Venice, Florence, Rome, Milan… There’s no denying that Italy is full of historic, world renowned and beautiful cities. But what do all these cities have in common? They all lay in the upper half of the boot-shaped map of Italy. Indeed, I myself have been victim of falling into the ‘tourist trap’ of only visiting the cities the guide-books tell me to go to, and that rarely includes anywhere below Rome. So this summer my best friend, Jess, and I decided to venture south of the capital – into what Italians call the ‘Mezzogiorno’ – to a city shadowed by Mt. Vesuvius and the infamous Camorra, home of the world’s best pizza and with a chaotic yet infectious buzz: Naples.
Traditionally, the south of Italy is known to be the poorer and more rural part of the country; historically disregarded as being ridden with lazy, dark-skinned Italians, extensive organised crime, crumbling down monuments and rubbish left piling up at the side of the road – indeed this really is a common belief of many Northern Italians, after Berlusconi famously appeared on national television in Naples beside heaps of rubbish. “Don’t go to the south”, they told us, “there is rubbish everywhere. You will be mugged. You will not understand what anyone is saying. It is too hot in the south.” So off we went with our backpacks filled for three weeks in Southern Italy and our minds curious for what we would find there.
This guide will cover the first part of our trip in the South of Italy: Naples and the Amalfi Coast. In brief, we flew from Manchester to Naples and spent four days in Naples and four days on the Amalfi Coast. The majority of people visiting the very touristy Amalfi Coast fly into Naples before catching a train straight to the Amalfi Coast, without even setting foot inside the city. I hope to persuade you that Naples really is worth a visit, and that the contrast of lively city with breathtaking coastline makes for the perfect Italian escape.
Someone in Naples told us that in Rome you visit monument after monument; each grandly declaring themselves ready to be photographed and applauded by masses of tourists. Perhaps you will pay €5 to visit a cathedral, or have to elbow ten other tourists out the way just to get your photo from that viewpoint you (and everyone else) heard about. “In Naples”, he said, “the whole city is a monument, you just have to look a bit harder to see it”. Indeed, on the surface Naples is certainly not as refined as many of the Northern cities, but its history is impossible to avoid – the whole city is, in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage site. That road over there, he pointed, may seem a little dirty and smelly now, but those cobbles have been there over 400 years; they have carried more horse-drawn carriages, Italian stilettos and Fiat 500s than you could ever dream of.
Naples is certainly a little rough around the edges; graffiti covers virtually every surface and there is undeniably more rubbish on the ground than you might find on the shiny marble floors of Milano. Students hang around piazzas smoking cigarettes and eating pizza by the slice and a few handmade notices announce that ‘refugees welcome, f*** off tourists’. Yet though this may phase some people, to Jess and me all this gave Naples an irresistible charm that only made us want to see more. So if I haven’t scared you away already, here’s how to spend a day in Naples…
Begin at Museo Metro station and head down Via Santa Maria di Costantinapoli – the 400-year old cobbled street I already mentioned – before turning left up Via Sapienza. Wander down this narrow street lined with tall, old houses and maybe even venture down side-alleys now and again to see where Neapolitans actually live. When you reach Via del Duomo, turn right and make sure to visit Naples’ main cathedral on the left-hand side of the road. You might be lucky, like us, and stumble across a wedding in this grand and beautiful building. After that, turn right again on Via dei Tribunali, one of the main streets in the city. Here restaurants, cafes and shops line the streets, along with the occasional striking church or ancient building hidden in a corner. Dread-locked street musicians bang drums in piazzas and the delicious scent of pizza fills the air. This is a good place to try some Neapolitan street-food for lunch.
If you love history and architecture, I’d recommend visiting the Chiostro di Santa Chiara, beautiful, ancient cloisters that are certainly worth the €6 entrance fee (€4.50 for students). Then head towards the port, stopping to admire Piazza del Plebiscito on the way. We spent a lot of time down by the port near Castel dell’Ovo, where the views of Mount Vesuvius are spectacular and on a sunny day you’ll find bikini-clad Italians sunbathing on the pier and taking boats out into the water. Certainly an excellent spot for people-watching.
After an afternoon coffee, head back up Via Toledo (the main shopping street in the city) until you reach the Toledo Metro station. Make sure you visit a Tabaccheria to buy a metro ticket before entering the station, it will cost you €1 and is certainly worth it for the interesting, modern design of this particular station. Designed around themes of water and light, descend into an oasis of blue mosaic tiles and moving waves on the walls. You’ll actually only be on the metro for one stop – jump off at Dante by which point you’ll probably have built up an appetite, so head back along Via dei Tribunali and get ready for the best pizza of your life. Gino Sorbillo’s is Naples’ most renowned pizzeria. You’ll be able to spot it by the crowd which gathers outside every evening. I’d recommend arriving at 7pm when the restaurant opens to avoid the worst of the queue. Give your name to the person on the door and expect to wait at least half an hour before your table is ready. Then savour the best pizza in the world in the birth town of this Italian staple. Buon appetito!
