Why Naples?

So, first of all, what is Naples? Naples is a collection of grid-like streets, planned and overwritten with graffiti spray, pocketed with decaying books and oozing tomatoes.

 The drill of mopeds connects the Neapolitans and rattles tourists, everything is always a prelude to some form of mozzarella’d pause.

“See non ora quando?” sums it up, “If not now when?”. Say it! Do it! Eat it! Move it! As the horns line up and drop like dominos. As the bee-like cars buzz busily in queues, wishing they were mopeds.

Pizza pizza pasta pizza pizza

The guide books claim to know which pizzerias to go to, wildly recommending this top five or that top 11. In fact, the more time you spend in any Italian city, the more clear you are on the enormity and impossibility of classifying ‘the best’ pizzeria.

MARIO IOVINELLA ©

In Naples, a pizza is like a person and all have the essential DNA. The tongue-twisting question of which pizzeria was the best would involve testing every pizza that pizzeria has ever made and then comparing that to all the pizzas ever made in all the pizzerias since the first pizza was made,  since well over a hundred years ago!

No. Much better to simply head out and eat and get ready for good and possibly great pizza in any pizzeria that has survived the demands of hungry Neapolitans for more than a decade, say.

Life after pizza

But there is much more to Naples. There’s art inside churches and outside, in between the writings on the walls. There’s bits of Pompeii in the Museo Archeologico – egg poachers and colanders and bowls for figs, wondering why they haven’t been used for 2000 years.

colander

And then there’s the sea, there’s always the sea, the only thing that cannot be stained with graffiti or tomato blood. Look out to the islands and bobbing mussel baskets from to the top of  Castel dell’Ovo, so named after the poet laureate of ancient Rome, Virgil, left an egg there. It must still be in tact, for when it cracks Naples yolk will be washed away forever….

…Then walk down to the harbour that skirts the castle, a lovely, tranquil place to catch your breath and eat fish, at a stage in your trip when you’re too bloated with pizza to eat any more until suppertime.

castel-dell-ovo-napoli

Many tourists do Naples the injustice of treating it as a mere comma in a sentence about Pompeii. But having given it just a fraction of the love it deserves, we found ourselves heading nearer to Vesuvius with the heard, an hour down the coast, pretty sure, but not absolutely certain, about the current state of mind of  perhaps the most devastatingly capricious volcano the human race has ever seen.

Do it like a Roman

The best bit of Pompeii + Vesuvius turned out to be the 6 cubicles of the ‘red light district’ where so-called  ‘Lupanar’ (House of the Wof-Bitches) served a full menu of options, with every cupboard-like room offering its own signature dish, if the paintings above the various doors are to be taken at face value 😉

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Having sampled these, the Pompeian middle classed homini would, no doubt be hungry and maybe a little bit sweaty. Conveniently, there were and are a string of fast food counters, much like a plastic-free Soho,  lining the road to the jaw dropping public baths. Here, whether you’re in hot, cold or tepidarium, every wall is frescoed and all the water was cleaned with a mindbogglingly innovative Roman hydraulic filter mechanism evident through bits of exposed piping here and there.

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Pre-trip planning

Although Pompeii’s definitely worth the trip, be warned – several of the villas and the main circus seemed to be  under restoration in March 2019, a fact that’s hard to find on the web, probably to protect the tour operators. Remember also, that it’s worth checking the weather and even giving the ticket office at Vesuvius a call before setting out on a climb. We were taken there only to find that the peak was shrouded in fog…

Vesuvius crater panorama-1024x428

But nonetheless, tick tick tick, we had been to Vesuvius and Pompeii and seen the lucky penises (or should I say phalli?) graffitied on the walls. We were informed that, to the lusty Pompeians, the phallus held no taboo. It  was, and still is, a universal symbol of health and wealth. You may wonder why, in modern Naples and the surrounding Campania, there are bunches of ‘chillies’ hanging up everywhere. They are, in fact, pointed phalli, shaved into chillies by the prudish Holy Roman Catholic church in the 6th century….

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Back to Naples for afternoon treats

And so we let Naples have us again and filled out stomachs and eyes and ears with more ‘soddisfazione’ than we thought possible. The city has a way of making you somehow forever hungry and forever full at the same time – making you moan in protest before sweetening your outrage into sensuously carefree joy at everything – a gorgeous church or the heavenly, infinite layers of crispy pastry that hold the soft, sweet ricotta heart of any sfogliatella.

