DAY 7 in Naples, Italy:
We made it to Nepal… I mean, Naples!
By this point of our trip, we had realised that a lot of our friends were making their own tours around Europe (many of which were in Italy). Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan, but none in Naples. I must admit, I did grow curious, “Did Miriam and I make the right choice with Naples?” After 4 days in Naples, though, I had the answer to my question from Day 1. A big, fat, very sure “Yes!”
Now let’s begin with Day 1.
Back-tracking a little to Florence, we awoke fresh and early, tried our luck again at the Fotoautomatica machine (second and third time is a charm!) and took the train to Naples. Walking out of Napoli Centrale (Naples Central Train Station), I saw a city of ancient buildings and cobbled streets (which almost killed our carry-ons), teeming with modern life and pedestrians. The narrowness of the lanes led me to assume that no one in their right mind would attempt to drive a car down those streets, the Neapolitans don’t even take their foot off the gas. Scooters and cars zip through the historic city at top speed, and more than once we were almost brushed by the side mirror of a car going past.
Upon reaching Giovanni’s Home (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED accommodation!!), where we were greeted through the intercom at ground level with a “Miriam? 3rd floor, sorry no lift,” before a fatherly, ear-to-ear smiling man greeted us on the 3rd floor. He sat us down with 4 Germans and 1 Hungarian in front of his desk after handing us a cup of much-needed cool water each.
If there was anything I took away from the next 60 minutes of ‘Giovanni’s Introduction to Naples’, it was that he loved Naples as much as he’d love a child. He told us about Mt. Vesuvius, Herculaneum, Pompeii, the largest aquarium in the world (in Naples, which is a surprise, considering the water pollution), the sunken city of Baia, the amphitheatre of Pozzuoli (“Definitely better than Rome’s,” he said), the churches in Naples (so many! who knew! Oh right, Giovanni!), a ‘magical’ metro station, and the pizza! The best pizzeria in Naples, according to Giovanni and, we soon find out, the whole of Naples too, is Gino Sorbillo. He clearly wasn’t very fond of cities in Naples’ proximity, calling Sorrento a ‘shit place’ that is only ‘beach, horse, kiss, tits’, and belittled Capri and the Amalfi coast in the same fashion as he told us that they were ‘toys’ and too touristy to capture anything of real Italy.
I told him that Miriam and I had to leave soon that afternoon because we have a free walking tour to catch, but he said, “nonsense, nonsense, wait here.” He fished out a map of Naples from a pile of papers behind him and proceeded to highlight a route of the city that we could walk through to get as much out of it, leaving out all the kitsch of a commercial tour.
“I would like to teach you all how to cook the easiest and best pasta. Garlic aglio olio. Come, come to the kitchen,” he said to all 7 of us. We crowded in his cosy Italian kitchen (pasta, tomatoes, tomato sauces, olive oil and big pots and pans everywhere) as he begin his lecture on Italian cooking.
“Slice the garlic very thin and then put it into cold olive oil. Don’t turn the fire on yet.”
“Season the pasta water with salt, only salt. This much salt,” he says, as he adds tablespoons of salt into the pot, something I certainly wasn’t used to. I don’t add salt to anything at all!
During the wait, he took pasta samples out of his cupboard and let us have a feel of them to know which was good and which wasn’t. “Barilla is not pasta, not good pasta,” he made sure we got that. Then, he cheekily added that “the time taken for pasta to cook perfectly is the time I take to smoke a cigarette.” He walks out onto his balcony with a smile. I wish he didn’t smoke.
Miriam and I followed him out to see a bit of Naples from where we were staying. There was a gorgeous chaos about Naples, the laundry hanging across narrow lanes on every level of a building, the sheer number of people and things spilling out of every doorway and street, the crumbling walls… It’s not as if Naples seems to be trying too hard, or putting on a coat of polish. If anything, it’s the lack of polish that makes it so visually stunning. I kinda like it.
After the cigarette, he walked back in and added diced dried red pepperoncini into the oil, saying that the chili flavour only dissolves in oil, before adding the cooked pasta into the oil.
We were served our pasta in plastic plates before we walked out into the sun to have a meal together. Fear surged into my being as I realised that so many of my fears laid in the plate before me. Oil, salt, the unknown of the pasta’s ingredients. I’ve recovered a lot, but some days I feel weaker in the face of eating disorders than others, and that was one of those days. I was so thankful that I had Miriam beside me to calm me and assure me that everything will be fine. I went ahead with the meal and somehow managed to silence the voices in my head. It was delicious, it was cooked by a kind Giovanni and I had the company of amazing travellers, and that was all I needed then. I didn’t need the voices.
For company, we had the Germans from Hamburg — anxious and somewhat eternally unsure Adrien, reserved and blue-eyed Torben, mischievous and child-like Arber, and foxy-eyed, cheek-scratched Michele. (Miriam really liked his foxy eyes.) They were heaps of fun, but not so much when the frustrating “Northern and Southern Germany divide” conversation came into the picture. I love Munich, I love Southern Germany and that’s that. I’ll stand by it. We also had Lajoc from Hungary, Budapest, who sailed to Naples with a bunch of friends who left for another place without him. Then there was a Korean, Tae Yong, who joined us a little late and who we didn’t see anymore after that lunch.
Lajoc joined us for Giovanni’s recommended route around Naples that afternoon. We dropped by an alleyway fully occupied with shops selling Christmas trinkets (where every day is Christmas!), visited many many churches (Naples is packed with more churches than one would expect in such a small plot of land!), were entertained by a handful of buskers along the way, and briefly visited Castell Nuovo where we badly photobombed a wedding shoot.
I particularly enjoyed viewing The Veiled Christ (incredible photos here) in Museo Cappella Sansevero, which I thought Miriam described perfectly as “so soft yet so hard at the same time.” It was amazing seeing a marble sculpture of Jesus laying underneath a silk cloth. How does one even do that?
Read more: The Veiled Christ – The Statue, Giuseppe Sanmartino, 1753
We also saw the Toledo Metro station, which was designed by Oscar Tusquets Blanca. I couldn’t remember the name ‘Toledo’ and kept asking Lajoc what it was. He said, “Toledo! Like the city in Spain!” Its walls and floor have been covered in varying shades of blue bisazza mosaics by the Catalan architect, offering the feeling of being underwater or in space — ‘a trove of art installations that has transformed the city’s subway system into an eclectic and far-flung museum’.
Read more: Naples’ Toledo Metro Station
Enough of the above, let’s go underground. We went for the Napoli Sotterranea Underground Tour, during which we descended 40 meters (119 steps) below Naples Historic Centre and entered a labyrinth of caves, tunnels, and passageways — an old underground quarry dating back to the 4th Century BC when Greeks used it to extract building materials from the bay of Naples. We were dwarfed by enourmous cisterns that were part of the Roman aqueduct system and later used as a WWII air raid shelter, squeezed through a narrow tunnel guided only by the light of candles (my claustrophobia made things rather unpleasant at this point), and even an underground garden!
We returned to ground level to walk to an ancient Roman Thatre, which was another underground location, buried under houses in present day Naples. Fun fact: The Roman Theatre was discovered in a woman’s cellar (located under her bed through a secret trap door) where she stored all her illegal black market goodies.
Miriam and I went our separate ways from Lajoc after the tour, because he wanted Gino Sorbillo’s pizza. Our tummies were still dealing with the aftermath of the savoury lunch so we decided to go looking for something less taxing on our gut — oatmeal. Unfortunately and absolutely surprisingly, we couldn’t find any!
We settled for müsli and cornflakes drenched in rice milk that evening, and it was delicious.