I’ve been mostly strapped to a computer for much of the past 6 months. Longing for sun and nature and quiet, I had my sights on the Maldives or somewhere equally blue and green. I’d intended on travelling solo to just recharge, but when my tried-and-true travelling companion said he had a week off around Easter, I slotted some PTO on my calendar before things got even hairier or before I melted down completely. Either was in the realm of possibility.
The negotiation on where to go began: We ruled out the C places due to logistics (Crete, Canaries, Cyprus…) and many of the M ones too since he’d been there before (Malta, Madeira, Mallorca…). This left a host of other letters, but with caveats: an easy hop from Central Europe, doable in a week, spring or better weather, and a place by the sea. So a quick check of the extended forecast (20-ish seemed decent enough at the time) and not enough time for me to dig and discover led us to agreeing to disagree but settling upon Naples. I knew nothing about the place, save Vesuvius and Pompeii. With visions of pastel-stuccoed villas and terraced cliffside villages in my head and no time to do more research than buying a guide book the night before leaving, I embarked on my latest escapade thoroughly unprepared.
The itinerary was roughly formed: I’d arrive on Saturday, spend a couple days acclimating, then C would join me for adventures: Vesuvius, Pompeii, a jaunt to the Amalfi coast, and I’d top off the trip with a couple of days in one of my favourite cities on the planet: Istanbul. I don’t know why but the crossroads of the Silk Road call and the uniqueness of the place balances me. Onward.
Part I: Napoli. The trip began with a couple of surprises.
Surprise #1: To my exhausted horror, Naples on a Saturday night when you are expecting a seaside Italian escape is like wandering into someone’s bad joke. The cars, the grime, the NOISE, the tourists! It was essentially the opposite of what I needed. I cried and contemplated leaving. Really.
Surprise #2: Napoli is on track to win its first all-Italy football championship in 30 years. Buildings and stairways are painted in the team colours. Roads and alleyways are draped with flags and team jerseys and banners and streamers and photos of the players. The streets are lined with vendors selling every possible permutation of fan memorabilia: shirts and hats and knick-knacks…even Napoli underwear! Din aside, it was charming to see a city rally around its team as much as this one. Even Boston (where I live), one of the most sports-happy cities on the planet, could learn a trick or two from the Neapolitans.
Instead of leaving immediately, I plotted a minor escape: The next morning I boarded a ferry to a small island called Procida. It is Ischia’s little cousin, and perhaps Capri’s bastard stepchild. In other words, off the tourist map and a perfect outlet from the blue-and-white cacophony of Napoli proper. I spent the afternoon wandering the hills and climbing old fortresses. It’s said that you can reach anywhere on Procida within 6000 steps. So I did a good deal of marching around, ate a rather disappointing seafood plate for lunch, and breathed in the sunny spring seaside air. Mediocre food aside, this helped my mood immensely.
When I got back to Naples, a shower and a good night’s sleep prepped me for a walkabout. Since they have managed to pave everything from the sea to the foot of Mt. Vesuvius, save some teeny lots for lemon trees, it struck me that the correct direction to go was up to get a proper lay of the land, as it were.
So up I climbed, and found a little neighbourhood with a nice bakery from which I purchased some local Taralli, and a cheese shop where I got an assortment of local cheeses. These would come in handy as snacks for the week ahead. Once C joined me in the afternoon, we climbed even higher: up the umpteen bazillion steps (read: 416) to the top of Vomero Hill by Castel Sant’Elmo and took in the views. Even from here, Vesuvius looms large and slightly sinister in the background, as if it’s biding time until its next go.
Campania trivia #1: While Mt. Vesuvius left its mark in AD 79, and several times thereafter, the entire Bay of Naples is an extension of the Phlegraean Fields just to the west. Essentially this means the bay and its surrounding area is a supervolcano. Tick-tock.
With the requisite views and city walks out of the way (and an excellent seafood dinner in our bellies), the following morning we boarded a train to Pompeii to see the ruins. A front was coming in, replacing the blue skies with cooler temps and strong winds… gusts which kept many of the houses closed in Pompeii, so the experience there was more about dodging tourist traffic and less actual enjoyment of the site. Cold and bothered, I was not as impressed as I anticipated being. (Note: throngs photoshopped out of some of the photos.)
We had heard “all the stuff is at the museum” enough times to plan a half-day at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN) to see the stuff that used to be in the houses and squares, the statues and the artifacts. Turns out that the mummies were actually in a different corner of the Pompeii site and we never got to see them.
Campania trivia #2: There were at least two major towns buried by Vesuvius. Pompeii gets all the hype because it was large and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the structures there were mostly destroyed and much of the wood and organic matter has decayed over the centuries. Its wealthier suburb, Herculaneum, caught the brunt of the pyroclastic cloud, then was encased in ash and rock which preserved its structures much better than Pompeii.
So after the museum, we boarded another train to Ercolano (the modern-day commune built atop the buried city of Herculaneum) to see the ruins there.
Hercules does not disappoint. And so, wandering the more intimate (and way less crowded) ancient city of Herculaneum, we were able to see some intact homes and shops and even a bakery with millstones and a huge pizza oven, if pizza were a thing at the turn of the 1st century AD! Vesuvius looms large here, like a ticking clock.
Enter pizza. Napoli is said to be the birthplace of pizza. Or the motherland of the thin crust Neapolitan in any case. So, erm, when in Rome… We set out to find what is deemed to be the best pizza in Naples. I’m from New York originally, so it’s fair to call me a pizza snob. The verdict? Sorbillo’s is undoubtedly the best pizza I’ve had in years! Is it worth a trip to Naples just for the pizza? I’ll leave that entirely up to the reader.
The highlights? The Toledo metro station is a work of art. The food: pretty good (the pizza, excellent!). The lemons: immense. Steps per day: more than double. Day trips to the islands: a must!
Exit Naples. With pizza and ruins in the rear view, I was glad to see the skies brightening (along with my mood) as we departed Naples for the Amalfi coast.
Stay tuned for Campania Part II: Positano (and ponder what comes to mind when you hear the words Amalfi Coast).