There are twelve of us crammed around Giovanni’s table in Naples. We are a motley crew, representing most continents of the world. We are all listening intently as Giovanni teaches us the words to one of his homeland’s most famous songs, Funiculì, Funiculà. Well, all apart from the French who are, rudely, absorbed in their own conversation.
Giovanni’s Home Hostel is where we are staying. He takes an interactive approach to hosting which is why we are sitting in a semi-circle eating the pasta he cooked as he teaches us Neapolitan classics. I am on the edge of the chair waiting for my cue. I sense the change in the chords that indicate the chorus and suddenly it is time to sing.
“Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa jammo jà. Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa jammo jà. Funiculì, funiculà Funiculì, funiculà ‘ncoppa jammo jà, Funiculì, funiculà.”
Funiculì, Funiculà is a well-known Italian song written by Peppino Turco. It was composed to commemorate the first opening of the funicular cable car on Mount Vesuvius.
We arrived at Giovanni’s late five nights ago and as we walked through the dark streets from the train station I heard my name being called.
“Rosie!” An Italian accent curled around my name.
We looked around. To my knowledge, Justin was the only one in a thousand metre radius who knew me.
“Rosie!” The voice called again.
I turned in a full circle, looking for a shadow in the darkness. Who on earth would be calling to me in the middle of Naples, Italy? My name was being called more urgently, the unknown owner of the voice desperate for me to respond.
“Rosie! Up here!”
We both looked up simultaneously and saw a bald head shining in the moonlight. A man was waving to us out of a third-story window with the enthusiasm of a long-lost relative. At this point, the logical part of my brain started to work and I realised this perfect stranger must be Giovanni.
“Rosie! I’ll let you in!”
We stopped at a metal door and waited for it to open. We carried our 20 kilo packs up three flights of stairs. The door was thrown open and a man with friendly eyes, magnified by glasses, let us in. He greeted us warmly with a heavy Italian accent and took our bags as he guided us toward a small desk in the corner of the room. He proceeded to take our passport details and then handed us a map of the surrounding Naples centre. We expected this was as far as his introduction would go but were surprised when he ducked beneath his desk and resurfaced with several books and highlighters.
For the next half an hour, Giovanni gave us a detailed explanation of the places we should visit while in Naples. He highlighted them in yellow, pink and green. He had books open to give us examples of what each place looked like. He briefly cruised over the history of each destination. Never before had anyone given us this much information about a place that wasn’t a travel agent. This man was passionate about Naples and he was trying to show visitors, like ourselves, that the city was a vibrant and wonderful place. In 2008, the city received negative media attention due to a waste management crisis which led to piles of rubbish left on the streets. This image has led to people having an ‘unsavoury’ image of Naples.
Giovanni showed us to our 6 bed dorm. It was a basic room but the warm welcome we received made this hostel feel homely. We ventured out to the family room area where a group of other backpackers were chatting comfortably with each other. We said hello to a Japanese backpacker and suddenly we were fast friends. The homely attitude was contagious at Giovanni’s hostel.
Since that night, Giovanni has been the most attentive host we have had. He has taken us to his local cafe to sample the coffee, as well as engaging us in this dinner/singalong. After I told him that I don’t drink caffeine, he bought me a decaffeinated latte. He taught Justin the fine art of dissolving sugar through the espresso. You should start with your spoon at the bottom of the mug and disperse the sugar through the coffee with an Italian grace. Giovanni has also given us some valuable cooking tips. He looked horrified last night when he discovered us throwing pasta into the pot and stirring it like “uncoordinated buffoons”. He shook his head in disgust and left the room, returning with salt and a jar of fresh pesto.
“You must put salt in the water before you cook!” He said, throwing a pinch of salt into another saucepan with dramatic flare.
This, was news to me. But then again I have never been much of a Nigela Lawson.
It hasn’t stopped raining since we arrived. The gutters in the city are overflowing with run-off and fashionable Neapolitans hide beneath umbrella’s to prevent their designer clothing from becoming drenched. So far, under Giovanni’s instructions, we have visited the Museum and been underground to the Subterranea.
The Subterranea was a truly fascinating experience. We entered the underground world through a room in a charming dilapidated house in the middle of the city. I felt like a character out of a thriller as the tour-guide revealed a hidden trap-door underneath a rug. We all ventured down the steps and into the underground.
