Though totally and completely worth it, my day trip to Pompeii and Vesuvius left me with only a few precious hours to spend in Naples proper. But I wasn’t too concerned because Giovanni, the owner of my hostel, had already provided me with all the information I needed to hit the hot spots of Naples in only half a day (though I can tell you now that he would not advise anyone to see the city in such away). In fact, Giovanni was so passionate about the sights and sounds of Naples, or Napoli, that he made his own map complete with color coded highlighter markings to pinpoint where to go, how to get there, and what to see. I have to say, the check in at Giovanni’s Home was one of the best services that I have ever been provided by any hostel, hotel, or even family friend. Obviously it’s not for everybody, but to me it just showed a tremendous amount of passion and pride for the city that Giovanni loved so dearly. And it was incredibly informative, especially for me because I had done no research on Naples or what to see. In my mind, it was a train stop on my way to Pompeii that also probably had decent pizza. It is so much more than that!
So, during the check-in, Giovanni created his own small walking tour of Naples. On the map, he marked what churches were where, showed me pictures from books he had collected over the many years of such an undertaking, and told me a little bit about the function and importance that each church had to the community of Naples. He marked where some of the best museums were, where the famous Napoli Aquarium was, so on and so forth. As he went along the map with is neon orange highlighter, guiding the way through this ancient city, the tour eventually concluded at a beautiful viewpoint. I knew it was beautiful because he showed me a picture if it, of course. What you see from this viewpoint stood to be quite possibly one of the best views I will have ever seen; the whole gulf coast of Naples, with all of it’s little, old-timey fishing boats in the bay, and colorful apartment buildings sprinkled along the hills. It just looked perfect.
On the morning of my last day, I got up relatively early in hopes of being able to walk the city, get to the viewpoint, and come back to the hostel with enough time to grab my suitcase and get to the train station. My train to Florence was leaving at 1 o’clock so I figured that as long as I was back to the hostel by noon at the latest, the rest would be a breeze! And so far, the morning was going according to plan! It also happened to be my friend Hannah’s birthday that day so for breakfast we all got a slice of this amazing three layer chocolate cake that Giovanni had picked up for her birthday (a super sweet touch, both literally and figuratively!). Running on my sugar high, I was ready to hit the street!
Close to the hostel was my first stop of the tour. A church. But not just any church, the Duomo of Naples, the cornerstone to the city’s catholicism. It was a Sunday, so I was careful not to disturb any of the pious people inside, but it was a little hard to keep my mouth shut for my mind was being blown. The Duomo was built in the 13th century, but consecrated in the 14th. Although it did suffer some damages from an earthquake during the 1400s, it’s magnanimity and elegance have never wavered. It is renowned for its delicate frescos and other works of art, but there was not enough time in the day for me to stay captivated for long. I was on to the next attraction: another church, lo and behold.
This one a little more unorthodox. The Gesú Nuovo Church doesn’t really resemble a church at all. It’s not outlined by it’s steeples or towers, church bells or crosses, or bearing of any religious marking whatsoever. Instead, this Jesuit church by the name of “New Jesus” is most commonly recognized by it’s strange, pyramid-like studs protruding from it’s facade. If you think that’s cool, just wait till you hear what’s on them. A mystery for centuries, it has recently come to light that etched in the stone are Aramaic characters that coincide with musical notes. Giovanni had previously informed me of this, but nonetheless it is absolutely amazing to me that something so old could be so nuanced. I mean, transcribing a song onto the front of a church in a mostly forgotten alphabet sounds like something straight out of the DaVinci Code to me!
And if the outside wasn’t cool enough, the inside was even more incredible. Warbled marble running all long the walls with incredibly detailed golden molding and gorgeous tile floors. It was truly breathtaking, but alas, my tour had to continue so, feeling a bit more enlightened, I set off in search of my picture perfect viewpoint.
Along the way there were a few more important monuments to be seen, the Castel Nuovo, among others. Unfortunately, I did not go in, for the sake of time and budget, it was quite an impressive turreted structure overlooking the bay. Should I ever have been royalty, my castle would definitely be on the water. Especially in Naples! After taking a quick picture or two, my journey continued.
That is until I found my next stop: the Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola, in the largest square in Naples. Though, in reality, it’s more like a circle. Here you find not only the neoclassical church, but also the home of the Royal Palace. Again, it wasn’t something I was going to pay to see and certainly not on a day that was already stressed for time, but it did look like a good place to go if you wanted to learn about the history of Naples, and probably Italy as a whole. I did not know this upon arrival, but Naples used to be a capital city in the country. I know everyone thinks it’s all about Roma, but Italy used to have seven capitals, and Naples was the capital of the south. Therefore, it stands to reason that there is so much to see here!
From the Piazza del Plebiscito, I walked along the water to the Castel dell’Ovo (the Egg Castle). Like the Gesú Nuovo, this does not look like a castle. It looks like the “modern” architecture of the 1990’s. Geometrically unsymmetrical, you would not think this would be the place for kings and queens, but hey, we don’t even have castles in the US so who am I to say what’s what? At any rate, it was a nice change of pace from the castles you get so used to seeing, like the looks of Castel Nuovo which is much more traditional in stature. I wish I could tell you what it looked like on the inside, but alas the clock was ticking and I had to get to that viewpoint!
