I’d heard many a wild story about Napoli. Of the gypsy women who feed their babies a substance that turns them blue to solicit sympathy from tourists. Of the swift pickpockets who manage to steal from even the most savvy money belt protected American. Of the street markets lined with stolen goods.
“Don’t go to Napoli, it isn’t safe” was the advice I most often heard, but the nightmare tales had already entranced me and so, when a journey from Rome to Sorrento left me with a three hour layover in Napoli, I knew I had to leave the train station.
First Thoughts on Napoli
I exited the train as if entering a war zone. Ears extra alert. Eyes extra open. Backpack on my front. Money, passport and credit cards secured on my stomach in my money belt, admittedly my first time using it. I was on edge, half convinced all Napoli had been alerted of my arrival and there was a prize out for the first who could steal my belongings. I’d lose my focus for one second and then a thief would find a way to take my camera. Game over. “Dang you guys are good,” I’d say in disbelief as I shake my head.
Napoli, Italy’s largest city south of Rome is the birthplace of Pizza, and so I head for the nearest hotel to ask for a restaurant recommendation, questing for Napoli Pizza.
Outside the train station does not look too out of the ordinary. A sea of people sell a sea of goods – sunglasses, electronics, phone cases. No postcards in sight but you can buy underwear. I clutch my belongings extra tight and my suitcase sounds like a trumpet as it loudly rolls behind me.
A Quest for Napoli Pizza
There are no free maps of Napoli in the hotels but I do get vague directions to a restaurant and I begin my solo journey in the streets to the city center.
As I walk I begin to see just how dirty Napoli is. Trash is everywhere, littering the streets like Times Square after New Years Eve. Soda bottles, cigarette packs, plastic bags and rotten vegetables line my walk. I pass a piazza. The architecture is so old it could surely rival Piazza Navona in Rome. But here in Napoli the ancient buildings are covered in graffiti and the lawns are overgrown and strewn with ever more trash.
The city has dumpsters but they overflow onto the sidewalk. One street is blocked by a large pile of cardboard boxes, and paint peels of the side of tall apartment buildings.
Men sit around in groups playing chess and couples make out on the park benches. Men and women stand at their windows barefoot looking past the lines of drying laundry and down at the street below. Looking at me. Everywhere I go I am stared at, but I am not offended because I would stare at me too if I lived in this dilapidated city and saw a tourist in pink shorts strolling down the street with a little blue suitcase.
I don’t exactly know where I am going, but nowhere and no one looks safe to ask, so I just keep rolling down the street, eyes straight ahead with false confidence that I am not lost.
I turn right on what appears to be a main street. A group of boys toss a soccer ball on the sidewalk. They begin their game as I walk past and suddenly I am in the middle of it. A ball flies over my head and they run after it as if I am not even there.
Somehow the restaurant recommended to me, Mare Luna, is on this street and I stop in. The restaurants in Napoli are closed in the afternoons for a break and I am 15 minutes early for the dinner opening. The man inside barely speaks English and tells me to wait outside at a table. The patio is fenced in but still I clutch my suitcase and backpack, anticipating a thief will pop out of the bushes in fictitious Napoli fashion and finally steal my belongings.
A group of men sits at a table nearby and I avoid eye contact until one of the men approaches me. Like most in Napoli he doesn’t speak much English and we stumble through a conversation as I learn he is the owner and the rest of the men employees. I breathe a little easier and pull out my Italian dictionary to converse while waiting for my margarita pizza.
I Found More Than Napoli Pizza
As my pizza arrives the owner questions how I am getting back to the train station. He will not hear of me walking back alone and insists I get a ride from one of the co-owners.
The co-owner, named Giorgio has a vespa, and as this does seem a safer and more enjoyable option than walking back, I accept.
And so I find myself on the back of this vespa, holding onto an Italian man with one arm and a warm, fresh pizza with the other, zipping through the streets of Napoli. We are a sight with a suitcase squeezed on the narrow floor and a pizza out in the open, and a man in a car passes and pretends to take my pizza.
Giorgio points out monuments on the way back to the train station. He speaks no English and so I have no idea what I am looking at but I just laugh, and laugh and laugh, filled with a deep sense of happiness from the unexpected beauty I found in Napoli.
Giorgio proves to be a gentleman and delivers me to the station in perfect time for my train to Sorrento. He walks to the platform, ensuring my safety and forever sealing Napoli in my heart as a memory of joy, so different from my expectations.