Our 2015 tour of Italy was, it's true, partly conceived around our desire to visit both of the BrewDog bars that existed in the country at the time. (We'll get back to that shortly.) Our friends weren't at all surprised when we announced our plans to them - they're used to this by now - and they appreciated that aside from the booze, there are plenty of other things to see and do in Bologna and (advance warning) Florence.
But Naples? Considering how much success the local tourist board used to have with their slogan vedi Napoli e poi muori, it's surprising how poor a reputation the city has now. At least, if you believe the people that The Belated Birthday Girl and I hang out with. None of them seemed convinced that you could spend six whole days there without going nuts. See Naples? They'd rather die.
Well, they're wrong. Naples is a terrific city in its own right (particularly if you veer away from the most obvious areas), and it's also a hub that's the perfect starting point for day trips to historical locations or ravishing beauty spots. (As well as the public toilet that they call Capri, but we'll get to that eventually.)
1. Stay in the University district, rather than somewhere a bit swankier. Our hotel for this part of the tour is the Hotel Piazza Bellini, close to Dante station on the Metro. It's a lovely courtyard hotel (making for some beautifully relaxed pre-bedtime drinks), with plenty of whimsical design touches in its decor. Because most of the rooms face onto the central courtyard, you don't realise until you step outside just how much is going on in the adjacent piazza: it's quite a culture shock after the relative civilisation of Bologna to suddenly be in a city where they're virtually rutting in the streets. For all the noise and bustle, the hottest nightspots in the area appear to be bookshops. The cool kids are noisily drinking outside second-hand store Perditempo, while the older hipsters are classing it up at Libreria Berisio: we spend a delightful Friday night at the latter with a glass of wine, watching an hour's worth of local tunes performed by the Luciano Saiano Quintet.
2. Get ready to be confused by the Naples Metro system. It means well, but there are lots of idiosyncrasies built into it that take some getting used to. The ticket machines are particularly tricky, with multiple 'are you sure' prompts you have to answer, including one that everyone misses between being told the price and being asked to give money. (By the end of our stay, The BBG and I will find ourselves teaching this procedure to Italian tourists in a mixture of broken languages and hand-waving.) The Metro itself only has two lines, where 1 is like London's Underground to 2's Overground. Line 1 is in a messy state of reconstruction, where the currently open stations bear no relationship to the ones shown on the map: line 2 is a bit tattier, and apparently full of pickpockets. Also, be prepared for occasional strikes by the USB union, and always check the times of the last trains: we had a long walk home after a Saturday night out, because we'd foolishly assumed the Metro would still be running after 11pm.
3. Check out the Naples artecard, but research it properly before deciding whether to buy one or not. On paper, it looks terrific: for one price, you get a travel pass and free or discounted entry to various tourist attractions. The travel pass deal is unquestionably great: the thing you need to check in advance is which places the card will get you into for free, and which just give you a couple of euro discount, because the dividing line between the two is rather vague in the advertising. Even attractions that you're theoretically promised free access to - for example, Pompeii - will still charge you a few euro surcharge if you dare to use the cards during busy periods (i.e. in the summer). Still, the card at least gave us the incentive to visit Complesso Monumentale (a fascinating set of ruins, marred a little by a French family listening to the guide app on their iPad at FULL VOLUME) and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (whose collection of Pompeii friezes and related items makes for a useful prelude to visiting the site itself), as well as the likes of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Still, do the sums first, and check if the card will actually save you money.
4. Don't be afraid to just wander around and look at things for free, particularly if you've got some sort of travel pass. Try out the walking routes listed in the guidebooks: the Centro Storico walk in the Lonely Planet guide to Naples, Pompeii & the Amalfi Coast is a very good starting point. Stroll out to the bay area at Lungomare and stare at Vesuvius as the sun goes down. If you're a fan of funiculars, there's a little collection of them out in the direction of Montesanto. Whenever you're crossing the road, no matter how reckless the Naples drivers may initially appear, walk across confidently with no hesitation: 85% of the time, they will stop for you.
All of the above is all well and good, but for me Naples is a little like Walthamstow in the 1980s: it's when you start trying to get out of it that things get really interesting. And if you're in Naples, sooner or later you have to get onto the Circumvesuviana train and start exploring the sites, well, around Vesuvius. We end up using that train route three times in total, and the first trip is the big one: Pompeii. Of course, everyone else feels the same way, so it's a 45 minute standing journey on the train. (If you'd rather sit down, the trick is to board the train at the beginning of the line at Porta Nolana.) Once we're there, we have to negotiate several naughty tourist agents before we hit the official ticket desk, only to discover that 2 euro surcharge for artecard holders that I mentioned earlier.
