Italy: Naples, Pompeii, and Amalfi Coast

It's our last Italy post! In the past few weeks, we've been to Milan, Verona, Tuscany, Venice, and Rome. Italy is a beautiful country, with each region and even each city having its own vibe, color palette, and attitude. I had a great time and can't wait to go back. But first, my last round of spots - Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast!

After spending a week in Bologna to check out the northern cities, I traveled south to Naples. From Naples, I did a day tour of Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. For my last day in Italy, I spent some time exploring Naples itself.

The view of the bay from my Naples' Airbnb. I had one of my best Airbnb experiences here. The apartment was amazing. Like, if I could transplant this exact apartment to Boston or NYC and live there, I would. Lots of natural light and balconies, incredible views, perfect floor plan. My host was really helpful also. It was a great experience. I also had a nice time in Bologna. I just really recommend Airbnb for longer stays. You need a fridge and a living room, sometimes.

The other side of my Airbnb view! Seriously, I just could have hung out in this apartment for a day or so. Naples tangent now. A very nice lady I met on my Pompeii/Amalfi tour (I met up with her in London a few weeks later, yay for single serving friends) said that she had heard that Naples was not a safe city and she told me to watch out.

I didn't hear this beforehand, but after visiting the city and hearing from the guides, I totally buy it. Naples is one of the dirtiest cities I've been to in Europe. There were a lot of people begging for money. Usually I see homeless people or people doing random things for money, like the live sculptures or painted pigeons. In Naples, just people flat out begging for money. I never felt unsafe, but I was also staying just a couple blocks off a very busy road. And I'm not complaining about Naples. There are things to see in Naples and places to eat and the city has its charm and beauty, but it's also a departure from the northern Italy cities that I had just visited. Adjust expectations, is what I'm saying.

One major tip: always stay somewhere somewhat busy. For any city. It doesn't matter what you're doing, you're probably going to go back to the hotel late at night at least once. So make sure you're walking home within a crowd. I've never really felt unsafe while traveling around Europe. I usually travel alone but am always careful to stick to the more crowded areas. And don't advertise you're traveling alone. My boss recommends having a fake engagement ring or reference a boyfriend who's on his way. The feminist in me rolls me eyes, the realist nods and says 'yeah, that's a good idea.' So be smart. Stay cognizant. And check in with your mom or someone else each night when you get in.

Final Naples tangent: this really wasn't my favorite place. European cities I visit fall into one of two categories: 'Can't Wait to Come Back!' and 'Well, Checked That One Off My List!' Naples is definitely the latter. Again, there are places to see and there is a charm to the city but there were just other cities I preferred more. Well, I might come back for the pizza.

My aforementioned London friend came to Naples before heading off to Amalfi for one reason and one reason only - this museum. She even selected a hotel nearby so she didn't have to venture far. The National Archaeological Museum is among the most important classical archaeological museums in the world.

My favorite parts of the museum were its extensive sculpture collection, including a few massive pieces, and the mosaic collection. The latter, one instance of which is pictured, primarily features pieces from the ruins at Pompeii and other similar cities. If you go to Pompeii, I do recommend stopping by this museum if you can as so many pieces from Pompeii have found a home here.

Naples Cathedral. Generally, I've gotten used to these major Duomos being in the center of some major open square. Not so in Naples. I was at a modern museum in a busy urban street and turn the corner and there's the church! And it felt very urban, with shops across the narrow street and crowds on the church's short steps. There was a protest of some kind going on in front of the church. Both the interior and exterior are lovely. You should check it out for that but also because it's near everything and easily accessible so no excuses.

One thing about Naples - it was very hard to navigate. Except for the subway, which was great. In fact, side note, the subway was very colorful and eclectic and artistic. Each stop had some elaborate artistic theme going on. But Naples itself was tough. I was staying in the older part of the city, and the most touristy. The buildings are tall, the streets narrow, with the buildings towering over them. Everything is winding. I took a cab at one point and it was slightly terrifying, with very tiny one way streets with cars going both directions and bikes and pedestrians everywhere. Even the airport was tough to get to and figure out. But walking the streets, I kept getting lost. This church, I really struggled to find. And it was mere blocks from my Airbnb! And then once I did find it, I kept walking by it because the exterior does no justice to the interior.

