One night in Napoli

November 20th, 2006

[I took a weekend trip to Naples, about an hour and a half south of Rome, on the high-speed train. Here's a running commentary of the trip, as it happened.]

Nov. 18, 9:16 AM

I'm sitting on a train in Rome's Termini Station, waiting to depart for Napoli. I won't have any pictures from this trip. This time, not for any noble reasons, like in Florence, but because I forgot my camera. In a way, it's too bad, because I probably won't ever go to Naples again. It's just as well, though, as it would probably get stolen, if everything I've heard about Naples is correct. Romans talk about Naples as if it is a war zone. Not everything they say can be true, because if they were the city would have collapsed into the rubble long ago, and everyone agrees it is a bellissima city. "Beautiful, but…" is what they always say, followed by some cautionary tale or description of mayhem. Back in the U.S., Nashvillians talk the same way about Memphis, and when I went there it wasn't (quite) as bad as all that. So we'll see.

Though I am without a camera, I do have all the other supplies necessary for a weekend train trip: my notebook and pen, of course; a newspaper; a bottleof water; and some salty snacks. Sadly, they were out of Pringles except the disgusting "Paprika" flavor, so I had to settle for a sack of "Yonkers: Snack al formaggio."

10:05 AM

The train just reached 300 km/h. Gotta love the metric system: that's muchmore impressive than 180 m/h (still pretty fast).

10:22 AM

This is new territory for me: south of Rome. It's always exciting to go to an unknown place: it's like Christmas Eve, unwrapping that mysterious present that rattles when you shake it. I already notice some differences in the scenery: things are a bit more "rustic," maybe a bit more run-down. We just passed a shepherd tending his flock.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how Naples differs from Rome. More than that, though, I'm looking forward to the pizza! Naples is famous as pizza's birthplace. (I probably shouldn't have just polished off those Yonkers.)

11:46 AM

Laundry. That's the first thing that is unavoidably noticeable while pulling into Naples on the train. Most of the residential buildings are big apartment blocks, lined with balconies, and every balcony, window, or crack in the stucco has a rack attached to it with laundry hanging from it. It's the image of the city: laundry. I think you can learn a lot about a family by examining their laundry. For example, that family there really likes their blue-jeans. If I lived in Naples, I wouldn't buy jeans, since they take forever to dry. That one there prefers a more casual look, with a hoody and some sweatpants. And that one — what is that, anyway?

3:18 PM

Naples is a nice city, though I'm a bit disappointed I didn't get mugged as soon as I walked off the train. So much for the hype. It is like Rome it many ways. A bit dirtier, with more dog-poo on the sidewalks (I'm sitting in a cathedral as I write this, so I can't use the S-word), and less touristy. The people here walk slower than in Rome, and they are very friendly. As I was standing on the corner looking at a map, a semi-elderly gentleman stopped and asked, "What street are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it." (In Italian, of course.) I did find the street, with his help. That would never happen in Rome, mostly because every other person on the street is looking at a map.

The food does live up to the hype. I had a pizza at Pizzeria Sorbillo [or at least I thought I did. Turns out I was at the wrong address], and it was quite good. Good bread, good sauce, good cheese, and cooked in a wood-fired oven, plus the knowledge that you're eating pizza in the place it was invented! (Next stop… wings in Buffalo!) If you have pizza in Naples, I recommend sticking to the basic pizza flavors, like the Margherita, so as not to cover up the taste of the quality ingredients, as it's the simplicity and freshness that make it good. I had the "diavola" (means "devil"), because I can't resist spicy food, and the hot peppers did mask the flavor of the sauce a bit.

Another can't-miss food item is the sfogliatella. It's a stuffed pastry made of layers and layers of flaky dough, and is a Neapolitan specialty. I'm looking forward to trying another one after I digest the one I had earlier, and the arancino, and the pizza, and the beer. Oh yeah, and there are a couple nice cathedrals here, too.

4:06 PM

Wish I had a camera. Castel Nuovo is gorgeous. As is the view of Mount Vesuvius in the distance. Will have to Google some pictures.

4:14 PM

Inside Castell Nuovo, I just stumbled upon a performance by the "Associazione Giapponese della Canzone Italiana" – Japanese women in kimonos singing opera. Strange.

4:43 PM

On the roof of Castel Nuovo. The sky is pink over Mt. Vesuvius, as the sun goes down. The white smoke coming out of the still-active volcano stands out clearly. Beautiful. [I read later in my guide book that Vesuvius no longer spits out smoke, but I swear I saw it.]

The castle itself is interesting to explore. Naples was under Spanish rule for a while, so it's interesting to see that influence. The more I travel, the more I see there is no such thing as a "pure" culture. The world has never been divided into little pockets of isolated peoples. Spain was influenced by the Romans, then the Arabs, then Italy was influenced back by Spain. All of Europe dominated America, and is now greatly affected by American culture. Tell the protesters, globalism is not new.