We'd already been warned about the biggest problem for English-speaking visitors - the guide map they provide with your ticket comes in every major world language except English. And if you don't have a guide, you're likely to get lost very quickly indeed. So we came prepared with a book we'd bought in advance. Natasha Sheldon's Discovering Pompeii is a self-published effort available through Amazon, and in it she's come up with three self-guided walks through the Pompeii site: mapping out the route, telling you what to look out for along the way, and providing historical context as she goes. The first of her three walks turns out to be a perfect way to get your bearings, starting at the triangular forum and gradually making your way around some of the major landmarks north of the main forum. Once you've got that initial perspective, it's time to break out your packed lunch at the triangular forum and start planning your own route from there.
Using a variety of sources - Sheldon's book, Rick Steves' audio tour, a couple of blogs by Richard Herring, and the Italian map of the city we were given on arrival - we come up with our own walk around the city that takes in several recommended locations. Granted, some of them are closed when we get there, but that's always the risk you run visiting a live archeological site. If you have the official map and want to recreate our route using their location numbers, it goes something like this: 45 (Little Theatre), 39 (Brothel), 40 (Baths), 17 (House of the Faun), 36 (House of the Vettii), 32 (Water Tower, plus a delightful tree that looks like the ones you used to draw as a kid, as seen above), 22 (House of the Tragic Poet), 37 (House of the Caccia Antica), 50 (House of the Ceii), 67 (Thermopolium), 56 (Fugitives), 60 (Amphitheatre). Like any other city, you get used to its structure the more you walk around it: it's a basic grid layout, easily navigable when you can see the direction of the forum, more difficult when there are gaps in the grid caused by path closures. But it's a remarkable atmosphere, where wandering from block to block takes you from areas crammed with tourists to places where you're totally on your own.
Two days after that, we're back on the Circumvesuviana, but getting off a bit earlier at Erculano station, which has two attractions on offer. The first of these is indicated by the Vesuvius Express office just outside the station. The BBG has done her research beforehand, so we know what the deal is: for 20 Euro, a man will drive you (and as many other people as will fit inside a minibus) to within 1km of the summit of Mount Vesuvius, wait 90 minutes for you to walk to the top and down, and then drive you back again. This is all clearly explained in several languages in the tour office, but it's surprising how many people in our group appear unable to grasp the rules. In particular, one couple can't understand why they can't stay up there longer, not realising the impact this has on the rest of the tour group as well as subsequent tours. When the time comes to leave Vesuvius later on, they fail to show, and we gleefully abandon them to their almost certain death.
For the rest of us, it's a terrific little tour package. The drive up is a hoot, taken at (apparently) reckless high speed around a series of hairpin bends up the mountain, with the driver continuously leaning on his horn to warn the cars, buses and occasional bicycle coming in the opposite direction. (It reminds me of the bus ride you used to have to do on Lantau Island in Hong Kong before the metro line ran out there: but then I've always insisted that the Chinese and Italians have similar approaches to driving.) At the top, it's a slightly challenging walk up a 1km path of scree, but we've brought water and decent shoes and are well prepared for it. They say it takes about 35 minutes, but we do it in 30 even with rest stops, pauses for photos and our old legs. The views of the crater itself and the surrounding landscape are sufficient payoff for the walk: you can get a free guide at the crater entrance to show you around, but it's perfectly navigable on your own. If you're doing careful time-budgeting to ensure you don't miss the bus back, rest assured that the walk down is a bit quicker and easier than the walk up.
The other attraction close to Erculano station is Herculaneum, the less popular of the two major excavation sites a lava discharge's throw away from Vesuvius. They offer two very different experiences, so you can't really say one's better than the other. Pompeii is more immersive, thanks to its sheer size and its distance from anything else: you can, in more ways than one, lose all track of time in there. In Herculaneum, the modern town is always still visible in the distance: The BBG points out how freaky it must be for the current inhabitants of Erculano to have an active volcano above them and a lava-encrusted dead city below them. But it's much smaller than Pompeii, with much better preservation - there's not so much of the speculation based on three small piles of rocks that you find on the other sites, these are entire buildings that are two millennia old. The suggested route from the Lonely Planet guidebook (with a couple of deviations as we find them) makes for a good collection of highlights, although it's worrying that some of the areas mentioned as being temporarily closed in the 2013 book are still closed in 2015.
