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Published: September 4th 2009
A week and a half after my trip to Lebanon, I was in the air again, but this time to Europe! I haven't been to Europe since my last visit to Poland in the summer of 1999, so I was very excited for this trip.
Italy has held the number one place on my list to visit (along with Egypt, but obviously that has be satisfied) and I was still trying to comprehend that I was actually going. I was meeting my friend, Grace, from college. We would explore southern Italy for a week before we would head back to Rome to meet up with two other college friends, Maple and Cat. Maple is coming from the US as part of her vacation. Cat was fortunate enough to get a summer internship with the American Consulate in Florence, and then she would be starting her Master's program with New York University’s Florence campus in the fall.
After having my flight delayed by one hour, I was on the plane to Rome! Even the wine on the flight had a better taste compared to the wine I had been drinking in Cairo. I arrived at the airport and caught a
train to the city to check into our hostel and head back to the Termini train station to meet Grace, who was coming from Florence's airport.
I befriended a guy who was also on the train. He was looking for a cheap hostel/hotel to stay at and I told him about our place. He decided that he would follow me to the hostel to see if there were any rooms available. A Chicago resident, he was recently on leave from military service and visiting his brother who lives in Italy. On our way to the hostel, he was having a lot of problems with his luggage. In the back of my head I was wondering if I was on Candid Camera or a spin off of MTV's Punk'd. We finally managed to get to the hostel after walking past it several times trying to find the name. Apparently, the hostel goes by two names. Unfortunately, there weren't any rooms available for my new friend, but he was able to find one just next door.
Grace's train to Rome was delayed so I spent the time wondering the huge train station which has a whole shopping mall/area! I was
only able to window-browse because it was almost nearing midnight and most things were already closed. I finally spotted Grace and we greeted each other for the first time since I left for Egypt, about a year ago. After dropping off her bags, we explored the neighborhood near our hostel. We stumbled upon an outdoor cafe/bar and decided to stop to have a couple drinks and catch up. Turned out that our waiter was half-Egyptian, and born in Alexandria...What a small world! Apparently, there is a large Egyptian population in Italy. We headed to bed at around 3:00 am only to wake up early and catch a train down to Naples.
Being amateurs with the rail system of Italy and a bit tired as a result of getting to bed late, we missed our transfer station. Luckily, the train wasn't headed anywhere so we jumped out and ran back to the station to catch the train heading to Naples, which was about to leave!
Located in southern Italy, Naples was very humid once we stepped out of the train station. Naples battles similar negative stereotypes that of Detroit; unsafe, violence, crime, dirty, poor, etc. The city is also
known to be home to the Neapolitan Mafia, the former capital, and the birthplace of pizza! The city is the third largest in Italy with a population just under one million people. I was told by a friend that Naples reminds her of Cairo. I asked why? She responded “because it’s grimy and traffic rules are not obeyed, but Naples is my favorite place in Italy.” So here I am in Italy and the first place I choose to explore is Cairo-like! I'll give it a chance because my friend studied in Italy for a year and I trust her judgment.
Along our walk to the bus stop to get to our hostel, I saw street vendors lining the side-walks of the streets. Wow! This place does seem like Cairo, I thought. The streets are a bit dirty and many of the buildings have street art. At our hostel, we were greeted by a very energetic Lucca. Hostel of the Sun (HOTS) has won many awards including #4 Best Hostel in the world in 2009. We found out quickly why it has been selected for such a distinguished award. The staff is very friendly and a great resource for
travelers to find the best or cheapest restaurants, what to check out in the city and places near by, provides free internet access for their guests, a kitchen to cook in (breakfast is included in the price), hundreds of DVDs to choose from to play on their HDTV located in the common room, and just a great environment to meet other young travelers. All for 18 Euros/night/person! The hostel is probably one of the best deals in all of Italy.
After checking-in, Grace and I headed out to explore the city. Thanks to Lucca for all the suggestions! We visited two beautiful castles, a palace built in 1600 for the Spanish king (Naples was once conquered by the Spaniards), and several piazzas. The city has beautiful baroque architecture and I felt like I was constantly in a museum when walking through the streets. I do have to point out that a lot of historic buildings and statues were covered in graffiti/street art. Although I’m not against graffiti/street art, I wish there would be a way for the present population to express themselves without degrading the past. We also got lost in the Spanish Quarters, which is known for its
narrow streets and the poorest area of Naples. We definitely stuck out, me a light-brown haired boy and Grace a Chinese girl. Nevertheless, it was great to observe everyday life within the Spanish Quarters.
