My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

A Long Hike to Lake Como

I think it’s clear that I love Naples. But let’s be honest — I look forward to my departure from this city almost as much as I look forward to my arrival. After a few days, I was ready for a change. And I got one. My next stop is Lake Como, within yodeling distance of Switzerland.

Italy’s reputation for being disorganized and inefficient, while not entirely underserved, is overstated. In this country famous for “trains that don’t run on time,” impressive Freccie bullet trains zip between cities at speeds that put Amtrak to shame. I went from Naples to Milan, about 485 miles, in under five hours, including stops. (Imagine rocketing from San Francisco to San Diego that fast.) They even throw in a welcome drink and a snack.

But I almost missed that train, even though I got to the Naples station with plenty of time to spare. When I spotted my train, I started walking up the platform to my reserved compartment — all the way at the front of the train, car #1 of 11. It was a long hike. Distracted by visions of the serene alpine lakes awaiting me at the other end of this journey, it took me a while to notice that none of the train’s doors was open.

I finally reached car 1 and pressed the “door open” button, and… nothing happened. I pressed the button for other doors and started banging on the windows. The conductor appeared, and she gestured frantically toward the other side of the train. I had walked 600 feet down the wrong platform.

It was just a few minutes before departure, and the next train wasn’t for two hours. I flirted with the simple solution of hopping down onto the tracks in front of the locomotive, then climbing up the platform on the other side. But not wanting to spend the night in a Neapolitan jail cell, I realized that my only viable option was to run the entire length of the train, in three minutes, with my full rucksack on my back. Which is what I did. By the time I’d rounded the end of the platform, hopped on the last car of the train with seconds to spare, then trudged all the way back up to the front of the crowded train to my seat, I was a fountain of sweat. But I made it.

 

All of this illustrates that now matter how experienced a traveler you think you are, you can still make big mistakes. Carelessness, inattentiveness, or just plain bad luck can put you in some strange and stressful situations. On the other hand, those can wind up being the most memorable experiences of your trip…in hindsight.

 

Next stop: Lake Como.

Early Christmas Shopping in Naples (Shhh! Don’t Tell Mom!)

South Italy adores its nativity scenes, called presepi. You see simple ones carved into the walls of urban streets and rustic villages. You see a huge one in the back corner of every church. And you see them for sale in shop windows all over Naples.

I happen to have a very close relative who collects nativity scenes. (And that person is also particularly difficult to shop for at the holidays.) With each trip to Naples, I have to fight the urge to buy her a big, fancy one, because how on earth would I pack it home?

But this trip, I was determined. So I asked my local friend Virgilio for help. Here are some photos from my very early Christmas shopping.

Tacky Presepi

In Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno — a street that leads away from the historic Spaccanapoli pedestrian drag — is jammed with cheap presepi shops. While these are fine for a basic souvenir, the made-in-China quality wasn’t the special gift I was looking for. So Virgilio  took me to one of the most venerable presepi shops in Naples, owned by Signore d’Auria. They let us peek into their workshop, too.

Naples Presepi FiguresIn the workshop, building these Barbie doll-sized presepi figures is a painstaking process: They begin with an articulated metal skeleton, which is wrapped in string and padded with cotton to give volume to the body, and finally dressed with clothes as finely tailored as the real thing.

Naples Presepi Figures 2 Neapolitans’ affection for their presepi may stem from their deep family ties. “Each figure in a presepe becomes a new member of the family,” Virgilio explained.

Naples Presepi Sets

These travel-size presepi are more like it. And you get several small figures for the price of one big one. The level of detail is mesmerizing.

Naples DAurio

Signore d’Auria proudly poses with one of his fine presepi. The fanciest presepi, like the fanciest dinners, come under glass — a fragile dome called a campana (“bell”).

Virgilio offered to ship my presepe for me. He assured me it would be no problem. He was wrong. A few days later he called me with a regretful tone in his voice. “It may take longer than I expected,” he said. “Because presepi are an important part of our cultural heritage, the local cultural authorities must inspect the piece to ensure it is not artifact quality. It cannot be more than 50 years old.” He told me he had scheduled an appointment at the customs office to bring the presepe for authorization.

Apparently, my presepe got its emigration paperwork: Virgilio just emailed me to say that it’s in the mail. I’m in no hurry — as long as it arrives in Seattle in the next seven months, I’ll be fine.

