32 – Southern State of Mind

It’s been a couple of weeks since I came back from my last (for a while) european holiday. Sorry about taking it slowly to report, I’ve had over 200 photos to go through (and I even managed not to take as many as I normally do). I am about to travel the world and the most difficult thing to come to terms with isn’t giving up a well paid job and a comfortable (yet unhappy) life, but to accept that no matter how much I travel, no matter how much time I spend in each country, I will not see everything. I have not seen all of my own country. I have not seen all of the UK, and I have been living here since 2012. I have been coming to Italy for the last 15 years, and still there are places where I have not been. And that’s how it should be with all of life, really, not just travelling. One should not stress to have it all, or to long after things one doesn’t yet have. I guess we should just enjoy what we have best we can. Shit, I’m deep. Must be all the wine I’ve had today.

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Basilicata

So, I was invited to a friend’s wedding in the southern italian region of Basilicata. The wedding was great. Beautiful location, lots of eating, drinking, dancing and singing along to italian crap songs. I believe it was a great send-off for the couple towards the married life. Best of luck. Having said that, I am more prepared when it comes to wine than the happily ever after, so I better concentrate on the booze.  This was the first time I visited the region of Vulture, a beautiful former volcano towering over the countryside, home to excellent grape variety aglianico, commonly refered to as “the barolo of the south”. Which is a bit unfair, as aglianico derives from ellenico, meaning “the greek grape”, which indicates it has been planted in the region since thousands of years. Barolo as a style exists since mid 19th century, so really, aglianico of the north, if anything.

The day after the function I needed to head towards Amalfi coast, but I was in no hurry, as it had been a long weekend in Italy, and I would encounter heavy traffic on the roads. I joined two girls I had met at the wedding on a little road trip to the small nearby town Venosa, once home to the roman poet Horatius, we visited the castle and very suggestive site of “l’incompiuta” – an uncompleted cathedral, whose construction ceased due to struggle for power of the local nobility and shortage of funding. The interesting thing is that for the construction of the church building material available locally was recycled, in this case stones from nearby roman spa and jewish cemetery.  So you can wander through the ruins and look for tombstones with jewish inscriptions or pieces of roman masonry incorporated in the walls.

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Golfo di Napoli at sunset

Later in the evening I made it to my hotel just off Massa Lubrense, a town situated on the tip of Sorrentine peninsula, with Gulf of Naples on one side and Gulf of Sirens on the other, and breathtaking views over Capri. The drive from the highway off Naples to the hotel was a nightmare (30 km in 90 minutes), partly because the roads are a joke, and partly because they drive like assassins, but I was rewarded by a spectacular sunset over the Tyrrhenian. Next three days were divided between relaxing on the beach, catch up on binge reading – which is apparently a word now – (I brought 5 books and finished all of them in just over 48 hours) and the Path of the Gods trek. If you are in the area, you simply must do it. It’s an easy trek, one way supposedly takes 3 hours, but you must be really slow, really unfit, and/or make loads of breaks to actually need 3 hours to complete it. It took me 2.5 hours all together (there and back), including a 30 minutes coffee break half way. I woke up very early in the morning, set off for 7am and drove to the village of Nocelle (above Positano), which turned out to be one of the most stressful drives of my life so far, because the road is mostly single track (and very winding) and if by mistake there is space to fit two cars, one side of the road will be used for parking. So yes, it is just 20 odd km drive (from Massa Lubrense), but it will take more than an hour to get there. Also, the sooner you arrive, the more chance you’ll get to find a parking space in the tiny parking lot on the beginning of the trail. More importantly, setting off early will spare you the unforgiving sun AND you will have the path to yourself for the most part of the hike. I was quite lucky with the weather, to be honest. It was raining when I started, and later all the mist was raising from the sea, which obscured the spectacular views over the Gulf of Sirens, but made the walk more suggestive and, let’s be fair, pleasant. You can either walk from Nocelle to Bomerano, or the other way round (which is maybe a bit easier), I walked both ways with time for a coffee in Bomerano and came back just in time before my parking expired.

