I land in Naples – Napoli – before midday and get a cab from the airport to my hotel to make the most of my brief time here. My hotel, San Francesco al monte, turns out to be a good choice, located on the top of a hill. The room is nice, old-fashioned but pleasant, with a view of the city below and Mount Vesuvius in the distance.
In hindsight, this was at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, where we were still allowed to travel but recommended not to go to northern Italy. This is southern Italy, and there’s no sign of the pandemic yet. Whether it’s because I’m travelling out of tourist season, or the creeping, sneaking coming of the pandemic spreading, I can’t be sure, but I do appear to be the only guest at the hotel where I’m staying.
Leaving the hotel, I walk down a steep flight of stairs leading to one of many narrow veins that pulsate down towards the heart of Napoli. I go with the flow and soon find myself in the city centre, which bustles with noisy liveliness. I consider going on a tour of underground Naples late in the afternoon, but since I have very little time in the city, I prefer to stay overground and walk around to get a feel of the place. And get a pizza, of course. Napoli is the home of pizzas, after all.
I get a seafood pizza at Pizzeria Brandi, which has excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. The pizza is decent, but I’m not convinced I couldn’t have gotten better and cheaper elsewhere. Well, at least now I’ve had pizza in the town where this dish originated.
Back outside, I walk around the Spanish Quarter, a colourful and gritty neighbourhood with trash thrown in the streets left to rot on the ground and laundry hung to dry in the air. The grid of narrow streets and steep stairways is an enchanting place to get lost in, and I catch myself wondering on several occasions how someone managed to park their car in such a small space, as is often the case around here.
Down by the seafront, the fabulous view of Mount Vesuvius is breathtaking – even more impressive than the birdseye view from the hotel. It’s so much closer to the volcano down here, where angry waves attack the rocks on the shore and paint a dramatic scenery, which adds to the enjoyment of the view.
I sit down at Gran Caffe Gambrinus. I’ve chosen this cafe because it’s where the underground tour starts at 5 pm and I’m still considering whether to join the guided tour or not. I order an espresso, a Negroni and a small cake, but I also get crisps, another cake, focaccia, and olives. When I point out I didn’t order these extras, the waiter says, ‘That’s fine.’ But it’s not ‘fine.’ My table looks ridiculous with all those little appetisers on it, and I soon realise I’ll have to pay for them. This is a lesson in how you can be conned even when trying to avert the situation. I wonder if it happens more often to solo-travellers and even more so to solo-female-travellers. I have to grin it and bear it, making a vow to myself never to return to this cafe and under no circumstances leaving a tip – my silent revenge. Va fa Napoli, indeed.
There is a cemetery with thousands of skulls in the northern part of the city, the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle a Napoli. It’s free to get in but not within walking distance from where I am. I take a cab up there, which seems to take ages. I’m glad I didn’t attempt to walk – I can’t always tell from Google Maps how far it is, and have in the past thought somewhere looked close enough to walk when it wasn’t.
I walk around in the impressive caves full of skulls and bones for about 20 minutes before getting another cab going back into town. I ask to be let off at Piazza Municipio, where there’s an installation of 100 iron-statues of wolves by Chinese artist Liu Ruowang. It’s impressive to see all the wolves in the same space, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.
I’ve seen signs of Granite di Limone throughout the day, and I suddenly get a hankering for one, so when I walk past Monidee Cafe, where I see they make them, I go inside and order one. The ice-cold taste of lemon cleanses and refreshes.
Soon enough, I’m back in the backstreets of central Napoli and find the Diego Maradona mural I’ve read about. I spend a few minutes looking at all the pictures, graffiti and artefacts of the controversial but much loved and universally esteemed football legend who was such a popular fixture in this town in the 1980s. Then I continue up the steep stairs to my hotel’s street.
I walk around the hotel, an old monastery, and the remainders of the convent show when I go on a walkabout trying to find the hotel restaurant. I don’t see one other person on any floor other than the receptionist on the ground floor. At first, I can’t even find the restaurant. My search leads me down several empty hallways and lonely staircases, leading to nooks and crannies, several rooms with exhibitions of artworks, and a basement with what looks like a conference room but might just as well be a ballroom. The emptiness makes the place seem perfect for making a horror film. A Neapolitan version of The Shining, perhaps? I’m relieved when I find the restaurant without encountering two twins in the hallway.
Not surprisingly, I’m the only person in the restaurant. A waiter emerges from nowhere, and I order what sounds like a good meal; chestnut and red prawn pasta. Unfortunately, the pasta is too al dente by about 30 seconds, and it’s way too salty. I eat it without complaint, but this is a stark reminder that it’s usually not good to eat at the hotel and better to go out and find something in a restaurant or a stall in the street. Anyway, I’m done with this day. After my salty meal, I go outside and inhale the salty air from the sea instead. I sit on the vast, empty terrace on the top floor for a while, watching Napoli at night from above and the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius towering over it all.
Many people go to Napoli specifically because they want to visit Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, but Napoli itself is definitely worth visiting. Since I was only there on a layover for just about 20 hours – before continuing to Palermo the next day – I didn’t have time to travel out of town. My brief stay has made me realise that the hard city with the tough reputation has many endearing attributes worth returning for.