As Giovanni had drawn it on his map, it was apparently located just off the page in the southwest corner. Therefore, when I came to the end of the mapped out territory, I became a little curious to not find any mention of this place on the streets or sidewalks. The time was nearing 10:30, so there wasn’t much time to dilly dally. It had taken me an hour and a half to get to where I was and I didn’t have a whole lot of time left for aimless wandering. But I did have some time so I made myself a deal: walk another thirty minutes and if I don’t find it, head back. One picture is not worth missing a €40 train ticket. As I walked along the waterfront, I encountered a friendly officer of the Italian police department who noticed my incessant, and failed, map reading. He offered to help direct me to where I wanted to go, but when I showed him my map and pointed to where this viewpoint supposedly was, he shook his head in disbelief and informed me that the place I was looking for was miles away from the place I currently stood. Defeated, I decided to walk to the end of coast and then turn around.
It was a really nice day for a walk and the beach was scenic, even if it wasn’t the whole coastline I was supposed to be seeing form my viewpoint. Along the way, I saw a small gathering down by the water with boats and small kiddie pools. Curious, I walked toward the crowd and realized that it was a sort of Sunday morning fish market. Maybe not the most official of markets, but still intriguing. I looked upon these worn turquoise “aquariums” and saw all kinds of various marine life. There were small fish, shrimp, baby squid, even moderately sized octopus (which surprised me a little bit). Just as in the olden days, nothing had a price because as the customer, you tell the fisherman how much you’re willing to pay. If it’s acceptable to him, you got yourself a dinner date; if not, you move on to the next guy willing to haggle. After the excitement was over, I decided it was time to head back towards Giovanni’s, disappointed but well-exercised.
When I walked through the hostel doors, Giovanni happened to be at his computer in the front room. Being mislead by his map, I told him that he had misinformed me by saying that the viewpoint he had me drooling over was only a half an hour’s walk away. I had been walking around the city for two hours and was still miles away from that place! Even though I was a little bummed out, I did not convey this too much, but rather tried to joke with him by saying that he lied to me. I’m not sure if he was offended by my teasing, or felt bad for me that I did not have the experience I was hoping for, but for whatever reason he got up, looked at me and said “Follow me.” Cryptic yes, but I was curious so we started off down the stairs. We got to the door leading to the street and I assumed he was going to take me for a little walk somewhere close by to show me something less comparable. But that was not the case. He opened the door, then went over to his little garage, unhinged the lock, and opened the door to his BMW motorbike. Now I was really confused, but as he started to wheel it out of the garage, it was staring to become crystal clear. My eyes were wide with excitement as I looked at Giovanni and shrieked as quietly as I could “Are we going on your motorbike?!”. Then he looked at me, matter-of-factly, and said “Of course.” as if I had just asked the dumbest question in the world. Why wouldn’t he take me to this fantastical viewpoint on his motorcycle?
It was a welcomed brush with insanity because riding on an Italian motorbike and been something I had wanted to do during my time in Italy, but I wasn’t sure when I would have the chance. Now, now was the chance and it couldn’t have been better! Doing a tour or renting one probably would’ve been fine too, but I would never have been able to see how a real Italian drives that thing. Let me tell you, it’s terrifying! The way they zip around moving vehicles and cut across speeding lines of traffic is both exhilarating and horrific. I saw my life flash before my eyes more than a few times, that said, they were closed at least half the time. In fact, several times, Giovanni had to tell me to loosen the death grip I had put him in so that he could continue to drive like a bat out of hell. All the things keeping me on the bike were wrapped around this bald, middle-aged Italian man who kept acting like we were playing a game of MarioKart… So naturally, when things got a little hairy, I squeezed a little tighter. In hindsight this probably wasn’t the best plan, since suffocating your driver is a bit more dangerous than being on the motorcycle in the first place, but it was my subconscious reaction to fear.
The good news? We made it and it was ever bit as beautiful as it was in the picture! I was so overwhelmed with the entire experience that I completely forgot about my upcoming departure, but thankfully Giovanni got me back on track. With only a few minutes to spend oogling at my surroundings, Giovanni and I snapped a few shots and geared up for round two which was initiated by him pleading with me to please not “kill him with my legs”. I resisted the best I could, and it was actually much easier on the way down now that I knew what to expect. I even took a video as we came down the hill that overlooked the coast. It’s the best thirty second reminder of one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
On the way back, Giovanni showed me some of his most memorable places around town, like the place where he got his first kiss from the “most beautiful girl in school”. I told him he was so lucky to live in such a beautiful place and I will remember his response until the day I die. He said, “I’m not lucky. I’m Italian.”
In a place that was completely new to me, it was comforting to hear someone speak about this place in a way reminiscent of an old friend or family member. For me, it highlighted the difference between a place like Naples that is very authentic and homey, and a place like Rome that’s more Chef Boyardee-Italian. I can see now why Giovanni spends so much time telling people how amazing Naples is, but in actuality, he doesn’t really have to. Naples will show you how amazing it is if you just get out and experience it. The people are very friendly and helpful, the streets are cobblestoned and quaint, the history is rich and accessible, and the weather is perfect! Should I ever return to Italy, you won’t find me anywhere north of Naples because the only Italy I want to experience is found solely in the south.