If you’ve sometimes felt that all European cities are beginning to look the same, you should spend some time in Naples, which is like nowhere else you have ever been on Earth.
The sun was tucked behind a row of tall buildings opposite Stazione di Napoli Centrale when I arrived in the southern, Mezzogiorno, region of Italy. A cool, cotton candy pink-and-blue sky stretched high above the peeling sepia walls of Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi as dusk settled on the terminal.
I shook off a cold chill as I waited for my parents to show up in one direction or another on dusty Corsa Novara. The sea was to the east, but lacking an international data plan, I resisted the urge to find it, and stuck to the plan we had agreed on the day before, to meet just outside the station. There were heaps of trash lining the terminal walls, I perused, and a squabble going on around the corner that made me leery, but just as well, the amorous sounds of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 playing on the eighty-eight keys parked just inside the station. “Dear old Napoli” was decidedly going to be more gritty than glamorous.
I loved it. But I was tired of trying to convince the young, beckoning cabbies leaning over their car doors that I actually had arrangements to be picked up. Also tired of standing around in my blisters, I shuffled back over to the terminal to pass the time browsing its gift shops and confectioneries, where I could at least pick up public WiFi until my mom could get back to me on WhatsApp. Within a few minutes, with a few more pretty things crammed into my bag, my parents, on foot, greeted me and walked me over to the nearby Grand Europa Hotel.
My stomach growled as the concierge handed me a heavy brass skeleton key with a weighted red velvet tassel at the end. My stepdad, also hungry, hurried us past the billiard table in the parlor adjacent to the front desk. We went through a passage that led to a dead end, then doubled back to a misplaced flight of stairs. My mom trailed behind, aimlessly brushing up against the hallway as she “checked in” on Facebook. The mismatched wooden floors were creaky, the staircases, whined-y. There were bronze busts mounted on marble pedestals, low ceilings in the halls, and vaulted ceilings in the suites, with rich velvety drapes adorning inconsequential entry ways, exquisite copper fixtures in the bathrooms, and an ornate, mechanical elevator in our grand, old timey hotel.
In our room, I peeled off my leather loafers and slipped into a pair of pink sling-backs I had picked out earlier in Rome. I swapped my day bag for an envelop clutch, and ready to feast, we set out to find our long anticipated wood-fired Neopolitan pizza.
The sights and sounds of Naples by night were just as mystifying outdoors as they were within.
Will I ever get used to the spiderweb routes and alleyways of Europe? Will one take us right up to the sea? Is the graffiti in all of Italy always passionate and pleading (“I love you, Maria”, “Wait for me, Marco”)?
Less of a romantic, more of an operative, my stepdad was simply on a mission, directing us past every pizza joint in town but the one intended, it seemed. The man works for the D.O.D. in counter-terrorism and he’s the smartest person I know, so I enjoy claiming a better sense of direction than him on these trips. Though not long after I took over the guide book, my appetite made me relent, and so I approached a group of friendly faces outside a convenience store to practice my Italian with. The women pointed to the building behind us, to Trianon da Ciro at Via Pietro Colletta 42.
For all the warnings of long waits and lines at Trianon da Ciro (and its rival De Michelle; you might know it as the pizzeria that Julia Roberts dines at in Eat Pray Love), at eight o’clock on a Thursday, we were able to walk in and order a bottle of wine, the place and three pizzas to ourselves. We dined upstairs and were attended by a no-nonsense server who tolerated my mother essentially rearranging the tables and chairs in order to take all her photos of the marbled marvel.
We caught up, talked about how the food in Milan didn’t compare, and decided where in the world we’d meet for Christmas. We had our fill when we finished our crust, then headed back to the hotel, bellies full and heads ready to find their way to a pillow after a full day’s travel. But not before dipping into a couple scoops of gelato and the cappuccinos we crossed paths with before bed.
Besides its food, Naples also serves as an excellent jumping-off point for other Italian destinations. The city is close to Sicily and Sardinia, the ancient ruins of Pompeii, and the beautiful Amalfi Coast. Just don’t let any low TripAdvisor ratings fool you…travel expert, Rick Steve tells it like it is, as his favorite spot in all of Europe:
Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. Naples is Italy in the extreme — its best (birthplace of pizza and Sophia Loren) and its worst (home of the Camorra, Naples’ “family” of organized crime). The city has a brash and vibrant street life — “Italy in your face” in ways both good and bad. Even though it’s Italy’s grittiest, most polluted, and most crime-ridden city, walking through its colorful old town is one of my favorite experiences anywhere in Europe. Naples surprises the observant traveler with its impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children with good humor and decency. Overcome your fear of being run down or ripped off long enough to talk with people. Enjoy a few smiles and jokes with the man running the neighborhood tripe shop, or the woman taking her day-care class on a walk through the traffic. Naples richly rewards those who venture in.
Learn more about what makes this great city worth its gristle: Why Naples doesn’t deserve to be the place that everyone loves to hate: Despite its dodgy image, the Italian city is full of unique charms.