Finding Amore in Naples

It certainly did not take long for us to return to Italy! A few weeks after visiting Milan we hopped over to to Naples. Before this trip, the first thing that came to mind when I thought of Naples is Dean Martin’s song That’s Amore. Now that I have been to Naples, I still think of that iconic song, but I also have an incredible bundle of sights, smells, sounds and tastes to go with it. Where Milan was refined, chic and elegant, Naples is worn, energetically chaotic, and wholesomely generous. This was the Italy we had heard of; tiny cars and mopeds zipping through narrow cobbled streets between tall buildings with strings of laundry out to dry; vehicles parked with less than a finger width between them and exhibiting signs of having been hit on all sides by other vehicles or mopeds; friendly and expressive people who talk with wild gestures; generous portions of food with a lot of carb action. Both of us were taken by surprise at how much we enjoyed ourselves there despite it being a bit dirty, run down and loud.

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With only a population of around 975,000 people, Naples (or Napoli as we should call it) is a small city. We caught a bus from the airport to the central station and navigated their underground metro system to our hotel. During the late 90’s and early 2000’s the local transport system underwent a major overhaul, introducing more lines and stations on the metro system. Incredibly, the plan aimed to get 70% of the population living within 500 metres of a transport stop by 2011. A lofty goal encompassing 10 lines with 114 stations. 500 metres is not very far so plan manifested in such a way that one station will have a ridiculous number of exits. If you take a wrong turn in the underground maze (as we did) you can end up the next block down from where you thought you would be. Similarly, there was an exit right outside our hotel but we weren’t always able to pop out there. It was the same story in Milan so I wonder if the reasons for this are related! The stations felt incredibly expansive and quite new. It is hard to imagine that the size of the stations was justified given the population. It might extreme future planning or a colossal waste of money. Let’s not go down the rabbit hole of discussing Italian economics however! What was quite nice about most stations was the incredible art installations. They’ve made some effort to beautify the main stations, so much so that Toledo station is listed on TripAdvisor as number 12 of sights to see in Naples!

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After arriving and checking in, we went in search of our first meal. This turned out to be a little restaurant with only one other table occupied. It didn’t seem too promising but we were very hungry and went in anyway. It turned out be a great call. We ordered a pizza each but really could have shared because the pizzas were enormous. Richard and I happily proceeded to stuff ourselves full of the best pizza we’ve ever had. I think I was composed of 50% olive oil after that meal.

 

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Our hotel was close to the harbour area and a couple of minutes away from the Castel Nuovo. The castle, along with many of the historical landmarks in Naples, was under repair during our stay. We would later find out that this is because it was a year of restoration in the city. From what we could see, the Castel Nuovo was in serious need of a touch up. It looked quite run down and dirty. Reviews for the attraction had also unfavourable with comments about it being poorly restored and lacking pizazz. We didn’t go inside but I thought the site had real potential because of its medieval design. It looks like the kinds of castles I would have drawn as a kid; the classic castle with circular turrets and geometric lines that are easy to draw.

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Even closer to our hotel was a nice square with a fountain of Neptune. We walked through, admiring the buildings and stumbled across the Galleria Umberto which was incredibly reminiscent of the galleria in Milan. There were shops, cafes and restaurants inside the soaring ceilings. It was significantly less busy than the one in Milan and several storefronts were not occupied. Another area with potential – a somewhat recurring theme!

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The narrow cobbled streets and general atmosphere of casual chaos seemed to imbue us with a sense of adventure. We headed uphill towards the Castle Sant’Elmo, choosing for a time to put away the map and navigate by feeling. My definition of a street has now been updated to include any gap between buildings you can walk through. As we ascended we were able to get increasingly wonderful views of the city spreading out below us.

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Near the top we saw a delightful train chugging uphill. We caught it one stop to the top of the hill, saving our tired legs for the castle itself.

