It’s almost holiday time and once again I will not spend Christmas at home.
In my family we are not super traditionalist, we are fine with having a good dinner between us only (we are 7 already + the dog) but during this time of the year, when you are far from home, you have that little homesickness that takes your heart therefore I decided to pay a tribute to my roots, to my beautiful Naples because… I still am a proud Neapolitan.
I know it may sound strange since I chose to live abroad, but this does not mean I don’t love my hometown: Napoli – Naples – is and will always be home for me; I was born there; my family lives there in the same house where I grew up; my friends of a lifetime are there.
My choice to leave had nothing to do with what I feel for Naples, but it is also true that living abroad makes me look at the city with different eyes: every time I go back I am like a woman who hasn’t seen her lover for too long…
I see all the beautiful of it and I seem to forget the negative side.
In this Travel Tips I would like to share with you the pride of my origins, the beauty of this controversial city; the love for its places, its customs and the best food.
I would like to inspire you for a future trip and to prevent you to become one of those tourists who tell me “oh you’re from Naples?! I have been to the Amalfi coast, beautiful!”.
Amalfi coast is beautiful, a super cute treasure that our region owns but… it is not Naples – it’s province of Salerno for the record – and most probably you will be landing in Naples… why the heck you don’t visit Naples?! I will never get it.
Let me also clarify that Naples is not only Pizza, Vesuvius and Gomorra.
It is also this ok, but it’s a lot more!
Pino Daniele (a Neapolitan singer and song-writer who sadly died in 2015) in his “Napul’è” used to sing:
“Naples is thousands of colors, thousands of fears;
it’s the voice of the children […].
Naples is a bitter sun, the smell of the sea […].
It’s a walk in the alleys through the other people […]
Everybody knows [Naples]… but nobody knows the truth.”
I always had the feeling that this song was steeped in melancholy and still describing the city with so much fidelity to reality. In Naples you need to walk through the people to feel the strong character of the city and to really get to know its truth.
People are warm, welcoming, funny; we are chaotic and full of life! And you will feel it during a stroll in the old city centre where you will bump into a greengrocer shouting “Ma’am, your shopping’s here, drop the basket!” and waiting for the grandma dropping the basket from her balcony (note: that basket is called ‘o panaro in our dialect; its use is something that WE invented to take some bread home without leaving home 😉 ).
Since we are already in the old city centre – or historical city centre – let me tell you that I went to the university in this area and running from class to class helped me to familiarise with the streets and fall in love with some of the highlights.
During those times I started a personal tradition and since it is holiday time we will start our tour from here, from a visit to San Gregorio Armeno: a tiny alley where artisans create and display their pieces for the Presepe (Nativity Scene); well my personal tradition is to never miss a visit to San Gregorio Armeno during Christmas time (obviously only if I happen to be home, otherwise my absence is justified).
The funniest thing is that every year between a shepherd and another, artisans will reproduce some known personality that during the year pointed out – many of which this year will be wearing a little mask (you know, covid time).
These artisans are working there all year long, but during Christmas time the atmosphere is pretty special and the place becomes very crowded also, so watch out your pockets and bags.
Here we go…
Everybody thinks Naples is dangerous. It’s dangerous as most of the big cities, maybe a bit more but be smart and nothing will happen: don’t walk alone in an isolated street in the middle of the night, checking your last generation mobile phone and showing off your super expensive watch… and everything will be fine.
Now stand at the bottom part of San Gregorio Armeno please, on the street called San Biagio dei Librai, and look left then right.
You are standing in the middle of Spaccanapoli, a 2km straight and narrow street that literally splits (Spacca means splits, divides) the city in two; in fact this street traverses the old centre of the city from side to side and represents an important promenade for tourists because along the whole path you will be able to easily access numerous important sights.
Leaving San Gregorio Armeno on your left hand, walk Spaccanapoli (or San Biagio dei Librai street) towards via Duomo to get to see the realistic portrait of San Gennaro, our patron saint; Naples is very much devoted to him, the legend says he stopped the eruption of the Vesuvius which occurred in 1631 during a procession that was carrying his relics till the active volcano.
From that moment, San Gennaro renews his bond with Neapolitans three times a year: on the first Saturday of May, on September 19th and on December 16th; in these three occasions his blood, kept in the cathedral, dissolves (hopefully) in front of thousands of people gathered to witness his miracle once again.
Well, today is 16th of December… “Sangennà (Neapolitan for San Gennaro, in a friendly way), take care of it!” – as we say.
Let’s see if San Gennaro makes his miracle! If he does take care, this 2020 might finish better than it started.
Among all the points of interest in the historical city center, worth a visit to the Santa Chiara cloister (note: last time I went it was few years ago and I paid 5 euros for the entrance fee) and of course the stunning Cristo velato (Veiled Christ) exhibited in Capella Sansevero; it is an extremely remarkable sculpture because with the same block of marble used to carve Jesus Christ, the artist Giuseppe Sanmartino was majestically able to create an incredible realistic veil through which you can really see the pain on Jesus’ face and body.