Before you jump to the next picture and are gobsmacked by the difference between the interior and exterior, some history. Gesu Nuovo was originally built as a palace in 1470 and turned into a church just a century later. The square the church sits is home to several other historical sites, including another church and the spite of the Immaculate Virgin. But to be honest, this was the nicer church and the other one didn't allow pictures.

And now here is the interior! Pictured is the main nave but either side is no slacker, featuring a total of six different resplendent chapels. Beyond what was in my guidebook, I had no idea what I was in for when visiting this church and it was a pleasant surprise. After looking for the place for the better part of an hour, it was well worth the walk. And was also a nice place to sit and rest a bit.

Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside here. Capella San Severo is a small church near the historic center of the city. It was originally a private family chapel. In part because of its small size, there is always a line. Tickets to the church are bought at a shop nearby and then you join the queue to enter the place itself. This wasn't readily apparent to me. Luckily, some Naples dude looking for money directed me to the shop, saving me wasted time in line without a ticket. I paid him. Naples, in a nutshell. So there is a wait - they can only let so many people in at at once. But it's worth it! The small space is crowded with exquisite examples of Baroque art. There's literally a map you have to pick up for a very tiny room so you don't miss any of the pieces. But the main one, pictured here in a sign just outside the chapel, and a not insignificant reason for the line, is the Veiled Christ. The piece was completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and is the undeniable piece de resistance of the chapel. Everyone in the room gave polite attention to the other pieces in the room before quickly directing their gaze to the monster in the room. The veil is so thin and delicate I was tempted to pull the thing off. Just a lovely and detailed piece. Some serious craftsman ship on display here.

The nice British lady I did the tour with also recommended stopping by Sorbillo for pizza. Trip Advisor confirmed, recommending getting there early to avoid a queue. So I added it to my list, arriving just a few minutes after it opened. And this is what I found: a huge crowd already. I put my name on the list and waited. For about forty minutes. For one person. 

And here's the pizza.

First, the experience. Waiting sucked - the sound system they announced the names on was not the best, the crowd was terrible. But once you get inside? Better. There weren't menus in English so I used my best guess. The service was hit and miss but the lovely ladies next to me teamed up with me and we took turns flagging down the waiter, making sure he visited both of us when he came by. I was sitting at a bar, facing the window and hungry tourists waiting for their turn. Eh, it was kind of fun. Once I ordered the pizza, it came really fast and was much larger than expected (spoiler alert - I still ate the whole damn thing). Plus, the bathrooms were nice, the ambiance a contrast to the crowd outside, and the pizzas were huge and cheap.

Finally, the food. OMG. I'm salivating thinking about it. Definitely among the best pizza I've ever had. So fresh, so tasty. There was a unique quality about it. It didn't taste like typical pizza. I definitely recommend checking it out. Just be prepared for a bit of a wait.

Ovo Castle. Supposedly there is an egg in its foundations, hence the name. It was a bit of a walk to make it to the castle from the historic center. But the walk itself was lovely, going through various piazzas and along the water. The castle itself is a labyrinth inside, with lots of pockets and balconies and stairs. A fun place to explore and get great shots of Naples itself.

Naples, from Ovo Castle. It was a bit of a walk to get to Ovo and I had been dragging myself around Italy for a week, so I may have just hung out here for awhile, enjoying the view.

Mt. Vesuvius! Also, Naples, stop showing off.

My final meal in Naples before I flew back to Germany! Honestly, it was just okay. But I love food and bread and wine, so not too bad, food-wise, for me. One suggestion on restaurants in Italy (and also I noticed this in Spain) - check the times. Several were open for lunch and dinner separately, closed in between. And the Italians eat much later than this American. I actually skipped my first choice of restaurant because it opened an hour later than this one and I was too hungry and tired to wait. So just plan and be prepared. And finally, I had a few meals in Naples and have to say - aside from the pizza, get seafood wherever you can!

And now, Pompeii. I knew I wanted to see Pompeii, though it did not match my mental model at all. Just to get the most out of the site and to make it as easy as possible, I did a day-long tour from Naples. There were several tour options. I went with one that spent half the day in Pompeii, half the day in a van driving around the Amalfi coast. Overall, it was a great day but it was a weird combination. If you want to keep the mood going, there were other tours that explored the nearby Herculaneum ruins.

First up in Pompeii, the Afiteatro. For gladiator battles.

