What You Can Do in the City of Naples
Naples is best known for being dirty, hectic and full of pick pockets. But what most people don’t know about this ancient city that sits under Mount Vesuvius in the south of Italy, is that it has a long and rich history stretching back to ancient times.
It also has some of the best food, museums and sights in Italy.
A Brief History of Naples
Naples has a long and very messy history. The first recorded settlement of Naples is in 7th Century BC by a nearby Greek colony. In Greek legends, Naples is said to be founded by Phaleros, of the heroes of the Argonauts.
Jump forward to 524 BC and the city was attacked by Etruscans. While the attack was unsuccessful, it did cause a shift in power. It was briefly conquered by the Samnites in the 5th Century before the Romans took over.
The Romans celebrated the Hellenic culture that part of Naples due to its long history of Greek rule, and its mild climate made it a popular resort area. During Romans rule the city was connected to the rest of Italy via roads, its Port expanded and public baths and aqueducts were added.
In the 6th Century there was a fair bit of upheaval thanks to the Gothic Wars between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines. In 536 the city was captured in a Byzantine military commander Belisarius when his troops snuck in through its aqueducts. Totila, King of the Ostrogoths then starved the city into surrendering and then recaptured by the Roman Empire during the 550s.
Even when the Lombards (who supported the Byzantine rule) invaded and conquered large parts of Italy later on, Naples stayed loyal to the Eastern Roman Empire. A bit of backwards and forwards happened, and eventually in 840 the Duchy of Naples was turned into a hereditary position, making the region in theory totally independent. At this time Naples was more military then merchant city, mainly due to its substantial port and geographic location.
Naples was quite happy to lend its troops to whoever asked and found itself in an extended period of being sacked and ruled by various different parties (too many to list here!). Pretty much Naples has been conquered at some stage or other by every invading party that hit Europe and Italy. Which explains it very laissez-faire attitude to strangers in its city.
In 1860 Naples voted to join the new united Italy and become what is now known as the City of Naples.
My Memories of Naples
I stayed at a little hostel called Giovanni’s Home in Naples, it was run by an amazing gentleman called Giovanni (and was his actual home turned into hostel). The apartment was in the old part of Naples (the building itself was over 500 years old) and you had to walk up an uneven marble staircase.
Giovanni was a fountain of information, some useful and some just random fun facts about a city that has maintained its identity even after countless rulers and thousands of years of change.
From two hours over a printed map with highlighters and pencil notes, to learning how to make gelato and pasta sauce from scratch, Giovanni was there to tell show us to live Napoli style.
If you got up early enough he would even make a little espresso before you hit the footpaths. We watched him whistle at street sellers and lower down a basket with a shopping list and cash pinned down for fresh fruit, vegetables and bread.
From exploring the ancient aqueducts under the city, to taking the funicular up the nearby mountainside, I jumped on trains to Pompeii and Herculaneum and had the best pizza I have ever eaten for only 4 Euro with a glass of wine.
Just don’t wear real jewellery, keep your hand firmly on your bag and stay close to the walls when walking through narrow streets (motorbikes and vespas stop for no one!)
Galleries, Museums and Architecture in Naples
Naples has some of the finest galleries and museums in Italy, thanks to its rich heritage (and ancient Greek beginnings) there is an amazing mix of architecture (literally buildings built on buildings), sculptures and art.
You can follow the ‘must see’ lists but some of the best spots won’t be on there… Giovanni handed me some brochures to the local Napoli Cultural Association and I was able to explore history with true locals.
Places like the Aqua Augusta Aqueduct – the first excavations date back 5,000 years ago. The Greeks started the tunnels to dig out the giant bricks used to build the city walls and to create graves. The Romans added to the tunnels to allow water to flow under the city. As the city kept growing, so to did the aqueducts. During the second world war the tunnels were then used to shelter from air raids.
The Greek-Roman Theatre may be on some lists, but do they mention how there are two theatres? One that is visible, and one that is hidden. To access the hidden one you need to go through a trap door and through tunnels (Emperor Nero was said to have performed in this very theatre).
Over time most of the theatre has been turned into homes, following the Napoli tradition of building on top off, rather than expanding outside the city walls.
Food, Food, Glorious Food!
There are not enough words to describe the state of bliss I was in while literally eating my way around Naples!
I honestly convinced myself that the amount of walking I was doing balanced it all out (my jeans still fit so it was okay!)
Going from memory I tried:
Deceptively simple pizzas (no fancy overloaded toppings here, just fresh ingredients full of flavour)
Devoured rows of pastries from the many cafes and pastry shops
Tried the oldest dessert of the region – the Sfogliatelle which is flaky pastry made filled with ricotta and semolina
The (originally French) babà soaked in rum or limoncello (where else can you can tipsy in the morning from a pastry?)
The fried pizza or Fritta Pizza – think calzone but deep fried not baked
Taralli – crackers that look a bit like bagels
Cuoppo – Fried fish bites in a cone
Spaghetti Alla Vongole – being a sea port is it really surprising that there is a seafood spaghetti on the list?
Fresh fruit from the street markets
and countless cups of espresso!
I was a little surprised by how much food was (a) fried (b) soaked in some form of spirit and (c) varied!
It really just went to show how how much the food has been influenced over time by the many different parts of Napoli’s history.
Should you visit Naples?
Most people only stop at Naples on their way to Pompeii, Sorrento or beyond. Scared off by horror stories of mafia, petty crime and dirt.
But the truth is Naples is so much more than that, and if you use a bit of common sense with your belongings and where you explore, you will find an incredible city that will have you coming back for more.
I’ve only mentioned a few things here, but to really appreciate everything Naples has to offer you need to spend at least a week. We may be going at the same pace as Naples, but that doesn’t mean running.