40. Naples // Pompeii // Sorrento // Italy

Remember that time in Athens when we stayed in the “AVOID AT ALL COSTS” dodgy area of death and needles? Well, we did it again. This time in Naples. Our hotel was 5min walk from the train station and we were quickly learning that areas near train stations were synonomous with both cheap accommodation, as well as an increased likelihood of getting stabbed.

There’s only one reason you’d go to Naples – and that’s for the pizza. The scene from Eat, Pray, Love, where Julia Roberts gorges on the best pizza slice you’ve ever seen, is filmed in Da Michele and that particular restaurant is one of many in the region that make la vera pizza napoletana or “the real Neapolitan pizza.” If they don’t have this sign out the front – you don’t eat there. And to get this sign, you need to have a 3 year apprenticeship in kneading dough! There are generally just two pizzas served – the Margherita (olive oil, tomato, mozzarella and basil) and the Marinara (olive oil, garlic and oregano.) And it’s all about the, as Homer Simpson would say, the ‘D’oh!”

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After dropping our bags at our hotel that stood at the centre of many, many dark streets and corners, we grabbed our research and headed off for our first neapolitan pizza. Naples is extremely gritty, extremely unsafe and prone to crime. So although we didn’t really know it at the time, we were a little cautious as we walked through the main hub to Il Pizzaiola del Presidente, a place claiming pizza seniority because Bill Clinton had once dined there. With pictures of a smiling former President all around us, we dug into our first Margherita, instantly impressed by the quality of the dough and equally amused by the sheer frustration the few Italians displayed with their wild gesticulation and animated language as their Napoli football team failed to score on the tiny tv. (They weren’t actually playing on the tv, it was just being broadcast. The game itself was played on a football pitch.) Of interest, the Margherita pizza came about when in 1889 Raffaele Esposito created a pizza for Queen Margherita and used the three colours of the Italian flag (red, white and green) by using mozzarella, tomato and basil.  It certainly makes for a very good story but it was probably just as true that a pizza maker who was very good at conjuring up a story had very little in his pantry one day. Until you try it of course. And then it’s like just impossible to think of ever eating a pizza anywhere else in the world again and you don’t care what the story is. When the owner, Ernesto, had a spare moment during halftime of the football match, he noticed I was wearing a shiny Tag Heuer watch. He immediately became very protective and, despite knowing zero English, gestured that I was to take the watch off and keep it safely in my pocket. I wanted to tell him it was only a $20 ripoff from Turkey but knew only one phrase in Italian but thought “Mama Mia” probably wasn’t going to benefit the situation. It seemed I had no choice but to take it off and put it in my pocket before he eased up. What was clear was the area certainly wasn’t safe for this sort of dire instruction from Ernesto and we made sure we walked home extra quickly and with our hands in our pockets, firmly wrapped around our wallets and phones. Even though we’d noticed it before, the white tape masked around the door of the hotelroom beside us suddenly stood out and we began considering whether it was in fact a crime scene?

When daylight broke the next morning, we began to feel safe again. The included breakfast was a little disappointing but, with Da Michele on the cards that day, we weren’t too upset. We’d heard crowds can grow quickly outside of this tiny pizzeria. Friends have since told us they have waited 2 hours to get in. Keen to outwit this small problem, we thought pizza at 11am would be the solution. And it was. We didn’t need a number or a ticket stub. We were able to go straight in. We sat next to a couple of visiting Italians who were already halfway through their pizza and our mouths immediately began to water. A charismatic man, dressed from head to toe in white with an apron and a little hat, enthusiastically took our order (we grabbed one of each) surprisingly still proud of the quality food they produced here and giving no indication he was completely over the influx of people that visit each day. As we sipped on two pre midday beers, we gleefully watched the men work tirelessly behind the counter, rolling dough, sprinkling mozzarella, stocking the woodfire, paddling the pizzas. Because everything is made so fresh, the pizzas are in the woodfire oven for no more than a couple of minutes. It’s amazing. And when they come to the table, the freshly made tomato sauce is still bubbling on the slightly charred base and the aromas of basil and mozzarella engulf your senses. The middle of the pizza soaks the incredible oils and melting mozzarella. The dough is like nothing else and I don’t know how to describe it. Except it’s fresh. It’s airy. It’s crispy. It makes sense you’d kneed (pun ha ha) 3 years experience to get that right. Every pizza since now seems to lack perfection in the base. It’s amazing and you could say a craft. And did I mention the price? With the name these guys have, they could be charging anything they want. But we only paid something like 4euros. Insane yeah? I think the key is they’ve never sold out for the tourist. Because they are so good, they welcome so many of their own and as such, don’t apply the tourist tax you might sometimes find. Anyways, that was Da Michele and in no way was that going to be the last time we ate there. Easily the only place in the world to eat a pizza.

