When people find out that I live in Naples, they often ask ‘are you crazy?!’ Indeed, Naples has a bad reputation, some of it justified and some of it not, but it is not unlike many other cities – ci sono le cose brutte e le cose belle (there are ugly and beautiful things). Having lived and worked in Naples for nearly two years, I can say that the honeymoon period has worn off and I see Naples with both eyes open. I have days when I love living here and days when I am cursing the place but, on the whole, I still find it a fascinating, warm place to live.
So, what is the truth about Naples? I’m going to do my best to shed some light on this city I call home.
Italian food is well regarded as some of the best food in the world, and I would agree… to an extent. One of the things I have always loved about Naples is how easy it is to get fresh produce – from the street markets dotted around the city, to the array of greengrocers, bread shops, fishmongers and butchers gracing nearly every street – you’re never far away from the smells of the earth and the sea. And Neapolitans are rightly proud of their cuisine. Ask a Neapolitan what they like best about their city and they will undoubtedly mention food – pizzas, pastas, gelato, fried food, cakes, pastries – you name it, Naples has it… so long as it is traditional. See, with pride comes a certain amount of inflexibility. Neapolitan nonne have been cooking these dishes for years, and they are passed down from generation to generation. I admire that, a commitment to preserving the traditions of a society. But it can also be frustrating to someone coming from outside. Try to ask for tomato sauce on your ortolana pizza for instance and you will be looked at with disgust. A friend of mine asked for chicken on his pizza and was told ‘no, we are a proper pizzeria’. And don’t even attempt to talk about putting chicken with pasta! For the majority of Neapolitan people, there is a right way and a distinctly wrong way to cook and eat food, and us stranieri often get it very wrong. Neapolitans are not afraid of telling you that either!
When I first arrived in Naples, I remember being thrilled at the thought of living in a city renowned for its Mediterranean outlook on life – a lot of the city still shuts down between 1.30pm and 4.30pm so people can go home to eat and rest, people often start and finish work later, and if you’re stood at a bus stop for an indefinite length of time waiting, people simply shrug their shoulders and exclaim ‘va bo’ (oh well/ok). It can be stressful though. Making plans to go out in Naples, for instance, can be a nightmare as people rarely plan in advance. Instead it’s quite normal to receive a text a few hours before an event asking if you want to go. Agree to meet at 9pm and it’ll probably be 10pm or later before you meet. Even when I was teaching, I had to remember that time is flexible here – I had one student who would consistently arrive an hour late for a two hour lesson! If you’re running late yourself and phone to apologise you’ll most likely be told ‘non ti preoccupare, tranquilla’ (‘it’s ok, don’t worry’). It’s something I’ve learnt to embrace and quite like – time, it seems, is not something to get stressed about in Naples.
Things happen later here too. It’s quite normal to go out for dinner at 9 or 10pm, particularly at the weekends. If you’re planning to go for dinner early, be prepared that most restaurants will not be open before 7pm at the earliest, and very often later.
Another thing that took some getting used to was the summer months. Aside from it being scorching in August, the city quite literally shuts down so that Neapolitans can go on their summer holidays. That’s right, one whole month of summer holiday! Of course, in the centre of Naples, the so-called Centro Storico, there are shops and restaurants that stay open and, generally, international companies will also open their doors throughout August, but in the residential areas and outside the main streets, you will struggle to find restaurants and shops open. It also means that Naples is a whole lot quieter during August too – less traffic, less noise and more tranquillity. Something to definitely bear in mind if you’re planning a trip here.
Like everywhere, people are different. It’s the reason I don’t like stereotypes. But there are things that people from certain places have in common by the simple fact that they are brought up in a particular way or tradition and, as that is true for us tea-drinking Brits, it is also true for Neapolitans.
