As Papadeli is super busy in the weeks running up to Christmas, we like to get away after the festive craziness and explore a new place. This year we decided to pay Naples and Rome a visit.
Every time I mentioned to someone that we were visiting Naples, I either received a slightly perplexed look or comments on how Naples is super rough and dangerous and were we sure this was a good idea. When I lived in Italy years ago, Naples’s reputation amongst Italians was such that I would not have considered going. But things have definitely changed. A number of friends have been and raved about it recently so we decided it was worth a try.
We stayed in Micalo, a beautiful renovated palazzo full of sculpture and art on the Chiaia Riviera, which is a little bit out of the centre but an easy 30 minute walk (or metro ride) in. The owner has created a quirky, high ceilinged set of rooms with mezzanine bathrooms. We had a view of the street and seafront with Vesuvius in the distance. Temperatures were around 15 degrees which meant a light coat was enough and skies were consistently clear and blue. So uplifting to see this when it can be pretty grey in the UK at this time of year.
We didn’t feel at all unsafe in the city. It was super busy, the streets bustling with Italian visitors (we saw few other tourists from elsewhere). It was school holidays there and our helpful hotel manager told us over breakfast that Naples churches and pizzerias alike attract thousands of domestic visitors. Breakfast was excellent – she was very excited to share lots of Neapolitan festive specialities, including sfogliatelle (little croissant shaped flaky pastries filled with sweet ricotta), struffoli (little deep fried balls of sweet dough covered in honey and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands) and taralli, savoury pastry twists flavoured with fennel seeds.
Naples was indeed busy. Every pizzeria or restaurant recommended by anyone had a queue of a good 30 people outside. None took bookings, so we had to join in and wait. The first lunch in Naples was at Pizzeria Dona Sofia, a tiny, rough and ready place with as many tables crammed in as possible. The pizza was thankfully absolutely delicious and justified the queue. Napoli pizzas are sourdough, thick base type and the toppings are all of the most delicious quality and flavour. We chose not to indulge in pizza fritter (deep fried pizza) but those we spoke to who tried it loved it!
We had been recommended Procida, a small island 30 minutes away by boat by some British friends and when we mentioned this to the chatty taxi driver (who knew all about Bristol City and professed his undying love for football whilst pointing out young female passers by to Tomos and Sam) he laughed and said he’d rather die than go there. Undeterred we went and we were so glad we did.
Il Postino, the 1995 Italian film with Massimo Troisi ( love this film) and The Talented Mr Ripley were filmed there. It was pretty quiet here as most restaurants were closed, but we did find a lovely little place called La Locanda del Postino, which was the location of the bar where Massimo Troisi hangs out in the film. A simple menu of a few dishes (spaghetti all vongole, gnocchi alla sorrentina fresh tomato sauce, a whole sea bream simply grilled) were made just right and the family running it were really friendly despite being rushed off their feet. We sat outside amongst the coloured houses gazing at the sea. This is a special place and we would love to spend more time here.
Cimitero delle Fontanelle
Back in Naples, we visited Cimitero Delle Fontanelle. I hadn’t read a thing about it and so I was slightly surprised to find a huge cavern dug into the rock filled with human bones. So many skulls and bones neatly stacked, with the occasional full skeleton in an open coffin. It’s dark and damp inside with water dripping from the dank ceilings. Neatly arranged in front of the the bones are a range of jewellery, dolls, toys, dried flowers – apparently these are gifts left for the deceased. In the 16th century, 250,000 people died during the plague (out of a total of 40,000 inhabitants) and their remains were laid here. Since then many who have died from volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters have also been laid to rest. We read that some of the skeletons have been adopted by individuals as they may not have been identified or had families to pay their respects, hence the gifts of jewellery and toys. By adopting them, they can encourage the safe passage of their souls to a better place.
The journey back down to the centre of Naples was along Via Sanita, which is one of the oldest parts of the city and where many films have been located. We walked along ancient and many dilapidated blocks of flats with colourful washing hanging outside. It could easily have been a scene from the 50s.