Day trips from Naples
Only 30 minutes on the train from Naples Central Station, Pompeii is certainly worth a visit. Travel back 2000 years and catch a glimpse of how Romans lived; schools, lavish dining rooms, brothels and ancient baths. The city was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 and today is said to be “frozen in time”, kept alive by the masses of tourists that visit every year.
Getting there: take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples’ Garibaldi Station. Check the timetable here (N.B. Get off at Pompeii S. Villa Misteri).
Entrance fee: €11 (€5.50 for under 25s).
Tips: Make sure you take some food along with you – there is a food court on site that serves basic food like pizza slices, but it is expensive! There is also hardly any shade so bring plenty of water.
Procida is the smallest and least visited of the three islands close to the bay of Naples – Ischia and Capri being much more popular with tourists. It was for this reason that we decided to visit; to escape the tourist crowds and experience something more authentic. Procida was a dream. The most beautiful, idyllic and quiet island of pastel houses, lovely locals and delicious seafood. Enjoy a long lunch by the water (I’d recommend La Gorgonia) then walk up the hill for a post-card perfect view of Procida’s wonderful colourful buildings.
Getting there: You can either take a ferry or hydrofoil from Naples’ port area. The ferry takes one hour and costs around €10 one way, while the hydrofoil takes 35 minutes and costs €13.30 one way. Note that you should decide in advance whether to take the hydrofoil or ferry, as they depart from different areas of the port. The ferry departs from Calata Porta di Massa and the hydrofoil departs from Molo Beverello. Check the timetable here and all further details on the same website.
The Amalfi Coast
The sparkling, sapphire ocean of the Amalfi Coast is overlooked by lush, green hills and colourful houses built into the cliff-face. Restaurants serve seafood caught fresh every morning and cafes make rich Italian coffee to be sipped while looking over breathtaking views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Amalfi Coast certainly has a luxurious air, with 5* hotels and designer clothing stores a-plenty. Yet there is still an ancient charm here, as we discovered by following hidden alleyways and staircases or in the local festival we came across in Atrani that saw an orchestra play in the tiny square beneath a veil of colourful fairy lights, to the delighted ears of elderly couples watching proudly from their balconies. Indeed, though renowned for being somewhat overpriced and overcrowded with tourists, the Amalfi Coastline is undeniably stunning and certainly worth a visit from Naples.
Head to Positano first, probably the most photographed village on the coast thanks to the stunning view of coloured houses built into the cliffside and the striking church dome made from green and yellow mosaic tiles. Enjoy a long lunch and take a dip in the ocean. This is the most luxurious of the Amalfi villages so you’ll find that prices are high! Head over to Amalfi in the afternoon. Here you can shop for ceramics or Amalfi produce on the main street, admire the beautiful cathedral from the top of the long staircase, and get lost in the back streets and ancient alleyways of this historic town. Enjoy dinner in one of the hidden piazzas behind the main street.
Start your next day on the Amalfi Coast with a hike in the Valle delle Ferriere. From Amalfi, ascend up a long staircase passing acres of lemon groves and abandoned paper mills hidden in the forest before reaching a small river that runs through the valley. The hike ends with a gushing waterfall and swimming hole. The views back to Amalfi are stunning. Reward yourself with a pizza slice or arrancini when you return to Amalfi. Then take the short and easy walk through the pedestrian tunnel to Atrani, where you can have a drink in the much less touristy piazza and spend the afternoon lazing on a more local beach. Catch the bus to Ravello in the late afternoon where you must visit Villa Cimbrone for stunning views of the coastline and hills, and to wander in awe through the elaborate gardens and terraces. Watch the sunset from Belvedere Principessa del Piemonte before getting dinner near the main piazza.
Getting there: take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples’ Garibaldi Station to Sorrento, then catch the bus to Positano. After that you can take short local buses between each village: check the bus schedule here.
Stay: Staying on the Amalfi Coast is expensive. There are a few hostels but they book up fast. I’d recommend staying at A Scalinata in Atrani. Here there are both hostel and hotel rooms in a quieter, more local village.
I already considered Italy my favourite European country before this trip, yet what we discovered by venturing southwards was a portion of Italy that was so underrated, so different in history and culture from the Italy we already knew, yet still with that distinct Italian charm. People are proud to be from Italy and they are even prouder to be from the south. They are proud of their streets, their villages, their incredible coastline and delicious food. That pride was infectious, and we found ourselves seeing beauty in every tiny corner of the Mezzogiorno. I fell even harder for this remarkable country and long to be back there with every word I write and every photo I see. Ci vediamo Italia.
Photos taken with Canon AE-1 (35mm) and iPhone.