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As we left at around 12 o’clock, the crowds were already building and there were probably already 40 people outside queuing to get in. Insane. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking into all the territories that seemed a No-Go zone at night and discovered many laneways of bars and eateries. It was a stark contrast to Rome. Although the architecture was just as grand, everything was dishevelled and grimy. It gave the city a real personality and left you feeling excited and protective at the same time.

We explored another pizzeria that night which had also received high reviews – Di Matteo. They are known as a no frills pizzeria that also dabble in fried snacks. As such, a massive mob of people were sitting out the front of here as well, giving the illusion that you’d never get in but alas, they were just drinking beers and eating arincini balls and we were able to head straight in for a table. As Battye and Nicky have recently learned from their visit to Venice, Italy has this terrible habit of charging extra to sit you at a table, to give you a tablecloth, to bring you a menu, to bring your food etc. They charge for everything they can. It’s the behaviour you’d expect in Vietnam but, whereas in Vietnam it only costs you 60 cents to play their game, in Italy it can mean $10 and is not to be sneezed at. I think it is because of this reason that Naples has this interesting nightlife where masses of people mill outside pizzerias where they can still eat incredible food, drink from an off-license and socialise without being robbed at the same time. We were from out of town though so we were happy to eat in and get robbed. Di Matteo also provided pizza that was better than any where else in the world. However, all you need to know is it wasn’t as good as Da Michele and, as such, I don’t need to write another essay trying to articulate what my taste buds were doing but failing miserably in trying to do so.

The next morning we woke up and packed our bags so we could head off to visit Sorrento and explore Pompeii on the way. The choice between eating the disappointing but included breakfast or visiting Da Michele again was as easy as getting the four points by playing the Dees. We checked online and yep, open at 9am! Fantastic. So we rushed down to Da Michele and entered an almost empty restaurant, our company comprising a couple of camera-happy Japanese tourists who equally didn’t think it was strange to be eating pizza for breakfast. Once again – an incredible experience. I wanted to wrap it up and post the package to Australia so I could do it again for when I returned. And yes, we did have a beer again. And yes, I realise it was 9am.

We knew we could catch a train to Sorrento that stopped at Pompeii on the way. So our plan was to spend the first half of the day exploring ruins, spending the afternoon exploring the coastal home of Limoncello and returning to Naples for another pizza. Arriving in the station, an old man approached us and asked “Pompeii?” Assuming he was a government paid help point, we followed him to a ticket desk where he waited as we purchased our return tickets. He then pointed us to the correct train station before holding his hand out expecting a tip?? As I’m writing this, I’m still yelling at Elisha for throwing him a euro because, you know, the guy basically walked 10 metres and we were in a train station – we were going to flipping work it out anyway. So a euro poorer, my inability to let things go meant I was bitching about that for the next 7 hours. That aside – Pompeii. And to be fair, Italy did counterbalance that lost euro by allowing us entry into Pompeii for just a euro. Normally 20 euro’s each, entry on the day we just so happened to be there was only a euro due to it being some national museum heritage holiday or something.