Sfoglatella

Where to stay?

Anywhere, near the centro-storico, somewhere near the Piazza Dante  – where it’s chilled and relatively chic, yet gritty and fascinating – that washed out timeless elegance that Naples does best.

Piazza D

The other side of Florence

As a student in Bologna I made a few trips to this capital of renaissance opulence, bobbing up for air in cool basilicas before plunging into palazzo after palazzo, packed closely with more art than I could chew in a lifetime, let alone a day, before sinking into a bowl of something starchy somewhere shady, off the deeply beaten tourist track that circles Brunelleschi’s egg-topped duomo.

Now in my 33rd July, I’m pleased to be back in Florence with a little more time. I recommend you give Florence at least 3 days – enough to let it introduce itself to you in its own time. I’m not one for these prescribed “36 hours in” tours, which tie you to your map and your intention on getting there, missing the joys of happenstance. Cities like Florence, with so much to see and eat everywhere, are designed to be eaten whole, from seed to peel.

My favourite quarter is on the other side if the river,  L’Oltrano, across the river from the Uffizi and duomo , near the miles of box hedges in the Boboli gardens. Here, on the other side, is space and peace broken only by mouthwatering artisanal markets and brilliant buskers . Also, in seeming homage to the statue of Abundance (L’Abbondanza) that surveys this quarter from the top of the Boboli estate , there’s not a street or piazza without a place to feast on beef and udon-like ‘pici’, gnocchi, bean stew, wild boar and all manner of Tuscan treats, finished off with a basket of edifying almond-packed Cantuccini biscuits steeped in soul-affirming Vin Santo.

 

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Where was I? Ah si si, the other side of Florence’s  river Arno, bridged by the ancient, tourist-heavy jewellery arcade that is the Ponte Vecchio, joint equal with Venice’s Rialto, the most touristed bridge in Europe and possibly the world. As if by magic the tourist flow dissipates once you cross over, with the duomo behind you, as the Oltrarno’s network of clear streets welcomes you into its confidence. 

Here you’ll find a couple of palazzos now turned into public museums and art collections,  time capsules created by the 18th and 19th century aristocratic ‘grand’ tourists and later “cognoscenti”. Here you’ll also find the piazzas of Santas Spirito and Croce. The former is perhaps my favourite square in Florence. Its beauty is not it’s ornate medieval-renaissance architecture, that forms merely the stage – it’s the players: Florentines, students, immigrants, all milling about, lining the long steps outside the Basilica of Santo Spirito, letting the stirring of the busking dancers and musicians fan their ‘discorsi’ in the gently simmering dusk.

 

Santo Spirito

 There’s a 15th century convent on this square that the Catholic church have obligingly allowed to become a lovely hotel, each room blessed with its own character and heavenly views over the city. There’s one with a bathroom that looks like there’s a romantic painting of the cathedral on the wall, until you realise it’s actually a window with the best view in Florence. I’ll never forget having a shower, looking out into this with the evening sun and breeze flowing through the window, mingling with the smell of gorgeously cheesy opera music wafting up from the Piazza below.

Room with a view

Hopelessly sentimental I know, but Italy does this to you, it’s very hard not to be lost in ‘sentimentalità’ here. I have a friend who is one of the rare breed of non-Italians who have managed to penetrate the impenetrable ancient world of the Florentine artisan. What I wouldn’t give to have a little garret  in Piazza Santo Spirito and have a pastry and espresso under the trees before making my way to my cave-like workshop in a dusty side-street to work diligently and thoughtfully on an altar piece or a memorial stone of pietra dura, carving different stones into animals and crests and flowers before stopping for a beautifully simple lunch somewhere delicious and affordable

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But back to reality and London frenzy we Londoners must go, thanking Italy for yet another beautiful city of art, love and of course, food. Here are some of the places I love in Florence. If you spot them, bene, if you don’t, bene, you will no doubt find your own treasures. The only thing I would recommend above all, is to stay in the converted covent in Piazza Santo Spirito, formerly known as Convent of the Sorelle Bandini (Bandini Sisters), now Hotel Palazzo Guadagni.

