How I Fell in Love with Naples


lovenaples1Brace yourself, I’m about to get all emotional about a city in Italy.

You’ve heard me positively gush about Venice, a city I can’t ever seem describe my deep and abiding affection for, and you may have wondered if there’s a city in this country that I don’t like (answer: Not that I’ve found so far). But I was fully expecting to come back from my trip to Naples last week thinking, “Well, that’s one city that has a few redeeming qualities, but I don’t mind not going back anytime soon.”

Oh, how wrong that assumption would turn out to be.

In short, I loved Naples. I loved it immediately, and was shocked by that. I concentrated on the old historic center, which is one of the reasons I loved the city, but the intensity with which I loved it is what surprised me most.

Some of the things I noticed and loved right away:

  • As a photographer, Naples was like candy for me. Everywhere I turned, I saw something I wanted to photograph. The gorgeous chaos, the laundry hanging across narrow lanes on every level of a building, the sheer number of people and things spilling out of every doorway and street, the crumbling walls… As I walked aimlessly through the historic center after dumping my things at my hotel, I literally couldn’t take pictures fast enough. But what I saw as beauty was almost beautiful in spite of itself. It’s not as if Naples seems to be trying too hard, or putting on a coat of polish. If anything, it’s the lack of polish that makes it so visually stunning.
  • The historic center of Naples is packed with more churches than you’d expect in such a small plot of land, but because everything’s in such close proximity most churches (which in any other place would warrant a big piazza in front) have, at most, a teency piazza at the front door that’s probably more accurately called an extra-wide sidewalk.
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  • lovenaples5_doorInstead of the usual small doorways opening from the street into an internal courtyard and apartment buildings, like I’m used to in other Italian cities, the doorways in Naples are enormous. More accurately, they’re the same enormous doorways that you’d find in other Italian cities, but in Naples it’s the giant door that’s actually open rather than just the small door. It’s hard to explain, but it’s another of the city’s contrasts when you walk down a narrow street and then come upon a gigantic arched opening in the wall leading to a small courtyard and a collection of apartment buildings.
  • The ancient buildings and cobbled streets are teeming with modern life and pedestrians, and although the average person might look at the narrow-ness of the lanes and assume no one in their right mind would attempt to drive a car down those streets, the Neapolitans don’t even take their foot off the gas. Scooters and cars zip through the historic center at top speed (especially the scooters), and more than once I was brushed by the side mirror of a car going past.

lovenaples3Naples is absolutely real-life Italy. Yes, the historic center is just what the name suggests – it’s old, it’s historic, and it could easily be considered something of a museum piece. But it’s not a museum piece – far from it. It’s a living, breathing place where modern-day Neapolitans live, work, and shop just like people have done for centuries. The tiny lanes bustle not with tourist crowds but with locals picking up the ingredients for dinner, household cleaning supplies, or something from the hardware store. There are touristy shops tucked here and there, but for the most part the shops are absolutely not catering to visitors.

This is a city that doesn’t slow down for anything or anyone. People in the Italy tourism industry kept telling me they miss the Americans and wish more people would come back to see their city, but most of the locals in Naples aren’t in the tourism industry and they can seem like they couldn’t care less whether you’re there to spend money. There is no red carpet laid out for outsiders. And yet nearly every time I engaged in a conversation with someone I was met with instant warmth and openness, which I certainly don’t find everywhere I go in Italy.

Naples turns up the volume on everything. I mean this literally and figuratively. The city, as a friend said, seems to be the very definition of decadent – in that it’s decaying, but really doesn’t seem to care. It’s noisy – the cacophony can be jarring. Cars and scooters honk their horns all the time, people yell to one another across streets and from window to window. It’s incredibly crowded. Naples as a whole is the most densely-populated city in Europe, and when you’re trying to walk through even the old center you’d swear every Neapolitan lives right there.

lovenaples2But although locals have what seems like a devil-may-care attitude toward their ancient and beautiful surroundings (and even more toward the outsiders who come to see them), the citizens of Naples take some things very seriously, indeed. Primary among the things Neapolitans treat with the utmost respect is their food. To say that pizza was born here is an understatement – pizza and the crafting of it is, in Naples, almost a religion. But the love of food in this city doesn’t stop with its most famous export.

You’ll find more “take-away” fare than in many other Italian cities, and you might assume that means the locals are just filling their stomachs with junk. They’re not. The Naples version of take-away food may not be terribly healthy (a huge percentage of it is deep-fried), but it’s made with the same high-quality ingredients and care as anything you’d sit down to eat. What’s more, while people may not be dining at a restaurant table, they’re still not eating on the run – what they’re consuming still takes precedence over anyplace they might need to go. That paper-wrapped pizza fritta (fried pizza) is typically eaten standing or sitting around a piazza with friends.

