The Pilgrim

Shut for August

19/08/07

With an early 7:30am flight it was great to be within a walking distance of the terminal. We only had to get up at a silly time of 4.30am! A wake-up call and a sequence of mobile phone alarms dragged us into the awake.

Turning up 5 minutes before the check-in desk was scheduled to open we were shocked to find ourselves at the back of a very long queue. "Bugger, we should have woken up earlier!" I half joked. Forty minutes of shuffling suitcases towards the desk was not fun but we got their in the end.

After coming through security we made our way to Frankie & Benny's where a Lithuanian Giraffe messed up our breakfast order, not once but twice. He was the most hapless waiter I'd ever met! Thanks to the lanky comrade we fell way behind schedule so we had to rush out the restaurant with our toast in our hands searching frantically for our gate number. We had no time to shop, not even for the obligatory bottle of champagne. Gate 12 was a shuttle train ride away and we only had twenty minutes to go. Of course, when we got to the gate we were once again at the back of the queue.

It wasn't all bad news however because all this running around had distracted Julie from the impending doom that lay ahead. Even whilst queuing at the gate she occupied herself with some diversionary shopping, even picking up those crucial good luck charm bottles of Lanson champagne.

The good luck actually kicked in immediately. We were one of the last to board the plane and were concerned that we would have to sit apart but by some miracle the first row seats were empty. Great! All that leg room!

Julie however could have been tucked up in bed during take off and it wouldn't have made it any easier for her!

Accentuating her anxiety we literally sat face-to-face with the flight attendants. She had nowhere to her hide her spiralling distress as the cabin crew smiled on.

Once the diazepam kicked in she did recover relative calmness which was a good sign towards conquering her fears.

Two and a half hours went by and we soon saw the misty hills of Campania as we came down towards Naples' Capodichino airport.

Our first glimpse of Vesuvius was so exciting! Or at least it was for me. Julie had her head in her hands braced for landing. Her ordeal didn't last long as a perfectly smooth landing brought us safely down. It was now 11:10am.

By the time we collected our luggage, found the Alibus, sat on the Alibus, waited for them to stuff as many people on board the Alibus as possible; it was almost 1pm by the time we stepped off at Piazza Garibaldi.

Now mention the word "piazza" and beautiful squares with ornate fountains and majestic statues come to mind. Unfortunately this was not the case with the large open space of Piazza Garibaldi. It's basically the city's transport hub, with Stazione Centrale on one end, a huge bus depot in it's middle, and busy through road at the other end.

As first impressions go this didn't really register high on the WOW factor. In fact it registered more on the whooaagh factor as it felt quite intimidating. Perhaps its bad reputation had influenced us and so we hoped that over the next five days our opinion of the city would change.

Leading off the Garibaldi square was Corso Umberto I cutting a rare wide avenue through the narrow streets of the historical centre. Looking down the side streets at the flea markets and crumbling facades of houses well past their sell by dates we saw nothing that excited us.

I've heard Naples described as the "Bombay of Europe". Having not been to India I couldn't compare but I can imagine why it has acquired that slur of a nickname. It's a city haunted by faded glories.

Hotel Suite Esedra, our home for the next four nights, was just off the busy Corso Umberto. The building itself was in good repair which was reassuring.

As we were checking-in we were rudely interrupted by a guest who was ranting and waving his hands accusingly towards the hotel receptionist. From what I could work out he seemed very upset because he thought he had booked a double room, with a "matrimonial bed". Instead he obviously had been allocated a twin room.

The receptionist nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders. This sent the other guy apoplectic. He was literally besides himself with rage as he jumped up and down stamping his feet demanding a double room.

Unfazed by the tantrum the receptionist shook his head and calmly said "Impossible".

In an eruption of temper Mr. Angry lent forward, flared his nostrils and insisted the return of his passports and indicated that he wanted to leave and find another hotel. Fuming, he left in a huff, up in the lift, muttering as he went.

After breathing a sigh of relief the receptionist finally got around to us and gave us the key to room 302.

All the rooms in the hotel were named after a sign of the zodiac and ours had the scorpion of the Sagittarius painted on the door.

The door to room 303 was open and there he was, Mr. Unstable, still purple faced, having to explain to an elderly couple that they need to pack up and go to another hotel. We opened our door and to our shock and embarrassment we had a double bed!!

