Our first stop in Italy, Naples, the home of pizza!
Naples, the third largest city in Italy, is a place we had lusted over and dreamed of visiting since we started planning our trip. After a couple of weeks in Croatia we boarded a plane in Dubrovnik, crossed the Adriatic Sea and flew into Naples. During a stopover in Rome, we were welcomed into Italy by a relaxed customs officer and the remark “Napoli… PIZZA!” He proceeded to casually stamp our passports, granting us entry into the Schengen Area. Our 90-day countdown timer officially begins!
Arriving late in Naples, we were approached by a taxi driver who offered to take us into town for nearly the same price as the bus. While he was an absolute lunatic of a driver, I managed to take in a bit of the surroundings and was quite surprised by what greeted us. Graffiti covered majority of the buildings, church’s, fences; basically anything at ground level was covered in colourful tagging. In combination with the narrow cobblestone alleyways the derelict looking buildings didn’t give off the romantic vibe I was expecting from Italy. While I had seen and read some European countries were struggling with graffiti problems, I wasn’t expecting it to be so widespread.
Thankfully, a beautiful sunny day cast a different light on the town. Still covered in graffiti, the buildings had more character during the daylight hours. By the time the flamboyant shop owners had arrived, the streets came alive in a complete contrast to the way the shadows came to life at night. We started to appreciate the incredible architecture throughout the city, which is a completely different to anything either of us has seen before.
Naples is an ancient city that boasts constant inhibition since the 2nd century BC. The metropolitan area is now home to 4 million people and sprawls along the coastline and around Mount Vesuvius. Full of piazzas, palaces and castles, there are pieces of history radiating from every corner you turn. After a couple of days in town, we learnt to love the eccentric old centre overflowing with people, pizza and pastries.
We started our Italian adventure with the hope that Air BnB would continue to deliver. Initially I was a bit surprised and disappointed our place wasn’t quite what it had appeared in the photos, but in the end it suited us and the central location was great. A lesson to look more carefully at the photos. Overall, a nice place to stay for our first stop in Italy.
As the friendly customs officer alluded to, Naples (or Napoli in Italian) is the home of pizza. While the heavy, Domino-esque image of pizza we often drum up is more attributable to the Canadian and American influence; a true pizza comes from humble Italian beginnings in Naples. Somehow, archaeologists have found evidence of the first pizza-type food as long as 7,000 years ago. The development of pizza as we know it today was more recent, but almost made by accident. In the late 18th century, the poor in Naples started putting tomatoes on their flat bread. Initially this was appalling; at that time tomatoes were thought to be poisonous and were grown purely for decoration. Once the people realised tomatoes were, in fact, delicious, the use of tomatoes became progressively more popular. What we consider Italian food today is the direct consequence of these acts of desperation, coming from a population in a time of need.
Over time, the pizzas have also developed. Purists consider the Margherita and Marinara the only true pizzas; the first is a basic tomato, mozzarella and basil, the second equally basic with tomato, basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. While it is fair to say many have made their own additions and adaptations to the pizza, a clear divide is placed on all menus in Naples between the traditional and modern pizza.
With all that said, we decided it would be rude to visit Naples and snub their dish. We threw caution to the wind, ordering a Margherita and Bufalina (cherry tomatoes, buffalo cheese, basil and olive oil) pizza. To say we enjoyed the pizza is an understatement. Perfectly basic, the pizzas were both delicious and were quickly demolished.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
The ancient city of Naples is bursting with museums, monuments and churches that are all hundreds of years old and boast impressive history and architecture. While some may be horrified, we have made an educated decision to pick and chose certain attractions we think we will enjoy the most; rather than trying to see every museum, church and monument in every city we visit. Not only are we lacking time to achieve that ambitious goal, we also lack the motivation, patience and enthusiasm for those kind of attractions to visit them all. While it was quite eye opening, we had a great time exploring Naples and using our apartment in Centro Storico as a base to explore the Napoli region further.
The Ancient City
Our time in Naples had us both surprised and amazed; surprised by the overwhelming amount of graffiti and rubbish, and amazed by the ancient architecture preserved by UNESCO. The relatively high buildings and narrow alleyways made the streets feel dark, cold and unsafe outside of daylight hours. The architecture, however, is incredible and provides a lift to the otherwise dingy streets. I was awestruck by the ancient buildings and endless piazza’s, each of which seemed to have it’s own fountain or monument. For a full day we wandered the streets and alleyways of Naples, checking out what the city had to offer and exploring Centro Storico.
One of the largest and most important churches in Naples, Santa Chiara was founded in 1310. The structure is hugely impressive and we spent some time exploring the grounds, especially the Majolica Colister. As with so many of the ancient buildings, the intricate detailing’s that were put into every aspect of the architecture is amazing.
Unlike any other ancient city of it’s time, Pompeii has been magnificently preserved giving archaeologists and historians a snapshot of life in early civilisation. In close proximity to Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano in the heart of the Naples Region, Pompeii was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD. The city was covered in a thick ash, almost like a flood, killing an estimated 2,000 people. It was the same volcanic ash that protected the city until 1748, when explorers rediscovered the city. Much to their surprise, much of the area had been preserved by the ash. Ancient artefacts, buildings and even casts of bodies have since been discovered.
