How to get the best of Naples
In how to get the best of Naples I share my top tips for getting the best of Naples. The bustling city by the foot of Vesuvio.
Naples – or Napoli – is a mood more than a place. As soon as you enter the city you feel a special tension that makes people like or loathe the infamous port town that seems to be forever balancing between beauty and depravation.
Hemmed in by a threatening volcano and the most adorable bay, Napoli can easily be conceived as an embodiment of the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s part of the fascination and what I love about the city.
Most visitors spending their holidays in Napoli focus on the grand sights like Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius and other evident attractions like pizza accompanied by mandolins strumming a Canzone Napoletana. But there are other aspects of the city worth exploring. Here is my top five tips for getting the best of Naples.
Coping with cars
For years we refrained from stopping in Napoli due to the traffic. Every time we encountered a car with NA on the license plate it seemed to be bumped, wrecked and remodeled with string and gaffa tape. Even when we approached the city on the autostrada, we felt the tension rising. From a distance every vehicle in Napoli seemed accident prone and all traffic signs spelled danger, and entering the city has not yet changed that impression.
I have, however, found ways to cope with the chaos. Walking with Italian school children, I’ve learned to cross the streets without getting hit by a car. It’s all about determination. If you want to cross, you look up to ensure that the next car has room brake, and then you step over the curb showing the palm of your right hand. If the driver is not fumbling with his mobile phone or radio, he or she is bound to stop, and you can go on to stop the next car and eventually cross the street. You feel a bit like Moses dividing the seas, but it works. As long as you don’t hesitate or show other signs of weakness.
According to an old legend Napoli was founded on an egg, and breaking the egg will cause the destruction of the city. The egg in question is the island Megaride in the harbor, where the body of the Siren Partenope washed up after she had tried to beguile Ulysses with her song. Ulysses turned her down, but others followed and settled inland and later a fortified castle was built to defend the city.
Today the Castel dell’Ovo – or Borgo Marinari as it is also called – is connected with the city by a causeway, where people stroll along to enjoy the views, the relaxed atmosphere, cafes and restaurants. The only Sirens calling out these days are brides posing to have their wedding photos taken.
The atmosphere in Napoli makes any visit exciting, but if you are looking for thrills you could go to Piazza del Mercato, which was used for public executions in the middle ages. This was where the grandson of Federico II, a 16-year old boy named Corradino, was decapitated in 1268 along with the Svevian dynasty. Corradino’s coffin and bones were later discovered under the marketplace and reburied in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. These days the marketplace is mostly used for commercial purposes, but a monument remains as a reminder of the gruesome history.
Another haunted place is the Castel Nuovo that was built in 1282 as royal residence for the Kingdom of Naples and later used as a state prison. It is supposed to be haunted by two evil queens called Giovanna. Giovanna I (1343-1382) inherited the throne from her farther in 1344, she was married four times and had several lovers before she was strangle with a pillow as an act of revenge for the assassination of her first husband to whom she had been betrothed from the age of six. Giovanni II (1373-1435) was according to local legends a ruthless, hedonistic queen, who kept lovers everywhere and fed them to a pet crocodiles in the dungeon, when they had fulfilled their mission. Spooky stories even though royalty and other the beasts of prey have long since left Castel Nuovo to the local museum and various cultural events.
Understanding the locals
The people of Napoli are known for an expressive body language that can be observed in any crowd. Faces work like emoticons with hands and arms to emphasise a happy or sour smiley. In restaurants, waiters will drill an index finger into the cheek to indicate a particularly tasty bite. If someone makes an upward stroke under the chin with the back of a hand, when asked for an opinion on this or that sight, it is not a recommendation. And placing the palm of one hand on top of the other while wriggling the thumbs indicates you are becoming too longwinded and should get to the point. Studying the pantomime provides high-class entertaining on every street corner.
Napoli’s underground is not just a criminal network but a physical space. A series of aqueducts and tunnels run beneath the city and has been used as shelters, cisterns, passageways and wine cellars since pre-Roman times. Try a guided tour of Napoli Sotterranea and Acquedotto Carmignano for a memorable claustrophobic experience, and enjoy the colourful Spaccanapoli neighbourhood, when you resurface.
These narrow lanes are still crisscrossed by garlands of washing, and after dark Madonna shrines embedded in the walls guide the way. Originally, the saints protected streetlights from thieves, so the shrines also served a practical purpose. In Spaccanapoli’s Via San Gregorio Armeno you’ll also find workshops producing and selling figures in terracotta for presepe or nativity scenes, so it’s a good place to stock up on souvenirs.
At the end of the day, when you are sitting in a restaurant, I promise you’ll be humming ‘That’s Amore’ and ‘Bella Notte’ from Lady and the Tramp.