A few cheesy shots of sunsets:

Pompeii – Again, whatever you do, either do it when it’s cold, or very early in the morning. Also, don’t drive, take the train to get there. The Circumvesuvian railway that connects Naples and Sorrento supposedly works quite well. I had to use the car, cause I had to take it back to the rental at Naples airport, so I had no choice, but if you can avoid driving around Naples, do. Pompeii is impressive. For obvious reasons it’s very well-preserved (though not so well maintained, unfortunately, also for obvious reasons). It is also a very extensive site. And wandering among the red-hot stone walls under the sun from 11 am to 3 pm with 30+ ºC was a rather tiring experience and a very stupid idea. After a couple of hours, you’re like: great, another house with patio and explicit frescoes on the walls, whatever, I’m melting. But apart from that, Pompeii is of course beautiful and a unique insight into the way of life of ancient Romans, and it’s amazing to see how advanced their technology was 2000 years ago. Obviously the whole experience is a bit anguishing, because you see how quick the eruption of the volcano must have been, and more importantly, you realise what it’s going to be like when it happens again, because it is bound to happen again, sooner or later.

I arrived to Naples in the late afternoon and as my girlfriends Marta and Viviana were only arriving late at night, I checked into the hotel and took my last unfinished book for a walk and something to drink. Now, I almost forgot what it meant to walk on my own in (southern) Italy. Can you recall the famous 1951 photographAmerican Girl in Italy? Well, nothing has changed, except for the location. Men cat call me. Everywhere. Men of any age. Men way into their seventies comment and whistle. It’s rude of course, but it’s also harmless and most of all, refreshing. People notice me, I am not transparent. I am attractive, arousing, I have a sexuality. Well, that is hardly a surprise to anyone, but now I feel like Venus walking the streets of Naples. I sit down to have a glass of wine, and the waiter tells me that I have a charming smile and that my eyes sparkle like gems. I know it’s all fake and that he tells this to every girl that comes to the bar, but still. In London no one would dream about paying compliments to another person’s smile, because no one bothers to smile in the first place.

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And I don’t even like sweets

Now, you may have heard things about Naples. You may have seen films (Gomorrah for example). And of course Naples is rough. A bit dodgy, even, but the street crime isn’t more visible than in any other big city. Tourists are targeted everywhere around the world. Taking a selfie in Oxford street may cost you your iPhone. So just be as streetwise as you would be anywhere else and you’ll be fine. Naples is a city of contrasts. Rich and poor; opulent, but poorly maintained and filthy. They say that the Neapolitans cannot be bothered to keep Naples neat and tidy, because one day the incumbent Vesuvius is going to erupt and bury them all, so there is no point in wasting efforts. If you want to understand a bit more about the atmosphere of the city, I recommend reading the Comissario Ricciardi crime series, set in Naples in 1930s during fascism. First book of the series can be found here (in English). Yes, the narrow streets of some quarters are a bit intimidating, but unless you insist on sporting diamond jewellery and a massive Rolex, you’ll be fine. In case the Rolex is fake, you’ll be fine as well. The mugger will probably recognize it instantly.  

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Mt. Vesuvius. It’s just a cloud. I promise

Another chapter are the cabs in Naples. While airport will cost you around 25 euros (I say around because it’s supposedly 19, plus surcharges for luggage, time of the day, and God knows what else), the cost of any given ride in the city is both a mystery and a surprise every time. If they bother to switch on the meter, you will be asked for an odd euro or two more compared to what it actually shows. If they don’t switch on the meter and you ask them to, they will just say how much is the ride going to cost, pointing to some mysterious fixed rates. Either way, there is no point arguing with them. Just ask for the cost before you get in the cab and if you’re ok with it, go ahead and don’t let it spoil your holiday.

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SPQR (Sono Pazzi Questi Romani!!!) *

