My partner and I went to Naples [or more accurately the town of Torre Del Grecco] in 2018 and it was pretty damn fun.
The main part of the trip was a wedding of my friend which lasted the first few days and we attached to this trip three extra days exploring Naples and the surrounding area.
The main worries I’d had before this holiday were in part the idea of being in a foreign country but for the first time not doing a foreign holiday with my parents. Such a trip, while not realistically unusual, created a really tense feeling inside of me. Through many many adventures tagging with parents I had seemingly developed an internal crutch that means that even though I’ve left the British Isles many times I had not really learnt to be able to rely on myself to organise stuff that ended with me being not dead (I do recall a holiday to Turkey where, as a child, I’d managed to haggle the price of a leather jacket keyring from 5 to 3 thousand lira. I think a crap effort in retrospect because my Dad thought I could have got a better discount, but it was a thrilling effort at the time).
I think as a result of my insecurity about the situation meant I had an apprehension clouding the entire lead up to the trip. This apprehension made organising and figuring stuff out completely exhausting. The detail to which everything needed to be sorted in my mind in order to create a completely coddled experience meant far more effort was being expended than necessary. Having said that we got to Naples with only broad plans and pipe dreams of perpetual door-to-door taxis and coming back now, all of that ill feeling feels kind of dumb now in retrospect.
I learnt that planning a bit is enough. Use a guide and then your instincts. It’ll be fine.
Troika of locations.
We decided to stay the wedding’s hotel after the wedding. As a personal prejudice – I can’t stand transferring hotels at all. Once I have an anchor point I want to stay at the anchor point. In part this is logically based on wasting time on a holiday lugging lots of crap. Somewhat more irrationally, but perhaps more powerful in influence, is the pain in the ass nature of lugging luggage around on public transport and the worry of losing it all.
Fortunately, the place we stayed at had to big advantages for the holiday we ended up having. Firstly the location we were at was relatively close to a train station (but by god that walk back to the hotel at the end of the day was a real pain). Also fortunately the location was dead close to one place we wanted to go-Ercolano (Herculaneum) and effectively equidistant from Naples and Sorrento. Over the three days we went to those three places.
Sometimes you can extract retrospective benefits from any situation. I think it’s reasonable to figure these out first to reduce stress though.
Ercolano (or Herculaneum as it’s known in English) is an interesting place. It was not until very close to leaving that we had even heard of it. What we gained though from other’s trips to Naples was that there was a place that effectively had a lot of the interestingness of Pompeii but was smaller and also more interesting. We made a choice to go to Ercolano instead of Pompeii. Maybe we will go to Pompeii one day but not for a bit I think.
We started the Ercolano trip in the fashion that many of our trips were going to: a taxi straight to the place. It was kind of expensive (about 20 euro). We then entered the site and purchased audioguides for the site.
This is what the Ercolano site looks like:
It’s hard to tell because it looks at first glance that this is a small village that was buried under enough ash-mud to cover a three story building. The whole of the site is a dig which uncovered under a mass of land that was about 20m high a remarkably preserved village that was engulfed as a result of the volcanic eruptions of Vesuvius about 2000 years ago.
The initial plan afterwards was to get a taxi back to the hotel. But we had learnt there definitely was a train station nearby. We thought it was worth checking out. So as we finished our time at the dig site we wandered towards what we thought was the route through a train station
Oh man the reliance I had on this trip on both my Phone and a battery pack cannot be over stated. Keep the phone on low power mode and bring a 3DS for games.
We followed the phone but it didn’t feel like we were making progress. Although we put in the right direction the map software was not coping at all. We had to hack the location we needed to get to by inputting a nearby location. Our wandering did accidently lead us to a corner shop that happened to have two vegetarian sandwiches left (cheese and tomato). A couple of interesting remarks here. Firstly I think this was the first major instance of real hustle (not conning but a feeling that the overriding culture was about being in a place to do the thing you need to do, then doing the shit out of that) the man in the shop saw our aimless hungry souls and sold us those sandwiches like a motherfucker. It was nice to eat something light for the first time in a few days (although we were really sweaty).
From there we walked towards the train station (up a bloody hill no less – what’s the deal with the areas round Vesuvius being up hill eh?!). Fortuitously we came across a “virtual museum” MAV. As a person who is curious about gimmicks I’m glad we stopped at the museum. One of the neat parts was that each section of the museum was introduced by a talking head that activated as you went round via Bluetooth type wrist watch. One of the coolest was a projection of a goddess onto a smoke screen
As good as the dig site and audioguide were the MAV really gave a good context for life in Ercolano before the volcano. The ability to see the before painted a picture in a really exciting way. Well worth it as a combo of events – Ercolano Dig Site and MAV.
