Out of all the places that we were going to visit in Italy, Naples was the place that I was most excited to see. Admittedly, this was entirely to do with the food! I had read all over that Naples had the most fantastic food and boy, was I ready to eat my heart out.
On our hotel owner’s recommendation we decided to take the hydrofoil ferry to Naples. The port is about 10 minutes walk from the centre of Sorrento but you have to walk down about 1,000 steps (exaggeration!) to get there. The ferry service runs every hour from early morning until around 6pm. The ferry tickets are not cheap (€30 return each) but the journey is much quicker than taking the train to Naples which takes over an hour. Let me tell you, this ferry journey was nothing like the grimy sea sickness inducing hell ferry journeys of my past. Instead everything was efficient, clean and comfortable and I couldn’t help imagining how nice it would be if my commute to work every day was on one of these.
In 40 minutes we arrived in the Bay of Naples. It’s a massive port and we saw lots of huge cruise liners docked up. We felt a little lost as soon as we stepped out and were unsure how to tackle the place. Our hotel owner had warned us not to go to the old part of town because it was too dangerous and instead stay in the marina area. But I wasn’t here to see the nice part of town, I wanted to see the real Naples with the crime and the dirt and the one where I was planning to have the best pizza of my life. We momentarily considered taking the open deck tourist bus because that way we’d see all the important parts in the few hours we had but fortunately the next bus wasn’t starting for another 45mins. So instead we went back to the information centre and quite simply told the guy that we have five hours and we would like to see the best of Naples. He gave us a map and a bunch of good advice and set us on our way to the heart of old Naples.
As soon as we crossed the main road from the port, a guy on a motorbike pulled up next to us. He opened his coat jacket and suddenly all the warnings from our nice hotel owner started screaming at me in my mind. I mean, I was half expecting him to pull out a gun or at the very very least some gold toothbrushes like in ‘Coming to America’ but instead he offered us a brand spanking new and most probably stolen iPad. This happened again and again throughout the day with guys whispering “iPad, iPhone, Gucci, Prada” at us!
I won’t lie, I felt unsafe and a little intimidated by this. We were a little too paranoid. You know, pulling our bags in closer, holding hands tighter and watching over our shoulders too often – nothing like our usual care free holiday stance. But I guess this adds to the charm of Naples, this underlining sense that something big is happening around you all the time. Did you know that the Mafia controls all the dairy trade in Naples and all the bakeries have to pay for protection? Isn’t that crazy?! Not to worry though, since all this Mafia gang warfare stuff doesn’t affect the average tourist, so long as you’re careful about petty crime and pickpockets you’ll be fine.
Naples has a huge personality from the dilapidated buildings, the wild graffiti, the dirt, the noise and the chaos. Walking really is the best way to get around because there’s something interesting to see on every corner and it’d be criminal to miss this by riding in a taxi. I just adored the lines and lines of colourful laundry blowing in the wind from every balcony and window. I loved looking up and down at all the distressed coloured buildings and sneaking a peak into secret haphazard courtyards. We walked past university students eating giant pizzas for lunch, watched old ladies trundling down narrow streets carrying bags overloaded with tomatoes and saw kids playing street football while their parents busily washed the dust off their shop windows. It was an incredible insight into the Italian passion for life.
Once your senses have settled down you’ll realise that Naples is a playground for the religious because this small area is packed full of churches and each one is more beautiful than the other. My favourite was San Giovanni a Carbonara, a real hidden treasure, you really need to just go take a look and then we’ll chat. The Duomo di Napoli or Cattedrale di San Gennaro is the main church of Naples and again it is amazing. The artwork inside these churches is stunning and more memorable than some of the art galleries I’ve visited. I kept running into random churches excited to see what I’d find plus it was a perfect way to cool down from the baking hot sun. Even though we didn’t have enough time to extensively explore Naples, visiting these churches gave me an incredible feel for the place and left me with such vivid special memories of the place.
We went into one church very close to the Duomo. It was totally empty and the front was cordoned off by some metal bars. Behind the bars there was a gleaming ornate alter and an inner seating circle and on the edge of one of the benches was placed a dummy of a nun. We stood for a while admiring the craftsmanship and joking about what we’d do if the dummy came to life and wouldn’t you believe it, but at that very moment the ‘dummy’ moved her arm! We looked at each other and sprinted out of the church irrationally scared for our lives!
So Naples is not only a holy place for Christians but also for pizza lovers. After all, this is the birth place of pizza and more importantly the place where Zarek converted from an “erggh pizza is lame” to an “I love Pizza” kind of guy! Hallelujah for that! There are some renowned places like Da Michele (as seen in ‘Eat Pray Love’) and Il Presidente. We chose De Matteo to be our first. It was heaving with locals and we had to put our names down and wait for a table. While we waited we watched the pizza making process and it was addictive. These pizza makers, who are probably some of the best in the whole world, carried out this art with such clockwork precision and made it look so easy. The ingredients used are basic but so pure: sweet succulent tomatoes, fresh creamy buffalo mozzarella and an echo of basil on the lightest, crispiest base. The pizzas are cooked in a scorching fire-roasted oven for no more than a few minutes and what comes out is pure food magic. De Matteo’s menu is extensive with both red and white (no tomato sauce) varieties of pizza but we opted for the original Margherita. I was a little tense when the pizzas arrived; I mean my expectations were pretty high by this point and I wasn’t ready for disappointment. But one bite in and I was in love, hands-down this was the best pizza I had ever ever tasted. I vowed to myself there that I would be back in Naples again (and again) to have more of this beauty. So the moral of this story is please go to Naples and please please eat pizza and plenty of it. De Matteo was amazing but I think any of the pizza places on or near Via dei Tribunali Road will be equally fab.
To give you a head start here are five other pizzerias that were on my list to try:
- Da Michele (13 via Sersale)
- Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente (120/121 Via Tribunali)
- Lombardi (12 via Foria)
- Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba (18 via Port’Alba)
- Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro (46 via P. Colletta)
We walked around a little more and sampled some of the gorgeous pastries like the sfogliatelle which is a layered flakey pastry with a creamy but not too sweet filling. The bakeries in this area are so traditional and lovely. We went into this one bakery on Via Carbonara where the whole family was huddled around the mother who sat in-charge near the till. It looked like a scene from a classic Italian movie. This Italian mamma took a shining to Zarek and started teaching him Italian while we kept pointing and ordering more sweet delights. Before we knew it was time to walk back to the port and catch the last ferry home.
We left with a full stomach and an even fuller heart knowing that we would be back in a few days (more on Naples later). Despite being known as a dangerous city, you would be the criminal if you visited Southern Italy and skipped Naples!
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