I once heard Italy described as the “kingdom of chaos” and thought it a worthy title. But if the country is the kingdom, then Naples is the imperial palace and every one of its residents a member of a slightly loony royal family. A long weekend in Napoli has confirmed quite categorically that it is the maddest, noisiest, most lawless city I’ve ever visited. And it is absolutely brilliant!
Braving the traffic in Naples
Arriving in Naples on a cold, clear Friday morning, it was immediately obvious that the Neapolitans like to do things a little differently. Catching a bus from the airport to my hotel, the bus driver gave me two tickets for a one-way journey, took them away to validate them, gave them back and took my money, then took them away and gave them back again. And apparently this is the efficient way of doing things.
Negotiating the roads and traffic in Naples is, quite simply, an utterly terrifying experience. There’s no such thing as road rules here in Italy. Traffic lights are merely a vague guide – at an intersection, everyone drives when and where they like. Scooters are the most common way of getting around and it is the norm to see two or three adults or an adult and several small children crammed onto one – all helmetless, of course! One taxi driver actually laughed at me as I searched in vain for a seatbelt. “Not possible,” he said. “I good driver” (sic). Obviously. My first day was spent wandering the streets and tiny lanes around my hotel, in the heart of the city. Not an easy task considering there is a serious absence of street signs and all manner of piazzas plonked inconveniently in the middle of streets which the maps proclaim are straight and uninterrupted.
Eventually I found the Duomo, Naples’ most important church. Unfortunately the steps of the church had been commandeered by a motley bunch of protesters and there was no apparent way into it. I returned to the Duomo area that night in search of the Pizzeria di Matteo, a restaurant billed as “one of the city’s best”. And so began my quest to eat my way through Naples. (Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the tourist who ate Napoli!) Without a hint of exaggeration, I declare that the pizza is the best I have ever tasted. These things are absolutely enormous but so light (unlike the concrete Pizza Hut variety) they even leave room for dessert.
On the way back to the hotel after dinner, I stopped by the Duomo again to see it lit up at night – only to discover the sad little bunch of protesters had swelled to “baying mob” size and were now being beaten back by riot police complete with shields and batons. Just a typical Friday night in Naples!
Pompeii: A petrified Roman City
Saturday brought what I had really come to Naples for – the chance to visit Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius. The Naples skyline is dominated by the volcano – and my hotel in Piazza Garibaldi afforded a spectacular view — of the mountain which erupted most spectacularly in 79AD, burying Pompeii in ash and entombing 2000 of its 20,000 residents. The ruined city is eerie and moving – and not at all what I had expected. I had imagined a modern town with just a few excavated ancient sites dotted here and there. In fact, the entire ancient city has been excavated and is open to tourists. I wandered everywhere, from the law courts and the athletics field to the amphitheatre and people’s houses, complete with incredibly detailed mosaic floors and murals on the walls.
The most fascinating – though macabre – attraction at Pompeii are the body casts. When the ash rained down on the residents of the town, it set hard and, as their bodies decomposed inside, hollow casts formed – frozen tableaux of their last moments. The casts include a woman, sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest with her head in her hands, and even a dog which lay on its side as if snoozing in the sun.
Because Mt Vesuvius is still an active volcano and could affect up to 1.5 million people should it erupt again, the Italians have formulated an evacuation plan. The funny thing is, the powers that be have admitted that it is, basically, completely pointless – Neapolitan society is so lawless that many people would probably be shot or crushed in a panicked stampede.
On Sunday, I parked myself in a cafe for some people watching before leaving for the airport. Here, I officially discovered chocolate heaven. Ask an Italian for a hot chocolate and you don’t get a mug of the frothy milky stuff – oh no, you get a cup of actual melted dark chocolate! Sigh…life doesn’t get much better than that!
From Naples I travelled north to Milan, for some serious retail therapy in a slightly less chaotic city. I knew Milan was my kind of city from the moment I touched down at Linate airport. The main aircraft hangar on the tarmac has an enormous neon Emporio Armani sign on top of it. You have to love a town where even the
Moda Milanese — Style Capital of the World
Not one to waste any time, my first stop was Piazza Duomo – Milan’s central plaza and home of the Duomo, undoubtedly the most spectacular cathedral I’ve ever seen. It can hold a congregation of 40,000 people at a time and – for the benefit of my fellow fashionistas – was where the funeral of designer Gianni Versace was held.
Piazza Duomo is surrounded by shopping streets and an incredibly beautiful shopping arcade, Galleria Emmanuel Vittorio II. The Galleria is perhaps best known for its central mosaic depicting a bull. It’s apparently good luck to place your heel on the bull’s “manhood” and spin around three times. I don’t imagine the bull feels particularly lucky, however.
Behind Piazza Duomo are Milan’s most exclusive shopping streets, Via della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone. Prada, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci: they’re all here! And this was the scene of my own near-religious experience. Handbag Green suede. Miu Miu. True love.
I couldn’t bring myself to fork over so much cash within barely an hour of being in Milan, so I opted instead for dinner in the trendy Brera. This for me was the quintessentially “Italian experience” of the trip. It was a gorgeous, balmy evening; I sat outside eating pizza, drinking Campari and flirting with the handsome waiters. Couples strolled past, hand in hand. A string quartet played the theme from that cheesy 70s romance movie, Love Story.
I awoke on Sunday morning still mulling over that handbag. Fortunately for my bank balance, Miu Miu was closed so I took to the streets instead, walking what felt like every street and piazza in Milan, stopping only to spend large amounts of money and eat gelati.
The waiters are easily impressed
I returned to the same restaurant in the Brera for lunch. I found out that, apparently, in Italy, eating at the same restaurant twice implies that you fancy the waiters. At least, this was clearly the impression the staff seemed to have had when I walked in. I’d never experienced such friendly, attentive service. And just as I was about to pay the bill, a delicious lemon liqueur miraculously appeared on my table – a “present” from my new friends. As soon as I’d finished this, another came out. And then another. And then my waiter Miguel earnestly told me that I should go out with him that evening. That’s when I left.
After escaping Miguel, I climbed the 200+ steps to the top of the Duomo to take in the spectacular views of the city. An interesting experience in the blazing heat and after three drinks.
My rudimentary knowledge of Italian let me down severely that night. I ventured into the very trendy canal-side Navigli district – easily reached by underground train – and ordered a pizza with “peperoncini” which I thought was pepperoni. It turned out to be paprika and virtually set my mouth on fire.
Monday was my last-minute-buy-everything-the-credit-card-will-allow shopping extravaganza. First stop: Miu Miu. I put on a show of indecision for about three seconds before giving in to the charms of the handbag and buying it. So I now officially own a slice of the Prada empire. And what a beautiful slice it is…
So now I’m back at home, a little closer to my ambition of being the most stylish gal in town. And though I’ve swapped the sunshine, shopping and gastronomic delights of Italy for rainy London and stodgy food, I have to admit that I’m incredibly relieved to be back in a country where cars actually stop at traffic lights!