“Naples is just like New York City, in that it offers no grace period to adjust…”
Ask anyone and they would tell you that cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice are, hands down, bucket list items. You gotta see the canals! The Sistine Chapel! The statue of David! they would echo like that nasally woman in Seinfeld (“You gotta see the baby!”) For me, it’s Naples.
So, when planning our two-week stint in Italia, the hardest part was finagling the most convenient route stopovers to fit our two basic human needs: food and wine. Not wanting to fall victim to three hour lines at the Colosseum or hogtied into some American tour group being too loud and drunk at a Tuscan winery, we opted for a self-guided (loose on the word “guided”) culinary and libationary tour of Southern Italy. We’d eaten pasta with red sauce before, watched the Milan episodes of House Hunters International, seen every imaginable rendering of the Trevi Fountain (I watched the Lizzie McGuire movie, after all). Let’s eat and drink, Mediterranean style, we decided. And so we landed (literally) in Naples as our start and stop point for our tour, after miraculously locking in an insane roundtrip rate on Expedia.
After a reasonably cushy seven hour flight on Lufthansa, with one stopover in Germany, we landed in the thick of a Napoli afternoon, everyone carrying on as usual even though we were lost and unsure and new to it all. Surprisingly, without so much as a security clearance or a passport stamp in customs, we were thrust into the outdoors, afternoon sun and car horns already blaring.
Putting my months of DuoLingo to the test in hailing an airport taxi (which language efforts I abandoned soon after), we threw our Osprey hiking backpacks in the trunk, clutching an envelope of pre-purchased Euros we got back in the States. The cabbie chattered in English and Italian, tumbling down the winding streets from the airport at high altitude to the lowest points of the city at sea level, like a barrel over a waterfall. He apparently knew where we were going. We didn’t. After we hit the centro storico, he told us he couldn’t go any further as it’s only for scooters and pedestrians. We walked the rest of the way, me not for the first time this vacation hooking my thumbs under the straps of my backpack to counteract the weight that barely met the airline’s maximum restrictions. That thing tore my neck and shoulder muscles to pieces, but it was still a hell of a lot better than checking luggage.
On we wandered in a state of jet lag and stress sweat attempting to locate the AirBnb that many reviewers disclaimed was hard to find, but I was determined to exhaust all options before asking for help. As we hit one dizzying alleyway after another (there’s no way that’s not the same street!), I remembered my cousin once telling me that Amsterdam had no logical grid system to its streets either. While I’m sure that’s the case, I challenge Naples to say, “Hold my beer” to Amsterdam.
Naples is just like New York City, in that it offers no grace period to adjust, doesn’t hide its grittiness, and is inexhaustibly exciting. It’s teeming with people trying to hawk you cheap goods, competing open-air markets of trinkets you don’t need, windowsill ordering at loud pizzerias, housewives shouting across the way to their neighbors and slapping laundry against the wall, bakeries boasting “The Best Sfogliatelle!”, cafe tables outside littered with tiny chipped espresso cups, bags of hot, fly-covered trash piled like bricks, cheap fast fashion boutiques and prepaid cellphone shops, graffiti on every discernible surface, and corner markets selling your most expensive wine all the way down to your cheapest roll of toilet paper. The only difference from this and Manhattan was the pedestrian-only alleyways infiltrated by hundreds of Vespas zipping in and out, narrowly missing my arms and forcing me to hug the wall, sending rubbish paper ads flying and hair whipping.
I was going to like it here…a lot.
After passing all of this hubbub, along with a comical amount of gelaterias, farmacias, trattorias, panaderias, and other “-ias,” the window displays of which I wanted (but resisted) to buy out of house and home, we finally reached the true core of the historic center, which was one cobblestone away from being Diagon Alley: it even zig-zagged, the tall, skinny buildings caving in on it. Our AirBnB was located somewhere in this area, and after a good 45 minutes of trying various doors and buttons, a stout Napoletano woman across the alleyway (who was watching us the whole time) shouted something at us, huffed over and pressed a buzzer button which granted us entry. Grazie mille, I oozed, already upset at our telltale Americano signs.
