Naples: A city like no other (thank goodness)

I fell in love with Naples when I was 18. I had taken a gap year and saved up some money, and much to the dismay of my mother, I wanted to go to Europe.

There was no logical reason to go to Naples. I had never heard of the city. But I had stumbled upon a job opportunity to work at a hostel there, and, as any 18 year old would, I accepted. 

When I first stepped foot on Via Toledo, after a taxi ride straight out of fast-and-furious, I was disoriented. Maybe it was the jet-lag or the lack of sleep, but Naples looked nothing like the image of Italy I had in my head. Where were the scenic cobblestone pathways? The kind old men playing accordion? Where was the beauty?

As I would soon learn, and later come to appreciate, Naples is not like most Italian cities. And thank God for that.

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In the past few decades, Naples has existed as a world of its own - forgotten by many, despised by others, not seeming to care either way. For this reason, next to its sister cities who have sold themselves to tourism, Naples has moved into the realm of traveler appreciation.

It’s a city that refuses to sell its soul to tourist traps and overpriced, subpar pasta dishes. Here, culture cannot be bought, sold or seen from the top of a hop-on-hop-off bus. The Neapolitan way of life is ingrained in every facet of the city and its people, from the thick slurry dialect and uncompromisingly perfect margherita pizza to its perpetually broken stop lights. And it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Everything here is alive. People are everywhere, flooding the city’s narrow streets. Look up from wherever you are, and you can watch mothers hanging their family’s laundry on balcony clotheslines. Songs played on instruments, on the radio and sung out loud for the sake of noise itself echo simultaneously through the corridors surrounding Spaccanapoli, the street that splits the old city center. Vespas wizz through the masses with uncontested conviction, pedestrian fatalities be damned. There are so many smells, sights, and sounds bombarding the senses that one can easily become disoriented and overwhelmed. But here, have a spritz, you’ll be fine.

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The best spritz in Naples is hidden away on a little side street of the Spanish Quarter, the residential area resting to the West of Via Toledo. Cammarota Spritz, though closed by day, by night, is filled with young Neapolitans. A spritz costs one euro, and is slapped in front of you in a plastic cup after you pay. There are only a handful of tables, so most people stand outside in the street, spritz in hand. A street food cart is often stationed outside of Cammarota Spritz, selling roasted chestnuts and candy bars.

If you start craving something more substantial, venture into the Centro Storico, the old city center. The Centro Storico is a cobblestone maze of cafes, clothing shops, art galleries, restaurants, you name it, with Spaccanapoli as its reference point. Some of the most famous images of Naples are of Spaccanapoli, because Spaccanapoli and the surrounding Centro Storico encapsulate everything that Naples is: crowded and smelly, with no respect for personal space, but simultaneously colorful, lively, and inescapably fun. This area is also home to the best pizzeria in the world: Sorbillo.

The quality of a Sorbillo pizza is no secret. The pizzeria’s storefront, plastered with caricatures of celebrities, is hardly visible through the mass of hungry tourists who accost the restaurant at all hours of the day, desperately vying for a table. The waiting time for a table can be up to two hours, but it is worth every second.

If I were to die tomorrow, I would order my last meal to be a Sorbillo margherita pizza. It has a classically puffy rim, a thin base, and a sweet tomato sauce with more flavor than anyone expects from a tomato. Mozzarella medallions are scattered on top, with a few leaves of fresh basil. This is how a pizza should be, and yet, no one else in the world gets it right.

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Though Gino Sorbillo, the Michelin-star-studded pizza king, has franchised his original pizzeria, all of his locations are held to a high standard, even when it comes to deep frying. On Via Toledo, the busy shopping street that runs from Piazza Dante to Piazza Plebescito, there is a small Sorbillo pizza fritta joint. The classic pizza fritta is made of pizza dough, stuffed with ricotta and salami, folded in half and deep fried. The result is a delicate, piping hot pocket of creamy ricotta, flavored by the oils in the salami, that melts in your mouth and begs you to forget all notions of a healthy diet. 

You will probably be compelled to rid yourself of the extra calories, so take a walk to Piazza Bellini, back in the historical center. Piazza Bellini is lined with bars, all selling variations of the same drinks for the same price. The charm of the redundancy is that each bar is different--this one hosts a chess tournament, that one has international aperitivo night, that other one over there has a small dance floor that, if there are enough drunk people inside at the same time, will turn into a mini-club. Piazza Bellini is a neighborhood in its own right, and each of its resident bars will welcome you with open arms from the moment you walk in the door.

If bar-hopping isn’t your style, journey down Via Toledo to the sea.

Along the Lungomare, the long stretch of brick sidewalk that separates city and sea, there are energetic street performers, pop-up food stands offering roasted chestnuts and corn-on-the-cob, and tables of Bangladeshi immigrants selling cheap sunglasses. Young lovers perch side-by-side on the metal railing of the sidewalk, blissfully oblivious of the world around them.

The road that runs along the sidewalk is equally lively, full of bikers, skateboarders, and families stuffed inside those embarrassing rented pedal buggies. It’s a wonder that a place so circus-like can be romantic, yet the neighboring sea makes the romance inescapable. Especially in the evening, when the liveliness of the Lungomare is dying down, and the moonlight reflects onto the waves of the Mediterranean, with Mt. Vesuvius standing wistfully in the distance. Naples is a flirtatious city.

No place better captures the city’s majesty than Castel Dell’Ovo, the oldest castle in the city, located halfway down the Lungomare. According to the Roman poet Virgil, the fate of Naples is dependent on the preservation of a magical egg hidden somewhere in the castle’s structure. If the egg cracks, Naples will fall. (So far so good.) Standing on the roof of the castle, one is confronted with a spectacular view of city and sea. The two rest naturally together, with a barrier of big white rocks blending the water into the land. The soft pink, yellow, and orange hues of the coastal buildings come alive under any Naples sunset. It is from this view that I, at eighteen years old, finally made sense of Naples.

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There is Mt. Vesuvius, whose shadow looms threateningly over this wild city. The volcano is a symbol of Naples, although it is not in Naples. I like to think that its true significance exists in the city’s willingness--dare I say eagerness--to chaotically embrace its circumstantial existence, knowing deep down that it could literally be destroyed at any moment.

Neapolitans find so much pleasure in the little things: a slow walk, a glass of wine, a perfect pastry. “Exhaust the little moment,” poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, and I cannot think of a better way to describe the Neapolitan’s relationship to time.

Here is a city that does not bask in its beauty, but its boldness. Naples is not trying to be anything it’s not, but it is so much already. It is loud, it is crowded, it is excited. Excluding the case of a volcanic eruption, it’s going to keep doing its thing.