No pomp nor ceremony in Napoli or Pompeii

Italy's flag
Europe » Italy » Campania » Naples
May 24th 2010
Published: May 28th 2010
Edit Blog Post

We woke early in preparation for our 8.15am train to Naples. We arrived at Stazione Napoli Centrale at 10am, dropped off our luggage, walked outside and sat down for a coffee in the street. This was a great introduction to this gritty place, as we simply sat back and watched the city unfold in the mid morning. We headed to the famous Da Michele, which apparently is one of the oldest pizzerias in Italy. The margherita pizza was fantastic (although a bit early in the day at 11.30am), but it fuelled us for a walk through the streets to the San Gennaro Duomo and then to the Museo Nazionale, where we wandered through the vast archaeological museum until 2pm. We ventured back out into the streets and weaved our way towards the Mediterranean, passing a great piece of anarchist graffiti on a city wall stating “Legality doesn’t belong here”.

We arrived at Piazza Plebiscito (one of the largest public spaces in Naples) at 2.45pm. We wandered up backstreets and down to the waterfront until the Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola opened at 3.30pm, which bore a slight resemblance to the Pantheon in Rome. We then kicked back in the afternoon sun, sitting on the steps of Piazza Plebiscito watching the children of Naples playing on the cobblestones.

We had to catch a train to Pompeii, so we made our way back along the industrial waterfront to the Stazione Napoli Centrale at around 5pm. We had heard stories about Naples, many of which had not been flattering, but we loved the grit and grunge of this vibrant place. It would be fantastic to spend an extended period to explore the city further.

We caught a regional train to Pompeii, and about halfway through the journey the rain started. We walked to the hotel in the rain, checked in, showered and then headed down for dinner at 8pm. The meal was fantastic, and the experience was heightened by being scolded publicly (in Italian) by the hotel owner for attempting to put parmesan cheese on my linguine alla pescatore (linguine with seafood). He wouldn’t leave the end of the table until I had put the spoon back and pushed the parmesan cheese container away from my plate. Ren hadn’t been so lucky - she had already sprinkled parmesan on her linguine, and was bearing the brunt of the owner’s wrath. It was all in good humour, and everyone found it highly amusing, including ourselves. Italians love creating food and love the food they create, and we had begun to realise that Italian food should not be tampered with once it is served - it should simply be eaten!

The family who owned the hotel had a small blind dog that kept running into the chair legs of tables in the restaurant, which (unfortunately for the dog) added to the humour of this fantastic meal. It had been a long day, so we retired early in preparation for our walking tour of the Pompeii ruins the next day.

We woke early to catch up on our writing, had a late breakfast at 8.30am and walked to the ruins of Pompeii (which were very close to our hotel) at 9am. The owner of the hotel organised a local guide to take us through the ruins, and Alfredo’s two hour tour provided a fascinating insight into the daily life of this ancient city that had been devastated (and ironically preserved) by Vesuvius in 79AD. At one stage he touched a stone carving high up on a street corner, stating that it was a symbol of good luck and therefore bad luck not to touch it. Maybe not enough people in Pompeii touched the carving on that fateful day back in 79AD. It seemed ironic that a superstitious tour guide touched a good luck carving in a city destroyed by bad luck, but I’m sure I’d cling to anything if I lived in the shadow of a volcano.

It was great to start early, as the old streets were virtually empty, and I loved entering the anfiteatro where Pink Floyd had recorded the bulk of their Live at Pompeii footage all those years ago. The dogs of Pompeii were as fascinating as the city itself - they wandered through the ancient streets, sleeping in the midday sun while tourists milled around and over them. They are cared for by attendants and can be adopted by tourists who want to ensure their comfortable life in the historic streets of Pompeii continues.

Making the most of the warm sunny day, Ren and I picnicked in the lush (and surprisingly empty) gardens on the outskirts of the ancient city’s walls before heading back into the new city, stopping off on the way to explore the Santuario della Madonna del Rosario, a magnificent church dedicated to Mary in the heart of new Pompeii. We headed back to the hotel for a quick nap and then ventured back out at 3.30pm for free wifi at Hungry Jacks. We wandered back through Piazza Bartolo Longo, which had come alive in the early evening with children playing, families mingling and pilgrims holding copies of the ‘Virgin of the Rosary with Child’ - the painting which hangs above the altar of the Santuario della Madonna del Rosario.

We decided to dine at the hotel restaurant again, as it had been so good the night before. My gnocchi bolognaise was sensational (given the fact that I was allowed to use parmesan this time), and my grilled sausages were fantastic. We also decided to continue with the red wine we had been drinking the night before - Lacrima Cristi del Vesuvio - which roughly translates as the tears of Christ that flow from the grapes grown in the ash of Mt Vesuvius (which is more an interpretation than literal translation). It was fantastic, and at the end of the meal we decided more bottles were needed. Our guide carried an iPod with portable speakers, so he rigged it up at the end of the table and played great music all night, including Echoes, one of the memorable songs recorded during Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii sessions. The Lacrima Cristi del Vesuvio continued to flow, and the evening swaggered into a heady celebration of a great travel day.

