three of us that that was the path we should take next. Dark streets stretched into the distance, so narrow that people could lean out of their wide open windows just to have a casual chat with their neighbours across the way. I saw a girl arrive outside one building, and call up to a window on the third floor; a lady appeared and lowered a bucket on a string to the girl, who placed a package inside it and then skipped off with a yelled goodbye. And I swear any young man who passed us was wearing a black leather jacket, smoking, and wouldn’t have looked out of place in the year 1992.
Sometimes the only patches of light in the tiny streets were from shrines in the wall, holding statues of the Virgin Mary and pictures of saints lit with neon lights or battery-powered candles and surrounded by yellowing flowers; or every now and then the headlight of a moped which seemed momentarily to be heading straight for us as it descended the shallow steps of the street. Despite the fact that we were in the centre of a city, so many of the ground floor apartments had their windows or doors flung open, allowing a glimpse of families sitting around the kitchen table, old men smoking cigarettes and flicking through their newspapers, and old women watching TV whilst they chopped vegetables.
I LOVE this city.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT NAPLES
- Although the historic centre of the city is very walkable, it’s hilly! Be prepared.
- Distance from the port of Naples to the city is…nothing at all! You basically exit the port and are faced with the city sprawling out in front of you, starting with the Castel Nuovo.
- Mid-June to mid-September is considered high-season in Naples- be prepared for soaring temperatures and crowds of people.
- If you’re arriving in Naples by plane, it takes around 20 minutes to reach the city centre from the airport.
- The beauty of this city is its grittiness…if you don’t come expecting Disneyland, you’ll be just A-ok.