"Quick, shut the door, don't let them see !" said Julie.

We spent the next hour stretching out on our lovely matrimonial bed feeling chuffed about our good fortune.

In the brochures the rooms are described as "quirky" but the only thing different was the "quirky" fresco. The rest of it was very dated and not at all special.

After sleeping off her diazepam we ventured out.

Directly opposite us, on via Cesare Sersale, was Da Michelle, one of my top 5 shortlisted pizzerias.

I knew not to get excited because I had been forewarned that this popular pizzeria was shut for most of August. It was still a kick in the empty stomach though.

We were more than a little hungry so we decided to hunt out a pizzeria, any pizzeria.

The first street we came across was Spaccanapoli, an arrow straight medieval backbone to this historic centre.

All the shop fronts had they shutters down, all closed for business. Not only was it a Sunday, but it appeared that the whole city had migrated south for August.

We began to get a little concerned that instead of being pizza pilgrims we would end up being martyrs, found in a dark alleyway having starved to death.

The place seemed deserted with only a smattering of people going about they normal day. Judging by the strong clean smell of washing detergent Sunday was laundry day. Clothes hung on string stretched high above us.

After crossing via Duomo, we continued up the spine and found at last a pizzeria that was open!

We didn't hesitate, we just dived straight in. The Vera Pizza sign was an indication that it was a member of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoleteana, an association set up to promote the quality and integrity of the authentic pizza.

So this place should be good!

Inside it had a rustic charm, certainly not an interior designer in sight. It felt like a good traditional local eatery should. Perfect. We sat in the corner and read their extensive menu. They must have had over 30 different toppings. After many decision changes I eventually ordered one of my favourite toppings, artichoke, and Julie went for the mushroom pizza.

I stared in astonishment as I saw the pizza maker, known as a pizzalioli, masterfully create our bases from a ball of dough in under 5 seconds. Unaided by a rolling pin just using his chubby little fingers.

How I wish I could acquire that skill. Next time I'd love to find a Naples cooking course. That would be incredible.

Anyway, my first Neapolitan pizza arrived and I was so overcome with the thrill of it all.

I had meant to photograph all my pizzas but my plan went straight out of my head as my excitement got the better of me and I shoved a slice in my mouth.

"Ohh" I groaned out loud. It was like a scene from "When Colin Met Pizza Carciofi".

The base was superb, thin in the middle, thick at the edge and a glorious wood fired taste. The tomato sauce was fresh and delicious. It wasn't perfect, I think the quality of the cheese let it down slightly so it only got 6/10.

After lunch we continued down Spaccanapoli.

There were apparently many historic palazzos along this street, it was once the aristocratic residential district but they were undistinguishable amongst the other crumbling structures of shops and commoner houses.

The first item of note was the Statue of the Nile. It stood in the middle of nowhere in particular, just a small gap in the street, with nothing else about.

He may have been an Egyptian god but he looked more like the god of gelato, looking strangely like Ben or Jerry, holding the mother of all ice cream cones.

Next up on our self-guided mystery walking tour was the Church of San Domenico Maggiore. It stood in the first piece of open space to be found along this tiny passage.

It's apparently a little bit of an ugly fruit. By that I mean that the shabby outer shell disguises quite a beautiful interior. We didn't go inside as it seemed to be closed.

The piazza which shares the same name, Piazza Ugly Fruit, was filled mostly by a large marble spire. The detail on which was quite marvellous, unfortunately the modern addition of graffiti around its base wasn't so.

A little further up Spaccanapoli we came upon a clutch of churches. The first was the Church of Santa Chiara. Some list it as one of their top 10 must-see sites.

I read that it is home to the tombs of the mighty medieval Kings of Naples and that its cloisters are a sight to be held. Then their museum has an amazing collection of artefacts rescued from the ashes of the destroyed church that burnt to the ground in 1943.

We saw none of it because of course, (yes you've guessed it ) it was closed at that time of the day.

Opposite and further along was the peculiar knobbly wall of the huge Gesu Nuovo, a Jesuit Church, which looked more like an impregnable fortress than a place of worship.

I won't mention the fact that it was closed and we didn't get to see its richly decorated interior. Oops .. just have.

In front of this overbearing facade was a comparatively large piazza, complete with a marble spire even larger than the one we saw earlier.

