I have so much to share from my trip to Italy in April. Like last year, I got to go to Bologna for work for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, one of the biggest book fairs in the world for children’s books. And also like last year, I decided to take advantage of the work trip and add on some vacation days to travel.
While I enjoyed seeing Paris for the second time last April, I realized that traveling solo, while it has its benefits, is not my preferred way to travel. So I booked a spot on a tour of the Amalfi Coast that would start in Naples.
Bologna is a beautiful town by the way. I stayed in a hotel next to the Piazza Maggiore and could walk to all of the surrounding shops and restaurants. If you ever go, Corte la Galluzzi, Ristorante Scaccattomato, and Da Silvio are all good for dinner. I waited in a long line for gelato at Cremeria Funivia but it was worth it and I’m still thinking about the custard-filled croissant and cappuccino with chocolate shavings that I had for breakfast at Caffe Terzi.
Anyways, I was so nervous before taking the train from Bologna to Naples because a lot of people I talked to told me to be careful and watch out for pickpockets in Naples. I was worrying myself which I knew I shouldn’t do but I couldn’t help it. I was going to be by myself in Naples for a day before I met my tour group and I was thinking of all the bad things that could happen to me there in that one day. I wanted to get through those 24 hours to be surrounded by my tour group.
The train ride wasn’t bad at all and I actually slept for an hour probably because I was so exhausted from work. I had someone from my hotel pick me up at the train station in Naples because I didn’t want to deal with taking the metro with my rolling suitcase and risk losing something. As I looked out the car window at the streets, I could see the differences between Bologna and Naples. While Bologna has beautiful yellow and orange buildings and their famous porticos hanging over clean cobblestone streets, Naples seemed to be a blur of dark grey where I couldn’t tell the difference between the houses and the streets as I whizzed by and it had that grittiness and grime that the city is known for. As I got closer to my hotel, the streets became narrower and when I looked up I saw the clothes lines hanging out to dry, a tiny detail I was looking forward to seeing.
When I got to my hotel room, a wave of sadness and uneasy nerves washed over me. In Bologna, I was constantly surrounded by people, talking all day long during meetings and then at dinner with coworkers but then all of a sudden here in Naples I was by myself. I was getting ready to go out to dinner, which I think is the hardest part of traveling solo, and was trying to keep myself from crying. I thought to myself that I should have gone home after Bologna instead of putting myself through this worry. To make matters worse, my room was above the hotel dining room and my ceilings were low and I had to duck under an arch to go into my bedroom. I forgot that the arch was there once and ran smack into it and immediately felt a bump on my head. I was frustrated and I hadn’t even seen Naples yet. I had to tell myself to stop crying and that things would be fine. I knew tomorrow would be a better day once I could go out and explore the city and then meet my tour group. I wanted to see Naples for myself and enjoy it and banish preconceived notions.
Pizza had to cheer me up. For dinner, I went to Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba on Via Port’Alba. It was a short walk from my hotel and was on my long list of pizzerias to try. Via Port’Alba is lined with bookstores and book carts which gave me some comfort as I walked up the street to the restaurant. It was only 7pm so the place was empty when I showed up. I would get used to the later seating time in the next week but I was hungry so I sat down. This was my first of three pizzas in Naples and I messed up. I ordered an appetizer before my pizza. Big mistake. The prosciutto and melon I ordered were not small bite size pieces but huge slices of melon with more than enough prosciutto. I couldn’t even finish before my large margherita pizza came. I was so embarrassed to order a to-go box for half of my pizza. Other people started to come in for dinner and I noticed they only ordered pizzas and nothing else which is clearly the unspoken rule.
In the morning, I was ready to go out and explore town and have a better day than the one before. I decided to walk down the busy street of Via Toledo that would take me past a few sites that were on my must-see list. With only the day to explore Naples, I knew I wouldn’t get to see everything which I learned from past trips is okay.
I first went to the Galleria Umberto I, a shopping gallery. The pictures I had seen online while doing my trip research looked beautiful so I wanted to see the building in person.
I didn’t see that many shops inside. There were more out on Via Toledo but I wanted to see the building itself. While part of the building was under construction, the architecture and all of the light pouring in through the glass dome made the place so bright and beautiful.
Across the street from the Galleria was the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples’ theater for opera, ballet, and concerts. I was going to take a quick peek inside but I remembered I had the whole day to myself and decided to go on a guided tour.
The tour was an hour or so long and the guide explained everything in both English and Italian. Sadly, I did not pick up any Italian but it sure sounded beautiful.
It really is a gorgeous theater. I didn’t realize how old it was but the theater was first built in the 1700s and as with most famous buildings, it burned down and was rebuilt and renovated to what it is today which is golden, velvety red, and glowing.
My favorite fun fact that I learned on the tour was that the seats in the balcony are arranged at an angle so that theater goers could look into mirrors hanging in front of them which showed a reflection of the King sitting in the center of the balcony so they could always have a view of him and follow his applause and standing ovations. If only I could have seen an opera or ballet there. I’m sure it must be beautiful to watch a performance.
After the tour, I was pretty hungry by that point and I went straight across the street to Pizzeria Brandi. Unlike the night before, I didn’t mess around with my order. I ordered one perfect pizza with mushrooms, cheese, and tomatoes. As I waited for my pie, I looked at all the framed photographs on the wall of the owners with their guests and there were also framed letters too which were all in Italian so I have no idea what they were about but I’m sure it was about how good the pizza is at the restaurant.
