GREAT food, wine and that famous Mediterranean climate? Why, I was giddy with excitement my first time in the Italian region of Campania and the famous city of Naples.
Originally a Greek settlement, dating back to the 7th century BC and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Naples claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.
Located close to many of Italy’s most important tourist attractions, it’s a popular base for travellers wanting to make the most out of their Italian vacation.
My Ryanair flight took about three hours and I stayed at the 4-star Royal Continental, an elegant, waterfront hotel with spectacular views of the Bay of Naples and its oldest landmark, Castel dell’Ovo, one of Naples’ three castles.
The fortress was built in the 12th Century by the Normans. Now a marina and seafood hotspot, its lengthy history is still being discovered. Only this year, underwater archaeologists announced the discovery of what they believe to be a 2,500-year-old harbour located adjacent to the fortification.
A short walk from the hotel is Naples’ largest square, Piazza del Plebiscito which is surrounded by three palaces: the Palazzo, Palazzo della Prefettura and Palazzo Salerno. But the diamond in the Piazza’s crown is the magnificent Basilica San Francesco di Paola, one of Italy’s finest examples of Neoclassical architecture. Entry to the Basilica is free.
You can easily pass a few hours here taking in the grandeur of the pedestrianised square before heading to the nearby shopping streets to pick up some bargains.
Close to the Piazza is the underground Galleria Borbonica (Bourbon Gallery) which offers a fascinating look at some of the city’s history over the last few hundred years. There are miles of tunnels and aqueducts below the city, but this one boasts a bigger history than most.
In 1853 King Ferdinand II of Bourbon requested an escape route from his palace to the sea. He was — perhaps understandably — paranoid after three revolutions and an attempt on his life. Work was completed by hand just three years later.
During World War II, Naples was the most bombed city in Italy. The tunnel’s narrow passages and several small chambers served as air raid shelters, protecting up to 10,000 Neapolitans from the falling bombs.
In later years, and reinventing itself yet again, the tunnel was used to dump seized automobiles, some of which are still on display here, alongside artefacts from the days of WWII including children’s toys, cooking utensils and toiletries.
Walking tours are the best way to familiarise yourself with a new city. I began my Old Town tour in Piazza Del Gesu Nuovo, the site of one of the city’s most interesting churches.
Indeed, there are 448 churches in the city — but if you get to visit just one, you won’t be disappointed with the Baroque facade or architectural wow factor of its interior.
Close to the Piazza is Spaccanapoli, one of Naples’ most famous streets and a popular hangout spot for locals and tourists.
The long, narrow cobbled street stretches east to west for over three kilometres. Getting its name from its location — cutting through the centre of the town — Spaccanapoli literally translates as Naples-splitter.
It is renowned for its Neapolitan pastries and craft shops and there’s a great sense of the neighbourhood culture here with a nice break from the noisier streets.
Do like the locals and get yourself a sweet favourite, sfogliatella: this pastry can have several types of fillings such as ricotta and almond paste and you can get a coffee for about €1 here.
It’s a perfect place to soak up the vibrant energy of the city and watch the animated conversations of the locals.
Also in this area is the world famous San Gregorio Armeno (Christmas Alley). This street is known for its cribs and figurines.
Here, Christmas is an all-year -round business. It’s a great place to pick up some souvenirs and up the ante with next year’s decorations. The skill and craft used to create these figurines is impressive.
You can also pick up some figures of your favourite celebrities or a nice carving of notorious ex-President, Silvio Berlosconi.
Most important: pizza! A big fan of this celebrated food, I was delighted to take part in a pizza-making class.
My group class was held in respected restaurant, Showbiz, their expert pizza chefs gave us a comprehensive history of the different local pizzas with hands-on techniques for making the perfect Neapolitan, which we got to eat at the end of the class.
Other snacks were on offer too such as mini pizzas and mozzarella — so delicious, I almost lost consciousness.
Vespas are an Italian icon and the streets buzz with a steady stream — presumably where it gets its name meaning “wasp”.
Vespa Sightseeing Tours offer visitors panoramic views of Vomero and coastal Posillipo, the most exclusive neighbourhood in town.
The who’s who of Naples pass their hours here browsing in designer shops and dining in lavish restaurants.
The views of Mount Vesuvius and the islands are incredible: it’s a picture-perfect setting. The Napolin Vespa Tour takes three hours. Headsets with information about all the designated stops along the way are provided, so you won’t miss out. If driving these famously chaotic streets, weaving in and out of traffic to a volley of meep-meeps doesn’t freak you out, the option to rent a Vespa is available. Not for this faint heart!
Post-tour, windswept and a little underdressed, I was dropped off at Hotel Palazzo Caracciolo for a wine tasting followed by dinner.
This old hotel was once a palace to the House of Caracciolo, one of Italy’s must noble families.
On a stone staircase, lined with candles and plush cushions, I tried six glasses of locally produced wine, all served with a perfectly matched tasting plate of re-imagined peasant food favourites, something Neapolitans hold dear to their hearts.
As with most Italians their passion for food is palpable. They love to talk about it, produce it and, of course, impress you with it. Before dinner I took the chance to take a look around the beautiful 800-year-old building. While the outside is unassuming and simple, stepping through its grand doors, the building’s character is revealed in full glory.
This remarkable structure has been tastefully brought into the 21st Century with every consideration given to its original design.
Dinner was served in the more formal of the hotel’s two restaurants: fresh, local seafood, risotto and a sweet pastry dessert, paired with more of the finest white wines I have tasted.
As a solo traveller, there’s nothing I like better than ambling around old streets, popping in and out of interesting shops, stopping occasionally for snacks, coffee or a glass of wine while I reorient myself.
Naples is perfect for this — and not just for the fact that you’re given free snacks with every glass of wine but also because of the friendliness of its people. Unlike many areas in Southern Italy, eating out and accommodation is very affordable here.
Day trips to Pompeii, the Islands and the Amalfi Coast are also very popular with tourists.
This city feels like a world of its own, wearing the many faces of its long history — from the crumbling facades of the old town to the magnificent architecture of its churches and palaces.
Coffee boys run from cafes to offices with trays of espresso and the golden sun worshippers line its beaches regardless of weather. It’s honest and authentic and I look forward to seeing it again.
GO: Ryanair flies from Dublin to Naples five times weekly from €28.99 each way.
STAY: Rooms at the Royal Continental Hotel cost from €143 per night, www.royalgroup.it/royalcontinental/it
DO: PIZZA CLASS — www.facebook.com/Showbiz-Napoli
WINE & DINE — palazzocaracciolo.com/en/
TOUR — www.vespasightseeing.it/en
DRINKS — the Grand Hotel Parker, www.grandhotelparkers.it
EXPLORE — www.galleriaborbonica.com