I find the winter holidays and the “Recovery January” quite hard and stressful. That’s why usually when we survive from that me and my boyfriend take a trip abroad. Last year we were in India in the beginning of February; the year before, when all other plans had failed, we arranged a last-minute holiday in Thailand in the beginning of March.
This year I felt like if I go to a far-destination holiday, the return to work would be too much of a hard landing. But finding good weather close by in February, and in addition a safe destination in this crazy world – it’s a difficult task. In Southern Europe this January there was more snow than in Finland. In addition when we started planning a Naples trip, we watched all the kinds of documentaries about the mafia and other crime that is part of the daily life of the city, and in the news there were volcano warnings for the region – no, not about Vesuvius, but about Campi Flegrei.
After all we decided on Naples because we wanted to taste authentic pizza – and we didn’t regret it.
It has been almost 9 years since I visited Italy. My first trip was in the spring of 2008 and I saw quite much for a single visit – Verona, Padua, Bologna, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Montecatini and Ancona. I have always been curious what is Southern Italy like, because people always say it is different than the North.
On the other hand, for Jani the Naples trip was a first time in Italy, so it was important for me that he doesn’t generalize the Italy experience judging only by one place.
Flying through Amsterdam
Our flight had a stopover on Schiphol Airport both on the way to and from Naples. It was good to get acquainted with Amsterdam‘s airport, because we are going to Holland with Anna Maria next month. In general, the airport experience was a nice surprise.
On the way to Naples at Schiphol we enjoyed the best burgers I have tasted in a really long time, at the Tribune Bar. In addition, you can’t be on Dutch soil and not taste Heineken. It was 9 o’clock and this was supposed to be breakfast!
On the way back I explored the shopping options of the airport. I left the souvenirs for next trip. I hate fake experience souvenirs – you can’t bring home a magnet from Netherlands when you have only been on the airport! But I couldn’t resist the stroopwafels. They are among my favorites and it’s cool that I can buy them even in Finland nowadays. In addition I discovered the Jack Daniel’s Fudge – I’m such a Jack’s fan that everything with this brand is good for me. And this time I didn’t have time before the next flight to enjoy a Heineken, so I put up with green ice tea, which happened to be probably the best ice tea I’ve tasted.
We booked our hotel online. Naples has hundreds of hotels, so the choice was not easy. We trusted the ratings more than the photos this time and chose Hotel Piazza Bellini. It is situated in the historical center of the city between the metro stations of Cavour and Dante, and the building is actually the sixteenth-century castle of Albanian noble family Skanderbeg.
My first impression after arrival was that the room was really spacious.
A few minutes later I was forced to notice the perfectly lacquered parquet floor, since I took a fast turn from the bathroom back to the room, fell on the floor and literally kissed it. Yes, I am a clumsy person, but this floor was objectively slippery.
Later on, when I explored more of the hotel, I noticed that except the combination between seventeenth-century marble and modern design furniture the place is very specifically designed and branded. Everything from the guide of the fire extinguisher to the bell on the door or the tiny bottle of shampoo was a state of art – written or drawn by hand by a local artist, Alessandro Crocchia. As a part of this concept they had a blackboard in the restaurant with colorful chalk on every table, and you can even write with it on your mug, or buy a blackboard mug as a souvenir.
And when I mentioned the restaurant, the thing that impressed me the most in this hotel was the breakfast. I swear, I could have skipped all the sightseeing and stayed in the restaurant enjoying fresh ricotta with croissants and tomatoes with mozzarella all day, if it was only possible! Except of the americano on the table on request they serve cappuccino and espresso. Heaven on earth!
As a tourism professional I should say that this hotel was a rare site with a real idea behind. I can tell that the owners and developers have thought of every little detail beforehand. Only some translations in English were not correct – but who am I to criticize others’ bad English!
Bring your sneakers and a navigator
At the beginning Naples was quite hard to get around. It took probably half an hour to find where to get the metro from at Piazza Garibaldi – only for one-stop ride!
We dropped the luggage at the hotel and started exploring the city by foot. The streets are narrow and the horizon is hidden behind the tall buildings, so even for a well navigating person like me it was quite stressful in the beginning, finding myself every time at a different place when searching for something familiar. In addition most of the main streets in the center are one huge construction site because of the metro extension.
The situation would have required a good navigator, but my phone failed at that – the GPS was not working properly, so I had to rely on my senses and Jani’s phone. Me and Jani make a really good combination – non of us is always right, but always at least one of us is right – and so it was with getting around the city as well.
Eventually we found which are the most important streets that can take us almost everywhere we need, and at the end of our journey there wasn’t any navigation stress anymore. One of those was Via dei Tribunali – a long straight street in the historical center that goes from Piazza Bellini almost until Piazza Garibaldi. Almost all the important pizzerias are situated on this street. Another one was Via Duomo, where you can find many shops with amazingly beautiful wedding dresses. I adore Italian fashion!
