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Impressions of Naples, Italy

Impressions of Naples, Italy

The Church of San Francesco di Paola in Piazza del Plebiscito

Italy is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.  If you were to ask 100 people which country they would like to visit, I am willing to bet at least half or more will say "Italy."  Each year, millions of tourists from all corners of the world flock to Italy to see the famed Amalfi Coast and its famous cities, such as Rome, Florence, Venice, and Milan.

It is not hard to figure out why Italy is so popular.  It was center of the Roman Empire, the cradle of the Renaissance, and it was the birthplace of famous personages, such as Dante, Leonardo, Galileo, and Michelangelo.  Plus, Italy is world-renowned for its cuisine.  Each region of Italy has its own specialties and variations of dishes.  A foodie could easily spend years in Italy and not experience all the local variations of popular and local dishes since they vary from region to region and even town to town. 

However, one Italian city that many tourists usually skip or skim over is Naples.  For most of its history, Naples has been the whipping boy of Italy.  It is the city that tends to be the most disparaged and complained about by foreigners and Italians alike for a variety of reasons.  Even in terms of its art, the Neapolitan School of Painting, which is highlighted in the collection of the Museo di Capodimonte, has often been seen as substandard when compared to the Roman, Bolognese, Florentine, and Venetian schools by art critics and art historians.

The relics of a saint (the sign below says "St. Innocent Martyr")

Because of this constant denigration, many people only visit Naples for a short stopover or as a port-of-call for cruise ships.  When tourists do stop by, it is usually on the way to the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii, which was buried by Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.  As a result, Naples typically doesn't get the number of tourists that other Italian cities usually get.  This is quite sad since many tourists are missing out on experiencing a vibrant city that is very authentic albeit grittier unlike the more touristy cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice.

I had the opportunity to spend time in Naples in December 2015, and I made sure to do my research prior to going about what to expect.  During the course of my research and trip preparation, I found all the usual disparaging items;  the huge garbage problem, the dirtiness of teh city, the high crime rate, the poverty, etc.  Based on all those disparaging issues, it was not difficult to see why a traveler or tourist would want to visit Naples.  After all, why would you visit somewhere dangerous, dirty, and poor?

The famous grittiness of Naples is evident in the Spanish Quarter of the city

However, while this negative press did give me some anxiety about whether or not it was a good idea to visit, the city had always intrigued me ever since I first visited very briefly in 2008.  During that first trip, it was only to visit the Capodimonte and Pompeii.  When I decided to return in 2015. I wanted to see if Naples was really as bad as everyone and news sources said.

Here are my impressions of Naples, Italy.
The Garbage Problem is Gone
When I arrived in Naples, I was expecting to see streets piled high with rotting and stinking trash.  However, I didn't see anything of the sort.  Instead, there were garbage bins that people were throwing trash in.  There was trash on the streets of course, but there weren't any unreasonably tall piles of trash anywhere that I could see.  While it was true that Naples did have a waste management issue, the problem peaked in 2008, but it has been resolved for the most part.  However, when the world saw images of those giant piles of garbage and Neapolitans walking amongst them, the images stuck and left the city with a negative reputation that many people still have.
Naples is Dirty
While I have a special place for Italy in my heart since it is where I initially cut my teeth as a traveler, Italian cities tend to be rather dirty and somewhat poorly maintained, and Naples was no exception.  I felt it was definitely dirtier than Rome, Florence, and Bologna.  There was graffiti everywhere, and there was a sense and atmosphere of general neglect throughout the historic center.  However, the dirtiness of Naples kind of endeared the city to me.  For me, the dirtiness and relative neglect gave an authentic feel to the city and not a polished and fake facade that one would see in the more commonly visited cities.

The church of San Nicola al Nilo.  Like many Neopolitan churches, this one is also crammed into a rather narrow street.

