Friday, 16 October 2015

Southern comfort (a weekend in Naples)

“Just one thing – be careful of your stuff” said a guy I work with. “The area round the train station is better than it was, but still…” said another, rolling his eyes to complete the sentence. “You do not look like a local, so make sure you take extra care at night” cautioned a third.

I was going to Naples for the weekend and it seemed that even my Neapolitan colleagues’ tips about what to see there came littered with caveats.

The warnings were hardly surprising. Much of Italy’s south suffers badly from chronic underinvestment, corruption and crime. Naples is a working class port city that, among other things, is home to the Camorra Mafia. It’s not the kind of place for flashing valuables around or carrying your wallet in your back pocket. Then again, where is?

Evening light by the Bay of Naples

That's amore

More positively, Naples is almost universally acknowledged as the city with the best pizza in the country. This is where tomatoes were first put on a pizza base (some time in the 1500s) and today a strict series of rules defines what constitutes ‘proper’ Neapolitan pizza.

I’m not exaggerating. The Italian government produced a 2200-word document setting them out point by point… which may seem like rather a lot of fuss, until you taste it.

For context, I grew up in the UK, where Margheritas are typically the pizzas of last resort. You buy them if you’re low on cash and you haven’t got your bank cards on you. The cheese is heavy, the tomato base is sugary and the crust is as bland as a Coldplay b-side.

In Naples, a Margherita is a dish fit for royalty (literally – it was invented in 1889 for Queen Margherita of Savoy) and it tastes divine. It is light, juicy and flavourful. In fact, the memories of it are making my mouth water as I type.

It’s also a symbol of Italy since the colours of the Margherita were chosen to represent the national flag. The cheese and tomatoes are the white and red of course, while the green comes from the traditional basil garnish that is so often missing on British Margheritas.

Mount Vesuvius, an acceptable backdrop for stuffing your gob

Going underground

Food aside, Naples has a lot going for it. The city is a great base for exploring the wonderfully preserved ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii if that’s your thing. And it’s a good place to start your trip if you’re island hopping in Capri and Ischia.

As Ms Ciao and I had only a day and a half there, we confined ourselves to wandering the centre, exploring the tunnels under its streets and strolling along the seafront in the sunshine.

The historic centre is a charming muddle of snaking alleys, timeworn buildings and diverse graffiti. It’s easy to pass an enjoyable few hours there window-shopping and strolling around – and you'll find plenty of cafes and bars to choose from when you want to take a break for coffee or something stronger.

Painter finalising a mural near the Sotteranea

The Sotteranea underground tunnels were recommended to me by several Italians, and didn’t disappoint. For €10, you get a guided tour of a subterranean warren which was built by the Greeks as temples 2,400 years ago.

After being abandoned for centuries, the tunnels were used again in the Second World War by locals hiding from bombing. One of the eeriest parts of the tour involves looking at dust-coated children’s toys that have been down there ever since.

The tunnels also house grottoes shimmering with fresh water (they were used as underground canals for a while), and your ticket even gets you entry to a hidden theatre where pyromaniac loon/psychopath/emperor Nero showed his lighter side by appearing in a number of plays around AD65-70. Seriously.

If you go, be sure to bring an extra layer of clothing. It’s cold underground, even in summer. For those who are more interested in recent history than the Greco-Roman era, the separate Bourbon Tunnel has plenty more Second World War memorabilia, along with specialised tours like underground rafting.

Stories from the city, stories from the sea

Once we’d headed back above ground, we made our way to the seafront to sip drinks looking across the water to Mount Vesuvius and take in the sunset. If feelings could be bottled, I would sell the relaxation of that hour. Via Partenope is a great place to watch the passeggiata and switch off from stress. As we walked back to our hotel, fireworks lit up the sky above the Bay of Naples.

The next day passed too quickly. We blitzed a few more sites and ate more great food. The Palazzo Reale is a bargain at €4 if you like neo-classical architecture and stately rooms, while the Castel dell’Ovo is free and has excellent views.

Basilica in Piazza del Plebiscito, opposite the Palazzo Reale

We had lunch at La Cantina dei Lazzari, which deserves a special mention. Although the pizza we ate on the seafront the night before was outstanding, the service left something to be desired.

In contrast, the Cantina's service, food and prices were all exceptional. It’s a couple of streets back from the touristy area, so it may not get the footfall of visitors it deserves, but if you’re in town I recommend you seek it out. The epitome of simple elegance.

Don't stop believin'

Once we’d finished off our lunch, it was time to get back on the train and head back up north. On the journey, I mentioned to Ms Ciao that visiting southern Italy is always bittersweet for me.

I enjoy it so much that I begin missing it before I've even left. This is the part of the country I fell in love with, and where I originally intended to live. Although we're very happy in Milan, visiting the south reminds me that I've never fulfilled my dream of moving there.

As the train chuntered back to our home, the sun began to set. It was the last weekend of summer 2015 – the summer Ms Ciao and I got engaged, perhaps our last summer in Europe. I found nostalgia creeping over me. I closed my eyes, leaned back in my seat and went with it for a while.

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