Napoli Subterranea was one of the most fascinating places in Naples. There were tunnel networks and spacious cisterns carved out of the underground. The place, built by the Romans, held secrets of Neapolitan history. The ancient Roman aqueducts created a place that brimmed with rich mythology. In the second world war, locals hid beneath the city to escape the bombings. You could still see their inscriptions on the walls. Our tour guide, who was perhaps the most bubbly person I had ever met, handed us each a candle. She told us we were about to go deep into the underground to see a cistern. She warned, in her melodic accent, that this passage was not for the faint-hearted as it was extremely tight and did not leave much room to breathe. Immediately my heart rate went through the ceiling and I backed away from the situation like a mouse cornered by a cat. There was no way I would willingly walk into such a claustrophobic environment.
5 minutes later I was running through a corridor merely a metre wide. I allowed Justin and the tour-guide to talk me into it as who knew when I would get the chance to be under the city of Naples again? I raced behind the guide as she asked me question after question to distract me from thinking about just how narrow the passage was. I had a candle in one hand and my other hand was trying to prevent myself from tripping over my own feet. The panic was only just at bay when we burst into an open cistern. It was a beautiful site lit by candlelight and I was, suddenly, glad I faced my fear. As we surfaced back onto the footpaths of the city, I handed the tour-guide a tip for her enthusiasm and encouragement. The people in Naples were surprisingly friendly and lacked the slightly snobby attitude of the modern-day Romans.
We spent the afternoon in the rain, wandering along the waterfront and exploring the city. It was romantic staring out at the Castel Dell’ovo at the Bay of Naples. Waves crashed violently against the brick walls and the rain caused a ripple-effect on the surface of the water.
There were many charming buildings dotted around the city. We took the time to drink in their ancient facades while eating a slice of pizza from a small pizzeria.
The pizza is delicious in Naples. Unbeatable. As I took my first bite of Neapolitan pizza my insides clenched with desire. The pizzas were simple and made with rich yet basic ingredients; fresh basil, ripe tomatoes. The crust was thin and crunchy. We ate at a restaurant recommended by Giovanni. It was called Gino Sorbillo’s and, according to Giovanni, Gino’s grandfather was the creator of the calzone. I’m not sure if this was just a myth, however, the pizza was the best I’d ever had. I wanted to take it back to Australia with me.
Over the past week we have done a lot of aimless wandering. The rain was a constant presence but I didn’t mind. We spent most of our time in intricate alleyways looking at the expensive fashions. We ate breakfast from small bakeries that sold delicious chocolate and apricot pastries and top-notch coffees. But, the real highlight was the hot chocolate. I was expecting the usual powdery substance you get straight from the supermarket container. Instead, what I got was a steaming cup of real melted chocolate. Even now my mouth waters at the memory.
I loved every detail of Naples. From the motorcycles practically parked illegally on top of each other in crammed, cobbled streets to the chaos of the houses, rising colourfully above each other. I admired the confidence of the locals as they ambled down the street as if they were the most attractive people in the world. There are times we could all benefit from a dose of the Neapolitan bravado. I loved the way Giovanni yelled “ciao Bella” at me as I entered the hostel. I even loved the random piles of rubbish on the side of the road. For me, it wasn’t a problem. It was a reminder that we were experiencing authentic Italy. I was drawn in by the idea that the mafia was lurking somewhere just out of sight. I know the crime in Naples is one of the reasons Giovanni had a 10 pm curfew, but I didn’t mind so much. There is an edge in Naples. It is a mysterious place that draws you in like a fly to a spider’s web. And I liked looking out the window of the hostel after dark into the shadowy, cobbled streets that basked in the moonlight.
Justin and I know there is so much more we could be doing in Naples, such as exploring the wealth of history at the many museums. Instead, we have become lost in the magic of every day life. We want more than to be tourists; we want to imitate the locals.Thanks to Giovanni and his knowledge of Naples, we have both fallen in love with this ancient city. And, if you ever find yourself in Italy make sure you don’t bypass Naples. It may lack the initial glossy appearance of Rome, Florence or Venice but if you allow yourself to get lost you will experience a slice of authentic Italy.