Day 1: in the morning we just walked around the city, popping into churches (if we found them open). We had lunch in Borgo Santa Lucia, then walked up through the quarter of Pizzofalcone towards Nino Bixio Barracks, in search of some obscure renaissance stairs that Viviana had read about somewhere. We (eventually) found what was left of the stairs alright. Only there are no stairs left now. All tarmacked, resulting into a system of ramps that apparently serve for dumping stolen cars (well, that was my impression at least). Cars with Turin number plates that must have been airlifted there, because the entrance to the “stairs” is walled at some point. So, if anyone in Turin is missing a car, I’d have a look around Nino Bixio – which is actually a police station, so you may get even lucky. Unless they are running a business. In the afternoon I wanted to relax on one of the city beaches, as it was a beautiful day. The plan was to go to the historical Bagno Elena, but it was about to close for the day by the time we arrived (4.30 pm). This was unfortunately the case with every other access to the sea in the area, which is a bit tragicomic – the beaches were supposedly free, but the access to them always led through private properties, which of course charged entrance. This would not have been a problem, but no one had any interest to remain open later than 5pm. Therefore we took a cab to Marechiaro, whose beautiful tuff cliffs gently descending to the sea are always accessible, and spent the rest of the afternoon there, swimming, sunbathing, chilling. We had dinner in the quarter of Sanita / Materdei, in one of the traditional pizzerias, Starita (est. 1901), where you cannot book a table – you arrive, give your name to the door lady, and wait on the street. As soon as a table is ready, she’ll call out your name. The queue looks massive, but you’ll most likely be seated within 15 minutes. And the pizza is worth waiting for (as opposed to, dear Londoners, Franco bloody Manca, which makes disgusting pizza, the dough almost always raw, but for some obscure reason half of London loves queuing for that shit).

Day 2: Walk through Spanish Quarters, or as they call them here, just “The Quarters”, then cableway to the posh city part Vomero and a visit to Castel Sant’Elmo, a former fortress protecting Naples (cannonballs shot from the castle could reach the sea), nowadays an exhibition venue and seat to the museum “Novecento a Napoli”, which exhibits small but impressive collection of local 20th century artists, mainly paintings. There is also a very touching collection of sketched portraits made in underground shelters during WWII bombing on display. Take a walk on the castle’s ramparts and admire the view over the whole city, the Vesuvius and the entire Gulf of Naples. We then descended back through The Quarters to the sea to have lunch at Antonio & Antonio (the place may be a little touristic, but it has a beautiful view over the sea and Castel dell’Ovo, and the giant mozzarella is delicious). I was dying of heat by then, so we spent the rest of the afternoon in the Archeological Museum, that displays the famous Farnese collection of Greek and Roman statues, and original artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum. There is also a special room, “The Secret Cabinet”, dedicated to ancient erotic art. The collection (deemed obscene) had been inaccessible to general public (except for people of mature age and respected morals – meaning educated highborn men) for many years until 1860, when Garibaldi arrived to Naples and ordered the collection to be displayed publicly.

 

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Giant buffalo mozzarella, montanare (small fried pizzas) and tomato bread (Antonio & Antonio)

Day 3: Visit to the convent of Santa Chiara and the adjacent basilica (completely razed to the ground during a WW2 air raid and rebuilt after the war) and walk through the convent’s beautiful orange tree garden with paths, columns and benches tiled in colourful majolica. Make sure you manage to see the monastery, it’s open at random times and the opening hours are not always clear. We also popped into various churches around Via dei Tribunali. Let’s be honest, they are all magnificent, but after a while most people cannot distinguish one from the other. However, a visit to the Sansevero Chapel must not be missed. It houses three jewels of sculpture – the Veiled Christ (by Giuseppe Sanmartino), the Veiled Truth (or Modesty, by Antonio Corradini) and the Release from Deception (by Francesco Queirolo). All three of them became world-famous straight after their completion, especially the statue representing dead Christ covered in transparent shroud. The unbelievably fine execution of the veil gave birth to a legend that the commissioner of the statue, Prince Raimondo di Sangro, a known alchemist, magically transformed a real veil into marble. Antonio Canova himself once said that he would have willingly given up ten years of his life in exchange of producing similar masterpiece. Finally, we ended the Neapolitan weekend with a visit to Napoli Sotterranea (Underground Naples) – an impressive system of cisterns and aqueducts built by Greeks and perfected by Romans, that served as water reservoirs for the city until almost 20th century and during WW2 became air raid shelters for the population.

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Garden of convent Santa Chiara

Conclusion: I was really pleasantly surprised by the wild and decadent beauty of Naples. People say a lot of bad things about the city, and yes, it is a bit rough and a little dodgy in certain parts, but just be reasonable and you’ll be ok. The food is unbeatable. People are lovely (except for the cabbies). And there is something about the way the Neapolitan women smile that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.

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  • In the Asterix and Obelix comics series, Obelix often calls the Romans crazy.  Ils sont fous ces Romains! In the Italian edition, this translates as “Sono pazzi, questi Romani”, abbreviated as SPQR, a pisstake of the latin phrase Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (the Senate and the People of Rome – the two representing powers of the Roman republic)

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