For instance, they’re a rather superstitious bunch, particularly the older generations. As an example, three times a year people gather at the city’s Duomo to see whether a vial of dried blood from their patron saint, San Gennaro, liquefies. If it liquefies, all is good. But if it does not liquefy, many Neapolitans believe that this could signify bad tidings for Naples. During a liquefication ceremony in December 2016, the blood did not liquefy. We’re were all waiting to see what would happened!
They’re also generally very friendly and helpful. Sit on the metro and you will see strangers talking to each other. Ask for directions and people will go out of their way to help you, sometimes even walking you to your destination to make sure you don’t get lost. Many people here don’t speak much English, but they will try to get their message across to you in whatever way possible – expect gestures, raised voices and involving many other people on the street – it’s their way of helping.
In addition to being superstitious, people are often quite forward. The women will tell you things as it is – if you have put on or lost weight, they will tell you; if they like or don’t like your hairstyle, they’ll tell you. And the men are no different. As a blonde woman walking around Naples, I get stared at a lot, and hear calls of ‘bella’ or kisses following me. I’m not trying to sound vain, it’s just the way it is – men, particularly older men here overtly show their interest in women. But that’s as far as it goes. Not once have I felt threatened by a man on the street and, if you say no to any advances, generally guys stop. That changes if, for whatever naive reason, you give them your phone number mind you… Expect daily messages and phone calls, even if the original reason for giving your number was for a work opportunity or some other innocent reason.
Coming from a country well-known for its drinking culture, it also surprised me that drinking alcohol is not a big thing here. Obviously, there are always exceptions, but people generally drink with their meals and not with the sole intention of getting drunk. When you go out at night, you will often see groups of teenagers eating cornetti and drinking coffee at a cafe, or strolling the streets for a passeggiata. It’s quite refreshing.
This is the biggest thing I get asked about – ‘is it safe to come to Naples?’ The short answer is yes, it is safe to come to Naples! Naples is not the gun-toting, crime capital of the world like it is made out to be. It’s true that crime happens, but crime also happens in other big cities too. Of course, Naples is well-known for its links to organised crime, but if you are not involved in organised crime yourself, you don’t need to worry about it too much. The majority of the time, people go about their business and leave you to go about yours. In fact, most Neapolitans would go out of their way to help you, whether that is to point you in the right direction or even walk you to your destination to make sure you don’t get lost.
So, what are the crimes to think about and what can you do to help prevent them happening to you? The main crimes are petty theft in the form of pickpocketing and bag snatches from mopeds. I have had both happen to me which, whilst being unsettling and inconvenient, did not put my life at risk in any way. Most thieves, like anywhere, are opportunistic, so there are some things I could have done to make myself less appealing:
- wear over the shoulder bags across your body and keep the bag in front of you
- make sure compartments are zipped up or closed
- if you’re walking in a couple or group, keep bags on the inside of the group to prevent mopeds driving up alongside you and cutting the strap
- wear backpacks in front of you or to the side, preventing thieves coming up behind you and opening pockets
- don’t flash your cash or valuables! It’s obvious to say, but if thieves see you have something worth stealing, you become a target
- at night, take minimal things out with you – enough money for the night, your keys and a mobile phone if you really need it – and keep them on your person if possible
- stick to lit, busy main roads and walk with other people wherever possible
Nothing I’ve said is rocket science, but a (hopefully) helpful reminder of how to look after yourself wherever you are.
One of the biggest frustrations among Neapolitans and stranieri alike is the public transport system. In theory, Naples has a public transport system which includes metro lines, buses, trolley buses and funicular trains. Only they just don’t work that well. If you’re lucky and or/having a good day, the metro system will get you from A to B quickly and efficiently. On a bad day however, of which these seem to be the majority, you may be waiting for the metro for upwards of 30 minutes. Don’t even try getting a bus though – you see those people waiting at the bus stop looking a little tired? They’ve probably been waiting there for a few years. Oh, the elusive bus… The funicular train system getting you from downtown Naples up the hill into Vomero is probably the most reliable form of public transport. And the taxis? Put briefly – extortionate, particularly if you don’t speak Italian. Arriving from the airport though is easier due to the efficient and reliable Alibus, which takes you downtown in 20 minutes.
