I must admit that I did not plan or research a lot before coming to Italy. Internet is expensive on the islands and I didn’t have the time, what with packing, saying goodbyes, endless ceremonies, etc. But I am not one of those people that can just show up in a city and blow around from here to there like tumbleweed. I am Type-A after all. So my planning consisted of choosing four cities: Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice, booking my hostels/hotels and buying train tickets.
Why those cities? Because I’d heard of them. Really, it’s as simple as that. I’ve heard of a lot of cities in Italy but those were the first ones that popped into my head. My aunt, who’d visited Italy last year, warned me off Naples the day I arrived in Rome. This was our Facebook conversation:
Me: I’m doing Italy alone. I fly into Rome, then I’ll travel to Naples, Florence and Venice. I fly from Venice to Paris.
Her: Okay well I would skip Naples if I were you. That’s the only place Rachel and I didn’t even feel safe together. Sorrento is gorgeous and safe and we would have stayed there instead if we had known.
Me: I’ve already got stuff booked in Naples and I’m really excited about seeing Pompeii. I’m sure I’ll be fine.
Her: No worries but please please do be careful you definitely don’t want to be out at night alone I hope you meet some other Travelers on the way. We met a number of girls traveling alone but never there.
I put this conversation out of my mind while I was in Rome but on the hour-long train ride down to Naples I started researching on my phone. I ran across articles titled, “Why No One Wants to Travel to Naples” and “Naples: Italy’s Scariest City”. By the end of my train ride, I was quite convinced I would witness a murder before exiting the train station and I would definitely be mugged on my way to the hostel.
Stepping down from my safe train compartment, I held my luggage close and clutched my purse under my armpit. Every passerby was mafia with a nefarious gleam in his or her eye. Every child was a pickpocketer. I bustled through the train station as quickly as possible, considering what I had on my person to use as a weapon. Waiting for the metro, I ran through scenarios in my head. What would I do if someone came at me with knife? What if I was surrounded by a Vespa gang and they demanded my backpack? Thoughts swirled and fear raged.
I made it to my metro stop with no incidents. As I furtively glanced at my fellow passengers, they didn’t look particularly menacing. Not menacing, but I did notice a definite style change from the sophistication of black-clad Roman women. Entering the street from underground, I was assaulted with the sight of a large, hairy potbelly peaking out from a stained white shirt on a man standing in my path. Girls walked by with ripped jeans and badly dyed hair. Whatever else might be said, la mode of Napoli is far more grunge and laissez-faire than Rome.
I immediately noticed the graffiti. It was everywhere. There was also a distinct smell- urine mixed with marijuana- that permeated the city streets. It actually reminded me a bit of New York City.
Google maps directed me the 0.2 miles to my hostel, aptly named Giovanni’s Home (as the hostel was housed in the apartment of a Neapolitan man named Giovanni). Naples is very hilly so my journey to the hostel took me down a hill, up a hill and down another. I arrived at the hostel sweating and sore. Despite the temperature gage that told me Naples was colder than Rome at 62 degrees (16.6 Celsius), it felt much hotter. Giovanni was waiting for me on the porch of his 3rd story apartment.
“Jessie!” he called down when I was still about 200 meters down the road, “Jessie! Up here!”
I was buzzed into the complex and helped to the third floor with my luggage. Giovanni bustled around showing me the bathrooms, kitchen, common area and the bedroom I would share with seven other girls. I, thank goodness, was given a bottom bunk. He told me to rest; he was waiting on some more arrivals at which point he would give us all a presentation about Naples.
Half an hour later, I sat across from Giovanni, wedged in between three Spanish girls and a British couple. Giovanni laid a map before us and began highlighting all of the things we must see, the streets we must walk and the places we must avoid. For particularly notable attractions, he pulled up pictures on his computer.
Well aware of the reputation his city has, he took some of the presentation time to give us crime statistics. Barcelona is the number one city in the world for pickpocketing. Paris, Rome, and Florence are in the top ten. Naples doesn’t have such a distinction. Giovanni advised walking around with a backpack instead of a small purse. Backpacks are hard to snatch and small purses are tempting because they will have all the essentials- phone and cash.
