We had some air miles to use or lose so we looked up where we could go for the amount we had. Somewhere south is always preferable in winter so we opted for Naples. We left Milton Keynes on the rainiest day we can remember, having had one flood alert. That night in Naples we received four more flood alerts, two specifically for the area round our home, and we weren’t there! We read about rail chaos. We had taken the bus to the airport and all trains were running late or cancelled. For once, we were not affected by travel problems, though the two buses before the one we caught had broken down, so our bus driver had worked overtime and was running late. Fortunately we had allowed for lateness in our journey, so we were relaxed about it and had no problems getting to the airport for the short flight.
We had booked an apartment right in the centre of Naples- on a main road with no window soundproofing, as we soon found out. The owners were a young Italian couple who collected us from the airport and settled us into the flat. It was large, high ceilinged and smart and we had everything we needed. It was different yet vaguely familiar. International IKEA of course. But we needed dinner so went out to look. First impressions were of a bustling busy city full of cars, pedestrians and motor scooters. Not much was open as we were quite late but we found a pizzeria that was cheap and friendly and ate the statutory first night pizza. We followed it up at a café where we had our first sfogliatella (pastries), one ‘riccia’ shell shaped with layers of thin pastry and filled with orange-flavoured sweet ricotta cheese; the other ‘frolla’ was more of a sweet shortcrust pastry bun with a similar custardy vanilla filling.
The bed was really comfortable and we were able to compare the IKEA bed, mattress and pillows with those we had slept on before. I was glad I had brought earplugs, my ‘must have’ essential, as the traffic and road noises would otherwise have kept me awake. Next morning the café across the road gave us a good start breakfast of orange marmalade-filled croissant and cappuccino before we shopped for essentials. Cafes and pasticcerie are on every street corner, and at intervals in between. Snacks and drinks are cheap by our standards – a cappuccino costs €2.50 maximum and we often paid €1.50, half of what we pay in the UK. One euro buys a light lunch snack of pizza or arrancina – a pyramid shape fried rice cake. Brian read that these corner pastry and coffee shops were a way of laundering money used by the Camorra, but they were cheap and it felt like nobody should go hungry. Later that day we walked through a number of street markets, where the fresh fruit and vegetables were ample and again, very cheap. Clothing in markets and also in the stores looked good value as well, with many basic new items such as jeans and coats below 10 euro, and t-shirts and underwear below 5 euro. So although begging was a necessary way of life for many people, it looked like a day’s work could actually buy something useful.
We walked around a small bit of the Historic Centre and had our second pizza for a very late lunch before walking up hill to look at the sun setting on Naples Bay. On the way back we bought two cream cakes for supper, which were wrapped so elegantly we felt bad unwrapping them. We were glad we did as they were delicious with fresh alpine strawberries, cream and liqueur-soaked sponge.
The next day we visited the botanic garden and then the Capodimonte museum and art collection. The Botanic Gardens are small but ambitious, aiming to hold as many of the world’s specimens as they can. It belongs to the University and was in need of a little tender care, being full of unfinished projects. Here, as in much of Naples and its surrounds, orange and lemon trees abounded, and were full of unpicked fruit. I wondered why there couldn’t be a distribution of such fruit to the public. I was even sadder to see ripe avocados on the floor, a personal favourite of mine. I longed to put some in my bag, but didn’t feel I could. We left them for the lucky birds and beasts. At the Capodimonte royal palace we were treated to a unique collection of paintings and precious objects acquired over time by the kings of Naples.
A week is nowhere near enough time to explore the city and its surrounds so we had to select. We bought a three day travel pass that allowed free entry into two sites and half price into one. A train ride into Pompeii from where we were staying took us less than an hour, though the trains were not running on time so it took almost an hour longer. We spent several fascinating hours at the site marvelling at the wall paintings and the architecture as well as thinking about the tragedy that had ended the community. The extent of the work still to be done to unearth and categorise all this history was awesome to think about. In Milton Keynes a Roman villa had been unearthed 30 years ago quite near to where we live, and the excavations had been intensive and lasted a number of years. During the period of writing this article, another Roman villa has been discovered in Wiltshire county UK, apparently of major significance. The resources needed to continue the excavating and restoring can’t be imagined, and although Italy is a relatively wealthy country, its Gross Domestic Product listed as 12th in the world, the distribution of resources between the north and south of the country is far from equal. Archaeology students from around the world must long to visit and work there, but I guess there are also priceless remains in need of attention in many lesser known countries such as Tunisia and Jordan.
I had visited Pompeii as a 9 year old child, on the way back to the UK by boat from Sri Lanka. I vividly remember seeing a lava-fossilised dog, and a fossilised child standing with her arm over her face. However, I did not see either statue this time, and could only find a picture of the dog on an internet search. I guess in the 50 plus years since I was first there, many of the exhibits have been moved or ‘disappeared’. More amazing ruins and remains of dead people were to be seen the next day when we visited Herculaneum, where the city was left superbly preserved after the tragedy.
We took a train out towards the Amalfi Coast, and marvelled at its splendour which was very different to the crumbling feel of Naples city. We ate in one of the oldest pizzerias in Naples, and it was SO worth it. The family that run Da Michele have made pizzas since 1870, and opened their first restaurant 110 years ago, in 1906. At Da Michele’s the guide books say you are likely to have to join a long queue for seating, but we were lucky. They just serve two types – Margarita (tomato, basil, mozzarella, olive oil) or Marinara (tomatoes, olive oil and oregano), and you drink water or Italian beer. We are true cynics, we hate hype and push against trends, but these were truly good. On another day we ate at a second ‘ancien’ pizzeria, a mere 60 years old this time, where they also had limited choice, just serving a folded and deep fried pizza stuffed with leafy green chard. This was remarkably good and both pizza meals were incredibly cheap.
On our final two days we had time to visit the National Archaeological Museum, where I still could not find my two cast statue memories from Pompeii, and the Duomo (cathedral). Even though we don’t keep the faith, when we visit a cathedral, my daughter and I always try and light a candle in memory of my mum as we used to do when she was alive.
We left armed with limoncello liqueur, chilli chocolate and multicolour striped pasta as gifts, and vowed to come back as soon as we could.
The story and photographs are by Ronny Flynn and the feature image is ‘Skeleton Casts at Herculaneum’. I don’t know about you but through the beautiful description and the photographs I could taste those cakes!