The stress of the tired feet however only increased with time. Uphills, downhills, old pavement, all the kinds of obstacles, getting your way around stinky garbage containers, souvenir stands and parked cars… At the end of the day this was a lot of walking, and I couldn’t recommend any other shoes than the most comfortable sneakers you can come up with!
As for the sightseeing, in a city with over 4oo monumental churches where do you even start from? We spent one day sightseeing and all we experienced was Castel dell’Ovo, Castel Sant’Elmo and Piazza del Plebiscito with the church San Francesco da Paola.
Castel dell’Ovo, or the Egg Castle, is situated on a former island (nowadays a peninsula) and is the oldest fortification in Naples. The Greek colonists chose the place in 6th century BC because of the good view of Naples waterfront. The rest of the story was not of interest for me, but I am attracted to everything ancient or medieval… or Greek. The view was really stunning, Vesuvius shyly hiding behind a cloud on the one side, and on the other – the hill with Castel Sant’Elmo on top.
We were intrigued by the medieval castle on the hill and decided to go there next. On the way we briefly visited Piazza del Plebiscito and took a look at San Francesco da Paola which resembles the Pantheon in Rome at least for the part, that the dome has a huge hole in the center. We continued our walk through Chiaia district and our strategy to get to the top of the hill was simply to choose ways that go up.
We knew that there is a funicular somewhere, but we didn’t find it. We experienced that one on the last day of our visit and, unfortunately, only on the way down.
I don’t remember how long we walked up, but it seemed endless. The big streets turned into narrow streets, which turned into stairs and every time you get to the end of it, there is another street going left or right, and going up again. I started regretting every bad habit preventing me from being in better shape and walking faster. The grannies were watching us from every corner with curiosity – they definitely knew a better way up!
At the end we got on top and in the castle. The 360-view of Naples was totally worth it! The sun and shadows were chasing each other in the sea.
Other important sights we visited were Bar Nilo and the Archaeological Museum.
As a passionate football fan grown up in a football nation during the 90’s I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the Maradona shrine at Bar Nilo. Also, I got pretty good espresso in there.
In the Archaeological Museum there were some pretty interesting artifacts. As I said, everything ancient is interesting to me.
The ultimate pizza experience
So we found ourselves in the birthplace of pizza…
Italy is virtually the only place in the world where I can go to any restaurant without being worried that there won’t be anything suitable for me in the menu. I also know approximately what I will get once I’ve ordered. Well, I didn’t know that the spagetti carbonara would come with onion, and for the whole stay I didn’t learn the word in Italian for folded pizza to avoid ordering it (I thought it is “calzone” but obviously not). But these are small details compared to the food delight that we experienced in general during our stay.
Italian food makes me smile – every time I taste it!
We started from the Sorbillo’s pizzeria. A little bit confusing, but in the same neighborhood there are at least 3 places named Sorbillo. The one we chose was Gino e Toto Sorbillo and, oh my, the first authentic Italian, Neapolitan pizza was much better than I have ever expected! After that Jani claimed that the Sorbillo’s pizza was the best of all. I think we were just hungry traveler that finally got some food. All the pizzas in Naples are equally perfect!
The Sorbillo’s pizzeria looked like a fast food place, not like a restaurant. So do most of the authentic pizzerias. Because pizza is a fast food indeed.
The region has a long history of fast food serving – fast food shops have been existing even on the streets of old Pompei:
During day time every pizza place has a small kiosk in front selling takeaway pizza. During lunch time and in the evening they have tables inside. They often serve the drinks in plastic cups.
Pizzeria Port’Alba is believed to be the oldest pizzeria in the world, established as a street stand in 1738 and functioning as a pizzeria since 1830. You can feel it when you breathe in the air of the old town. You can taste with every bite that they have had the time to master the recipe of pizza to perfection. The pizza, baked in ovens with stones from Mount Vesuvius, is thought to be at its best as a takeaway snacks, just served to you wrapped in a piece of paper on the street in front of the restaurant.
The busiest place we visited was Pizzeria di Matteo. They had so much work and so many customers that one could observe how the real Italian drama is developing… The voice, the gestures – everything. Pizzeria di Matteo is famous as the place where Bill Clinton has eaten during his visit. We knew about it and found it easily, but from outside it really looked like a kiosk, so we had to ask and make sure that we are at the right place.
There was a place so busy that we couldn’t try it – L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. This is another pizzeria with a celebrity story behind. This is the place Julia Roberts ate pizza in “Eat, Pray, Love”. Michele’s pizza is supposed to be the best pizza place in the world, but didn’t get any points from us – we kept it as a culmination of our trip, as a lunch place on Saturday before departure. We couldn’t have guessed that the place would have a 50 minutes queue blocking the whole street during off-season. In fact most of the waiting customers were locals. We would have gladly waited for 50 minutes to be seated but we had a plane to catch.