None of this would have happened if we’d stuck to the safe plan and didn’t try to experiment with the train network.
After MAV there was more hill to climb. We walked past a couple of people trying to sell us time in a restaurant but we were on a mission to get the next available train (as it was we had a decent enough amount of time but that is only ever true after the fact). We did see what would be the first in the fashion for people to wear Hard Rock Café T-shirts. We got on the train and we learnt how simple it was to use the rail system even though no more than half an hour before we didn’t even know how to say “ticket”. The train was also only 2 Euros.
Figure out how to use public transport. It may be sweaty but you get to learn more about the place by accident and it’s far cheaper than a taxi.
Post Ercolano Dinner
This was pretty funny actually. A lot of the wedding guests were leaving the next day so we had one final evening to get together. The hotel arranged a restaurant for 15 of us. But in the end the restaurant was a disaster on the level that it really wasn’t a disaster but felt like such in real-time.
Here were some comedy moments:
We had a table ready with a sea view. But we were supposed to be sat inside. They rearranged the tables while we were there;
We wanted chips so they brought us crisps;
There was a surly waiter who seemed to obfuscate on every request (we want coke zero- there’s no coke zero – oh here’s a bottle of coke zero. We don’t have wifi. Etc). He got swapped with someone more appropriate;
The crisps had a small fish in them;
Nobody knew how to read the menu;
In fairness the food was nice though and I think it was nice to have a meal with everyone even if the surrounding atmosphere was tense and terrible.
NAPLES (actual Naples)
Having learned how to ask for a ticket and how to use the train we ventured to Naples on the second day. In the morning we still had about zero idea of what we were going to do in Naples. Like any big city it’s possible to be overwhelmed by everything and do nothing of interest. Finding food was also important.
I looked at the lonely planet guide book and found an article about the museum San Severo. There was an apparently amazing statue of Jesus with a Veil over his face. Now I think anyone who has been to Naples or generally well travelled will likely scoff at the idea of doing this. It’s kind of lame to travel and do stuff based on a book. On the other hand for us the excitement of simply doing things in a weird place was a huge thing so a little guidance was perfect. It helped the writing described the sculpture in a really attractive way. Conveniently the museum was located two minutes (literally two minutes) from a highly recommended restaurant. The rest of our day was built on using the Hop-on-hop off tour bus. This is also lame (and kind of expensive) but also gets you around the town and interesting places to be while minimising walking.
In a way this was not a jam packed day. Two things and a ferry around are not a hugely efficient way to spend a single day in a new city. And yet…it worked perfectly for us. Maybe just a couple of things are necessary (eating being one) and the rest of the time can be spent absorbing the city as it is (and time to find cool places too).
When we got to Naples (using the train. This time 2 Euros each) our first task was to find the museum. It was quite a distance – maybe a mile away? – but on the way we picked up an espresso and a sfogliatelli!
The coffee was really tasty. What I don’t think I ever really appreciated about an espresso is that it really does not ruin a coffee with loads of boiling water which surrounds the tasty tasty coffee. In some Americanos you can feel the coffee being suspended in water and it’s not that nice really. By reducing the coffee down you get all the taste you want. The sfog was also nice (it had an orange taste). The whole bill came to four euros which makes me feel over charged in the UK.
I think stopping for a coffee was really cool. I’m glad we weren’t on a schedule (or so we thought!)
We proceeded through alleys and streets towards the museum and came across this cool building.
A few or so minutes later we got to the museum San Severo. The ticket office was just to the side in a separate building to the museum itself (a converted chapel). When we went in we decided to rent out more audio guides (unlike Ercolano dig site – where they used modified smartphones – these felt more like authentic “Audio Guide” machines). One of the great things about the audio guide was that it sort of forced me to spend time looking at various parts of the various sculptures (in addition to the veiled Jesus) which meant longer to absorb how much craft was put into each one. One of the cutest moments that occurred as a result of the audioguide was to be shocked at the magnificent ceiling structure. Such was my focus in following the guide’s talk that I had completely ignored the ceiling and to be surprised by it was an exciting moment.
Audio guides feel like a luxury – and in a way they are. But I think they add value to the price paid for tickets to the point where without the guide talks I think I’d have been more disappointed with the standard fee. I think, where possible, I’d always get an audioguide.
The audio guide had, in this extremely specific instance, lead to a moment of such perfection that it is impossible not to be delighted by it. The timing forced by the audio guide meant we’d left the museum at bang on 11:57. The restaurant we were going to opened at 12.