Pictured is my tour guide. She was excellent. Knowledgeable but also friendly. She could read the crowd well, embellishing where she detected interest and skimming when our eyes glazed over and really balancing the 'give them time to explore' and 'earn your fee.' She also kept calling us family and she was just enjoyable to spend the morning with. One of our first stops was the home of a wealthy family. We were able to see their bath area, a living quarter, and an open garden in the middle of all of it. And then in one corner room, the remnanants of slaves who were unable to escape the blast.  Welcome to Pompeii!

Visiting Pompeii was surreal. The history is right there. You can walk the streets, enter the buildings. Ancient history is no more accessible than it is in Pompeii. I did a very small part of the expansive grounds and was still there several hours. A few things I remember. The streets were carefully designed to will away the water. And whatever else was in the streets. Old school cross walks - at various spots along the street, two large stones would protrude from the ground. Carefully placed to allow carriage wheels to pass through unscathed, these served as stepping stones so crowds could avoid whatever filth was in the street.

Another big spot for us, not pictured, was a brothel. There were paintings on the wall depicting the various acts on the menu. Additionally, depictions of penises could be found on nearby streets, pointing the way to this brothel. Some things never change.

Basically Pompeii's version of Times Square, Foro is the forum in the middle of the town. The mini museum exhibit pictured below is found in the forum.

I feel like this image should be paired with a trigger warning. Vesuvius erupted, everything in Pompeii was blanketed with layers of volcanic ash. And there the city and its inhabitants lay until its discovery over 1500 years later. In the 1860's, centuries after the initial discovery of the city, some genius figured out that the occasional pockets they were discovering while excavating the city were spaces where human remains had decomposed, creating these pockets. To preserve the individuals as they were at the time of the eruption, these cavities, as discovered, were filled with plaster. The site has a half dozen or so of these replications, including a young boy at a spa. Generally, the figures are hunched over, protecting themselves from the blast. Like walking the streets, seeing a recreation of a real person at that time minimizes the distance of time between us and makes it all so real.

Pictured is a dog.

And now for a totally abrupt change of pace... After a lovely lunch nearby, a small chunk of us got in a bus and headed on our Amalfi coast tour. We had two tour guides who were fun, a Middle Eastern couple, a Dutch family (I didn't quite get the combination but there were four adults of various ages), and me. And be nice to your tour mates - I saw the Dutch family the next day at Ovo Castle and then they were on my flight from Naples to Rome. They were friendly and lively and entertained by the quiet American, traveling on her own and listening to podcasts.

Back to the pictures! I really, really think this is Sorrento. We stopped here not long after leaving Pompeii, at some type of liquor place. We got a shot of something lemony, then headed to their balcony for this incredible view. As we drove around Sorrento, we were also able to get a great view of Mt. Vesuvius. The city has everything!

The other side of Sorrento maybe? Pro tip: don't travel in November and finally get around to blogging about in August.

This is another random town on the drive. We stopped here to take pictures. The hill the town is seated on is incredibly steep. Stairs are required to get from one street to another. Such a beautiful place. And funny story - on the Amalfi part of the tour, I was the only American. At one point right before we arrived at this spot, the guides asked me if I recognized a rock in the distance. Within a second, oh yeah, that's Abraham Lincoln! There was a rock just off the shore shaped like the head of our most famous President, instantly recognizable. Apparently the Italians think so too and refer to it as Lincoln rock. The non-Americans on my tour didn't recognize but fortunately, I was reading Team of Rivals on my Kindle and was able to show them Daniel Day-Lewis in his likeness. They agreed!

The Lincoln rock is just on the other side of the bend, I think. It was hard to take a bad picture of this place. As you can see, given the composition of this picture, I tried my best.

Our last stop in Amalfi before heading back to Naples was Positano, a colorful town hugging the coastline.

The city square of Positano. Here, I had some gelato and picked up a lovely set of artistic post cards to send home. One of them is is on my cube wall, a lovely distraction for when I'm buried in data models and state diagrams.

I'm going to end on a beautiful note. The bus piece of my tour was probably five hours. And this was the view most of the time. Terrible! Tragic! I've talked to so many people who just go to some hillside city in Amalfi for vacations and I have to say, I get it. One day, when my student loans are gone and I have months of vacation accrued, I'm there.

And that's the end of my Italy series! A beautiful and diverse country, steeped in history and scenic views. Come for the ancient Rome ruins, stay for the impeccable wine and incredible food.