Today, Pompeii is a well-established tourist destination, famous for the incredible ruins that allow visitors an accurate impression of life nearly 2,000 years ago. As we walked through it was amazing to see the intricate details and particular features of the ancient society that had been so perfectly preserved. For me, I was amazed by the gymnasium and bathrooms. Areas have been identified that were set aside for athletic activities. Adjoining rooms house single sex change rooms, as well as a series of chambers with baths of varying temperatures. Moving from frigid, tepid to hot, the infrastructure and engineering seems more advanced than I would have expected for those times. There were also extensive theatres, houses, roadways and official buildings located throughout the city of Pompeii.
Even though the ruins were rediscovered over 150 years ago, extensive excavation works continue and they are still uncovering new parts of the ancient city. The area is already fascinating, it would be amazing to visit again in 10-15 years to see how reconstruction has progressed.
Path of Gods
We were easily tantalised by the prospect of walking the Path of Gods, a well-trodden path between Bomerano and Nocelle. These small towns lie high above the Amalfi coastline, a famous stretch of coast south of Sorrento. Traditionally named Sentiero delgi Dei, which translates to the Path of Gods, legends tell the stories of the Gods coming down to earth and forming the pathway to reach the sea. After walking the pathway, it is easy to understand how the legend came about.
After an early start, a train to Sorrento and a bus to Amalfi, we found ourselves in Gods territory and decided to stay to explore for a few hours. Amalfi is a tiny town squeezed between the coast and impressive cliff faces. Many wouldn’t have bothered with the location, however, it seems the Italians were hell bent on settling in this part of the country. After being thoroughly impressed by the famous rice terraces that lined the mountains in Vietnam, I was intrigued by the terraced cliff faces we found scattered along the coastline. Boasting rows of olive trees and grapevines, these terraces are Italian as they come.
After exploring the Amalfi township (and enjoying a gelato) we caught a bus to Bomerano which is the where we opted to start the hike. Prior research indicated there are two ways you can travel; east to west or west to east. The important part of the translation is one way takes you uphill, the other downhill. We started in Bomerano, the top of the hill. While I welcome a challenge, my prowess does not extend to walking up hills (or stairs for that matter). If you want to see me at my worst, wait at the top of a steep hill and you will have it coming to you! Instead, we had an enjoyable afternoon wandering along the incredible path.
On several occasions we were caught off-guard by the impressive cliff faces. Not only did we get up close and personal with them, the loose stone we displaced while walking toppled of many of these cliffs; the narrow path cut that close to the edge! It was a beautiful day and a walk to remember.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
What was most surprising (and also intimidating) was the number of people lurking around the streets. They all appeared to be in cahoots and certainly looked us up and down each time we passed. Perhaps we were just slightly on edge and overly suspicious,
however, we were aware of the reportedly high crime rate in Naples. What we were both wondering was why there appeared to be so many people floating about during the workday. After a bit of reading around the topic, it seems unemployment is currently at ridiculously high levels throughout Italy and Naples is significantly higher than average.
A bit of research on Istat, the Italian Statistics Website, took a bit of interpretation so I instead opted to read a few articles on unemployment. An article on Bloomberg Buisness reports youth (those between the ages of 15 and 24) unemployment in Naples was 53.4% in 2012. It continues to discuss ‘parental networks’ that allow youth to stay at home with their parents and continue to live a comfortable life. What is further astonishing, the general unemployment rate of 22.6% fails to include those who aren’t actively searching for a job, instead only including those who have actively searched within the 4 weeks prior.
Further research uncovered an interesting article that remarks on the many reasons why no one wants to visit Naples. I’m happy I didn’t read the article prior to our travel or perhaps it would have been enough for us to skip the area. Not only discussing the unemployment rate, this particular article continues to describe Naples as a dumping ground for toxic waste since the early 1990’s. The consequences are evident in the cities health statistics, with significantly higher cancer rates than the rest of Italy. On top of the breast cancer occurrence being more than 47% higher than the national average, the numbers of birth defects are a whopping 80% higher than the national average.
These statistics are fascinating but in all the wrong ways. Furthermore, while we didn’t know of the specifics, we experienced a difference that reflects the numbers. It will be interesting to see if we notice any social differences as we continue to travel through Italy.
We had some confusion when we attempted to travel to Amalfi for the Path of Gods walk. Jimmy had taken responsibility for the organising transport. Unfortunately, we went to the train station to catch a bus. Surprisingly, this was unsuccessful. With a quick change in plans we were able to jump on a train to Pompeii. We managed to miss the stop, which gave us a great 2.5km walk that served as a warm up for exploring Pompeii.
WHAT WE LEARNT
Still new to the Air BnB arrangement, I think we need to look a bit closer at the text and photos to ensure we get a place that suits us and our needs. There are certainly some misleading places that have been poorly photographed, or photographed well to suit the owner.
I have given us a budget of 100euros per day, which now that we are here seems quite realistic, perhaps even a bit generous. It will take a bit more travel to assess how much we are actually spending but hopefully we continue to manage to keep our spending to a minimum.
We have booked in for a couple of days in Rome next, which I am really excited about. We initially planned to head to Florence for a few days afterwards but we are now reconsidering and thinking about using the extra days to explore more through northern Italy.