Rejuvenating — and Psychoanalyzing — Naples

Wild and crazy as Naples is, the city is working hard at urban renewal. They’ve torn up drab squares that for decades have greeted arriving visitors: On Piazza Municipio, facing the cruise port, they’re excavating the ruins of an ancient Greek settlement, which will be viewable inside a futuristic new Metro station. And on Piazza Garibaldi, the football-field-sized expanse in front of Napoli Centrale train station, they’ve excavated a totally different space: a sunken shopping mall, covered by a slick new canopy to shield shoppers from sun and rain.

Both of these are part of an ambitious eNaples Stationxpansion of the city’s Metro system. Several new “art stations” on the subway have been designed by prominent architects — a point of pride for Neapolitans who are weary of the conventional wisdom that they live in a backwards, broken-down city.

But, to be honest, I’m not buying it. Don’t get me wrong: Cities can get better. Especially in Eastern Europe, I’ve personally observed big, grimy cities — Budapest, Warsaw, Zagreb — reinvent themselves and flourish into thriving 21st-century communities. It can be done. But not in Naples. Because you have to want it. And my sense is that most Neapolitans are content with the chaos they swaddle themselves in. Why “fix” it? It’s the essence of Naples. It’s by design.

At the corners of big intersections, I kept noticing walled-off stairwells to nowhere. Years ago, some ambitious civic leader proposed underpasses to make pedestrians’ lives easier. But I imagine these passages turned out to be magnets for crime and grime, so now they’re all sealed off and forgotten. I wonder if today’s glitzy new subway stations are tomorrow’s deserted underpasses.

Struggling to wrap my brain around this, I asked my Neapolitan friend Virgilio, who thoughtfully psychoanalyzed his hometown.

“You must understand, people in Napoli are the same way they have been for thousands of years,” he explained. “The Bay of Naples has always been a big crossroads for trade, and that means lots of foreign invaders. Spanish, French, Austrian, Sicilian, everyone took their turn ruling Naples. This has given us a clear picture that we are never in control of our own destiny.

“And to top it off,” he said, waving his arm toward Mount Vesuvius on the horizon, “we live in the shadow of an angry volcano. We always remember that it destroyed life here two thousand years ago. Maybe it can happen again.

“That’s why Neapolitans don’t plan. We aren’t organized. We don’t live for tomorrow. We live for today. Because today is the only thing we can be sure of.

“When you have no power and nothing is certain, you have to hold on close to your family, ’cause that’s all you have. This is why in Napoli, family is so important. And maybe that’s why the mafia has been so powerful here. Those ties are stronger here than anywhere.”Naples Shrine

He paused to point out a little shrine embedded into a grimy wall by someone’s front door. “This little altar, it’s so important. You see these everywhere. It honors our ancestors — a grandparent or great-grandparent who died. If you go to the ruins of Pompeii, you will see even thousands of years ago, people would have altars to their family members in their homes. We are still doing this today.”

Suddenly, the chaos of Naples began to make sense. Understanding the worldview behind wild traffic, hot tempers, and living life with abandon doesn’t necessarily make Naples easier to take. But it helps.

Pizza and Fried Goodies in Naples

Even though Naples is a huge city (Italy’s third-largest), it’s still a small town. The community is close-knit, and “networking” operates on a more primal level than LinkedIn and business lunches. On arrival at Napoli Centrale train station, I hopped into a taxi. The driver asked where I was from. When I said, “Seattle,” he said, “Oh, my friend moved to Seattle many years ago. He opened a pizzeria there — Via Tribunali. I helped him import all of his equipment. Brick pizza oven, everything, it comes from here. I put it on the ship myself.” Five minutes in Naples, and already I’d met the close friend of a guy whose pizza I’ve eaten back home.

I’m not surprised that the common denominator between Seattle and Naples is pizza. The best pizza I’ve eaten anywhere is in Naples — as well it should be, since pizza was invented here.Da Michele Pizza

On this trip, I ate at Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which pizza purists insist is the best in town. You have just one choice: marinara or Margherita? And that’s it. Like In-N-Out Burger back home, Michele understands that when you achieve perfection, you keep things simple.

When the pizza arrived at our table, my Neapolitan friend Virgilio was in ecstasy. “Aha! You taste that? The perfect crust. Thin, soft, a leetle sour. You don’t even need to chew it. You just put it in your mouth and…” He pantomimed a delicious glob of pizza sliding down his esophagus, ending with a big smile.

Watching me gingerly nibble at my slices, Virgilio said, “This is the correct way to eat a pizza.” He cut out a wedge, rolled it up into a bundle, sawed off a lengthwise chunk, and jammed it into his mouth. I tried it. And in one perfect bite, I got the gooey middle, the singed crust, and a squirt of tomato sauce — all in just the right proportions.