Continuing our aimless stroll we allowed gravity to take its natural effect on us and pull us down hill towards the seafront.

Leaving behind the narrow streets of the historical centre we entered Piazza Municipo and could begin to smell the sea, or was it sewerage? (Is there a difference these days?)

To one side of this square was the commanding Castle Nuovo, Naples' "New Castle". Although at about 600 years old its not exactly the new kid on the block.

Another treasure trove of history lay inside under lock and key and kept hidden until the holy sabbath was over. It wasn't as disappointing as I make it sound however because the reward of just looking was inspiring enough.

Another building shut for the day (but it was actually better that way) was Galleria Umberto with its incredible iron & glass roof.

All the shops were shuttered shut but we were still able to walk inside. With hardly anyone about we could look up to the canopy without the fear of having our pockets picked!

Before we got too dizzy we left the 19th century greenhouse the same way we came in and it was only then that we noticed opposite was one of the world's most prestigious Opera Houses, Teatro San Carlo. (Shut for August)

Just around the corner, in Piazza Trieste e Trente there was a collection of cafes that were open so we decided to have a break and watch the world whizz by.

It was a busy little square, complete with the first fountain we'd seen. One of them was the renowned Gambrinus.

Oscar Wilde's name is dropped as one of its famous clientelle back in the days when it was the haunt of the a-list literary crowd.

We stopped however at Cafe Rosati for no other reason other that it was the first we came to. We just had to sit down!

I noticed other customers drinking something thick and creamy and recognised it as a Shakerato, a frothed, sweetened, iced coffee drink. I just had to give it a try.

It was as if it was made with condensed milk. Yummy!!

I had to stop myself from having another one it was so delicious!

Moving on we entered the vast open space of Piazza Plebiscito.

Napolean's brother-in-law ruled Naples briefly during the early 19th century and it was his descision to flatten all the houses in front of the Royal Palace and create this huge empty void.

In 1815 the French were kicked out by the incoming Bourbons (another biscuit!?) and it was they who completed the project.

I wonder if it they who named it the Pleb's square ?

The royal palace Palazzo Reale frames one side of Plebiscito with the church of San Francesco di Paola the other.

Its gigantic rotunda and columned portico was obviously based on the Pantheon in Rome with a hint of St. Pauls square with the curving colonade but it just seemed to me to lack any presence. It certainly didn't have that same pizzaz.

Leaving the pedestrianised square we walked towards the Vesuvius view and finally down to the seafront.

I was amazed at the sheer scale Vesuvius and how it certainly dominated this beautiful bay. In the distance we could see Sorrento and the island of Capri and to the west the coast stretched out to Posillipo. But no matter how idyllic the vista became the eyes always returned in astonishment to the strangely familiar slopes of the most famous volcano in the world.

We followed the road along the front where below us we noticed, clinging like limpets to the rock, were a troop of mahoganny tanned bodies. The nearest sandy beaches must be miles away as they didn't look at all comfortable.

At the end of this stretch was Castel dell'Ovo, the oldest castle in Naples. This myth shrouded castle jutting out into the bay has one of Naples' most endearing legends, that of the magic egg that lies hidden inside.

It holds the fate of the city and protects it from catastrophe. The story goes that the Roman poet Virgil cast the spell on the egg and as long as it remains intact then all will be well.

I guess if the two thousand year old egg were to crack the smell alone would kill half the population!

We didn't quite reach the Castel, it was a bridge too far.

Whilst opposite the plush Hotel Excelsior our poor legs began to buckle so we decided to call an end to our mystery tour

"I wish we were staying there" sighed Julie.

On our return journey we saw the hill of Vomero with its Certosa di San Martino monastery perched on top. We hadn't noticed it at all on the way down.

Trying to take the shortest route home we walked along the port side, where we checked out the timetables of all the ferry companies. We hope to take in a trip to Ischia some time during our stay. We were spoilt for choice really, with so many departures. Almost every half an hour someone would take you to the island.

After almost five hours of being on our feet the hot weather was begining to take its toll, so we decided to have another pit stop for some refreshments.

This time however no sweet hot froth, it had to be nice and cold and the Granita al Limone I ordered really hit the spot. It was the perfect thirst quencher.

Made with real lemon juice, and ice that had been crushed finer than normal; it was a supreme version of a common Slush Puppy.

