Five Essential Walks in Naples
All in a Day's Walk
When I first moved to Napoli, I felt like Marry Tyler Moore in the big city. I spent a lot of time manically spinning around and telling myself “You’re gonna make it after all…” Most of this had to do with the fact that I had been living in the outback of provincial Campania in the town of Agerola for two LONG years.
It was as if I had being permanently exiled to a desert island. Agerola just happened to be a desert island suspended 700 meters above Positano and largely populated by geriatric retired farmers named Salvatore or Antonio. There are only about 10 first names and 10 last names in circulation in Agerola. Without going into a mathematic formula that starts to sound like an S.A.T probability question, I will just say that everyone has nicknames.
Most of the nicknames are unflatteringly illustrative references to bad childhood habits or embarrassing moments. There are a lot of Tonino the Thumb Suckers and Maria the Bed Wetters. My husband’s nickname is Peppe the Mexican because his father used to wear a hat that looked like a sombrero. Another Peppe from Agerola who actually used to live in Mexico is called Peppe the Banana because he once famously slipped on a banana peel. My Peppe and all of his town peers still remember the time this one girl Anna peed her pants in the third grade when the teacher refused to let her go to the toilet. I don’t think I need to tell you what her nickname is.
My nickname is, you guessed it, Cristina l’americana. Of course it bothers me that I will forever be referred to by the country of my birth. But after some of the very public meltdowns I have had in that own, I guess I should count myself lucky that they don’t call me Cristina La Pazza- The Crazy. Incidentally, that nickname is already taken by an entire family after their patriarch faked being clinically insane to not serve in WWI.
In a town where people still remember when you slipped on a banana peel in 1976 or peed your pants in 1969, there is not a whole lot of privacy to go around.. With no anonymity and only one long winding road that cut through our neighborhood and landed in the piazza, I had nothing to do in Agerola. I tried to take walks, but these always ended at the same stupid piazza with a sculptured water fountain in the form of a cow looking plaintively at the sky. The cow and I it seemed, had a lot in common. We both wanted to escape.
You know that dream you sometimes have about discovering a secret room in the back of your house? I had that fucking dream about an entire town every night when I lived in Agerola. I would dream that I saw a library on a hidden alley. Or a cool house with floor to ceiling windows that would certainly contain a cool friend for me. Sometimes I even dreamed there was a secret Starbucks; God help us all. I hate Starbucks but apparently it features prominently in my desert Island dreams. Piggy and Ralph dreamed of scary monsters. I dreamed of Starbucks. I don’t know which is worse. But Agerola did start to feel like Lord of the Flies after a while. If that was the case, I was pretty sure I was Piggy. And we all know what happened to him in the end.
Before I got my face smashed in, or was forced to subject myself to Jungian analysis, I finally got myself off to Napoli. The Starbucks dreams stopped immediately. With her outstretched ancient streets, crooked stairs and subterranean network of tunnels, Napoli was the best house of hidden dream rooms I could have ever conjured. I loved it. I still love it. And one of my favorite things to do in Napoli is walk.
Every walk in Napoli is new. There are religious curios encrusted into old tuffo walls, charismatic shrines to the football star Maradona and a lot of wildly indecent graffiti. Today for example, I noticed this sloppily spray painted inspirational quote on the back of Federico II’s Political Science Faculty “Don’t let a perfectly good day ruin your life of shit!” Thanks Napoli. I won’t!
Walking in Napoli requires a sense of curiosity and humor. Turn off your phone. Forget about Google Maps. Stroll, smell a simmering tomato sauce, listen to children screaming at their nonnas that they don’t want pasta and beans for lunch…. All in day’s walk.
These are some of my favorites in Napoli. Routes are hyperlinked to headings.
This four kilometer walk hugs the seafront between the ritzy quarters of Mergellina and Chiaia to Castel dell’Ovo, the oldest castle Naples. With Capri sparkling in the distance and Vesuvius looming beyond, you can’t help but think of ancient Greek mariners as they arrived in Napoli nearly 3,000 years ago. This walk curves from Via Caracciolo in Mergellina through the communal gardens of Chiaia and finally to the pedestrian Partenope Street, named for the siren who washed ashore on the Island of Megaride. End your walk at this very sight and stroll the maritime borgo that is home to not only the Castel dell’Ovo but also the mythical burial place of Partenope.
There are A LOT of stairs in Napoli. The town is vertical. Before there was the funicular, there were simply feet. The Calata San Francesco connects the hilltop neighborhood of Vomero to the neighborhoods of Chiaia and Mergellina, on the seafront. The walk down takes about 20 minutes. The walk up of course depends on how many breaks you need. An old yellow tuffo wall skirts the stairs and as you wander down you can see straight into a series of low-lying basso apartments. On many occasions I have smelled an intoxicating ragù simmering and have thought to perhaps stumble into one of these apartments for a snack. Walking down this old stairway, it is easy to see how Neapolitans really live…..and eat.
The Pedementina are another set of stairs that connects the upper part of Vomero, home to the San Martino Charterhouse and Castel Sant’Elmo, to the historic center of Napoli. This path is what we call ‘mozzafiato’--- breathtaking. The whole of urban Naples sprawls below and Vesuvius keeps it real. Somehow it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when Vesuvius lurks in the background ready to blow at any moment. My problems are not as big as Vesuvius. I think that’s what we might call…. Perspective. Try a bit of Zen meditation. Make Vesuvius your grounding mandala as you walk down the Pedementina into the belly of the Centro Storico. Maybe you will be able to forget that Donald Trump is the leader of the free world and is in war of words with a certain North Korean dictator he calls the Rocket Man. OR NOT. In which case you have some pretty amazing pizza waiting for you at the end of your forced meditation march.
Spaccanapoli literally means Naples splitter. It is one long straight road (with many changing names) that slices from below the Vomero, through the historic center and all the way to the train station. Believe it or not, Naples, not unlike Laguna Niguel, is a planned community! Three hundred years after their initial arrival in Napoli, ancient Greeks ventured inland from their original colony on the Island of Megaride to what we now call the Centro Storico. The Greeks constructed three large parallel boulevards, known as decumani. Several interconnecting streets run at 90 degree angles off each decumano, forming one of the original planned cities in Western Europe. The lowest of these decumani, the Decumanus Inferiore, is Spaccanapoli. You can spot the whole of Spaccanapoli from above while on the Pedementina stairs. If you are feeling energetic, you might even take the Pedementina stairs directly onto Spaccanapoli and have one long adventure into the ancient Greek city of Napoli.
Parco Virgilian is in Posillipo. And there is one thing you should know about Posillipo-- it's the Malibu of Napoli in all of its shining, beach front glory. It also happens to be off the beaten urban path. Take the C31 bus from Vomero, bring a picnic and plan to spend a few hours here. One you arrive you will see that Parco Virgiliano is an urban park like no other. It is perched above the jagged cliffs of Posillipo and has unspoiled views of Capri, Procida and Ischia. It is one of the few outlooks where you can see all three islands in one splendid panorama. A circular pathway rings around the park with a private sports club in the middle. Small kiosks offer snacks but it is best to bring a picnic and plan an afternoon of ambling and reading at this urban retreat. As you leave the park, there is an old man selling ears of corn. I often enjoy eating this spiga of corn as we wait for the C31 bus back to Vomero.