Strangely, my favorite pizzeria experience on this trip had nothing to do with pizza. One day, I naively showed up at lunchtime on Via dei Tribunali — the namesake of that Seattle pizzeria, it’s a street buried deep in the historical center, lined with several of the planet’s best pizzerias. A mosh pit of hungry pizza patrons crowded around the Pizzeria da Matteo. Occasionally they’d spill out into the cobbled street just long enough for a delivery truck to beep them back up against the wall.

Some of the patrons were elbowing their way up to a window, where a busy vendor was tossing deep-fried snacks the size of tennis balls into takeaway bags. I joined the mob and worked my way to the front, where I ordered a couple of fried UFOs.

AracninoRetreating to a park bench on a seedy square, I peeked into the bag at the two items I’d randomly requested. One was an arancino, a deep-fried ball of rice that really did resemble the “little orange” it’s named for. I’d eaten arancini before, and they were dry, crumbly, and forgettable. But this one was heavenly. When I bit in, the filling — rice mixed with tomatoes, ragú (meat sauce), and a few peas — melted into my mouth as soon as my teeth broke through the fried skin. It was moist, piping hot, and delicious…instantly setting an impossibly high bar for all of the arancini I’ll ever eat.

Then I turned my attention to the other item in my bag, a frittatina. I’d never heard of this before, but it was oblong and had irregular edges. Taking my first bite, it was clear I’d discovered the perfect food: macaroni and cheese, with a bit of meat sauce mixed in, rolled into a ball, dropped into a fryer, and served steaming hot.

I love it when cultural cliches live up to the fuss, and Neapolitan pizza certainly does. But you have to go beyond the cliches, too.

 

Bella Napoli: Love It, Hate It, Maybe Both

I made it to Naples, and my guard is up. The American travelers I’m meeting around Italy have a sort of terrified fascination with this city. More than one person has told me, “We planned our trip around not going to Naples.”

I get it. Napoliphobia is understandable. This is the birthplace of organized crime. It’s gritty, it’s gross, it’s in your face. The city is an assault on all of the senses: piles of garbage, pungent odors, and a neverending racket of buzzing motors and hollering natives. The streets are an impenetrable maze. The graffiti manages to be profane in multiple languages. The traffic is mortally terrifying. And the people…well, actually, the people are wonderful. But their unbridled, full-bodied engagement with living can be jarring to a mild-mannered American.

And yet, even with all that’s stacked against it, after several visits Naples has really gotten under my skin. Frightened or not, you owe it to yourself to experience Naples. If you hate it, you hate it. The train station is that way. But if you give it a chance, you may learn to love it.

Naples is a world — and a worldview — unto itself. As you explore, keeping one hand on your wallet and the other on your camera, you’re immersed in Neapolitan life. Everyone is out, it seems, all of the time. People have animated conversations, waving their arms to illustrate a point…while talking on a cell phone. Babies balance on the handlebars of motorbikes. If you can tune out that knee-jerk sense of danger, this city has Europe’s undisputed best people-watching.

Here are few photos of my latest visit to Naples. But vivid as they may seem, nothing can capture the experience of being there.

 

NaplesNarrowStreet

In Naples, people live, love, eat, chat, and die in impossibly narrow lanes like this.

 

NaplesProduce

Colorful cottage industries spill out into grimy streets.

 

NaplesCourtyard

Walking between Naples’ gigantic, soot-covered buildings, occasionally you find an open doorway. Peeking into the courtyard, you get a glimpse at what, at one time, must have been an opulent place to live.

 

NaplesCarNudge

When I’m in Naples, I don’t worry about getting mugged…I worry about getting run over. Cars, trucks, and motor scooters assertively nudge their way between pedestrians. Often, the smallest motor scooters make the biggest noise. I watched an old-timer, comfortably resting on his rickety plastic chair, get beeped out of his seat by an impatient delivery truck who couldn’t quite squeeze by. After four days in the city, I was only clipped in the shoulder once by a side-view mirror. (It was just a brush-back pitch, really.) I consider this a pretty decent track record for four entire days in this city.

 

NaplesLeopoldo

Strolling the streets of Naples late at night, modern-day tableaus like this one catch your eye.

 

NaplesStreet

Tucked between the glum buildings are stunning churches and grand squares, like this one.

 

NaplesLionSmileExpressive stone lions welcome visitors to Naples’ Piazza Plebescito. This one has a goofy, welcoming grin.

 

 

NaplesLionSnarl

Meanwhile, this lion seems to be saying, “You talkin’ to me?”