We travelled to Naples by train from Rome.
We navigated the usual scrum to get on to the train with luggage, stow it and find our seats. The train from Rome was genuinely fast and we wondered again why a rich nation like Australia has no fast trains. The taxi ride to our grand hotel was slightly scary with the driver seemingly training for the next Grand Prix. Naples is very hilly with narrow, winding streets going up and down. ‘The volcano will blow today or tomorrow’ the driver announced. ‘I can help you’.
The view from our balcony was superb. Blue sky, blue bay of Naples, two grey warships at anchor amongst the mostly white cruise ships and ferries. We observed the currents in the bay, seemingly so strong that at times small boats cannot safely navigate. Odd to have never seen a painting with those currents – an opportunity perhaps.
We changed and hit the streets. This was a scouting expedition, and we soon realised that geography matters. The boys on the front desk told us how to descend quickly to a Metro station. Later we had to walk up the stairs, almost one thousand if Henry’s counting was accurate. We found a cute family restaurant well off the main drag for dinner, attracted by two brawny locals scoffling large plates of seafood and quaffing wine whilst sitting prominently in the window seats. When we were seated immediately behind them, we discovered a sleeping golden retriever, who woke up whenever a tasty morsel was dropped near his nose.
At the back of the room sat a young women playing with a pasta dish. She left without eating much and without paying – perhaps a relative, or a regular with an account.
We started with fried bits of fishy things, apparently a local delicacy, which we felt no desire to try again. Then, losing our early sense of gastronomic adventure, Mrs T had calamari and Henry a steak. No nonsense about ‘How should it be cooked, sir?’ It came seared on the outside and deep pink on the inside, a colour Titian would have been proud of. We chose a local bottle of dry white, recommended by a delightful young woman on the train from Rome. Its label said Falanghina, and Henry can recommend it as a reliable, middle of the road quaffing wine, with a faint hint of lemon and juniper leaves.
We returned to our room with a balcony to enjoy a night view of the bay. The cruise ships were well lit, the lights in the opposite shore gleamed enticingly and a benign three quarter moon spread its softer light over the whole scene.
Henry had purchased a detective novel on the recommendation of an elderly bookseller. ‘Is only book of his in Naples that is in English’ the old boy explained, ‘but many of his books are available in English in New York’. The book is called The Bottom of Your Heart and is written by Maurizio de Geovanni. A New York Times review asserted: ‘De Geovanni’s slashing wit cuts deeply into his cameo portraits of the high and mighty, even as his elegant style ennobles the wretched lives he views with such compassion’.
The action takes place (of course) in Naples. The first chapter devotes five pages to the final 2 second fall of a Professor of gynaecology, and the question is was he pushed or did he jump? (In fact he was thrown, which narrowed the choice of suspects.)
The second chapter sees two children watching near-starving people of Naples boarding a ship that will take them to a fresh start in America. Chapter three tells us about Enrica, a young women who has, with little encouragement, fallen in love with ace Detective [‘Commissario’] Ricciardi who ultimately unravels the mystery of the Professor’s fatal fall.
But it was chapter 4 that really gripped this reader. ‘Once a year’, the author warns, ‘in this city, the heat comes’. It is often hot in Naples, and at any time of the year it can be hot, but only in early summer does the real heat come.
‘The dreaded sun rises, bringing the first day of heat. It rises into the sky like a warship sailing into port, menacing and aflame. And it shows no mercy.’ Chapter 4 has six pages, a brilliant expose of a regular climatic curse.
The final paragraphs summarise: ‘There are only a few days of heat, real heat. But in those few days the atmosphere changes, and the city becomes another place. It tastes like ice, and smells like the sea, but it can also have the black colour of death.
‘Heat, real heat, comes straight from hell’.
We were in Napoli in late June but had at least a foretaste of ‘real heat’. Napoli’s climate creates damp heat, and the warning of ‘real heat’ comes in mist. Having read chapter 4, Henry was not surprised on the third morning of our visit to see the mountains across the bay wreathed in mist. The sun rose, ‘like a warship sailing into port, menacing and aflame’. Climbing one thousand steps after walking around all day except when using the grossly overcrowded, hot and humid Metro, leaves one hot and very sweaty. Night three was a perfect night to buy comestibles, including a cold bottle of Falanghina wine, and have a frugal dinner of olives plus bread and cheese, with the balcony door in our air conditioned room firmly shut.
That night there was a substantial storm, with real lightning and rumbling thunder. Another sign of ‘real heat’.
Day four saw Henry declare a rest day, his excuse being aching leg muscles and a very sore right knee. Mrs T (of course) braved the heat butreturned at lunchtime and slept all afternoon. That night was to be our chance to test the chef at our grand hotel. The food was excellent and the wine even better, Henry having been persuaded by the elderly chief waiter to move upmarket from Falanghina. When dithering about desert, Mrs T saw an exotic item delivered to a nearby table.
‘Could we have one of those?’ she asked the waitress. ‘Er, no, that is special’, replied the flustered young woman. ‘Really?’ asked Mrs T, raising an eyebrow. ‘Er, yes, perhaps. I will find out’. Said dessert came quickly and was indeed superb. We then discovered that the quite sinful item was part of a ‘traditional’ menu that cost about half that of the regular dinner we had consumed. This left us, while feeling mellow, a bit ungruntled.
Friday was still very hot, with the mountains over the bay now totally invisible. But we were determined to visit the Capadomonti Gallery. This involved an initial ride on the Funicular, (replacing the one thousand steps), then on the Metro and finally on a bus. The long, hot and humid journey proved near priceless, such is the quality of the gallery’s Quattrocente and Quintocentte/Italian Neapolitan painting. A room full of Popes and cardinals by Titian. Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. Jusepe de Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Titian’s Annunciation, and works by the female Baroque artist, Artemisia Gentileschi and many others. Wikepedia provides historical summary and many images.
We finished the gastronomic part of our visit to Naples at another family restaurant. The owner spoke no English, and our Italian is rudimentary, but between us we managed to put tother an entrée of Neapolitan vegetables, then a splendid fish dish, and carafes of white and red wine, all for 35 Euros.
We returned on the Funicular, hot, sweaty but content. Tomorrow we travel to Firenze, and then to Prato, where Mrs T teaches for three weeks.