As I’d arrived at lunchtime, Giovanni recommended a pizza place in the area- the best in Naples. And since Naples makes the best pizza in the world, the best in the world? I set off almost immediately when he was finished, promptly got lost and ended up at the pizza place at the same time as the Spanish girls who had left after me.
I won’t go into a detailed description of everything I saw and did in Naples. Suffice to say, I believe it has an undeserved bad reputation. Aside from my terrifying walk to my hostel, hounded by the voices of cautious tourists, I felt completely safe and had a marvelous time taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the third largest city in Italy.
There are some things that do deserve special mention. The very first thing I visited was the Cappella Sansevero, a small chapel that was built in 1590. It houses some of the most beautiful sculptures I have ever seen. The most famous (for good reason) is the Veiled Christ, completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. Sculpted from marble, it appears that Christ is wearing a shroud but his facial expression and form can clearly be seen underneath. Wow.
I can’t count the number of churches that I entered. The Duomo of Napoli houses the crypt of the city’s principle patron saint, Januarius or San Gennaro. On the stage of this grand cathedral there was a dead guy on display in a glass case. Having eight years of Catholic education, I had heard of this practice but this was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. His name was Beato Nunzio Sulprizo and he died in 1836 at age 19. He has been venerated as “Blessed” by the Catholic Church since 1963. I starred at him for a while trying to understand the purpose of having him on display. I think my deeply embedded Protestantism hampered my efforts. In addition to this mummified dude, there were offering plates placed around the church “For the worship of San Gennaro”. That’s what the plates said. And the age old debate continues; since when do Christians consider it appropriate to worship dead people? That topic is a post for another time—but it truly did disturb my sensibilities.
That first day I walked over 12 miles. The second day I booked an all-day tour of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Giovanni was not at all happy when he discovered I’d been tricked into booking a tour! “Oh sh*t!” he bemoaned, “You could have done so much more and for cheaper if you just went on your own. Why would you do that? Why??” I smiled and sympathized. “Darn you, tourist traps!” And I shook my fist in the air (not really). But in actuality, I was not disappointed in myself for booking a tour. I was picked up in a bus, driven around with commentary on the buildings being passed, given an expert guide of Pompeii providing information that could not have been obtained with a simple audioguide, given lunch and driven up Mount Vesuvius to where the walking path begins. I have to get myself from one place to another across Europe. When I’m in a city, sometimes I don’t want to have to figure everything out myself. I felt no guilt despite Giovanni’s best effort.
Not everyone at the hostel was so lucky. I met a young Australian girl that night when I returned from my amazing day in Pompeii. Upon walking in the door, Giovanni asked if I ate everything. Without allowing me to answer he informed me that he was going to show me how to make carbonara.
“Oh sounds good. When?”
“Now! Now. Come.”
Putting my backpack on my bed and plugging in my phone took too long. “Jessie!!! Come,” rang through the hostel. Two other girls waited to be instructed and we struck up a conversation about our days. Rose, the Australian, had also been on a couple tours during her time in Naples. She had the same reasoning I had but expressed dismay at Giovanni’s disapproval. In fact, the day before, he’d given her such a haranguing that her eyes had prickled with unshed tears. As we enjoyed a small glass of wine that evening in the Piazza Bellini, I told her not to worry about it. The clientele of said hostel seems to be overwhelmingly young- mostly college students. Most of them are probably more than happy to take any advice given by this grandfatherly figure and he is most willing (is there a stronger word than willing?) to give it. He wanted to know everything I was doing and he always had something to say about it.
“What are you doing today?”
“Going to the island of Procida.”
“Take the ferry, not the small metro boat. It’s too windy.”
(I took the small boat and it was fine).
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”
“That is too early! You leave at 7:00. Take a taxi.”
“Umm…no. I think I’m still going to leave at 6:30 and take the metro.”
The look of disapproval was evident but I just smiled. Most conversations were some variation of this. I understood Rose’s discomfort, but for me, there was something endearing about his bossiness. I also give him the credit for singlehandedly turning my fear of Naples into love. I don’t quite agree with the Neapolitan saying, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori!“–“See Naples and die” but it’s definitely worth the seeing.