‘Naples; is it dangerous’?
As I watched an armed policeman arrest a four-year-old girl for not having tattoos, a young mother next to me reached into a pram and lit her baby’s cigarette. All around us it seemed like the cast of ‘The Sopranos’ were having a boozy reunion. Naples is certainly a place with ‘character’. Statistically Naples isn’t dangerous but most folk like their cities to feel organised. Naples is a warren of tenement blocks, and between them people, scooters, cars, market stalls and bars compete for the same living space. The old town is hive of scruffy, littered, graffitied streets. It’s chaotic, but, if you can get beneath the grimy surface, you can love Naples. Example time!
Strolling around we spotted a bar; ‘Antica Cantina Sepe’. It operated out of a tiny shop and on the pavement, by the traffic, was the… ahem… ‘lounge’. There were a few barrels for tables and piled up plastic crates for seats, each topped by a thin, worn cushion. I was going to walk past, but something about the setup, the entrepreneurial energy of it, made me stop. So we sat down and ordered two sparkling white wines. We got chatting with the owner, who told us the business has been in his family for four generations. They were proud of their tradition and selected their wines very carefully from local vineyards. The one we had was superb, generously poured, and a bargain at two euros each. Francesco (I think) invited us to come back the next day as his mother would be in the kitchen, serving up some family favourites. What I loved was that you could tell he was being genuine, it wasn’t some scripted, sales patter.
The Palazzo Della Spagnuolo, our B&B nearby, was on the top (5th) floor of an ancient, eerie, apartment block (and I thought Venice did crumbling!). On the way up the many stairs we passed darkened apartments whose occupants had names like Mr Pennywise, Count Dracula, Dr Hannibal Lecter (that’s enough, we get the point… Ed). Our host Nicolo came scurrying down the stairs to help us with our bags.
He was a very welcoming chap and showed us around, “there’s the bathroom, there’s the safe, the aircon, tv, there’s the fridge, the water, beer and wine is all free…” My wife and I exchanged glances, clearly, he’s never met us before. For around £70 a night the accommodation was excellent and there was a rooftop patio with views over the city, Vesuvius in the distance, where you could drink free beer and wine, and where breakfast was served. Did I already mention the free beer and wine? Yes, there it is, let’s move on.
I’m not claiming Naples is inhabited solely by saints, on the trainline to Herculaneum, the Circumvesuviana, I spotted a pickpocket plying his trade. I whistled and gave him a noisy public bollocking. He gave me a dirty look and got off at the next stop. How butch am I? Every major city has pickpockets. Naples isn’t really dangerous but, like anywhere else, you have to be sensible.
It is of a piece with the Napolitan character that the city claims to be the birthplace of the pizza. Be that as it may (i.e. untrue, Gaeta on the nearby coast has the oldest reference to pizza) Naples is rightly famous for its pizzas. La Pizzeria Sorbillo is one of the most well-known ones and we joined the queue as it opened at 7.00pm. We were the last couple to get in for the first sitting and ordered alongside the 80 or so other people who had sat down. Everybody’s pizzas arrived in less than 15 minutes. I was expecting to wait an hour, but I peeped in the kitchen and they had several wood burning pizza ovens on the go, it was like a vision of Dante’s heaven. The pizzas were brilliant and cheap. The dough was very light and the base very (too) thin. The next day we ate pizza in Pizzerie Starita a Meterdei a brightly lit restaurant in a shadowy neighbourhood. We had a drink in a bar on the corner, it was a real ‘local’ with guys popping in for a quick beer, coffee, or grappa (or all three) before or after their shift. It had a good, earthy, vibe (okay, it was rough). Starita is another of the famous pizza places. I thought the pizzas were better here, the base was a little crispier and to my tastes. Both restaurants used ingredients of the highest and freshest quality.
Alongside its own charms Naples is also a great base from which to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii (and Vesuvius but we didn’t have time for that).
Herculaneum was discovered after Pompeii, it was more difficult to excavate as the pyroclastic flow that covered the city was about 10 metres deep, it was only 3 metres at Pompeii. It’s a much smaller site, better preserved than its more famous sibling and a few hours is enough to see all of it. Consequently, perhaps Herculaneum offers a more intimate experience. More of the upper floors of building survive here, though access to these parts is limited. Because we prefer the freedom to roam we didn’t get a guide, I think now that was a mistake. I listened to several of them and they gave out fascinating details. We ‘did’ the place in the morning and it was enough time.
If Herculaneum gives you the close up, Pompeii gives you the big picture. It is much larger, you can get lost walking round Pompeii. It has more of the big stuff; temples, theatres, a massive amphitheatre, bigger baths. It doesn’t have the detail of Herculaneum but if you want the feel of ancient Roman civilisation Pompeii is the place. Strolling the streets of Pompeii you cannot see the modern world beyond. It’s a more immersive experience and you need most of a full day to soak it up. You can wander for hours muttering darkly; “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, loyal servant to the true Emperor Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife…” to anyone who wants to listen (nobody).
If, like me, you are a sucker for classical antiquity then both sites are awesome. I preferred Pompeii because it was easier to pretend I was a gladiator there. To protect them from the elements (and graffiti) the best artistic treasures of both are on display in Naples’ Archaeological Museum. It’s a rewarding couple of hours and the current display of 2000 year old statuary is linked (obviously) to props from Star Wars. Make of that what you will.
Should you go?
The thing about Naples is that it is more Neapolitan more than Italian, if that makes sense. I have no useful analogy, but I’ve been to Italy lots of times and Naples has a unique quality which is hard to define. It’s a place full of character, with great food, street life and iconic archaeology. I haven’t even mentioned the amazing churches. At first I didn’t like the place because it was so scruffy, but it seduced me. It’s a ‘short break’ city but definitely worth a full three days, and from me that’s the equivalent of a handshake off Paul or a 10 off Craig!
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