Meanwhile, back in Naples itself, here's The BBG with a roundup of the food and drink we had there, which tactfully avoids mentioning the restaurant which gave me a 24 hour attack of the shits. (Name available on request.)
On our first night in Naples, we decided that one of the many pizzerias would do us, but several seemed completely dead: we thought maybe we were a bit late for eating, but in fact probably if anything we were a bit early! Anyway, eventually we found one which had a lively crowd of young locals in, so we went in. This was Antonio and Gigi Sorbillo’s pizzeria, one of several pizza places on Via dei Tribunali run by different members of the Sorbillo family. Antonio’s isn’t the one rated most highly, but our experience here was great, and I’d say he shouldn’t be ignored. Spank ordered the O Sole Mio, apparently dedicated to Enrico Caruso, with mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage and cream, while I chose the Parmigiana, made with aubergine, mozzarella, tomato and basil. And when the pizzas came, they were fabulous: the dough was fluffy and soft, yet chewable, the aubergine perfectly cooked. We washed it down with a perfectly acceptable Italian lager, called only “National” beer on the menu. And the whole thing was ridiculously reasonable in price. It may not be the fanciest place, but the buzz was good.
Probably the most memorable meal we had on the trip was our lunch in Sorrento. Da Emilia is beautifully located in the harbour, with an outdoor terrace jutting out over the water. We were very happy to be seated on that terrace, with views out to sea, and even happier with our lunches. For primi piatti, Spank went for the local gnocci alla mamma, Sorrento style in a tomato and cheese sauce, while I decided to go for the spaghetti with mussels. Both were good, but it was with the secondi that our lunch really was raised to something special. We both chose fried fishy options, with Spank choosing the fried calamari, and me choosing the mixed fish. Both were beautifully presented, and huge, portions of fresh, perfectly cooked fish. The selection in mine was terrific, ranging from small whitebait to large red fish, with prawns and calamari, too. And for the quantity and quality, especially bearing in mind the fabulous location, it was all very reasonably priced.
Another day trip from Naples took us to Capri, where we had possibly the best meal of the holiday. Just around the corner from the main touristy square in Capri Town, a little lane leads to the small and lovely Donna Rachele. We decided to stick with a single course for lunch, and both of our choices were excellent. Spank’s ravioli with cheese and aubergine sauce was very good, with perfectly cooked aubergine in a rich tomato sauce topping top quality cheese-filled ravioli. I had the big tube pasta with clams and courgettes, a combination I had not seen before. The pasta was perfectly al-dente, the clams up with the very best I’d ever had (in a meal in Macau which I still talk about to this day), and the garlicky olive oil and courgettes were really top quality, finishing the dish off beautifully. The restaurant was prettily decorated, the staff friendly and welcoming, and the atmosphere very appealing. Capri Town may have been one of the least interesting places we visited, but Donna Rachele gave us one of the best meals of the trip.
Back to Naples itself, and although we had several other meals worth mentioning – decent swordfish at the well-located Storie & Sapori, and a very good dinner with local white wine at La Campagnola - we finish as we started, as is only right and proper, with pizza. But not just any pizza: pizza at Gino Sorbillo’s. Without a doubt, this was the very best pizza I’ve ever eaten. This was special, and the first time I realised that pizza can genuinely be great food. Spank chose the speck pizza, made with the very top quality prosciutto, and I had a margherita con bufala, made with the best quality tomatoes, the best quality olive oil, and the best quality D.O.C. buffalo mozzarella. The bases were amazing. Soft, warm, chewy, melt in the mouth, the best tasting pizza bases I’ve ever experienced. Given how good the pizzas were that we’d had only a few days earlier at Antonio Sorbillo’s, the increase in quality at Gino’s was astonishing. We had a couple of glasses of the house red to accompany them, and that was excellent, too. You have to queue to get a table at this extremely popular restaurant - which is deceptively large, over two floors, so you may not have to wait too long – but it is worth it. If you go to Naples, whatever else you do, do not miss out on a pizza here.
