I’m currently reading Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s account of Naples’ Camorra crime organization, and my mind keeps wandering back to the day I spent in what many consider to be the blight of Italy’s beautiful landscape. Because Italy is a traditionally Catholic country they celebrate wonderful holidays such as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which falls on December 8. This is the day the big Christmas markets and celebrations begin and is also a day off of work. My friend and I decided to take advantage of this and hopped on a train to see Naples, which purportedly had some of the best Christmas markets in the country.
The reaction you get from the majority of people when you tell them you are going to Naples is not a positive one. They inevitably mention large piles of garbage on the streets and quickly move on to how dangerous it is and how there is nothing to see. The severity of these warnings almost had me believing I was going to be stepping over dead bodies as I got off the train. Maybe it was because of these low expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised by Naples. I was able to eat well, walk along the sea, and there was not an AK-47 in sight.
That isn’t to say the day went off with complete ease. Soon after arriving at the station (and after the requisite caffè e cornetto) we navigated our way to Via San Gregorio, the stop for all things Christmas related in the city. Naples is known for its’ presepi (hand carved nativity scenes) and this narrow alley-street is lined with competing shops and, around Christmas, booths and stalls selling everything holiday related. Now, I hope you have remembered two key points. Narrow street and national holiday. The streets were gridlock. I was getting kicked in the head by a baby sitting on her father’s shoulders, old Italian women were screaming obscenities and trying to push through, and someone’s hand, as always, was making its way to places on my body that I’d rather not have touched by a stranger. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I wanted to be able to walk, and most of all, I want to make sure I didn’t get pick pocketed. Finally, after some strategic elbowing we managed to escape the throngs of people with all of our belongings and decided to forego the majority of Christmas market.
The decision was made to drown our frustations in food and we scoped out a sidewalk cafe that offered a nice view and some superb snacks. It was here that I discovered the most decadent of savory treats, balls of fried pasta that can only be described as heavenly. Elbow pasta, a creamy sauce, peas and ham, breaded and deep fried. No further description is needed. After walking that off and before boarding the train back to Rome, we stopped, as anyone traveling to Naples should, for a pizza dinner. Da Michele is the best known pizzeria in Naples (it was in that book turned movie about that woman who does some soul searching around the world which I refuse to name on this blog) but the wait was three hours and time was not on our side, so we darted across the street to Trianon da Ciro. This three story pizzeria may not be as famous as Da Michele but their pizzas are phenomenal. A thin crust topped with homemade tomato sauce, fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil is baked to a perfect crisp in a word burning oven. This perfect Neapolitan pizza was a fabulous to end a quick trip.
Naples does have its fair share of problems- the unemployment rate is staggeringly high, the trash piles up on the streets and the mafia exerts both political and economical control over large parts of the city- but I would recommend Naples to anyone traveling to Italy. Even if you only pass through on the way to the Amalfi Coast or after a day in Pompeii, skipping Naples would be missing the heart and soul of southern Italy.