We entered a dank, echoing apartment building hobbled together entirely of slate and stucco, its most impressive feature being an art deco gated elevator with limited weight capacity smack dab in the center of a lobby that was entirely outside, with various domiciles staggered around it, stories high, claustrophobic even in broad daylight. There were distant sounds of babies crying and dogs barking behind doors, air conditioning units whirring, bicycles and tricycles parked outside each place, windows curtained shut from our prying eyes. The whole thing felt very Metropolis. Per the AirBnb instructions, we grabbed the keys out of the mailbox and crammed ourselves and our two backpacks into the elevator up to the highest floor.
With a few dramatic key clicks and a turn of the massive gold knob in the dead center of the door, we entered our provisions. They were rough around the edges, but incredibly bright from the floor to ceiling windows that opened to a Juliette balcony looking down on the vertigo-inducing elevator shaft. A loveseat and desk indicated we were in the living room area; a few steps forward and we were in the kitchenette. Up the stairs was the loft bedroom with faux-brick wallpaper, mismatched sheets and a bathroom the size of a closet with an odd window next to the toilet looking out over the kitchen. My head grazed the ceiling up here. My 6 foot boyfriend was not so lucky, having to crouch, neck crooked to one side the entire time. Often, he changed on the stairs just to gain a few inches. It certainly wasn’t romantic, but it had charm. The best part, however (in fact, the reason I booked it) was the private rooftop. With a crank of the metal ladder over the staircase and a hard push of the sunroof hatch, we entered out on to an unfinished roof deck with broken shards of tile and a handful of plastic white lawn chairs.
Up here was a city above a city, a bazaar of conjoined, adjacent multi-colored rooftops of varying heights and widths breathing new life into my travel exhaustion. I resisted the urge to parkour myself over the expanse of the city. If I had to guess, you could probably jump from roof to deck to windowsill to wire for several hundred yards before ever touching the ground of chaotic Napoli below. A church bell clamored on the hour, a peaceful low ding, that sent pigeons flying in every direction. And then, from our 11:00 view, Mount Vesuvius came into focus, the lowest layer of mid-afternoon clouds hovering in its wake like dense fog, its two distinctive humps bowing in towards its volcanic center. I wondered if lava would reach where we stood were it to erupt again. As if fully cognizant for the first time, right then and there is when I had my “aha!” moment – I’m in Italy, I realized.
That first day into the night was a lot of getting our bearings in an overwhelming foreign city. Looking past the hundreds of tchotchke souvenir stands with Calabria hot pepper everything (pepper earrings, pepper figurines, pepper magnets), there were places to drink inside, places to eat outside, places to do a combination of the two, places to buy art from street vendors, or drugs from shady individuals up some side street, places to worship (either catholicism or the occult), and places to search for sex if that’s the kind of vacation you wanted. Hundreds of side streets webbed out from the center aisle offering up possibilities I never got the chance to entertain during our limited time there. I would need a full week just to cover it all, and even that would account for just a sliver of the Napoli pizza pie.
Speaking of pizza, we were starved from that long first day of travel, searching for a quick pizzeria to satiate our appetites and to try the ever-famous Neapolitan-style pizza, already forgetting about that awkward 3 to 5 in the afternoon time frame when business owners were coming off their siesta and reopening. Not only that, we quickly realized that the “reopening” was a soft opening – most places discouraged clientele from eating dinner until at least 7 or 8 at night. Luckily, we happened across one of the only places open at 5:00, Pizzeria Vesi, located a couple minutes down the way from our AirBnb in the centro storico corridor.
We were the only customers in the entire establishment, but to be fair, the whole place was the size of a small living room, with an adorable open-air pizza oven and Napoli-heavy decor on the walls. It was memorable only in that it was our very first meal after touching wheels to ground: two classic Margherita pizzas and two mini glass Coke bottles for a touch of home comfort (much like our trip to Costa Rica, Coca Cola was widely recognized in Europe, too). I have to admit, though, that the pizza was just good – not great – and that the most stressful part of traveling is wondering if you made the right food choices when there’s just so many options. Yelp and TripAdvisor help, but it’s up to you to find those holes in the wall, those gems, those best kept secrets. The place catering to Americans at 5 on the dot in the center of the tourist area is not one of those places, but it still did the trick insofar as fresh, authentic ingredients go. We made a mental note to eat a later breakfast/lunch and wait it out until at least 7 for dinner.