Pompeii is a word I remember from my Ancient History lessons. Before arriving, I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. Maybe it was the place where Zeus was born? Or I think the Spartans and Athenians fought there? Both wrong. Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed when Mt Vesuvius erupted on the 24 August, AD 79, killing 2,000 residents and submerging Pompeii in pumice stone and Herculaneum in mud. Having a date recorded like that in a historical context makes it sound as significant as 9/11. It’s strange to have a specific date. Both sites have since been excavated and provide remarkable models of working Roman cities, complete with streets, temples, houses, baths, forums, taverns, shops and brothels. We’d been to some ruins already, such as Ephesus and My Son, but nothing had me ready for this. I had expected a few streets. I had expected some remnants of buildings. But this was huge. It was seriously like stepping into an abandoned city, almost intact. Without numbers, I’d estimate you could be walking for 3-4kms in a straight line down ancient roads. There is still vibrant paint on the inside of some walls, some of them detailed murals. The brothels still contain images of sex, the baths still display intricate designs, the houses still showcase colourful frescos. It’s absolutely stunning and was the closest thing I’ve ever felt to experience life 2,000 years ago. At the edge of the town stood an incredibly preserved ampitheatre. Unlike the Colosseum thats been eroded with age, this appeared as though someone had picked it up from 2,000 years ago, timetravelled to today and plonked it right here in the 21st century. We had an audioguide to explain a lot of stuff to us and we were able to deeply understand life in this city and what day-to-day would have been like. In a lot of parts of the city, Mt Vesuvius is in view and as you felt yourself walking in their shoes, you could almost feel the sheer terror of seeing the top third of the mountain explode into the air and an avalanche of ash descend upon you. At the very entrance to the city, you enter through this tiny gate. This seems obscure because you’d expect a gate to a city to be much larger. But the reason for this is because it used to be a dock where boats would arrive. Amazingly, water used to come right up to that very spot. It’s all land now but you could locate the poles and rings where the boats would pull up before entering through the gates we were now entering. It was such a cool experience and, even though the city was nothing special in its day, its provided a huge framework of information for archaelogists on Ancient Roman culture and city design. You could even walk along the eroded grooves in the road from the chariots! Like the Margherita, Pompeii deserves an entire blog on its own.

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Totally speechless, we caught a train to Sorrento where we planned to spend a few hours on the Western coastline of Italy. It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon and it didn’t take long before we found ourselves perched at a table (probably paying for the tablecloth and menu etc again) for one of our favourite Italian pastimes, the Aperol Spritz. We walked some more lanes afterwards and looked over the side of the cliffs where the road below serpentined around the steep coastline. There was a LOT of limoncello available and we went from store to store tasting their free samples. There’s not a lot to say from our few hours there but it was a beautiful afternoon and not a bad spot for a holiday.

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We caught a late train back to Naples where we had hoped to grab another Da Michele experience. However, it was near midnight by the time we got home and most of the city was already a No-Go Zone for us many hours before that. Instead, we tiptoed to the much closer Di Matteo for some more pizza and incredibly cheap 4 euro wine. In no way was it bad though. I love Italy because wine is just a part of their life and restaurants don’t have a 400% markup on alcohol. This time, we tried what is called a battered pizza where they essentially fold it in half and then fry it in batter – kind of like a pizza pocket. It was a bit much and sort of gave us that feeling you get when you eat from a bad fish n chip store. But had to be done. We also tried the arincini ball which was probably the best we’ve ever had. For half a euro as well, I now understood the mill of people outside the night before.

We had to leave for Rome again the next morning but were excited to get one more Margherita into us. However, to our absolute and utter disgust, we were to learn that most of Naples shuts down on a Sunday and Da Michele was, oh no don’t you say it, closed! Curse you Italy! Incredibly disappointed, we instead ate some cleansing salad at the always trusty train station (please never eat there if you can help it) and caught the afternoon train back to Rome. Naples and Pompeii had been amazing – two things I’ll probably never get to repeat but will forever be telling stories about. It should hopefully help the bank account out though because I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to bring myself to paying for a pizza again after knowing la vera pizza napoletana exists out there somewhere.

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