Naples Travel Diary, Day Two: Pompeii and Vomero
As it was with Venezia, so it is with Napoli: I had to leave the town to find love for it.
I sleep in my frugal room like a novice monk: the bed is penitentially hard but I am so exhausted I pass out. I have slept through hurricanes before so some boisterous road traffic is no match for me: I am woken only by my early morning alarm which reminds me of my morning prayer. Today I ignore it, and call myself to account when I eventually wake up later. I am not on holiday from my commitments. I will not miss it again.
A shower makes or breaks a hotel bathroom: cleanliness and water pressure are the winning criteria. The soft volley of water in mine is a solid pass. I come downstairs to a breakfast of fresh fruit and cheeses (another tick off the list).
Today is Pompeii. I also have my sights on Vesuvius (literally and figuratively) but the bus timings don’t work for me. But Pompeii is enough of a treat.
Despite the advice of the various websites I look at to plan my visit, I don’t know how crucial it actually is to have a guide book or tour of archaeological sites: there’s an inherent value in just being on ancient grounds and exploring for yourself. The journey from Naples (Garibaldi station) to Pompeii is straightforward (takes about 30 minutes to get there), and in any case you end up travelling in a herd of tourists so you can’t get lost. The map and guide you get at the entrance to the site is invaluable. The guidebooks recommend at least half a day to see Pompeii, and I agree: you could easily spend a day there, and the place becomes more interesting the more you wander around it.
There is a remarkable sensation you get walking the ground and standing in buildings inhabited by people who lived thousands of years before you. Add to that the dramatic nature of their sudden demise – the violent eruption of Vesuvius – and you are engulfed by atmosphere in this special site. It is calm and expectant at the same time. The fact that so many buildings and artefacts have been preserved for later generations to scramble over is quite amazing.
After a few hours spent exploring Pompeii, I am hungry, which is the perfect excuse to give Napoli gelato another go. I take the (surprisingly fast, once it arrives) Ligna 1 metro from Garibaldi to Vanvitelli in the Vomero district to try a lauded gelateria, Casa Infante.
The earth moved. Something must have happened because my world was rocked. It was one of the best gelatos I’ve ever had. I chose peanut and caramel (like frozen Snickers), nuts and caramel, and dark chocolate. Three scoops of perfection, the size of a small child’s head. And get this, it’s the only place I’ve been to which offers the option of a chocolate sugar cone – hurrah!
The Vomero neighbourhood is on a hill, different and calmer to old Naples down the hill. It is a pleasant contrast.
I was stuffed and it took a while to get my appetite back, but it returned and I ate at the famed Di Matteo pizzeria. Low on atmosphere, big on size of pizza and speed of service – a massive, light bufala margherita arrived within 10 minutes of ordering, and it was delicious. I think Sorbillo was better, but we’re talking competition of champions here. I waddled home, contemplating whether I could squeeze in any more gelato, and finally remonstrated with myself – ‘are you mad, woman! No more!’ – and retired for the night.
Naples Travel Diary, Day Three: Capodimonte, Catacombs and the seafront
I miss my prayer again, and accept that I am sleep-greedy. It is a luxury to be in bed and asleep before midnight – 1am is normal – and here I am lapping up 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. In keeping with the general theme of my room, there is no natural light and so I have no idea what time it is when I wake up.
Today, I turn right instead of left on Via Toledo, and discover what I have been missing out on for two days. There’s a Casa Infante and a Gay Odin less than two minutes from my hotel! The famous Gambrinus coffee house at the Piazza Trieste e Trente, and the grand and beautiful Piazza Municipal are also minutes away from my hotel, and I had not realised.
Four days is not enough, I reflect. Naples needs 5-6 days to explore at leisure.
I discovered all this because I was heading for the bus to go to Capodimonte, up the hill from the Centro Storico and the location of the Museo di Capodimonte. The hotel clerk advised me that the timing of the public buses are a bit haphazard, so I would be better off taking a special shuttle bus that went to Capodimonte. It cost 12 Euro for the ticket which included the entry to the museum (normally 8 Euro), so it only cost 2 Euro more than the round trip by bus.
Tip: go to Capodimonte with a picnic, a book and a rug! It’s not just a museum, it’s a park with stunning grounds and an amazing view over Napoli. Napoletanos were going for a run around the ground and enjoying the vista, so this is a haven of calm away from the madness of the old town. Don’t go prepared to rush around the museum and then dash off; go ready to make a day of it, and relax and enjoy it!