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For €6, you can ascend to the top of the castle walls via a handy lift. At the top it was incredibly windy and also abundantly clear why the castle had been built there. You could see miles and miles of coastline, and quite far out to the ocean. There is evidence of a building at the site as early as 1275, although it would take quite some time before it resembled what you can see there today. Once you get out of the elevator you climb some narrow stone steps to the top of the wall. That’s where we saw amazing views of the city below and also experienced the ridiculous wind. At some points it really was difficult to walk without being blown off course.

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Aside from the view, we explored the entire wall and also went down to look at the military museum housed there. Richard and I enjoyed the walk up the hill and wandering into all the nooks and crannies of the castle wall but I must admit that it wasn’t super interesting. Not a lot of information is sign posted on site and it’s simply the empty rooftop of a castle in an excellent location. You can’t go inside the castle itself which is a shame.

 

I’m sure it’s fairly obvious that Richard and I really enjoy trying out local food when we visit places. We chose to do a food tour which left us so full we barely made it back to our hotel to collapse into a content food coma for the night. At 5pm we met up with our guide who informed us that there was another group earlier in the morning but she was unable to contact us to join them (we were flying!). As such, it turned out to be a private tour since all the other people went a few hours earlier! In a way, this made it a little awkward because it was mostly the two of us eating and our guide watching us.

 

Over the course of about 4 hours, we had eggplant parmigiana, the BEST spaghetti alla putenesca (one of my favourite comfort pasta dishes even before I went to Naples!), fresh buffalo mozzarella, fried pizza, clams, stuffed courgette flowers, fried local fish, octopus salad, gelato, sfogliatella, and babá. Prepare yourself – I’m about to relive the highlights.

 

Spaghetti putenesca became a favourite for me a couple of years ago because it’s quick, simple and really flavourful. The version we had in Naples cranked it up by using amazing piennolo tomatoes. It’s pretty clear a country is crazy about tomatoes when they have tomatoes which are DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) certified. This means the tomatoes are grown, processed and packed in the Vesuvius region. The tomatoes are grown on volcanic land and are characterised by their small oval shape, thick skins and very sweet, almost sour, flavour. They are tied together in bunches and can be found hanging to dry in most restaurants. Pasta sauce made with these tomatoes is vibrant which worked so well with salty ingredients like capers. Also, it was so wonderful to have pasta cooked properly al dente!

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Until I went to Naples, I had never consumed a ball of mozzarella on my own with no accompaniments. In a small deli store, we perched on tiny stools and were invited to eat mozzarella that was more creamy and decadent that I ever imagined mozzerella could be. The milk used to make the cheese is from farms just outside the city and we were promised that there is only 24 hours between the product being finished and it reaching the store.

 

Neither myself or Richard have had fried pizza before although we have heard of it. Our guide took us to a small pizza shop where we watched a lump of pizza dough be massaged, filled with a few ingredients and folded it into a pocket – like a calzone. When the chef put it into the oil the pocket grew ridiculously huge; puffing up and becoming golden all over. It deflated once it was cut but certainly still retained great flavour. The one we had contained smoked mozzarella which was a nice touch. It in no way felt healthy and I didn’t care.

 

Sfogliatella is a local speciality with most cafes offering it alongside the most iconic sweet treat, babá. Sfogliatella is a clam shell shaped pocket of sweet ricotta and candied peel. The layers of pastry are folded to give it intense crunch value and maximum mess-making abilities. The filling was not overly sweet so it isn’t as challenging to finish the whole thing. It’s a great mix of textures with it’s crispy outside, smooth filling and chewy candied peel.

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Babá (or babá au rhum) are toadstool-shaped cakes soaked in a rum syrup. They are absolutely everywhere. You can buy them in all sizes and we also saw numerous cake towers made of stacked babá. The moment you bite into it, you realise how much sticky rum has been soaked up. It dribbles out and ensures you make a total mess. Coupled with the flaking pastry of the sfogliatella and you’ve got a delicious version of being tarred and feathered.

