February 9- 2018 | Europe
Posted By : HHLifestyleTravel
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In 1999, I was in Paris, hanging out at a hostel with my friends (and generally finding my traveller feet), when I got an offer to nanny for a family my dad knew in Naples. I couldn’t afford to get there, so my dad paid. Naples is special to my Dad, he transited through there in his youth (back when people took boats)… and spent time doing some conservation work in monasteries there as an adult. He was in love with the place, so he needed me to see it too. These are my reflections on how I spent a summer in Naples
, Italy, in 1999.
NB: This post is written from memory, from travel diaries from 1999, and from emails I wrote to my family back in NZ at the time. Whilst the historic sites I list are all still open and worth visiting, please bear in mind that my experience of Naples is an old one, and I have noted where things will have changed / improved / may differ.
I hopped a train from Paris
’s Gare de l’Est early one morning and began the 10 hour train ride. I slept for most of France, but was woken for passport checks in Bardonecchia and then woke to see the beautiful Lago di Tresimeno as we passed – a sight that I remember vividly, despite the years that have passed. I had taken money out of the cash machine at Milan station, but the food trolley on the train refused to break my 50 lira note… I didn’t care so much for the food, but I was SO thirsty. I sat there looking helpless, until this little old Italian woman shoved a massive sandwich and some water in my direction… I politely shook my head, but she insisted. It was the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten – bless her. I arrived into Naples train station at 9pm – not the time of night you really want to be there on your own… but I stood on my pack and looked as surly as I could muster until my lift arrived. On reflection, I probably had little to worry about, but you live and you learn!
I was staying with a lovely family up in the suburb of Posillipo
, in the south of the city, overlooking the Bay of Naples. From that vantage point you could see all the way from Vesuvius on the left to the Island of Ischia on the right and across to Sorrento
over the bay – it was a magnificent spot. My favourite walk was either up to the Piazza Salvatore di Giacomo, a wee square in a wooded park at the top of Via Posillipo, which was quiet and cool in the intense Italian heat; or down the hill to the water on Via Ferdinando Russo – where there is a small beach and a harbour for small fishing boats.
It was the heat I remember the most – it is like being slow roasted. It was in Naples I got my first and only tan!
In between looking after the kids, I got to see the sights. The city of Naples itself was relatively empty in August, as all the Italians go away on their summer holidays. I also got visit Pompeii and Herculaneum, Museo di Capodimonte, the incredible Museo Nazionale di San Martino and the Sant’Elmo fortress, and the Royal Palace of Caserta (pictured) to the north too.
My favourite areas
At the bottom of the Posillipo hill is the marina at Mergellina
– a lovely place for a gelato and a walk down to Stazione zoologica Anton Dohrn, a 19th century aquarium.
Carrying on around the coast you get to the grand old edifice of the 12th century Castel dell’Ovo. Heading north into the city centre you get to Piazza del Plebiscito, the large pedestrian square with cavalry statues, Basilica Reale San Francesco di Paola, and the ostentatious Royal Palace. The main street up through town is Via Toledo, and there are lovely little streets criss-crossing back and forth.
One of my absolutely favourite areas of Naples centre is Piazza Museo, at the very north end of Via Toledo. The fantastic Naples National Archaeological Museum and Santa Maria di Costantinopoli church. I spent hours and hours in the Archeological Museum, at first because of fascinating collection, but then because it was refuge from the midday heat! It is full of incredible finds from Pompeii
and Herculaneum and will keep you occupied for hours!
Lessons in a Big City
I was wandering back down Via Toledo one of these days when I stopped to take a photo of a quaint little side street (see pic below). What I didn’t realise was that I had accidentally taken a photo of a dodgy dealing taking place in the shadows, and subsequently had to hide in a bank to avoid the surly looking fellas! If only they knew what I later learnt, that my photo hadn’t captured anything of their dealings (that was the trouble with film cameras, you can’t review your pics). Lesson learnt, pay attention to where you point your camera! That goes for any big city – pay attention!
There is a gritty side to Naples (or at least there was in 1999). I was told not to go beyond Via Chiaia, as that was where the Camorra (Neapolitan mafia) apparently hung out – but remember, a lot has changed! I saw a fair bit of theft, with vespa thieves slashing the handles of handbags and making off with the loot through the malaise of the Italian traffic. But I never felt unsafe, you just learn to walk with your handbag away from the road and not do stupid obviously touristy stuff (i.e. stand on street corners with maps and waving your money around). I also imagine it has changed a lot since 1999, with budget airlines making it a more common destination. Like any big city, be sensible and you’ll be fine. I was a solo female traveller and never had any issues! And the grittiness of Naples is actually something I found endearing and attractive about the city – I LOVED the lack of shiny tourist areas – it felt more authentic.
Pompeii and Herculaneum are easy to get to by train, and are incredibly well preserved and restored. Parts that have stuck with me are: the amphitheatre at Pompeii, which they were still excavating when I visited, and the communal roman toilets – their plumbing systems were fantastic even back then! The picture below is a plaster cast of a victim – they were able to cast it using the void where the body used to be – so poignant and confronting!
History and views
I recommend a visit to the Museo Nazionale di San Martino and the Sant’Elmo fortress on the hill above naples city centre… not only are they fascinating attractions, but you get the most spectacular views from the manicured gardens on the slopes between them. I spent a few hours writing there one day and the views and surroundings were inspiring. Naples is a gritty and vibrant city, a lot like Paris in that it’s dirty and real and not scrubbed to within an inch of its life. It’s real, and that’s why I loved it.
I also learned how to cook some fabulous Italian food (including a quick carbonara), and how to cut a watermelon without a chopping board (although I wouldn’t attempt that now!). You can visit the world’s first pizza joint, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, in Naples. Napoletana pizza has very specific preparatory instructions and is a little soft and pliable (not like the crispy bases further north) – it is still my favourite kind of pizza and I can’t wait to have it again 🙂
Napoli stole my heart
I can’t really explain how important Naples was to my young self, but it really did help to define me. I plan on visiting Naples again in 2019, to celebrate 20 years since being there. This beautiful gritty, heaving, frenetic, stunning, warm and vibrant city stole my heart 19 years ago, and I can’t wait to revisit and see if it still captures my heart (I bet it does)!
You can see how my summer travelling in 1999 was so formative and revelatory in this post about learning how to travel!
All photos & content © Hannah Henderson and may not be used without permission (sharing this blog post is fine, though!). Images shot with a Canon AE1 film camera, printed and then photographed with an iPhone (apologies!).