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How to survive the Roman rat-race and open Heaven’s gates before lunch

If you are going to Rome to escape the daily grind of commuter overcrowding, don’t set out for the Vatican.

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Never was there such an economy built on subsidized queue-skipping. And once you are in, there is no turning back. You must go with the flow of 25,000 tourist and pilgrim rats that run their trainer tracks through the Vatican every day. After all that queuing, it does feel like a race to make up for lost time. No-one stops to look at anything, the modern art display glides by in a  Sistine-hungry haze; eyes and bellies craving the long awaited micheangelan feast ahead.

And when you get there? Police not priests, and much firefighting of illegal android flashing. The police, in riot-managing mode, hurling riot-squad voices across the ‘chapel’ make you forget where you are and forget to look up, as they urge you to “keep moving”. There’s the sense that it wouldn’t be Christian to linger any length of time, that you are taking up scarce standing space for the next rat-batch to swell into.

Visitors-in-Sistine-Chapel

Guided tours can short-cut to the cathedral but humble individuals must power on through the halls of relics (if lined up, they’d stretch for 9 miles). However interesting they might have been to our un-queued selves, they can’t compete with the currents that pulls us all: the prospect of food or at least a moment of sitting down on a non-stoop modern Italian loo. Phew! Will have to Google Sistine-chapel and look at God and Adam’s garishly restored sinews from the time and comfort of my London broadband sofa…

But it’s not over yet, we still had Heaven’s gates to open, before lunch.

St Peter’s Basilica

Having paid to skip the queue for St Peter’s we found ourselves queuing in the queue for the paid-to-skip-the-queuers.

Then we paid some more to take the elevator and skip 500 steps to God and the top of St Peter’s, the world’s highest, largest stone dome.

With no expectation, only that tourist-tick-box feeling that we must reach the end of the last queue, whatever the cost, wherever it led, we were struck, as we came out onto the dome’s inner ledge, by a throat-tickling, eye-stinging awe.

The majesty of the sheer drop beneath and the arc above are enough to make even the most atheist of spines tingle. So many thousands of square feat of marble hosting so much space for thought and prayer and song.

Saint Peter’s is like a mountain. Humbling, terrifying, and yet intensely liberating and peaceful. Truly as close to a house for God as we humans can make. And, as a non-Catholic agnostic yoga, humanist-leaning type, I can say I’m unbiased.

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And so, after all this terrific peace and splendour, you’ll need something warm to bring you  back down to earth. Here’s where the Vatican’s canniest rats find the best crumbs:

Perdincibacco – pizza, spaghetti – simple, subtle yet traditional, bicycles hanging on the ceiling, wine lining the walls, you can sit outside if you don’t mind being in the traffic scooting round the Vatican. Via Delle Fornaci, 5/9 San Pietro.

More tasty morsels:

Near the Trevi and Pantheon

Za Za Pizzaorganic sourdough, charged by weight unusual twists like salmon + pots + mascarpone –  I was highly suspicious but quite possibly these bites were the best pizza moments of my life to date. Note that it’s no frills, just pure pizza  –  outside on plastic chairs in the pretty square. Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 49

On and near the Island

Tiberino –  cat’s tongue biscuits (like anorexic shortbread) and coffee or some homemade gnocchi, if it’s close to mealtime and you fancy being tucked away in the old attic by the bridge – better in colder weather. Via Ponte Quattro Capi 18

La Gensola  – sea-bass tortellini, fresh anchovies, tart lemon sorbet, fish is the thing here as you sit overlooked cartoon-doodled table-coths hanging on the wall , drawn by former patrons, well oiled with the excellent wine. Piazza della Gensola 15

Near the Circus Maximus

(and that stone face, the Bocca della Verita that thousands queue to touch, thanks to Audrey, Anita and Brigitte)

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Volpetti –  best tonarelli (the Roman lovechild of tagliatelle and spaghetti) and anything you like from the sister deli (rated by Guardian as one of Rome’s 10 best delis).  Via Marmorata 47

Gelateria ai Cerchi – nice selection, nutty flavours are best, all good for gearing up for a ‘giro’ round the circus maximus.. or a queue to stick your hand in the old Bocca della Verita.. Via dei Cerchi, 61

Near the Botanical Gardens and Trastevere ( if you fancy a bit of peace and quiet)