We needed to wake early, as a bus was picking us up at 9.30am to take us just under the pinnacle of Mt Vesuvius. The realisation that I had a few too many glasses of Lacrima Cristi del Vesuvio the night before was immediate, as standing and concentrating at the same time was proving a little difficult. But nothing was going to stop my ascent of Vesuvius, so I downed a café latte and croissant and steeled myself for the day ahead.

The bus trip was fantastic. We drove through the less affluent areas of the new city of Pompeii before heading up through the lush tourist resorts at the foot of the mountain. We then drove through pine forests before switching buses half way up the mountain to cope with the windy road to the walking track. We only needed 20 minutes to walk to the top, and the view of Naples was well worth the climb.

We retraced our steps back to the hotel, had a quick lunch, picked up our bags and walked to the station to catch a train to Sant’Agnello.

We have now started another journey to the Campania region on the Amalfi Coast and More Intrepid Travel trip. This is a slightly smaller group of just nine and Davide the group leader is a cool and laidback guy who instantly bonded with Andrew over being musicians. However we could tell quite early in the piece that this was not going to be a cohesive travelling group.

We caught a 8:15am train to Naples for a day (on the way to Pompeii). We had deliberated on whether or not to go to Naples given the reputation it had for being dirty, unsafe and even violent. But as with most things, Andrew and I wanted to experience it first hand - if we hate it, so be it, at least we would have found out for ourselves and would not be viewing the world through other people’s eyes. We are happy to report that we quite enjoyed our short time in Naples, although the world according to Neapolitans takes a little getting used to. If you didn’t already know - Naples is famous for being the home of the Neapolitan Mafia (the Camorra) and pizza!

Speaking of pizza… they take their pizza very seriously here and issue a statement of authenticity for places that meet set, almost militant criteria - wood-fired oven to specified temperatures, local produce to exacting quality and freshness, the oil has to be virgin and the salt from the sea etc. The pizza here is of the thicker, soggy crust variety, and we usually favour the thinner crispier crust roman version...but there is no disputing that the margherita pizza (with tomato, mozzarella and basil) from L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele is one of the best pizza I have ever tasted. Da Michele claims to be the oldest pizzeria in the world and it reminded me of the plain weathered vinyl tabled pizzerias in Lygon Street Melbourne before it became all trendy. 😊

Naples is picturesquely situated on the Bay of Napoli with Mt Vesuvius in the background. However arriving at Stazione Centrale is probably the best way to give anyone the worst first impression of this city. My first impression was of rubbish filled streets, very seedy street vendors with fake goods and a strong stench of urine. The grime and dirt is insidious, and both new and ancient buildings are covered in graffiti. However leaving the station area behind, and after walking around for a little while you surprisingly start to see past the layers of dirt and graffiti and realise that there are some absolutely stunning old buildings sitting unassumingly next to newer apartments and offices, completely subsumed into everyday Neapolitan life.

Now to the street culture, it’s loud, brash, in your face and seriously Italian- we loved it! There are washing lines flapping over the narrow streets, vespas flying past, nonnas yelling at vendors, nonnos nodding off on benches and everyone seemingly oblivious to the din around them. We also like the piazzas here - they are more functional than decorative and more local than touristy. We sat in Piazza del Plebiscito for a while watching congregating mothers mingle while their children played football and rode their bikes.

However we really disliked that this is not a place you can freely walk around - while it is physically quite possible to do so, we did well to remember that there is a very high crime rate here with lots of ‘incidents’ occurring in broad daylight, and more importantly we noticed that the vespas and cars have phenomenally bad attitudes towards pedestrians.

We visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Toledo, and while the collections were relatively interesting, I was not that impressed really...although I should state upfront that I do not support exhibitions of looted and pillaged antiquities, so my opinion is probably quite biased. On the plus side it made me really look forward to the next few days in Pompeii and its ruins. We also visited the Duomo and the Chapel of San Gennaro - the city’s patron saint; and Chiesa di San Francesco di Paolo which is a copy of the Pantheon in Rome, and as lovely as it is, there is just no comparison with the unique Pantheon! 😊

I am very glad we decided to see this place for ourselves, but it’s obviously not to everyone’s taste - if you like your cities grime and grit-free I would say Naples is not for you. Before we caught our train out of the city, I made sure I sampled some of the famous Napoli sfogliatelle (pastries filled with ricotta, candied fruit and lemon). I found the shell shaped filo pastry riccia ones nicer than the cone shaped heavy dough frolla much yumminess in one small package!