And it really was. I redeemed myself and was able to eat my entire pizza just like the Napoleons do which I observed is possible if you save the crusts for last or ignore the crusts all together but I can’t do that. I love the crusts because they’re so chewy and the middle of the pizza is so thin and tastes so fresh.
Completely full and satisfied with how I rocked it at lunch, I walked down the street to the Piazza del Plebiscito, a large square that sits between the Royal Palace and the church of San Francesco di Paola. Italy is the land of beautiful churches and I wanted to go inside this one but unfortunately it was closed. While most of Naples reveals its gritty self, with the gray clouds and colorful buildings sitting behind the church, it looked really beautiful in the square.
I thought about touring the Royal Palace but it was getting later in the afternoon and I didn’t think I would have enough time to walk through it because I still wanted to shop a bit and walk back to the hotel before meeting my tour group in the evening.
As more clouds started to gather, I walked back down the street to Caffe Gambrinus. Really, the Opera House, the Piazza, the church, the pizza place, and the cafe are all right next to each other in this little triangle which is super convenient!
I had read beforehand that Gambrinus is a famous cafe in Naples because everyone from Oscar Wilde to Mussolini to President Clinton frequented or visited the spot for coffee and pastries. It is touristy and my coffee cost four euros but I think it’s okay to splurge when you’re on vacation. The pastries, cakes, tarts, and gelato looked like heaven but I was still full from lunch so I was content to sit with my coffee at a table outside shielded from the rain with a tent overhead. It was fun to people watch and do nothing for a little bit.
By the time I got back to the hotel, my spirits were definitely up from the day before because I had such a good day and I was looking forward to meeting the tour group. As I mentioned, my room was situated right above the kitchen and dining room so when I came down the stairs, my fellow travelers were all sitting there quietly and looking up at me. I assumed everyone would be quiet at first but I didn’t care because I knew we would get to know each other and I was so happy to have some people to talk to.
Our tour guide Elisabetta was so wonderful from the minute she opened her month. A native of Lake Como, she had the thickest Italian accent but she was so funny. We learned right off the bat that she loves Keeping Up with the Kardashians and as soon as she told us all that she was from Lake Como, she quickly followed the fact by saying, “Yes I know, George Clooney, George Clooney, George Clooney.” True but I was also wanted to know if she’s spotted Amal Clooney.
Then she gave us an overview of the, how we were going to get from place to place, where we would be staying, and this being a hiking tour, what each hike would be like. Elisabetta put me at ease about the hikes as I’m not the most advanced hiker I felt like I was going to be taken care of. She had us go around the room and introduce ourselves and where we were from. We were thirteen or fourteen people total and half of us were from the States and the other half were from Australia and Canada. I think the majority of us were in our 30s with the exception of a couple girls who were in their teens and two older ladies, who were cousins, in their 60s.
Elisabetta took us out for dinner and guided us to Pizzeria dell’Angelo for what would be my third and, sadly, final pizza in Naples. I felt so much more relaxed walking through town in a group and could focus on getting to know my new travel mates rather than worry about whether or not I was going in the right direction. I started talking to a girl named Pippa from Australia. She was also traveling by herself and tacked on this tour to a work trip like I did. She expressed the same feeling I had that traveling solo can be difficult at times when you don’t have someone to talk to or share things with. I’ve read countless blogs that write about the benefits and joys of traveling solo, and there are points that I definitely agree with, but it was so nice to talk to someone face to face who shared some of the same feelings I had about the downsides to traveling solo. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone for a little bit.
At the restaurant, we occupied one long table and started chatting as we waited for our orders. I ordered the Vesuvio, which was recommended by Elisabetta. It had fresh pomodoro sauce, arugula (see, I ate healthy!), basil, buffalo mozzarella cheese, and olives. Even though it was my second pizza of the day (remember, you must go all out when you are on vacation and who knew when I would be in the birthplace of pizza again) I still ate almost all of it and yes, I was proud of myself.
In between bites of my pizza, I got to know Donna and Karen, the two oldest ladies in our group who were cousins from Canada. When they heard that Pippa and I were traveling solo they were so surprised to hear that. But in fact, Karen traveled solo by herself all through the 60s and 70s. It’s just that they couldn’t imagine traveling solo in the present day. She used to hitch hike all the time back then which I couldn’t imagine doing myself now either.
I asked Karen and Donna if they always traveled together and Karen said that she used to travel with her husband but ever since he passed away four years ago, she and Donna would go on a trip together every year. I thought I could see a little sadness in Karen’s face and I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose the love of your life and not be able to share experiences with him anymore. Here I was worrying and getting upset about traveling by myself when really those thoughts are nothing compared to experiencing a great loss. How lucky am I to be in Italy? Especially since I got to eat pizza in Naples and the pizza is really that amazing. A few days later I had a pie in the Amalfi Coast and it couldn’t compare. So I’m glad my spirits picked up because otherwise the rest of my trip wouldn’t have been as wonderful as it was.
*I paid for my own way on the “Local Living Italy – Amalfi Coast” tour with G Adventures and all thoughts and opinions are my own.