 Da Gildo – woodfired pizza, homemade pasta, seasonal veg and  the best tiramisu of all time. Via Della Scala, 31/A

Where I’d try next

At least 3 of these 9 pasta places

Where I’d stay again

VOI Donna Camilla Savelli 

 – especially in Spring, when the magnolias and camellias deck the courtyard, a haven of 17th century ex-convent bliss with a breakfast that would have have had nuns confessing to the 2nd deadly sin every morning…

Venice has a mask for every face

In 60 years sea levels will have crept 8 more inches up the Doge’s already stumpy columns. In 60 years, I, on the verge of death, hope to take my zimmer for one last ride up San Marco’s bell-tower lift and survey Venice’s mysterious, sinking glory.

There is nothing wrong with Venice. The stalls teeming with tack only set in relief the sheer beauty of this cunning floating city, scene to so much stinking tilted wonder.

It’s impossible to get lost in Venice. Every track, if you ignore ambiguous signs to the Rialto and San Marco, leads to some new, somehow intended, discovery: a part of Venice meant just for you, at that particular moment.

Lions  lead the way.  Immortalized in stone and bronze, they look down regally from the balconies or, guarding doors, gaze up watchfully. I feel intrusive, cruel and a little scared, as I push one of the many brass doorbells that is also a lion’s tongue.

Image result for Venice, lion doorbell

Having witnessed so much for so long, at such intimately close quarters, Venice and its lions have become somehow animate and wise. Whatever your mood, you feel it is sensed by more than the Venetian authorities’ liberal peppering of CCTV. The ancient canal-veined piazzas are like crafty Venetians, canny as they are charming – they play your mood up or down to suit their whim. You find that one piazza offers sweet antidotes, another plies irresistible corruption, the next lays you bare and leaves you pitifully exposed. And they swing from mood to mood. Today Santo Stefano is expansive, Campo Bandiera e Moro is vacant, San Marco is indecisive.  Tomorrow, the opposite may be true, depending on the light, the fog, your mood and theirs.

This is, I suppose, how we project our thoughts onto our environment at home, but Venice is a city of mirrors and the reflections are clearer, never quite what you expected. No two people or objects ever share the same view.

One day it will all be buried under the sea, like Atlantis.  Maybe a dozen lucky lions will be rescued and revived and speak of their masters.  Men who tricked geology and the waves for 3 millennia. Tricks of bricks and glass-flutes and chandelier-like masks, all continuously and elaborately confessed beside Tintorettos and Titians under precariously high belfries, with here and there a freshly minted icon, for luck and good measure.

I feel privileged to have seen Venice in all its weary decadence, before it puts on the final death mask. A place of constant magic. However old and jaded, it never tells the same story twice. Mother of the Commedia dell’ Arte, it too, is an unscripted drama. The light and sound and smell is forever switching, bringing out something new or secreted, in both itself and its audience. One moment it’s thick and clogging and fools you into thinking you can predict it; the next, it’s free and crisp and glistens anew with a brilliance that strikes fresh awe.

How I hope, beyond hope, that Venice somehow manages to carry on its magic tricks, recklessly ignoring the inevitable swell, facing sea, silt and pestilential swarms of selfie-sticks with its myriad of shimmering masks, grimacing and grinning into eternity!

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Where to eat

Dinner/Lunch

Osteria “Al Covo” (interesting twists on traditional favourites – all locally sourced as part of the Italian slow food movement. Known for it’s amazing biodynamic wine list

http://ristorantealcovo.com/   Tel: +39.041.5223812 Castello 3968 Venezia

TAVERNA DEL CAMPIELLO REMER (Venetian classics and nice live jazz music in an old cellar)

SESTIERE CANNAREGIO 5701 Venezia

Osteria “Il Paradiso Perduto” (nice place for lunch – don’t be put off by the multiple translations of the menu for tourists, home-made parpadelle is top notch)

Cannaregio, Fondamenta della Misericordia, 2540 – 30100 Venezia

Gelato:

I’ve tried a lot and this was definitely the best (pistachio actually tastes of pistachio and not just green food-colouring) and in a nice, off the beaten track square, :

Gelateria del Doge  (http://gelateriaildoge.com) Dorsoduro 3058/A, Rio Terà Canal, 30123 Venezia