We also took in a couple of gelateria. In Sorrento we visited Gelateria David, which also does gelato-making classes: we didn’t do one of those, but we did have some very tasty ice-cream, or, in my case, sorbet. We’d seen lots of orange and lemon trees on the train journey from Naples, so I really felt in the mood for something citrussy, and went for a double hit of mixed citrus fruit and lemon sorbet. Both were delicious, and different enough to justify having both flavours. Spank, meanwhile, decided this was the time for Zuppa Inglese flavour, which was also good, although personally I felt my citrus combo won hands down. Back in Naples, we went to Fantasia Gelati, which has several branches throughout the city. Seeing that we were the nearest to Sicily that I’ve been to date, I felt justified in trying the Cassata, to see what it’s like when done properly. The answer is that it is very tasty indeed, and worked well with a plain scoop of cream flavour. Spank chose the Kinder cream ice and a scoop of something we didn’t get the name of but which was basically vanilla with choc bits in it. Though both flavours were aimed at children, they were both good, and Spank still enjoyed them.
Finally, back to the subject of beer. A bit of web research found a craft beer bar Il Birraioulo just around the corner from our hotel, and we paid it a couple of visits. The first time, we shared a large bottle of tasty Tuscan beer Bastarda Rossa. On our second visit we shared a 100 IBU IPA from another Italian brewery – I didn’t get a note of the name – and a Zucca pumpkin ale from Baladin. The Zucca was very flavourful, a bit spicy, and much more interesting than the Baladin beer we’d had in their market bar in Bologna. We also managed to have a couple of Birrificio Italiano beers at a really nice “Bread café” we found, 16 Libbre. Along with a tasty small meal of panbretzel parmigian for me and scialatielli salmone for Spank, we had a bottle each of Bibock and Vudu. Both were decent beers which accompanied our food nicely.
"But Spank," you've probably been asking for the last dozen or so paragraphs, "why is Capri like a public toilet?" I do realise that it's not a common point of view, but it's one I'm prepared to stand by. Our day trip to the island starts with a ferry from Naples, which works just fine apart from the location of the boat itself not being very well signposted. The ferry is rammed with people, but we get a decent enough seat on deck, and the weather looks like it's going to stay pretty all day.
Once you get onto the island itself, though, it's obvious that it's an almighty tourist trap designed to part people from their money as fast as possible. The array of tatty souvenir shops that hits you the moment the boat pulls in is testament to that. When we get the funicular up from the port to the main town, it's even more obvious - the shops are classier, but it's little more than a big open-air Westfield centre. Granted, there are some nice restaurants up there too, like Donna Rachele mentioned above by The BBG, but you never quite shake off the touristy vibe.
Still, I just about manage to cope with the place, right until the point where we're properly ripped off. One thing they always tell you to do on Capri is visit the Blue Grotto, the prettily-lit sea cave that they run boat trips out to at various times of the day. We have to plan this right, as our ferry back to Naples is the last one of the day: so we ask if the next Blue Grotto excursion will get us back in time. Of course it will, they say, and take our money, saying that the next boat will be leaving in five minutes or so. Forty-five minutes later, there's still no sign of one, and even if one was to come at this point we'd never make it back in time for the ferry home. At which point, any attempt to ask for a ticket refund is met with the box office staff suddenly noticing something interesting on the back wall of their booth. I calm down a little bit after a stroll around the Giardini di Augusto, but my abiding memory of Capri from this point on will remain that of a bunch of thieving bastards who may or may not own a boat.
Anyway, who needs Capri when you've got Sorrento? Located at the far end of the Circumvesuviana line, it's the most ridiculously beautiful place we encounter on the entire holiday. When we first make it out to the waterfront and catch the sea for the first time, it's such a magnificent shade of blue that my cynical brain can only react with "come on, that's Photoshopped, surely." We get into restaurant Da Emilia just in time for the tail end of lunch service, and eat seafood with a terrific view of where it came from. To help the digestion after that, we waddle out to two of the local museums. Museo Bottega della Tarsia Lignea is an enjoyable history of Sorrento's work with inlaid wood, with some pretty examples of furniture, detailed bilingual stories of the key artisans, and a bonus exhibit in the basement featuring modern takes on the craft. Museo Correale has some excellent pieces in it, and it's enjoyable to see some overlaps with earlier museum sessions - marquetry from craftsmen we were introduced to just an hour earlier in Museo Bottega della Tarsia Lignea, and gaps on the walls where paintings of Pompeii have been loaned to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Strangely, after the applied arts displayed in the earlier building, the pure art presented here feels a tad decadent. All this, plus ice cream at Gelateria David, and a train ride home - now that's a day trip.
So don't listen to the naysayers - Naples is terrific, there's plenty to see and do there, and (nearly) all of the places nearby are great for a day trip, too. Still, after six days without visiting a BrewDog bar, it's time to move on...