Visiting new countries, it’s always interesting to see what surprises me the most, especially since I have been living in Egypt for a while now. Beirut eased me into people dressing less conservatively, but what stood out most while I was in Italy was the public display of affection (PDA) shown by Italians. Even Grace noticed the amount of PDA. In Egypt, PDA is limited to couples holding hands or a man’s arm around the shoulders of the women, so you can imagine why I was so surprised when couples were straddling each other or making out or both. As we say in Arabic - haram (sinful)!
We used Naples as a home-base to travel to Pompeii and the island of Capri. This way we would save on money and avoid packing up our things everyday and moving. I will have separate entries for Pompeii and Capri.
Since our first night in the hostel, we made some new friends and the third night
we played a game of UK-version Cranium. The group was composed of several Americans, an Italian and a Dane and therefore we had difficulty with most of the trivia questions. Regardless, we had a lot of fun. After the game we decided to head out to a bar at midnight, which was recommended by one of the hostel staff.
We had some difficulty finding the place, but as we turned the corner of one street, we heard a bunch of ruckus and finally arrived at a piazza filled with people socializing, drinking and enjoying themselves on a Monday night! This was the bar! You purchase beers from a pizza store and then enjoy them on the piazza. There was such a diverse crowd; I even met two Polish girls studying medicine abroad in Naples for the semester. I also met a guy who immigrated to Italy from Ghana, his name was George. We discussed the current economic crisis and how he lost his factory job at Fiat in Turin, Italy. He moved to Naples and is currently unemployed or you could consider him self-employed, because he sells knock-offs on the streets. Although I’m not certain, but I think he
might be homeless, as well. He was very interested in why I choose to visit Naples, instead of other more touristy areas in Italy. The reason why George was interested or even confused about me visiting Naples is because the city is not the cleanest or safest in Italy. One will notice that almost everything is covered with graffiti: buildings, monuments, and trains. Naples is known for pick-pocketers and the traffic and driving is just a sample of Cairo’s. For me, the traffic had very little effect, but for Grace, who has been living in Ann Arbor, it was surprising and overwhelming. Street vendors rival that of Cairo’s. George, my new friend, told me that it is difficult for vendors because police enforce permits and ticket those who fail to present one. Since the permits cost money, and many of the street vendors lack just that, the vendors have developed effective strategies to pack up their merchandise and run when spotting the police. It was great to hear George’s story, learn about the current situation in Naples and Italy, and helped me become more grounded and appreciative while on this vacation.
Several action packed days warranted a break during
our last day in Naples, and that’s what we did, or at least tried to. Naples has plenty of churches and many of them were located in the historic city center, also a UNESCO site. The historic city center was very active and I was amazed by all the beautiful churches and the amazing architecture. It felt very Italian: Mopeds zooming past and the smell of fresh baked bread and espresso wafted in the air. Later in the day we headed to the Archeological Museum, but we failed to remember that it was closed that day. Therefore, we walked down Via Toledo, the main street of Naples filled with shops and restaurants. We were exploring the Saldi (or Sales) and made some great purchases. July is one of two months in the year where all the stores have amazing sales. We also treated ourselves to some delicious gelato.
And since our museum visit was de-railed, we decided to head to another museum at the top of a hill in the city. We took the funicular (a cable car that takes you up and down the hillside) to the top and had amazing views of the entire city. We got
to the museum 30 minutes before closing time and decided that it wasn’t worth paying six Euros for such a short visit. As we were walking out, the cashier ran after us, waving two tickets in the air. She allowed us admissions free of charge and we were able to quickly explore the museum! After, we headed to the best pizzeria in Naples and since the city is the birthplace of pizza, made it the best pizzeria in the world! The pizza was delicious and I wanted to bring some back to share with everyone.
So our day of relaxing ended up being another action packed one, but we were not disappointed and as the saying goes “when in Rome…” or in this case, “when in Naples…” Overall, Naples was a great introduction to Italy and I was happy to look past the negative stereotypes and appreciate the positive features the city had to offer. The next day we caught the 7:00am train to Bari to connect us to Matera, our next destination!
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