When researching this trip to Naples, I was surprised to see so much hate and ambivalence for the southern Italian city. Requests for Neapolitan hotel recommendations on Trip Advisor are often met with suggestions to stay in Sorrento and make a day trip into Naples 'if necessary'. The city is often accused of being dirty, dangerous and just plain unlovely. I think that most of these claims are unjustified. Sure, Naples is rough — and not just around the edges — but it is colourful, characterful and has some of the world's best pizza.
This brings me on to my next point, which is that, as I fully expected, August is one of the worst times to visit (and I wouldn't have chosen to come in August had it not been for a family wedding in Sorrento) because it hits you with the trifecta of holiday problems: excess heat, excess crowds and summer closures. With Ferragosto (one of the biggest Italian public holidays) on Monday, this week is particularly bad for restaurant closures. The city, as my taxi driver put it, is very tranquilla right now because most Neapolitans have headed to the beach. I was particularly disappointed to find that three of the four best pizzerias that I had earmarked (Gino Sorbillo, Da Michele and La Starita). Finding the best pizza in Naples during August is not, I learned, a pizza cake.
Nonetheless, I managed to make the most of the 36 hours I spent in the city. I was also pleased to practice my Italian again. I studied the language for six years and my degree involved various courses in Italian linguistics. The Italian spoken in Naples can be difficult to understand for anglophones, partly because of the accent and partly because of the common use of Neapolitan dialect (the dialects being 'sister' languages to the standard Italian language, which is based largely on the Florentine dialect). Still, taxi drivers, waiters and hotel staff seemed delighted to find a Brit relatively fluent in their tongue and were soon chatting away to me, pointing out various historical details and recommending their favourite restaurants (most of them sadly closed).
After a descent into Naples airport with beautiful views of Vesuvius looming in the distance, I arrived at my hotel, Decumani Hotel De Charme in the centro storico, on Tuesday evening and then joined my parents for dinner at a lovely restaurant I'd found called La Stanza del Gusto. It's modern and funky with great food (I had an amazing cod tempura and we all shared a plate of cheese and cured meats to start), friendly and relaxed service, and a good selection of wine and craft beer. The prices are very reasonable too. Another restaurant with a similar vibe that I'd identified, Salumeria Upnea, was just down the street from our hotel but was closed for the holidays.
I told my parents that I was going for a walk and a gelato, but although I did go for a wander around the historic city centre, I ended up spotting that one of the pizzerias on my list, Di Matteo, was open. It was after 10.30 pm, there was a queue and I was full from dinner but when in Naples...
The Di Matteo system is a little complicated. If you want to eat in, you give your name to the guys in the window around the corner. If you want some fried food (an arancino, for instance) or a pizzetta to take away, you order from the front counter. If you want a pizza to take away, you just walk inside and order from one of the guys kneading the pizza dough next to the oven. Within minutes, an amazingly delicious pizza is yours: the margherita is just €3. I took mine to eat on the steps outside the duomo and devoured it. Well, I managed about half of it, but it was well worth the wait and the hassle. If you've ever eaten at Pizza Pilgrims in London, you will know where the guys took their inspiration from: puffy crust, thin and chewy base, delicious tomato sauce and mozzarella. Simple, but effective.
The narrow, cobbled streets of Naples are quite dark by night and the city was quite quiet once the cruise ships had departed, but I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Via Tribunali (home to Di Matteo and Gino Sorbillo) and the three connecting streets known collectively as Spaccanapoli one block south are good places to explore by night; during the day, they are almost unrecognisable, packed with shops, restaurants and people. Naples' cheerful pastel buildings looked very atmospheric lit up by night and I enjoyed my walk. Yes, there is a lot of graffiti and yes, parts of the city can be a little grubby, but to me, Naples felt lively and full of character.