Late that night, we wanted to christen the rooftop and kickstart our journey to the Amalfi Coast the following morning with some wine, so we wandered into any grocery store that looked promising and purchased a 2 Euro (!) bottle of Montepulciano red. The centro storico was eerily quiet and dark at this hour, a large portion of the previously bustling cafes and restaurants shuttered close with metal, revealing yet another layer of graffiti that only rears its head at the witching hour. A few gelaterias remained open for late night munchies, as well as seedy inlets with hybrid vending machines of cigarettes, condoms, and snacks, a handful of bars, and a CBD shop, crowds of men in leather jackets drinking bottled beer outside and judging our clearly out of place amazement at it all.
The weather dipped to 50 degree temperatures but we were determined to make the most out of the view from the roof, so we climbed the ladder in our jackets and scarves and huddled the plastic chairs together, drinking out of dixie cups we found in the kitchen cupboard, spitting out bits of cork that fell into the wine when we were forced to jimmy the bottle with scissors, a spoon, and a sneaker, as we neglected to previously check if the AirBnb even had a corkscrew. The Montepulciano was cheap, but delicious and warm, and I sipped it listening to the distant sounds of the city that fell away so easily up here.
We finished the night snuggled up on the rock hard full size bed watching a high stakes Italian cooking competition on the small television, followed by a hilariously dubbed over Top Gear. The following morning, we stopped at the cafe on our corner for a late morning espresso (too bitter) that came with a complementary sfogliatelle (too lemony), then hauled ourselves and our heavy hiking backpacks back through the centro storico, down the winding hills to the main commuter road, and through the station to catch a train to Salerno, where we would then take a bus to Atrani.
Ten days later, after a whirlwind food and wine tour of coastal resort towns, I was looking forward to the familiarity of an urban European setting. We even returned to the very same AirBnb (partly for keeping it simple since we knew how to get there, but mostly for that roof deck). This time, we had two full days to explore before flying home, but we were too traveled-out to do much besides our usual: scour the city for good eats. For lunch, I was craving a true-to-form pizza fritta so stopped at a little counter-style place and waited 45 minutes for some pretty delicious, golden-fried, cheese-filled dough covered in a vibrant red sauce. For dinner, we continued our tradition of trying sushi in every city (with the exception of Bari), cause why the hell not? We landed on a noir Japanese joint tucked away in a dead-end for a late night dinner where we ordered insanely cheap rolls and a bottle of prosecco entirely from a touch screen at the table. It was adequate at best and couldn’t hold a candle to Shabu in Amalfi or Geisha in Salerno, but it readied us for what we imagined would be a tech-heavy dining experience in Japan, which we decided then and there would be our next travel destination.
After dinner, we risked electrocution and storm-watched from our rooftop, the thick night air and chimney ash clouds suffocating, pigeons squawking warnings, flying in low, slow circles against a backdrop of dramatic lightning strikes and glittering golden city lights. One particular thunderclap followed by an abrupt shower of rain sent us scurrying back down the hatch to the bedroom. We locked it close and tried to fall asleep to no avail: thunder cracks echoing tenfold in our building’s hollow center, every neighborhood dog barking, rain landing on our vulnerable patch of glass roof like thousands of nails for hours on end, until the sound of too-close-for-comfort trickling stirred us from the bed to discover the rain had leaked through the cheap faux-wooden edges of the hatch, dripping cups of water on to the steps below. We shoddily sopped it up with our already limited towel supply and sent pictures to our AirBnb host to inform her it wasn’t, in fact, our fault. It wouldn’t have been our vacation, after all, if inclement weather didn’t fuck shit up.