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A couple of times in our travels I have experienced the odd feeling of having consumed a ridiculous amount of delicious food and despite feeling about to burst, wanting to try more! I think that’s called gluttony…

 

We slept in on Sunday morning and then headed out to find the Cappella Sansevero. On our way, we stumbled across a great church, St Dominicos. There weren’t many people around and the door was ajar so we went in – being utterly foreign can make you remarkably adventurous! Soon we were joined by a tour group so we didn’t break any rules, phew. It was a beautiful church smooshed up against other buildings on either side. I’m very glad we found it.

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At the Cappella Sansvero we observed what is considered one of the greatest sculptural masterpieces in the world; the Veiled Christ. The sculpture was made by Giuseppe Snmartino in 1753 and is an incredibly detailed sculpture so accurately depicting a thin veil over Christ’s body, that you have to remind yourself it is marble.

In the underground chamber we came across the mega creepy Anatomical Machines. They are the skeletons of a man and a woman with their veins and arteries almost perfectly intact. The skeletons were prepared by Giuseppe Salerno of Palermo in 1763. It is still disputed as to how the veins and arteries were so well preserved. I didn’t stay too long in that chamber because they kind of gave me the creeps. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside so don’t have any to share. A quick search will provide adequate illustration!

 

On our way to see more skeletons, we stopped at a lemon shop. Our guide had brought us in the night before and we returned to buy some lemon-y goods. The store primarily makes limoncello using lemons from the owners farm outside the city. The zest of these organic lemons is removed and steeped in large vats at the back of the shop. We got to look inside and take a sniff which nearly singed all the hairs in my nose. It may be unpleasant while it is fermenting but Richard reports that the finished product is excellent. They also make melloncello cream which is a true game changer. If you ever have the opportunity to try it, please do.

 

After some difficulty, we were able to locate Cimitero delle Fontanelle. Think of a really huge cave, with bones everywhere. Historical evidence suggests that the first skeletons arrived there because people insisted on being buried in their local church grounds. As the population grew, the older bodies were removed and put in this cave outside the city. And then there was a plague in 1656 which resulted in thousands of corpses being added. As the 17th century progressed it became the burial spot for the poor with the last major addition of corpses being in 1837 following a cholera outbreak. It has now been ordered, vaguely catalogued apparently, and restored to become a historical site. It was remarkable to see so many human remains out in the open. I wouldn’t say that the place was peaceful but it wasn’t as freaky as I thought it might have been either.

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Back in the open air and sunshine, we headed towards our hotel and found a nice little spot for lunch. Our Italian is not great, by which I mean we don’t speak any. One of the waiters didn’t speak English so we communicated with exaggerated facial expressions, gesturing and generic sounds like ‘hmm?’ And  ‘mm!’. As a starter we shared a dish of mussels. Repeat of what happened to the dish of mussels in Milan! I wanted to try either the octopus or aubergine pasta but they didn’t have either available. They also didn’t have tiramisu available! I enjoyed a generous helping of gnocchi with tomato and mozzarella instead while Richard tucked into langoustine linguine.

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With a few more hours left in Naples, we went for a wander and found the Palazzo Reale di Napoli or Royal Palace of Naples. Construction of the palace began in the 17th century and was mainly inhabited by the Bourbon King up until the mid 1800’s. As with most things in Naples, extensive reconstruction work was going on around the palace. We only observed the exterior and in doing so, managed to get some great views of Mt Vesuvius.

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With reluctance, we collected our bags from the hotel and headed back to the airport. This is a city that has a heart and soul. It is surprisingly likeable and we were grateful for the warmer weather. To truly signal that our weekend break was over, our flight was slightly delayed and upon arriving in London we found two of our trains back into central London had been cancelled. A late night and tiring Monday morning but really, who are we kidding? It was totally worth it.

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