Like most people, I never go abroad without a copy of the latest local guidebook. And more often than not, that guidebook will be the Lonely Planet. Ever since I first went travelling with the 1997 edition of ‘South America on a shoestring’ (all 1170 pages of it, weighing nearly 3/4 of a kilo in my backpack), I’ve always found their guides to be the clearest, most informative, most accurate and most user-friendly books around. And no, they are not paying me to write this… sadly.
But on my recent trip to Naples I was able to take travelling with a Lonely Planet to a whole new level. This time, instead of just having the paperback, I had as my personal tour guide the guy who wrote it: Cristian Bonetto. The living, breathing, walking, talking Lonely Planet Naples Guide, if you will!
Cristian is from Melbourne, but his family is Italian. I first met him in Naples in 2016 when I was there for just a couple of days filming for a new pilot TV series. As I was working I didn’t really get a chance to explore the city, so when Cristian said he was coming back this year to research his next guidebook update, and invited me to join him for a long weekend, of course I said yes.
Over the course of three days we explored all over the city, and I never needed to plan a single thing, or look at the guidebook once. He’s a mine of information, so knowledgeable, and so passionate about the place. He took me to all the best and most interesting places, from the obvious must-see sights to lesser-known hangouts that I would definitely have missed if I’d been there on my own. If you ever get the chance to travel with a Lonely Planet author, I highly recommend it!
While we were exploring, I was keen to find out more about him, what he does, and what he loves about the city. Here’s what he had to say…
What is your favourite place in Naples and why?
There are so many places I love in Naples but the first that springs to mind is the hilltop Certosa di San Martino. A 14th-century monastery turned museum, it delivers a handy, one-stop combo of Neapolitan history, artistry and natural beauty. You’ll find some of Italy’s most extraordinary architecture and interiors, baroque exuberance and hypnotic views over the city, Bay of Naples and Capri.
What do you love most about Naples?
I love how multi sensorial and visceral it is. The smells, the temperament: nothing in Naples is tepid. There’s an electric energy here – and I think part of that is living in the shadow of a volcano which puts everything into perspective. People live for the moment, they always have time for a chat, coffee, and more: it’s sexy, seductive and sometimes exhausting. There’s something fatalistic about the place, which perfectly suits the theatricality of the locals.
What are your Top 3 most interesting facts about Naples?
1/ Naples was basically the New York of Europe by the early 17th century. At the time it was one of the largest and most happening cities in Europe, and many of the best and most famous artists wanted to live and work here.
2/ A lot of the most iconic things that we associate with Italy are actually from Naples: including pizza (which was first invented here), the Commedia dell’arte, Sophia Loren, and the catchy song Funiculì, Funiculà, which was written to commemorate the opening of the first funicular cable car on Mount Vesuvius.
3/ Thrice yearly, locals flood into the Duomo to watch the miracle of the liquefaction of San Gennaro’s blood. San Gennaro is the most famous of Naples’ many patron saints and the city holds two vials reputedly full of his dried blood. In May, September and December, the substance usually liquefies. If it doesn’t, the faithful take it as a bad omen of impending disaster. It failed to liquefy at the end of 2016, so watch out for 2017!
What do you think is the most important skill a Lonely Planet writer should have?
You definitely need to have the ability to research comprehensively and accurately, in order to provide travellers with the tools for insightful, meaningful interactions with their destination and its culture. You need to have an eye for detail and a great deal of patience and tenacity. You also need to be sociable and good with people, because building relationships with locals in the destination helps you fully understand it, and having good contacts gets you great tips about where the next fantastic new place is opening up.
You can make or break a business’s fortunes by choosing to include it or not. How do you feel about that responsibility?
It’s actually one of the best parts of my job: being able to shine a spotlight on locals doing things with passion, whether it’s providing guided tours, creating art or cooking incredible meals. Being able to give them recognition and help them share their talents with visitors is a real privilege.
If you find somewhere really great are you ever tempted just to keep it to yourself?
Not really. I get a thrill at the thought of sharing somewhere wonderful with Lonely Planet readers. They choose to use our products and I feel a genuine responsibility to ensure that their experience of the destination is one they won’t forget for all the right reasons.
When good places get put in the Lonely Planet guide and everyone goes there, do they go downhill? How do you feel about that and how do you balance the desire to recognise good businesses with the fear that they will be ruined by over-exposure?
In my experience, this has rarely happened. If anything, I’ve found that the business or organisation thrives and grows. A case in point is the young team managing Naples’ catacombs of San Gennaro and San Gaudioso. The exposure has helped propel them to national fame and their tours and offerings just keep getting better.
What is a typical day for you?
This can vary, but most days will involve a mix of visiting museums, other attractions and hotels, as well as reviewing restaurants. I eat at every place I review, and often with friends in order to get a more comprehensive feel for a place and its cooking. I will often try to do some writing as well while on the road. Days are often also punctuated with interviews with locals, whether it’s the director of an art museum, an archaeologist or a tourism rep. The days are long and both physically and mentally exhausting, with no days off over five to seven weeks on the go. My Instagram pics may look pretty but they don’t reflect the reality of being a travel writer.
What is your favourite thing about being a Lonely Planet writer?
I love learning about other parts of the world, and then showing them to other people. To be able to do that on massive scale is simply fantastic. I also like being able to write about people who are passionate about their city and who are working hard, to make it a better place. When I’m able to help make sure their efforts are recognised and rewarded, that’s a huge buzz. And then of course there are all those frequent flyer points which are a nice bonus!