With all this chaos, all the noise, all the decay, and all the people, Naples is an assault on the senses. It’s easy to understand why tourists feel unprepared, bombarded, and ill-at-ease. The stories of jewelry theft and purse snatchings are rampant and real, and there is a serious problem with organized crime. But there is also no reason why visitors should shy away from Naples, as long as they approach it with the right attitude.

The city is intensely real, which can be a challenge. I think most tourists, especially American tourists, probably won’t spend more than a day in Naples or use it as a base from which to explore Pompeii, no matter what travel guides say. One guidebook I read even recommends using nearby Sorrento as a homebase and visiting Naples just for the day. But if you ask me, Naples offers extremely nice rewards to those who take the time to get to know her.

So – are you up for the challenge?

Photos in this post are by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission. You can see the set of my Naples photos on Flickr.


17 thoughts on “How I Fell in Love with Naples

  • Francesca

    What a lovely piece, Jessica! It’s nice to read something positive about Napoli; as you mentioned, most travel info urges visitors to stay away from there. I can’t wait to go myself!

  • Jessica Post author

    Thanks so much, Francesca, I’m glad you liked it! I think you’ll like Napoli, too. If you truly like Italy for Italy, and not for fairy-tale Italy, it’s impossible to not appreciate Napoli and all it represents for the country. Let me know when you’re going, I’ll pass on my tips. 🙂

  • bethany

    Sounds splendid to me! Who wants to see a fake Americanized version of a truly antiquated gem like Naples? Not me! I love that they don’t cater to tourists and that it’s authentic and what you see is what you get! Can’t wait to go! I sort of get the sense that Tuscany is for “fairy-tale” Italy, I could be totally off, but if not, i’m looking forward to seeing both sides, real and fairy-tale!

  • bethany

    Hi Jessica,

    Thanks so much for you swift response on flickr, and may I just say that as far as i’m concerned, you have the coolest job on the planet:) Oh, and yes, I have been reading your why go Italy blog, that’s how I found the flickr pics!

    So is it ok if I run my travel plans by you? Ok, thanks!
    My husband and I will be taking a 3 wk vacation in May of next year. Originally, I wanted to do France (mainly Paris, as this is my first European exp.) Italy and Greece. I am starting to realize now, though, that 3 countries is probably too much for 3 weeks and we will, unfortunately, probably end up dropping Greece. The main cities I am interested in seeing in Italy are Cinque Terre (because it is beautiful and resembles the Amalfi Coast but is less pricey, as I understand it) Rome (for the obvious stuff, historical sites) The Tuscan region, because I have been obsessed with it for years and let’s face it…I have seen Stealing Beauty and Under the Tuscan sun too many times:) (Lucca, Arezzo (cortona), Siena, San Gimignano) Naples and Venice. This seems do-able to me as most of these areas are in fairly close proximity to each other, with the exception of Naples Cinque Terre and Venice. What do you think? I really have less interest in Pisa, Florence, Milan or Sicily, or at least they aren’t my priorities.

    Also, have you been to France? Do you think it sounds more wise to do France and Italy, or Italy and Greece? I just think I might hate myself it I go all the way to Europe and don’t see Paris in the Spring!

    Thanks for taking the time to read this and I will SO appreciate your feedback. We are trying to get everything planned as far in advance as possible and I am totally dedicated to doing my homework!. Oh, and just cause it might help you to know, our buget is about 8-10,000 dollars. Also, I am not above staying in hostels as long as they aren’t gross and we would want a private room, of course. A few more facts that could be beneficial to knowI am 29 and i’m husband is 32, we are mainly interested in historical sites, some museums (not a lot) I am a photography nut, so I really want to spend a lot of time just walking around and seeing things, taking pics, we are fine with lots of walking, but would prefer public transit to renting a car, my husband is super-great at getting around a city, but c’mon, it’s a foreign country:)! Oh…and food of course lots of eating will need to be done! It would be nice to stay a couple of nights in maybe, one nicer hotel, but still nothing crazy…like 200 tops!

    Ok, sorry this was so long, I just see all of these people writing in to forums asking for itinerary help and provide little to no information~ Thanks again- Bethany Coffey

    P.S. here is a link to MY flickr site, just cause it’s might help to get a feel for the person..and i’m a thorogh nerd;)

  • Meg

    Jessica,

    You did a fabulous job of describing Naples. You can almost see the sights and smell the food! With all the bad press this city gets it’s refreshing to see a review that’s positive. After all, this city invented pizza and the famous Neapolitan love songs.