We were aiming for a much spoken about restaurant as food is always next on the itinerary, but again, there was an enormous queue outside, so we gave up and went to a little ‘fast food’ joint called Mammamia. The great thing about Naples is that even a fast food joint offered a range of really good homemade pasta dishes, aubergine parmigiana and crusty fresh bread filled with provolone and fried courgette. No burgers in sight.
We crossed the road and queued up at Popelle as our hotel manager had recommended the fiocchi di Neve (or snow flakes). This place is a dream come true for cake lovers. The fiocchi di Neve were little choux buns filled with a creamy whipped ricotta flavoured with vanilla, strawberry, caramel or chocolate topped with a flavoured icing. Totally delicious.
There’s a lot to see in Naples. Walk along the sea front and visit the seafood restaurants. We went to Scialuppa in the Marina. The marina was pretty deserted but I can imagine all its cool bars and restaurants get rammed in the Summer. We ate a seafood spaghetti, gnocchi with a pumpkin pure, grilled squid and a pizza. All beautifully simple and fresh.
There are so many churches in Naples, you need a few weeks to visit them all. We wanted to go to San Severo for the sculpture of the veiled Christ (it was originally believed that it was the real veil of Christ but this has been disproven). We arrived to a queue of not just 30 but hundreds snaking its way around the block and further. We decided we weren’t that fussed about the sculpture and moved on. We did see a church with the only Caravaggio in situ (in the world possibly). A sight to behold if you appreciate this sort of thing. Adjacent to the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia (and included in the ticket price) is a rather wonderful art gallery which exhibits art from Caravaggio’s time to more recent contemporary art. Something for everyone then.
We loved Madre, the contemporary museum. Stunningly curated exhibitions in a newly renovated palazzo – seek it out if you’re going to Naples.
We left Naples (goodbye aperol sprit and free snacks for 3 euros) and took the train to Rome. Wow, the Italians get train travel right (and how do we get it so wrong?)
Rome never disappoints. All the famous sights had to be seen – the colosseum, the Parthenon, Trevi Fountain, Capitoline museum, the Vatican and Sistine chapel (it was rammed – make sure you book in advance to skip the queues outside). We stayed in Trastevere, a busy, bohemian network of cobbled streets full of restaurants and bars. Again, people queued at restaurants! We loved Bar Karma at the end of our street. Really chilled and friendly, lots of real ale, a few wines and many alcoholic and non alcoholic cocktails. We couldn’t resist the boards of salamis and cheeses prepared at the bar. The place was full of fascinating people – Italians and international people who, I would guess from the Italian they spoke, have settled in the city. We could have sat and watched for hours.
We decided to eat in on New Years Eve and go out after as most restaurants were offering a set meal for upwards of 120 Euros. We bought homemade pasta from a little shop called Le Sorelle (tortellini and gnocchi) and excellent pesto and tomato sauce from a deli. We also had marinated artichokes, having seen many market stallholders preparing artichokes and guessed that this was a particularly Roman dish for New Year. A plate of meats and salad to follow before setting out to see the 24 hour celebration event at Circo Massimo. Acrobats dangling from cranes, big stages with and orchestra and then Italian rock and pop heroes entertained the crowds. As we have no stamina and are not massive fans of Italian rock and pop (sorry), we left after the acrobats and watched the incredible fireworks from our top floor flat.
The last morning we walked over to the Botanic garden – the guards there gave us a deal on the entrance as it was so quiet. A lovely place to wander around on a sunny day and if you walk up to the top part you get excellent views of the city.
Everyone in both Naples and Rome were super friendly and helpful and we felt very at home in both cities. I’d say food was better in Naples, or at least it was easier to find good restaurants serving simple dishes using the excellent local ingredients. I guess as Rome is more of a tourist destination, it’s not so easy to come across a good, simple, well priced meal, but even so, it was all pretty good. From a morning visit to a local coffee bar with a perfect cappuccino and chocolate croissant to a properly made pizza or bowl of pasta, eating out is well priced and you know you’ll get something half decent.