Travelogue Italy 3: Naples

NAPOLI

19 June 2017

We hadn’t even intended on visiting Naples, thinking we’d catch an overnight ferry or train from Palermo to Sorrento. We’d ascertained in the travel planning that Naples was the nearest airport to Sorrento, but it hasn’t been in the running… Until budget airline Volotea had their 5th birthday special and I managed to nab 2 one way tickets to Naples for €5 each!

So, there we were, in Palermo with a 7am plane to catch. We booked a taxi on the Sunday night so we’d be sorted for our 5.15 pick-up (Palermo airport is 40 minutes out of the city) and cursed our choices when we had to get up at 4.45 to get ready to leave.

As it turned out, we could have had another 20 minutes sleep because our driver was an absolute maniac – who probably could have taken flight himself at the speed he was driving! – and, thanks to clocking 145kmph on a few occasions? and aggressively driving right up to cars in front and flashing his brights at them, we were at the airport in what must have been record time. Thank heavens it was so early. I can’t imagine how hair-raising the chap must be in traffic!

Volotea turned out to be the greatest budget airline ever. I had had some difficulties doing our online check-in on Sunday (something about a payment type conflict, no doubt because of the international credit card) and dropped a mail to their customer care. They replied within minutes, explaining the problem, apologising for our inconvenience and having concluded the check-in for us. The plane left on time, was empty enough for us to have a row of 3 seats each and arrived at our destination early, with our bags already on the carousel by the time we got there!

Having done our research, we bypassed the taxis and caught the express bus to the harbour, which dropped us off 20 minutes later.

We then had to navigate around the famous landmark, Castel Nuovo, to get to our hotel in the pretty suburb on the other side. Having heard stories about Napoli’s reputation for its crime (always, as a South African, taken with a pinch of salt), we’d erred on the side of caution and avoided staying in the tourist centres, as we usually did for convenient access to the sights and amenities.

We were way too early for check-in, so dumped our suitcases (on instruction, in the corner of the entrance hall – where it would be safe. We’d never do that at home!) and went foraging for food.

It was a lovely morning so we got traditional Caprese Napoli sarmies and went to eat in the park, in the shade, with a view of the sea and the castle.

We’d googled for walking tours and planned to meet the Old City tour that met at the Castle but, while we lingered with our sarmies in the park, the group must have left without us because somehow we’d mixed up the times and the tour was actually 10.30 not 11.

We followed the route the tour was taking anyway, since it obviously covered all the basic must-see stuff. Although there was nothing basic about our first stop, the Piazza del Plebiscite with the ridiculously impressive San Francesco of Paola Basilica on the one side and the Palazzo Reale on the other.

Grandeur to the enth, the Basilica was originally planned as a tribute to Napoleon, but by the time it was finished in 1816 he had already been dethroned so it was converted into a church instead, dedicated to St Francis of Paola who had stayed in a monastery on that site in the 1500s. It’s massive. More massive than massive even, reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon with a portico resting on six columns and 2 ionic pillars, and a 53m high done beyond housing all sorts of priceless relics and altarpeices.

We wound our way through the Spanish Quarter and up Via Toledo and were thinking this was going to be more of the same – squares, churches, monuments, churches – until we stumbled across something a bit different to do.

We joined the afternoon Napoli Sotterranea tour, going 40m below ground to see what lies beneath the city.

The Greeks, innovators as they were, excavated below Naples (their Neo Polos or “new city”) 4 centuries BC to make cisterns to aid water supply and sustain their new city.

The first cave shows how they carved out the caves in the “soft” rock, excavating small bricks for building houses and big bricks of the darker lava rocks for use constructing the roads and delivering them to ground level using a pulley system through holes in the ground that served as wells when the cavaties were filled. The second cave showed how the cisterns had ladders so that the water could be cleaned “pool guy” style with a chap who would sweep the well using nets, to clean of the dust from the cave and impurities that might have fallen in. After that it’s a series of very narrow tunnels where then water was funneled from one well to another – and a visit to one with water still in it.

These cisterns were drained in 1940 to make bunkers during WWII. The wells were sealed, floors paved and stairs built, allowed for 2000 people to stay in the cavaties for up to 3 days at a time during the raids.

There has been conjecture on how to continue to use the space functionally, so they’re trying out a Botanical project to see what plants can live sustainably underground. It’s 16 degrees and they’re given lots of water and UV lights for 16 hours a day to balance light and dark. There is varying success with the collection of samples, with Basil seeming to be the most prosperous (but I could have told them that, with my bipolar spurts of veggie gardening experience!)

Other ideas were an underground kindergarten (!) and an underground water transportation system with small boats or similar to carry people along the kilometres that the caves cover, but the space was too small.

After the aquaduct tour, we were taken above ground to a building that didn’t look like much more than a block of apartments from the outside but, on entrance to a ground level unit, were shown that this building sat on top of an ancient Roman Theatre!

42 families had unwittingly been housed on top of the theatre for the past 500 or so years when condominiums were built over it during a mammoth urbanisation surge in the burgeoning city. The family in this apartment had been using the theatre’s backstage area as their wine cellar, with its floor trapdoor almost comically covered by a sliding bed that retracted into the wall to reveal it. The cellar had been blocked off from the rest of the theatre until archeologists got hold of it and have now restored the rooms and tunnels to their former structure. The rest of the building is still inhabited as flats though, which is quite unusual, especially since some of their inner windows open into these archeologically revealed passages.

Since the underground tour was close to the meeting place for an evening walking tour we’d decided to do, we hung about in town and had a very premature sundowner in order to get off our feet for a bit.

Turned out that it wasn’t necessary as when we met at the prescribed spot, the tour guide arrived only to tell us that he wasn’t feeling well and although he was I’ll of health, he felt worse for letting us down. He offered to make it up to us with buying us a coffee, but that really would have been insult to injury.

It was 5.30 by now and we had been up since 4.30 and on our feet all day so we admitted defeat and went to the hotel to complete our check-in.

We’d had a completely wonderful and crime-free tourist experience in Napoli, but were still grateful for the hotel we’d chosen as it was in a block of gorgeous art deco buildings, sandwiched between 2 famous landmark castles, on the seafront. A very lovely and relaxing location to end off our day.

We were now very much commited to The Fork – not only because of the discounts, but because the solid recommendations so far gave us a neat way to slim down the options between the abundance of restaurants everywhere we went.

We booked a pizza restaurant to tick off the authentic Neapolitan pizza experience, which is a Margherita garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, to represent the colours of the Italian flag. This formulation was invented by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito in honour of Margherita of Savoy and he’s said to be the first baker ever to add cheese on a pizza. Apparently one of its distinctions is that it must be made with San Marzano tomatoes, which grow on the volcanic plains to the South of Mount Vesuvius, and perhaps give it the sweeter taste to what we’re used to (sort of like the tomato sauce in tinned spaghetti).

Traditionally not a wildly exciting pizza variant at home, we’d ordered the Margherita to share as a starter and then followed up with seafood mains. Christian had his usual seafood pasta with clams and mussels and whatnot and I had an incredible Calamari al forno, which wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead of a sort of pasta bake, it was a large piece of octopus that had been sort of armadillo’ed and over baked. Delicious!

Fed and happy, we walked back to our hotel to call it a night in light of our early start to Capri in the morning.