  • Jessica Post author

    Thank you so much, Meg! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. 🙂 Certainly, there are still problems in Napoli, but it’s so worth checking out anyway. I can’t wait to go back – and eat more pizza. 😉

  • Kathryn

    We lived just north of Naples from 1992-95. My military husband used to say he dragged me kicking and screaming to Naples AND, he had to do the same to get me back to the States. I ended up absolutely loving Naples and southern Italy! I even drove our Dodge Caravan in their infamous traffic- we had four kids and plenty of company. The food, the light, the people- what a wonderful place.

  • Mike

    I should have read your review before I went to Naples. I had a very trying time a week ago seeking the repair of my bike’s flat tire. Maybe it was my non-existent Italian language skills, but the people seemed to be downright hostile to my presence and request for assistance. Two gentlemen working on bikes would not even acknowledge my presence. I might not understand the language, but the reception by the Neapolitans told me it was best that I be gone. I had intended on staying overnight in Naples but wound up getting the first boat to Sorrento. How did you find the nice people?

  • Jessica Post author

    I’m so sorry you had a bad experience in Naples, Mike! I wasn’t trying to do anything so specific or non-touristy as get a flat tire fixed, but I met nice people in several places – my hotel, the restaurants I ate in, the dock area… I don’t know how much time you spent in Naples, or what else you did besides try to fix your tire, but if you’re basing your opinion on a few people at the shop who ignored you or were rude, that’s probably not going to be an accurate representation of the locals.

  • Lia Surrentino

    Hi Jessica – can I just say how much I enjoyed your articles on Naples and your honesty towards the city that has obviously captured your heart. She made her way into mine when I was 30, the first time I visited in 1985 and from which I have just returned after a third visit! Even though my parents came from Naples they hadn’t quite brainwashed me into thinking they had left one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Yes, they were homesick for the city they loved and had left years earlier like so many migrants in the 50’s, but they made a reasonably good life in Australia. The first time I saw her in 1985, fear hit me like a sledgehammer but after a week of living like a local, I knew I was hooked. It is hard to describe why this city gets under your skin the way it does – but it does. Yes, it’s noisy, chaotic, dirty and in parts a little seedy, but it has a heart that is pumping so hard it will knock your socks off in every via, vicolo and vicoletto you may find yourself wandering through. I hope your readers listen to your advice and really get to know her – she’s worth it!

  • Jessica Post author

    Hi, Lia:

    I’m so glad you liked my Naples articles! I just loved the city, and can’t wait to go back. Every time I think about it my mouth waters for Di Matteo pizza! 🙂

    Ciao,
    Jessica

  • Christine

    Jessica, I am planning my first trip to Italy (first trip anywhere, actually) and have found your site to be a huge help. Tentative plan is to spend 10 nights in Rome and 5 nights in Naples. I want to really experience the “feel” of the area, not just rush around tourist attractions. You say that it would be best to not stay near the train station for safety reasons and also it is not close to the historic area. I have looked at some maps and can’t figure out where either the train station or the historic area is. Can you provide some street names that would be boundaries of the areas, so I know what general area to try to stay in, and where to avoid. Thanks.

  • Jessica Post author

    Hi, Christine:

    Bravo to you for planning to include Naples on your first Italy trip! 🙂

    When is your trip? I need to write some articles that have maps and hotel listings in areas I think are okay to stay in, so I may have a chance to do that before you go – depending on when you leave!

    In the meantime, however, I’d suggest zooming in on a Google map of Naples. The train station is at the metro stop marked “Garibaldi,” so that’s easy to locate. The historic center, the area where I stayed, is to the west of the station – the streets that sort of surround the main part of the historic center are: Via Duomo to the east, Via Toledo to the west, Piazza Cavour to the north, and Corso Umberto I to the south. This isn’t entirely accurate in terms of what the true “historic center” is, but that’s the area I’d concentrate on for a place to stay.

    I’d also suggest looking at a map of the city that’s designed with tourism in mind – most guidebooks have good enough maps in them, and if you’re not planning to buy a guidebook or aren’t sure which one to get, you can check a few out of the library and at least get a good look at the maps that way.

    I hope that helps!
    Jessica

  • Christine

    Thank you so much for the quick response, it helped me get my bearings looking at a map. I don’t have dates yet but have decided to avoid the crowded summer season, so that leaves me plenty of time to plan. If I cannot arrange a trip for the fall (Sep-Oct), I will wait until next spring (Apr-May). I will be sure to check back to your site many times, it is the best one I have found on the web. Thanks again for all your info!!

  • Jessica Post author

    Thanks for the kind words, Christine! And yes, with that much time before your trip, I should be able to have at least one article up on the site with hotels in and around the old center of Naples that will at least give you some reference for planning.

    And if you’d like, you can sign up to get the articles on the site delivered directly to your email inbox – that way you don’t have to keep checking back, and you’ll never miss a thing. 🙂

    http://feeds.bootsnall.com/italylogue

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