Naples is Crowded...with Locals
Unlike other parts of Italy, Naples and the Campania region have a relatively homogeneous population.  A vast majority of the population are local Italians.  The city streets were very crowded, but during my time there, I didn't see all that many tourists.  Instead, they were local Neapolitans going about their daily lives. 

In addition, unlike in Rome and Florence where the guys from Africa and Central Asia push knock-off designer bags and cheap toys in tourist hotspots, I saw relatively few of them in Naples.  It was quite a better and interesting experience being surrounded by local Neapolitans using and not having guys come up to you trying to selfie-sticks or cheap tourist items.

Beautiful Art and Architecture
Despite the negative reputation Naples suffers from, the city has absolutely beautiful art and architecture, particularly in the churches.  While the churches often look rather dilapidated and neglected on the outside, the inside can usually be quite a surprise.  A curious traveler would be pleasantly surprised at how well some of them are taken care of along with the caliber of the art therein.  Of course, not all churches will be well-taken care of, but I was genuinely surprised and pleased at my discoveries.  I also found it to be a chance to get a glimpse into the religious lives of the locals.  It is a well-known fact that religion still plays a big role in the lives of many Neapolitans, so it was interesting to how they practice their faith.
Naples is Inexpensive
It is also a well-known fact that southern Italy tends to be poorer than northern Italy.  When I was in Naples, I found the prices to be quite reasonable and nowhere near what it would be in a place like Rome or other northern Italian cities.  For travelers who are on a budget, Naples would be a good place to visit since your money can go a bit further here than in northern Italy.

One of the famed Neapolitan presepio that depicts the Nativity within the context of 17th and 18th century Neapolitan life.

One of the famed Neapolitan presepio that depicts the Nativity within the context of 17th and 18th century Neapolitan life.

Unique Traditions and Culture
Since I visited during Christmas, I had the opportunity to see a couple of exhibitions of Neapolitan presepe in the usually-closed church of S. Marta and church of S. Nicola alla Carita in the historic center.  Neapolitan presepe are world famous and known for showing the nativity of Christ within the context of 17th and 18th century daily Neapolitan life.  They are excellent ways to get a view of what daily life was like in the Campania region when the area was more rural.

In addition, if a traveler visits Naples on September 19, it will be possible to see the "Miracle of S. Gennaro."  During this celebration, the supposed solidified blood of the patron saint of Naples, S. Gennaro (St. Januarius), will become liquid again.
Naples Can Be Intimidating
The city is known for having a crime problem, particularly with the mafia.  However, the mafia has little need to bother a casual tourist, and the chance of a casual tourist having a run-in with them is highly unlikely.  Instead, it is the petty crime to watch out for.  Since I knew Naples' reputation for crime prior to arrival, I made it a point to keep my phone in a hidden pocket, carried the bare minimum of euros, and carried my camera in my backpack.  Even then, I only took out my camera when I felt it was wise.  Admittedly, I was a bit more cautious in Naples than in other places, but while some parts of the city can be intimidating i.e. the Spanish Quarter, I think the city has more bark than bite.  However, it would not be worth testing that theory.

Caskets of the members of the royal Aragonese family in the Church of San Domenico Maggiore

Overall, after my time in Naples, I would say that Naples is actually one of my favorite cities in Italy behind Rome.  When I first arrived in the city, I wasn't sure what to expect.  However, I kept an open mind and willingness to look past the dirt and grime, and this led to many pleasant surprises.  Naples is truly a wonderful city that should be experienced by everyone at least once.  Personally, I cannot wait to go back and explore more of it.  There is still so much to see and experience in the city.  I was very surprised by the city, and while the reputation of Naples as a dirty city was true, I found it to be authentic and part of the city's fascinating aura and ethos.  It would be hard for me to imagine a sparkling and pristine Naples.  Go and visit bella Napoli!  It is well worth it!

If you've been to Naples, what did you think?  If you haven't been to Naples, do you think you go now?

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