The sun was tucked behind a row of tall buildings opposite Stazione di Napoli Centrale when I arrived in the southern Mezzogiorno region of Italy. A cold, cotton candy pink and blue sky stretched high above the peeling sepia walls of Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi as dusk settled cooly on the terminal.
I shook off a chill as I waited for my parents to show up in one direction or another on the dusty Corsa Novara. The sea was to the east, but having forgone an international data plan, I resisted the urge to find it and stuck to the plan we had agreed on the day before, to meet just outside the station. There were heaps of trash lining the terminal walls and a squabble going on around the corner that made me leery, but also the amorous sounds of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 playing on the eighty-eight keys parked just inside the station. “Dear old Napoli” was apparently going to be more gritty than glamorous.
If you’ve sometimes felt that all European cities are beginning to look the same, you should spend some time in Naples, which is like nowhere else you have ever been on Earth. – The Daily Mail
I loved it. But I was tired of trying to convince the beckoning cabbies leaning over their car doors that I actually had arrangements to be picked up. Also tired of standing around in my blisters, I shuffled back over to the terminal to pass the time browsing its gift shops and confectioneries where I could at least access public WiFi until my mom could get back to me on WhatsApp. Within a few minutes, and with a few more pretty things crammed into my bag, my parents showed up on foot and walked me over to the nearby Grand Europa Hotel.
My stomach growled as the concierge handed me a heavy brass skeleton key with a weighted red velvet tassel at the end.
My stepdad, also hungry, hurried us past the billiard table in the parlor adjacent to the front desk. We went through a passage that led to a dead end, then doubled back to a misplaced flight of stairs. My mom trailed behind, aimlessly brushing up against the hallway as she “checked in” on Facebook.
There were creaky, mismatched wooden parquet floors with low ceilings in the halls and vaulted in the suites, rich velvety drapes adorning inconsequential entryways, exquisite copper fixtures in the bathrooms, and a mechanical cage elevator in our fabulously grand, old-timey hotel.
In our room, I peeled off my leather loafers and slipped into a pair of pink sling-backs that I had picked up earlier in the day when I couldn’t resist squeezing in a Roman afternoon. I swapped my day bag for an envelope clutch, and ready to feast, we set out to find our long-anticipated wood-fired Neapolitan pizza.
The sights and sounds of Naples by night were just as mystifying outdoors as they were within.
Will I ever get used to the spiderweb routes and alleyways of Europe? Will one take us right up to the sea? Is the graffiti all over Italy always so passionate and pleading – I love you, Maria…Wait for me, Marco?
Less of a romantic, and less distracted, my step-dad was on a mission, directing us past every pizza joint in town but the one we were looking for. The man is the smartest person I know, and I quietly enjoy claiming a better sense of direction than him on these global family meet-ups. Navigating Naples is tricky though and it didn’t take me long to relent to my appetite, ditch the guidebook, and approach a group of friendly faces with to practice my Italian. The women gathering outside a convenience store smiled and pointed to the building right behind us, Trianon da Ciro at Via Pietro Colletta 42.
For all the warnings of long waits and lines at Trianon da Ciro, and its rival De Michelle (you might know it as the pizzeria that Julia Roberts dines at in Eat Pray Love), at eight on a Thursday night, we were able to walk in and order a bottle of wine, the place and three whole pizzas to ourselves. We dined upstairs attended by a no-nonsense server who tolerated my mother rearranging their tables and chairs for her photos of the marbled marvel.
We caught up, agreed the northern Italian food in Milan didn’t compare, and thought about where in the world we’d gather for Christmas. We finished our crust and headed back to the hotel, bellies full and heads ready to find their way to a pillow after a full day’s travel. But not before dipping into a couple scoops of gelato and the cappuccinos we crossed paths with before bed.
Naples also serves as a key jumping-off point for other Italian destinations. The city is close to Sicily and Sardinia, the ancient ruins of Pompeii, and the famously beautiful Amalfi Coast. Just don’t let any low TripAdvisor ratings fool you…travel expert, Rick Steve tells it like it is, as his favorite spot in all of Europe:
Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. Naples is Italy in the extreme — its best (birthplace of pizza and Sophia Loren) and its worst (home of the Camorra, Naples’ “family” of organized crime). The city has a brash and vibrant street life — “Italy in your face” in ways both good and bad. Even though it’s Italy’s grittiest, most polluted, and most crime-ridden city, walking through its colorful old town is one of my favorite experiences anywhere in Europe. Naples surprises the observant traveler with its impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children with good humor and decency. Overcome your fear of being run down or ripped off long enough to talk with people. Enjoy a few smiles and jokes with the man running the neighborhood tripe shop, or the woman taking her day-care class on a walk through the traffic. Naples richly rewards those who venture in.
Learn more about what makes this great city worth its gristle: Why Naples doesn’t deserve to be the place that everyone loves to hate: Despite its dodgy image, the Italian city is full of unique charms.