Now one of the things about this restaurant, Gino Sorbillo, is that there are queues if you don’t get in early enough,
but also there’s a queue there before it opens! As we got to the restaurant we clicked in at exactly 12 and just got whisked in with zero waiting. IT. WAS. MAGNIFICENT.
When we were seated we ordered two pizzas (this was basically enough food for the whole day). I ordered a mushroom pizza (Salvatore) and Al ordered a Marinara (we’d had a lot of cheese). They came out and looked like this:
And they were delicious and surprisingly cheap! (washed down with a beer).
Also the toilets were really clean and ultra hygiene focussed. The flush was foot operated which was cool.
Get to the restaurant at 11:59 and have a great pizza.
We then walked over towards Piazza Dante because that was the nearest stop to the bus tour. And as we walked through we saw some cool stores and shops. Including a wall of maths puzzles/Thesis’s. It was really weird. We then walked past a book alleyway which was really cool too (obviously everything was in Italian).
Finally we got to the bus stop.
We took the trip around but before we knew where we were the guide on the bus stated we were near a museum that had some Carravagio and other great paintings. We whipped straight off the bus and into the museum.
The museum Capodimonte had a huge range of paintings, a lot of them of the “Madonna with Child” type. I think three things really struck me about the art and the museum. Firstly it’s stark how much you can glean from the craft of a painting only from looking at it in reality. You can see the order that paintings happened and which sections were reserved for the important detailed work. I think also we get a perfection that these great works are pure perfection but in each case you can see they are a imperfect (but not diminished by this) because they are works by hand. Finally I think someone at the museum (in addition to me) had watched Twin Peaks
Most of the rest of the day was spent wandering back to the train station (via a supermarket for bananas- bananas seemed a surprisingly rare fruit in Naples) and then the trip up towards the peak of Vesuvius where our hotel was.
Is not a type of ham.
In a weird unknown accident we’d planned to go to Sorrento because everyone said it was great. Nicely though as part of the wedding the couple had arranged a coach trip to Sorrento (it was described as a coastline escapade, but we didn’t grok until a day or two before that this was Sorrento itself). Anyway this meant a couple of things when we eventually went to sorrento on our own trip but I’ll chat about that in a second.
Firstly- Hot Hot Hot + Train + 9am creates a toxic cauldron of bodily fluids. The train we caught seemed to have everyone who wanted to get to Pompeii for 10 in the morning. The train was crammed to the max and I was literally oozing. Gross.
Twop Twip: get to Sorrento unimaginably early if getting the train from Torre Del Grecco, or be in Naples and get the train from the first stop.
Fortunately, the train emptied heavily after Pompeii and we got a seat. Much better. It’s worth saying that the trains don’t have air conditioning but the temperatures are hot enough, the train fast enough and people are sweaty enough that the breeze from a moving train is enough to make the journey feel comfortable between stops. (oh and the train ticket was two euros for the pair of us).
When we reached Sorrento the sensation I had was a sense of familiarity that dulled much of the time spent there. That isn’t to say we didn’t have a great time there but it was certainly less exciting.
The one cool thing we did do was go to a lemon grove and bought some liquorice limoncello and a small cup for the limon. The grove was apparently council run so that was good.
Still we got to see a few extra things including an inlaid wood shop (25 Euro for a coaster seems… excessive even though I’m sure the labour that went into it was exceptional).
We did have a nice lunch though at Aurora Light (man that lonely planet guide was basically a crutch at this point, but it also had a good hit rate, so worth the trust).
Al managed to avoid tomatoes for the first time all holiday which was a shock and exciting moment.
(for clarity this wasn’t the whole lunch – Al had a beetroot and leaf salad)
We really liked Naples (area). Specifically I think we dug Naples the most. I wonder if we had spent longer the magic would have worn off, but what we did was really good. The city was exciting and alive with hustle. Even though you have to take gambles with crossing the road I think the fact everyone is part of the same game means the streets are less dangerous than they might be perceived by British folk. The drivers will stop if you’re bold enough to go with just enough space to go, but you do need to build the trust that it will happen. The feeling I took away from the place was that it was friendly but everyone was also busy and had things to do and weren’t really in the business of messing around too much. I don’t mind this so much because I don’t see as a traveller why I should be coddled. I don’t want to be coddled (and the softest of experiences are legit later forgotten anyway). I like to contrast the Naples trip with Sorrento where everything was so clean and nice it had an almost sterility to it. It was fun but didn’t quite have the tang or spice that made Naples feel like a real place. Sorrento felt more like a tourist engine, smooth and working well but also a little bit boring. I’d still go back to Sorrento though.
A first trip, as partial organiser and with my partner. I worried a lot for in the end almost no real reason and it was amazing!