The following morning, we discovered the previous Airbnb tenants left two bottles of prosecco in the mini fridge (no doubt encountering the same conundrum we did vis-a-vis the lack of wine opener – proof from the screw left in the top of one cork), so out we went into the city in search of a shop selling corkscrews and maybe some midday grub and a chance to scope out tonight’s send-off dinner. We simply did not have enough energy to do much besides aimlessly wander anyway, so we strolled, making sure not to keep making lefts and going in circles, and found a fancy looking wine shop. “Avete qualcosa…aprire vino?” I asked in broken Italian, gesturing with a screwing/uncorking motion. Much too many Euros later and we returned to our apartment with a corkscrew in hand and two seafood cuoppos from Il Cuoppo (despite being mostly krill, it was saltier, fishier, and cheaper than the overpriced one from Amalfi). We washed them down with one bottle of prosecco on the rooftop, making sure to leave the other bottle and the newly adopted wine opener for the next guest as a pay-it-forward gesture. I’m hoping they, too, got to christen the rooftop.
At last, we arrived at the dreaded point in our vacation: the final Italian meal. We chose Pulcinella Bistro, situated off one of the alleys of the centro storico, and Renaissance era inside, hoping it wouldn’t disappoint our palate or our memory. Crowded next to the tables beside us, we gaped in amazement at our quadri-lingual server (Italian, English, German, French) and the pages of expansive menu, my boyfriend landing on risotto the third or fourth time that vacation, me on an artichoke pasta (far more favorable than the green bean pasta in Amalfi), and a massive, meaty grilled octopus with balsamic reduction to split as an appetizer. The table was crowded with plates of food, water glasses, and wine, and I, once again (it wouldn’t be a meal without it), fumbled and spilled white wine all over the table and on to my boyfriend’s jeans. We grabbed our lap napkins to quickly sop it up, but our waiter came zipping out of nowhere to our sides and shouted, “Wait! Spilled white wine behind the ears for good luck! Dab it behind your ears!” I obliged, wet behind my ears, and pocketed the adorable superstition for future use. Out of a drink now, we ordered port wine that was sitting on the shelves for god knows how long and sipped to digest. Just when I thought the whole meal couldn’t be topped, an opera singer emerged from the kitchen and serenaded us. I beamed so hard, it hurt. Our last meal certainly didn’t disappoint.
Although Naples was only a brief bookending city for us, I was already starting to feel that comfortable, familiar routine settling in like I lived there: the wet towels in our AirBnb bathroom soaking up the water from the shower that always flooded the floor, the heavy creak of our door, the cafe right on our corner (where I finally learned to order what I liked: a fluffy, decadent “graffa” donut and a cappuccino that couldn’t hold a candle to the one in Atrani), and exiting out into the sunshine of centro storico for a day of avoiding Vespas and trash bags. I was going to miss this place.
Before bed, we packed our backpacks and laid out our clothes for the following morning since we had to wake up at 3 AM to be at the airport for 5 AM to depart by 7 AM (gotta love flying). We were starting to feel sentimental that it was all coming to an end, but also looking forward to the comforts of our own king size mattress, clean laundry, adapter-less phone chargers, and some red meat.
We awoke from a brief, unsatisfying nap to our cell phone alarms. It was time to leave. We brushed our teeth, put on our sneakers, signed the guest book, and headed out, wearing the same stale clothes we wore for two straight weeks. We shuffled several minutes down the building’s dark, cool stairs like a coal mine and cautiously snaked through the seedy underbelly of Naples at 4 AM, keeping a steady, alert pace for fifteen minutes until we reached the train station, catching an immediate cab to the empty airport where we arrived two and half hours before our departure time.
Seated in the lounge sipping an American coffee in a jumbo cup, I scrolled through the trip photos on my phone, reflecting on the lessons learned and the biggest takeaways from the past two weeks: how we never made dinner reservations, but the staff always managed to find us a cozy, romantic table in the corner; how we grossly underpacked, but didn’t have to worry about losing luggage; how we became part of one of Southern Italy’s biggest festivals without planning for it; how the weather held out for our excursion to Ravello; how we narrowly missed our bus to Naples, but didn’t; and how I didn’t even have to dab all that spilled white wine behind my ears for a little bit of luck. We had it all along.
© 2020 Andrea Festa