I have always wanted to experience Naples, the Bay of Naples, and Mount Vesuvius. My husband and I originally planned to visit the city on our first trip to Italy all the way back in 2008. We even had a hotel booked, but we were fresh travelers on our first trip to Europe and the Internet boogeymen got the best of us. Add to that an ongoing garbage strike, and we cancelled our stay. Fast forward to 2013 and our third trip to Italy. With more experience under our belts, we finally made it to Naples.
The overnight ferry from Montenegro docked in Bari, on the Adriatic coast. From there, we picked up our fourth and final rental of the trip and had an easy drive to Naples.
I’m ashamed to admit that we made a major rookie mistake once we dropped off our rental. We walked over to where all the taxis were lined up waiting for customers. One pulled up and let out its passengers. Then the driver, rather than going to the back of the line to wait for fares, swung over to us and ushered us inside. He was breaking the rules and we should have known better than to get inside. In the back of my mind I was screaming “RIP OFF!” but it was hot, we were tired and hungry. He was a real smooth talker, trying to act like our buddy and giving us common tips about Napoli. What should have been a 15EUR cab ride ended up being 35EUR, and he even had the balls to straight up ask me for a 5EUR tip so he could “get some coffee.” Worse things can definitely happen, but I felt a little ridiculous.
After we checked into our charming B&B, we hit Via Toledo in search of some famous Neapolitan pizza. We had plans to visit some of the famous pizzerias later on, but needed a quick fix. We didn’t have to go far before coming across Pizzeria Mattozzi. The menu was quite extensive but we hardly even needed to look before deciding on the classic margherita pizza, perfectly simple with only tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. Delicious pizza combined with classic nonchalant Italian service, the waiter singing beautifully to himself, and a cute older gentleman clearing tables gave us a perfect introduction to they city. Turns out you can’t throw a ball of dough in Napoli without finding a good pizza.
Once our bellies were full, we took a walk through the heart of Naples down the Spaccanapoli and surrounding streets. Naples is one of the oldest cities in the world and the historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, often referred to as the world’s largest open-air museum. As we walked around on this first afternoon and every day after, the raw beauty of the city constantly amazed us. There are hundreds of churches and glorious statues all about, but even the regular buildings, side streets and small squares were beautiful. As a city that has seen countless invasions over the centuries, some might say that the city is a bit rough around the edges, but I think that makes it even more interesting to look at and soak in. Many people complain about the graffiti that covers these gorgeous structures, and while it certainly is a problem, it also adds to the character. You would never see something like that in Roma or Venezia. Naples is a fascinating city that is, to me, on par with and just as wonderful as Rome, but because of its reputation, does not receive nearly as many visitors. It is a real city that lives for itself and plays by its own rules. If you want to visit and experience it, that’s great, but if not, the world will keep turning.
Our first day was very laid back. Now that we were back in Italy and knew that we could take advantage of delicious food, we wanted to make sure we had as many fabulous meals as possible. We don’t normally do this, but we took a restaurant recommendation out of our guidebook as nobody was around the B&B at the time and went to La Campagnola, in the very heart of the historic centre. Being typical North Americans, we still showed up too early for dinner, so we sat on a bench nearby and talked until they opened at 19:00. There was hardly anyone else inside, but the tables filled up quickly. It is a small restaurant with a dozen or so tables, each topped with a red checkered tablecloth and a candle. The menu is written on a big chalkboard on the wall and changed daily according to what’s fresh. Our waiter was incredibly helpful, crouching down beside our table and telling us about every delicious item on the menu board and off. I ordered a fantastic pasta with capers, toe-mah-toe fresh (as the waiter tended to say), and olives. So simple, so good. The price was right, too, at 6EUR for pasta and 3EUR for a half litre of wine. Needless to say the food, atmosphere and service were so fantastic we ended up eating dinner there three nights out of four.
I was so eager to visit the National Archaeological Museum, one of Italy’s most important museums, that I could hardly wait until the next day to visit. We arrived at the museum early, around 9 am. At the entrance there was a big board listing all of the rooms in the museum with plaques beside them listing which ones were open or closed and at which times. We went to the information desk and were told, in that casual Italian fashion, that some of the workers were on strike that day, but to come back later on, maybe by 4pm, and everything should be open. We took it in stride and altered our plans a bit, making sure we would be back before 4pm so we could be there for as long as possible. I wanted to get a closer look at Vesuvius, but the day was overcast and grey so the view was not very clear, even from directly across the bay. Still, it gave me chills to see the sleeping monster closer than I ever had yet.
While waiting to see some of Italy’s artistic treasures, we decided to have lunch at another Napoli treasure, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele. Open since 1870, it is often hailed as one of the birthplaces of pizza. We made the mistake of arriving around 13:00. This place is hugely popular with locals and tourists, and there were at least 20 people in front of us, all waiting outside. Good thing we had read in advance to go in and get a number or we wouldn’t have known what to do. Brush up on your Italian numbers as they obviously call them out in Italian only. I was hungry when we got there, and I was almost on the ground starving by the time we got in an hour later. The restaurant was bigger than it looked from the outside. We were seated with another couple that we didn’t know at a table for four. They only make two types of pizza here – margherita and marinara – so the decision was easy and we got one of each and shared. I wasn’t thrilled with the margherita, but the marinara was absolutely delicious. If you’re into the history of pizza and want the experience, I would suggest visiting much earlier in the day to avoid the crowds. By the time everything was said and done it was an hour and half later, and I was worried about having enough time at the museum.
We power walked the kilometer and a half to the museum and got there shortly before 16:00. Before even stepping into the rooms, I bought the great guidebook to the museum, but skipped the audio guide. I bee lined for the Pompeii rooms, filled with original paintings, mosaics and object from the long buried town. We saw gorgeous bronze statues from Ercolano, a smaller town that was also buried in the eruption of 79 A.D. Of course we had to visit the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), a small room featuring a titillating collection of Pompeii’s erotic paintings and figures. The highlight of the museum was the legendary Farnese Collection, a hall of glorious ancient Roman sculptures of which many are copies of ancient Greek sculptures. I was simply in awe of all of these great pieces of art – Greek gods and goddesses lined up on either side of me, so muscular and strong, so realistic that I felt like some of them were looking back at me, almost intimidating me. The colossal statue of Hercules sent shivers down my spine. The most captivating of all was the Farnese Bull, a huge masterwork that represents the myth of the punishment of Dirce, a woman being tied to a bull by three men as punishment. It is the largest sculpture recovered from antiquity, standing at 13 feet tall. It is in a room by itself at the end of the long hallway. Dave and I stood gazing at it, slowly walking around it over and over, studying it in complete silence, alone most of the time.
Click here for more on my Naples experience.