We travelled further south to Pompeii - yes Pompeii of Mt Vesuvius and volcano fame. I have to declare my ignorance here, I had no idea until very recently that a modern town of Pompeii existed. Apart from a few tacky tourist souvenir shops in one end of the town, the new Pompeii we spent a few days is a little town that goes about its business seemingly unaware of the hordes of day trippers traipsing through to see their ancient ashed-over predecessor. There is a nice community feel to the area around our hotel on Via Lepanto and near Piazza Bortolo Longo, but the other parts of new Pompeii we saw were a bit seedy and decrepit.

Our hotel’s owner Luigi organised a local guide for us (his cousin Alfredo) and we spent a few hours walking through the ruins of ancient Pompeii. It was far bigger than I had imagined. Vesuvius erupted in 79AD killing all Pompeii’s inhabitants, but because the town was covered by ash and pumice (and not lava) many of the buildings were surprisingly well preserved when they were excavated in the 18th century. We walked through intact city gates, along cobblestone streets, into lavish houses where the frescoes were undamaged, through the amphitheatre where gladiators fought (and where Andrew got very excited about Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii DVD), and past shops, laundries and bakeries. We also checked out the infamous brothel which still had the x-rated frescoes illustrating the services that had been on offer. 😊

The next day we caught a bus to the car park on Mt Vesuvius. Mt Vesuvius is still an active volcano, and walking up the mountain to the mouth of the volcano was slightly weird after the recent wrath of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano; and also because this has been its longest period of inactivity in the past 500 years and scientists think it’s ready to erupt again soon. If it does erupt, it will almost instantly kill all 700,000 people residing within a 7km radius of the volcano...and all us eager visitors walking up its side too!

The walk up to the mouth of the volcano from the car park took about 20 minutes and it’s an easy but incredibly dusty walk on a sand and gravel track. There are rope handrails which were handy in some spots while coming down. The crater itself was enormous but not as exciting as I thought it would be - there was no bubbling and frothing of red hot lava to be seen, not even a few puffs of smoke to indicate the danger that lay within this massive mountain. However you get an incredible view of Naples and the Bay of Napoli from up there. Hmmm...ok seen enough now, let’s not provoke the sleeping beast any further. 😊

We stayed in the cute family run Hotel Amitrano, which was in a lovely location near Piazza Bortolo Longo with it’s very ornate and beautiful church - Santuario della Madonna del Rosario. It was also very handy for being within a few minutes walking distance of the ruins. We ended up eating and drinking (lots) downstairs in the hotel’s restaurant firstly because it came highly recommended by Davide and secondly because they were very welcoming and hospitable with the whole family being involved in the ordering and serving process. They take their food seriously here, and we were a bit taken aback when the father told us off for adding parmigiano (parmesan) cheese on our linguine alla pescatore (linguine with seafood), but we just had to accept that they are very very passionate about their food. Another reason we liked hanging around the hotel for dinner was that they freely opened bottle after bottle of gorgeous Lacrima Christi vino rosso produced locally from grapes grown in volcanic ash rich soil.

The thing I love most about Pompeii is the masses of dogs around the town and around the ruins. The doggies are technically stray dogs because they don’t have an owner; but they are well fed, veterinary checked, council registered, clean, friendly and loving dogs. In exchange for a friendly word and a pat, they offer their escorting services for a few blocks or until they see a shady spot for a quick nap. Our local guide Alfredo mentioned that there is an adoption service for these ‘dogs of Pompeii’ to pay for food and vet bills! I just love Italy’s attitude to dogs in general too - not only are they welcome in hotels, lifts, ferries and cafés, but they also get attention, pats and love from all the locals they encounter.

While the climb to Mt Vesuvius was fabulous, and visiting old Pompeii’s ruins were great experiences, there is certainly no reason for a repeat visit for me. I came to Pompeii with low expectations, so I haven’t been disappointed as such, but this is probably the place I have been least impressed with on our journey in Italy so far.

We travel to Sorrento next...


28th May 2010

South Of Rome
25 points for (possibly) spelling that Icelandic volcano correctly. But you're saying that the owner complained about the parmiagano, but not about the salt and pepper?... 700,000 people????? And the dogs? Not a happy picture. Although. This has been an extremely interesting and informative blog, as usual, but I'd have to say that I wasn't surprised by Ren's penultimate comment. Still, it's all part of the experience.
29th May 2010

Re: South Of Rome
Hey Keith, the experience was great but we've now confirmed that we prefer travelling slightly off the beaten track...Pompeii was definitely ON the beaten track. :)

Tot: 3.709s; Tpl: 0.069s; cc: 33; qc: 168; dbt: 0.1455s; 3; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 2.2mb