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

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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)

audrey_hepburn_e_la_bocca_della_verita

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…