At Pizzeria da Attilio in addition to the pizza I tried fried pasta ball called frittatina. I found a post on instagram with the frittatina and just had to visit the place and try it. Long lives the social media! Besides in pizza, many of Naples’ restaurants specialize in fried food. And for me everything friend and crispy is tasty as hell. So the combination of pasta and crust, like also of pizza with french fries on top, is not odd, but rather delicious!
Other delicacies to try in Italy include:
- gelato ice-cream, coming in more tastes that you can imagine
- espresso coffee, short and strong
- other strange types of coffee
- pasta – be sure that it will be served al dente
- Italian beer
- fresh fruits – since they are growing on trees there, and not in the supermarket
Local culture and lifestyle
Southern Italians seemed cheerful, vivid and rather informal people. The streets were full day and night, but you can say Italians don’t like to wake up very early. In the early morning most of the shops (at least in the historical center) were closed.
What I noticed is that people in Naples like to hang out on the street, especially in the evening. They get something to drink from the bar, but don’t stay in – they just enjoy each others company on the street, on a bench or on the stairs of some of the hundreds of historical sites around. Also, it seemed that the weekend started already on Thursday evening for the locals. At least the nightlife got revived on that evening.
I also got the sense of Italian fashion and style. Some women’s clothing and makeup was really a bold statement. I could really feel how far from Scandinavia I’ve gotten, because everything was colorful, shiny and the details mattered. Unfortunately I didn’t have time for shopping, but I would have gladly updated my wardrobe with some stylish Italian pieces.
Pompei and Vesuvius
After our independent walking tour around Naples I felt like I needed a guided day tour to feel the spirit of the place, especially when the place in question was the famous Pompei. I should say, however, that our guides weren’t able to bring out this spirit and the drama of events from 79 A.D. At the ruins of Pompei I think I would have had more relaxed experience if I had my private time to walk around.
At Vesuvius the guide said in advance that hiking to the crater is too hard for her and didn’t even come with us, although (later I noticed) even on our tickets was written “guided tour”. The crater was spectacular – so huge and steaming. This is one of the places where you feel small and insignificant before the mighty nature.
I can’t escape my destiny – I found myself once again in a national park! And despite the fact we were in Southern Europe, on Vesuvius there was a little bit of snow. You can see that at the Milky Mountains there was snow too. Our guide was excited about it – the sight of snow is quite rare in Naples.
All the roads lead to Rome
As I said, I wanted Jani to see something more than Naples, so we decided to go for a day trip to Rome. This time no guide, thanks!
The distance between Naples and Rome is between 200 and 300 km. In the morning we took a fast train that goes 300 km/h. We arrived in only 1 h 10 min, and all the way I was able to follow our journey on a map on my phone, provided by the train company. This train’s ticket was quite expensive however – over 40€, so on the way back, when we didn’t have any hurry anymore, we took a slower train (2,5 h), slept through half of the way and enjoyed the view of mountains and castles through the rest.
In Rome Jani had one goal – the Coliseum. I didn’t agree that this is all you can see in Rome and tried to guide him through the sights. Only, previous time when I was in Rome I was on a guided tour, and obviously it had started from the other end of the route, because every time I remembered that something is on the left and “just around the corner” it was actually on the right and quite far away. But we managed to see the Arch of Constantine, the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, Altare della Patria at Piazza Venezia, Fontana di Trevi, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona. Jani was not impressed, he had really come only for the Coliseum.
For me Piazza Navona is a place with exceptional positive energy. I love the warm light and the well-organized space there. The palm of the Fountain of the Four Rivers is so realistic, that you can hardly believe it is made of stone.
The Trevi Fountain is for me a very romantic place. Previous time I visited it I threw a coin and wished myself more luck in love. I guess it fulfilled my wish. We also had luck that its long renovation had finished, so we got a proper shots of it and saw it in its whole beauty. I didn’t see any coins in the cleaned fountain, so this time – no wishes.
The first time when I visited the Roman Forum I was overwhelmed by all the styles and elements there. Now I had a few hours to go through it thoroughly and I liked it more.
What we didn’t see in Rome were the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, the Capitoline Hill and probably at least a 100 of other old monuments worth seeing that I don’t even know about. So I guess we have to plan a new trip to Rome.
In fact we should plan a new trip to Naples as well, since the time was not enough for the island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast. But these are anyway much better places to visit in summer, so no regrets.
I think for less than 5 days we saw, tasted and experienced so much that I couldn’t ask for more. And I checked one destination off my wishlist.