5:19 PM

Just had a babà con panna – a sweet sponge cake soaked in rum and stuffed with whipped cream and pieces of strawberry and kiwi [bought at a place called Sfogliatella Mary]. The most delicious 1.50 I've ever spent. I like this city.

6:36 PM

I'm seated at Gran Caffè Gambrinus, outdoors, drinking a beer and picking at a little tray of salty snacks. In true Italian style, I don't know what kind of beer it is. I just asked for "una birra" and they brought me one, along with these tasty little crispy things, something like giant pine-nuts, and some Japanese rice crackers. I like bars that give out free food, even if just little munchies. According to Lonely Planet, this caffè is frequented by intellectuals, artists, and musicians. So far, I don't feel any smarter.

I've just been wandering the streets for a while. What a fun city this is: the streets are packed with people. There are all kinds of piazzas and caffès and some street performers (not all that talented, but it's the thought that counts). The one thing that bothers me is all the New York Yankees apparel. I don't think they really know what they're wearing, but think it's cool because it's American. I may have to break out my Pats cap later. Nobody will know what it means, but I will.


I've pretty much given up on the live music scene in Italy, at least the kind of music I like. I bought a newspaper and found a listing for some "musica folk", but the waitress just told me that place is far away, two buses worth of distance. It's not worth the risk to go all the way out there. On several occasions I've schlepped myself to bars that advertise live music, but I've yet to hear one song. Classical music you can find, and jazz, but never rock or blues or folk or even pop. I was almost desperate enough to go to an opera the other night, but I came to my senses in time and remembered that opera is boring. I guess for now, I'll just stick to playing guitar in my bedroom. (I did see, here in Naples, a street line with music shops, selling guitars, drums, pianos, instruments of all kinds. So apparently, people do play music here, just not where others can here them.)

Right now, there's an old man walking up and down the street playing a one-note rhythm on one of those New-Years-Eve-style noise-makers. Looks like that's my entertainment for the evening.

7:22 PM

They brought me more food. Two little mini-arancini (arancinini?), and a bunch of little sandwich-like objects. I wonder how much this beer costs that I've been nursing for the past hour, to justify all this free food. I'm stuffed. I hope I have room for another pastry or two, or a slice of pizza, on the way back to my hostel later. If I lived in this city, I'd be 300 pounds.

It is interesting how Europeans will sit at a cafe for hours at a time and order just a single cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and the restaurants don't mind. I think essentially you're paying for place to sit. Europe has a general paucity of places to sit. Even in the grand piazzas, which would be ideal for a row of benches, everyone is left standing, or if desperate, sitting on steps or curbs. Every once in a while, you'll spot a lonely bench in an unlikely spot, and it's like an oasis in the Sahara if you can snag it. Move fast, because they're never left vacant for long.

Nov. 19th, 9:02 AM

I didn't stay out too late last night, as I was tired from all my walking. I really enjoyed strolling through the streets of Naples at night, especially the main thoroughfare, Via Toledo, which turns into a pedestrian zone for a big stretch. The streets were packed with people, and there is an energy in the air that is reminiscent of cities in Spain. I didn't venture too far off the main boulevards, because of Naples's dangerous reputation, but I would have liked to have the time to explore more. It's an Italian city that was under Spanish rule for 200 years. What a combination!
I saw two local kids wearing Dropkick Murphys T-shirts, so I feel better about Boston's representation in the midst of all the Yankees caps. I'm now waiting for a train to take me to Pompeii.

1:39 PM

Pompeii is impressive. Not in a "wow, that's beautiful" kind of way, but more in the manner of, "hmm, so that's how the ancient Romans lived," or "I can't believe that's lasted 2,000 years." The similarities and differences between ancient and modern life are both striking, and of course the plaster casts of the dead are quite eerie. It's definitely worth visiting. If you do, come well-rested, because a visit involves a lot of walking over uneven cobblestones. I recommend joining a tour group if you can. I didn't, because I am too cheap (Lonely Planet says a tour is 94 euros, which I don't quite believe), but I did some eavesdropping on tour groups as they passed, and found some interesting information, like how the lead pipes sticking out of the ground are authentic Roman plumbing. Of course, it would have helped if I could understand German.
If you want to see every single site, you could easily fill an entire day in Pompeii, but if not three to four hours should satisfice.

3:48 PM

Back in Naples.

I just had one of the coolest experiences of my life. I decided to go for one last Neapolitan pizza, so I went to Trianon, a famous place not far from the train station that's been open since 1923. First of all, the pizza was amazing – I got the Margherita di Bufala, made with bufala mozzarella. So good.

The place is furnished with long marble-topped tables, and being by myself I was sat with a big group of Italians. Everyone was so energetic and friendly and excited to meet an American. The expressiveness of Italians, especially these southerners, is incredible. We talked in Italian the entire meal, and by the end I had been invited to spend Christmas at their house. Only in Italy!