I'm not a huge fan of Slush Puppy, ever since I thought I almost killed myself with one!

A few years ago, in a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Llandudno, I slurped on this Lime & Blueberry Slush a touch too enthusiastically and it just went straight to my head. I suffered from the mother of all hameoraging brain freezes.

All I could do was hold my head in my hands and groan pathetically as if I'd been shot in the head. I was bent double in agony for ages as my brain went into spasms. The pain eventually subsided but my right eye was left twitching from the shock for hours later!

We could just see the ironic headlines of "Vegetarian dies in KFC".

Thankfully today was an altogether different experience.

We made our way back through the back streets in the hope of stumbling across a pizzeria or trattoria open for tonight's meal but we found nothing. By 7pm we were back in our room recharging our batteries.

Julie managed to get some sleep but despite being totally knackered I sat up flicking through the TV channels. I settled on watching Naples' football team take on Cortone. SSC Napoli recently gained promotion to Serie A, the top flight of Italian football.

There's actually a great little story connecting my local football team, Bangor City FC, with the once mighty Napoli. The two teams met back in 1962 when AC Napoli were the Italian Cup Winners. They were drawn in the first round of the European Cup Winners Cup. Against all odds Bangor won the first leg by an amazing two goals to nil but when they travelled to Naples they lost 3-1.

Now under today's "away goals rule" Bangor would have progressed but back then they had to play a replay, at Arsenal's Highbury ground, which sadly they lost.

After about an hour we decided to head out and find a restaurant.

Julie remembered reading a few menus in a couple of places on the corner of Piazza del Gesu Nuovo, so that was our destination.

Walking all the way down Corso Umberto was quite an eye-opener to how safety unconscious most people are down here when it came to driving. All the cars were pepperedd with dents. They obviously think the car's bumper was made for bumping cars.

With this in mind it was so shocking to see one family speeding down the road with their toddler son behind the wheel !

When we got to the piazza we were pleased to see we had four restaurants to choose from. Torn between two we went for the Italian Only menu of Trattoria del Cerriglio.

My linguistic cockiness floundered suddenly when I had to translate for Julie. Thankfully I remembered that Pesce Spada was a swordfish. I wasn't too sure what 'brace' meant so I ordered the marniated version for her instead.

With Mozzarella in Carozza and Bruschetta Pomodoro ordered for starters and Pizza Siciliana for my main we were a little confused when the pizza arrived first. We soon got over it.

Now this pizza was good. The base, the cheese, the tomato, the aubergine, they were all excellent. Each bite was a mouthful of joy. I gave this a 7/10.

Julie reminded herself how much she liked swordfish. I cooked it for her once before and she loved it. Tonight's steak compared favourably although it was much thinner.

"It's delicious" she said, "but it's not as nice as yours though" she added diplomatically.

The bill came to €36 which was good value for the food with a litre of wine and two beers.

We walked back down a dimly lit Spaccanapoli. It could have been quite a spooky walk through the valley of death where evil spirits lurk down dark alleyways and heroes fear to tread but in fact there was more street life tonight than there was this afternoon.

Old ladies sat fanning themselves down after a hard days work, and the men sat in a circle probably discussing the football.

Young kids kicked around a ball acting out their dreams of scoring for Napoli against AC Milan, where as the older kids who have given up on their dreams ride mopeds like bloody lunatics.

It was great to watch, even the mad mopeders.

We were back in our zodiac themed bedroom about 11pm. As soon as Julie put head to pillow she fell straight to sleep. I thought it would be cool to sit out on our balcony and write up today's journal. The romantic idea of it however was nowhere near the reality. As I lifted the shutters a noise akin to a wailing banshee was released.

"Sorry" I timidly apologised as the squeaky runners woke Julie up.

Worse was to come as then ... "Aargh, you bastard" I shouted as the shutters suddenly fell back down and cracked me right on top of my head.

Then when I finally opened the doors to the outside the cacophany of noise from Corso Umberto was deafening. "Shit, I'm sorry .. again!"

I sat up instead and watched the end of another football game, this time Roma v Inter Milan, in the Italian Super Cup. Francesco Totti, the Roma captain lifted the super-sized trophy after quite an exciting game.

I soon fell asleep, dreaming of when I lifted the FA Cup as captain of Manchester United !

Next day >>> ęCopyright Colin Owen 2007

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