I decide to visit the Catacombs of Napoli first (check out the website here), which are a 10-15 minute walk downhill from the Museum (note, get directions before you go because although it’s a short walk, you will be crossing roads and walking on narrow pavements with cars flying past, so be careful). While I was waiting for the tour to start I enjoyed a lovely coffee in the quiet and spacious Catacombs coffee shop (the toilets are nice and clean too). The Catacombs are well worth visiting, and if you don’t manage to visit both in one trip, your ticket is valid for a year so you have a good excuse to come back soon. As I wandered underground to look at a historic Naples dating back to the 4th century CE, I realised how many dimensions – literally – this city has.
By the end of the day, my head is filled with a carousel of images, each of a different Napoli. This is a city of many faces, and I feel like today alone I have seen several of them. From the chaos of the Centro Storico I went high up to the picturesque oasis of Capodimonte, with its museum, serene grounds and incredible view of Napoli. I then plunged down into the depths of the city with a visit to the Catacombs of San Gennaro, the honoured saint of Napoli. I returned to the old city and wandered around with a gelato to tide me over until dinner (another trip to Casa Infante). I strolled through the Piazza del Plebiscite to Via Cesario Console, which takes me along the seafront to Mergellina. I walked along the spacious pavement and took in the beautiful Bay of Napoli, which feels like a different city to the craziness less than a mile behind me. The road was wide and almost empty as it hugs the coastline. People were enjoying the serenity in their own way: skaters practising in groups; gaggles of girls posing for photos; couples wandering hand in hand; friends chatting animatedly as they walk; runners enjoying the scenic route – and I am compelled to find some stillness within myself. It’s perfect, and as the sun sets on another day I think I chose the best time to see this.
I head back to the hotel via Via Chiaia, and again discover another lively area filled with shops and restaurants. I am relaxed now: the paranoid fear that my bag was just waiting to be snatched has dissipated, and I am just careful but not obsessed. A quick stop at the hotel, and I’m off for dinner. I’ve missed an opportunity to eat lunch, but it would be impossible to eat all I want to here. My dinner destination tonight is another pizza institution: L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. The walk there takes me along a new route, the massive and bustling Via Umberto Corso. I get there soon after 7pm and get a seat easily (thankfully). Before I’ve sat down the waiter asks me ‘margherita?’ They only serve two pizzas here – margherita and marinara (apparently, they’re the only two authentic pizzas) – and I’m guessing the margherita (5 Euro) is the most popular.
The pizzas have gotten progressively bigger with each restaurant: this one is twice as long as my knife. Again, the dough is pillow-soft as I cut: the knife is flimsy but it doesn’t matter as the pizza yields easily. I am smitten by the smokiness in the base. It is, in fact, perfect. This is my second favourite after Sorbillo. I’m in heaven.
Once again, I leave and have to wade my way through the crowd which has gathered outside the restaurant while I was eating. The Napoli Dinner Rule is confirmed: be there at 7pm to get a table!
Naples Travel Diary, Day Four: underground, death and farewell
I start the day with good intentions: finish my tour of the Catacombs, go to the Archeological Museum – one of the ‘must sees’ in Naples, according to my guide book – and then eat my last meal before I leave.
The Catacombs of San Gaudioso are amazing, and I am impressed that a private initiative has enabled this to be visible to the public. The fascinating and macabre death frescos are unlike any I’ve ever seen. I was about to leave and make my way back to the Museum, when the tour guide reminds me to visit the Fontanelle Cemetery which is in the area. I feel obliged, and start wandering through the run-down but quiet and quite charming neighbourhood of Sanita. After plunging deep into quiet, residential area, I finally find it, and I have never seen anything like it. I am confronted by a cavernous space filled with skulls and bones, apparently from the 17th century when the plague hit Naples and killed thousands of people who were then buried in mass graves. I get a chill in my own bones as I leave the sunlight and enter the darkness, walking down aisles lined with skeletal remains; many have been adorned with tokens of comfort and affection from modern visitors. The vision of so many remains stays with me as I step back into the sunlight, and I am glad of the peace in the quiet streets as I make my way back to the hullabaloo of Sanita.
I confess that I sacrificed the trip to the Archaeological Museum for food. It was too lovely a day to be inside, and so I made my way to Vomero for a final gelato from Casa Infante. Yes, I’ll have my regular infant-head-sized serving in a cone, thank you. I ate it in the sun, and it was perfect. I also tried some street food from a traditional, popular friggitoria in Vomero (Friggatore Vomero), and I was not impressed: the pizza fritter (fried pizza, exactly what it says it is) was luke warm and greasy, and I concluded that fried food in Italian was still fried food, and not for me. All I remember is eating fried thing, fried thing, fried thing and getting a tummy ache. So it’s not for me. I would later learn from another Italian that I could have asked for a fresh, hot pizza fritta and it would not have been out of place; as he said, ‘Italians love to complain’.
I made my way back to the airport knowing that I had unfinished business with Naples, which was perfect: it meant I will have to return soon.