My solution to getting around Naples is to walk. I walk everywhere which is great exercise considering all the hills. Be aware though that the streets and pavements in Naples are often in bad condition or made of traditional cobble stones, all rather treacherous for people who have difficulties walking. And getting across the streets requires a certain technique – don’t wait for the traffic to stop, simply start walking out into the road whilst looking at the oncoming traffic with or without a hand out towards the car approaching you, and continue until you reach the other side of the road. Terrifying to start off with, but you do get used to it. The most important thing? Be predictable so that drivers can guess your next move.
So, what about driving? Driving is the Marmite of Naples – you either love it or hate it! I personally love driving here – it’s fun, crazy and keeps you on your toes. The road surfaces are dreadful, the traffic is bad and the roads are narrow, but somehow it works. All of the cars are scraped from reversing into other cars whilst parking or turning into walls, but I’ve actually seen very few accidents on the roads in my time here, far fewer than when I lived in London. It’s true, the rules are different here so to drive well in Naples, you need to put aside that rulebook you learnt from and start observing and doing as they do. Here are my top tips for driving in Naples:
- Just go! – as scary as it might be to start with, the only way to get around Naples is to edge your way into the traffic. Whether this is at a junction, out of a parking space or at a roundabout, edging your way into the road indicates to other drivers that they need to stop – no one will let you out otherwise
- Use your horn – Italians use their horns to indicate that they are coming and to show that they have right of way. Yes, they’ll also use their horns to tell you to move, particularly if you’re stuck in a traffic jam and can’t go anywhere – don’t take it personally!
- If someone is driving slowly on the road, they are probably looking for a parking space – be prepared that they will just stop and start reversing if they find one
- Use your side mirrors – mopeds and motorbikes are everywhere in Naples, and they will sneak through the smallest gaps you wouldn’t imagine possible. Side mirrors are your only way of checking they’re there!
And definitely get the extra insurance for that rental car!
The history and location
With all of its faults, Naples is a truly interesting city in a beautiful location. There is so much history surrounding both Naples and the area that you could stay for a lifetime and never discover it all.
For instance, the bay of Naples, extending for miles along the coast, is beautiful. It’s also a short distance away by boat from the gorgeous islands of Capri, Ischia and, my personal favourite, Procida. Nearby is Sorrento, the stunning Amalfi Coast and pretty hill towns and hikes.
But whilst most people don’t spend any time in Naples itself because of fears of its reputation, favouring the beauty of towns and countryside nearby, they are really missing out. The city of Naples itself is an amazing mismatch of historical buildings, tiny cobbled streets, underground passageways, impressive castles, and bustling life everywhere. Walk through the streets of the centro storico (historical centre), a UNESCO protected area, and your senses will be overloaded with smells, noise, sights and experiences.
And of course, Naples stands in the shadow of the imposing Mount Vesuvius, the active volcano overdue an eruption which caused the devastation to Pompeii and nearby Ercolano. To the other side of Naples, in the town of Pozzuoli, there is another active volcano, Campi Flegrei, which is showing signs of life. I remember a Neapolitan friend telling me that the presence of these volcanoes greatly influences the spirit and character of the Neapolitan people – with that potential disaster sitting on your doorstep, what are you to do except relax, enjoy life and take life as it comes?
There is a saying here – “quando vieni a Napoli, piangi due volte: quando arrivi e quando te ne vai” meaning “when you come to Naples, you cry twice – once when you arrive and once when you leave”, and that certainly rings true for me and many people I know that have visited or lived here. Naples genuinely has an energy which I cannot describe. Whether as a result of the people, the lifestyle, the history or the volcanoes, it has a certain kind of magic that draws people to it.
Have you been to Naples? Share your experiences of it in the comments below!
Are you planning to come to Naples? Ask me your questions in the comments below and I’ll try my best to help!