Little foodie tip: in Spaccanapoli (few steps from Piazza del Gesù) you will find a tiny little restaurant (almost a take-away) called Rraù Street where you can taste some real ragù dishes, usually prepared by the grandmas for Sunday lunch: tradition wants that the ladies of the house would start cooking ragù on Saturday night to see it ready on Sunday morning.
In the old city centre you will also be spoiled for choice for the most traditional Pizzerias and the most famous one is Da Michele: amazing pizza and easy to digest, but long – very long – queue and only 2 choices to order, Margherita or Marinara (I will sound not too Neapolitan but I never order Marinara: is only tomato sauce, olive oil, garlic and oregano… not for me).
If you don’t want to queue for hours, don’t worry! Di Matteo, Decumani, Sorbillo… they all make great pizza. Somewhere you can also try fried pizza… you should really try it, trust me.
Important recommendation: DON’T YOU EVEN DARE TO ASK FOR HAWAIIAN PIZZA!!! Pineapple on pizza is heresy for us. Bare in mind…
Let’s keep talking about food (one of my favourite topics ever) and let’s make a list of the must-try once in life, starting by typical delicacies of this Christmas time that you can easily find around:
–Pastiera. The Queen of festivities. Someone makes it taller, someone doesn’t add candied fruits, but the most traditional (and the best I’ve ever had) is the one that my mum makes; closer to the date, my mum takes a day off to dedicate herself entirely to the preparation of this pie – usually she makes 3 or 4 in the same day: one for us, one for each grandmother, one more because you never know. So what’s about this Pastiera? It’s a shortcrust pastry pie filled with ricotta cheese, sugar, wheat, some cinnamon and other spices, candied fruits (which always cause arguments in the family because my youngest brother doesn’t like them). Not as easy as it sounds, I promise.
–Struffoli. They look like chickpeas but they are not. They are super sticky because covered with honey.
–Mustacciuolo. Rhombus shape for a spiced chocolate cookie. (Mouth watering in this exact moment).
–Roccocò. If you have weak teeth better skip this super hard cookie or, as most people who love it do, dip it in wine and take a bite.
–Casatiello. Salty bread enriched with blackpepper, eggs, greaves… very fat but very tasty! (It’s actually more typical of Easter but there’s some chance you can find it also during Christmas time).
As I said we are not a super traditionalist family but we still have our traditions, for example for us lunch on the 24th of December is only Pizza di scarole (escarole pizza) which does not look like Margherita but it is made using the same dough.
Now all year long stuff:
–Babbà. Spongy and alcoholic sweet (someone sells it non-alcoholic too) that in some variation will be enriched with cream, strawberries, nutella…
–Caprese. Chocolate and almonds cake.
–Sfogliatella. You have the “curly” and the “frolla” – I like those sold in the little (1m x 1m) pastry in Galleria Umberto.
I don’t know why I started from the sweets, maybe because I just had some cookies, but let’s pass to the salty things.
From the old city center you can easily walk to Pignasecca market where you can find a good place to try la trippa, edible lining from the stomachs of various farm animals, to try with some lemon – not my favourite but still typical.
Walking along the shopping street commonly called via Roma (former via Toledo), you can find little street-food shops and buy a typical cuoppo of golden fried delicacies.
Truth is I could go on forever but I want to tell you some two more things:
our bread is different than the rest of the world, it is cooked in wood oven so the taste is different and it is amazing even to only wet it with olive oil; try it: go to a bakery and buy some pane cafone and if it’s still warm just do like French with their baguettes and eat it on the way.
To tell you the second thing I will use the words of a guest I had once in the hotel, he was German if I don’t go wrong:
“Naples ruined my life! – he exclaimed
Why?! – I asked with offended tone of voice
Because after I tried Mozzarella there, I cannot eat it anywhere else…“
Guys. If you haven’t tried Mozzarella in Naples… you have no idea of what Mozzarella is.
Ok, I was too long this time but let me just add that if you happen to go to Naples during Summer (or even late spring / early autumn) I recommend you to get to Posilippo and rent a kayak for a different swim in the sea: you can appreciate the coast and arrive to the Protected Marine Area of Gaiola where the sea is coloured of an amazing green (note: I always rent from Kayak Napoli, where a kayak for two costs around 10€ per person for half day; you can check details on their website).
Aaand after the effort comes the pleasure: you can stop in Bilancione for a velvety ice cream with the view of the Vesuvius.
Naples is a lot more than what I told you – I haven’t forgotten about Napoli Sotterranea (if you are not claustrophobic), about via Caracciolo with its restaurants or Castel dell’ovo with its Borgo Marinaro, not even I forgot about the fresh seafood you can have – but this post would become a book if I’d tell you everything about my beautiful and unique hometown so I stop for now, but if you want to know more and you look for advises… just ask me! 🙂
Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page…
I’ll read ya!