ITALY 2014 TRIP REPORT FOR FODORS
Rome – Naples – Paestum – Salerno – Ravello – Amalfi
During the fall idea stage, this trip was originally going to be Umbria-focused but it drifted south toward the Naples area by springtime. We have visited Rome several times and Pompeii, Sorrento and Naples (the archeological museum) before, so this time we moved on to other places.
Us: late 60s, like walking, history, art, architecture (show us piles of ruins and we are happy), food, wine, and the Italian language. Have travelled several times to Italy, from Venice to Siracusa. Can’t get enough. We tried to plan a lot of variety in the 12-day trip: big city, small town, Greek ruins, big hotels, little B&B.
Weather: we went during the last two weeks of June. Several days we had very brief showers, then sun, and on most days very strong sun. We took along a couple of small umbrellas and we used them visiting the Paestum temples and a few other times when walking around during the intense mid-day sun. In the evenings the temps dropped down to the hi 60s or low 70s so all in all we had excellent weather.
Everyday life in this region: even with Italy’s financial crisis, we did not come across much evidence of distress. We used public transport—trains, buses, the Naples funiculars and metro—everything worked smoothly and on time. And people queued up gently and quietly, almost like Brits, getting on or off trains or buses. Amazing. Much friendliness and helpfulness everywhere.
Security and safety: we used money belts and all was well. However, we spoke with three women who each had safety issues in Naples. Two were young college women from Canada who were targeted in the Naples train station by three men, one texting to the others as they were getting on the train, apparently planning the theft. When they got on the train, they saw two men positioning themselves at each doorway. They asked an Italian man on the car to accompany them when they got out. He did so and nevertheless as they were walking the two thieves came up to them, bumped them, one held the shoulder of one woman, grabbed her bag and ran off with her cel phone. The third woman we spoke with, visiting in Ravello, was a 60-something retired American executive, well acquainted with Italy and very travel savvy. She said she would not return again to Naples even though she loved the city because she did not feel safe as a single woman walking around the centro. We love the Naples centro but I mention this for the sake of women travellers considering a visit to the city.
We drove from Burlington, Vermont, parked in long-term parking at Trudeau Airport in Montreal, and flew to Rome and stayed there the first two nights. We have seen most of the “big” sights before so we took things slowly and mainly walked around the Trastevere area, a new neighborhood for us. We stayed at our favorite hotel, Hotel Italia, an easy 15-minute walk from Termini, on Via Venezia, half a block from Via Nazionale and the 64, 170 and H bus stops. After settling in the hotel in mid-afternoon, we walked to San Pietro in Vincoli to see Michelangelo’s Moses. It’s always so powerful to see supreme works of art in real life, regardless of the number of photos one has seen before. The statue is now fenced off with an 8-foot space around it and a full-time guard watching over it. A good, but sad, thing.
Dinner in the evening at Da Teo: an excellent little spot in Trastevere in a little piazza one block from the river. Carciofi alla giudia, fried zucchini flowers stuffed with pecorino and anchovies, pasta with funghi and a very good bottle of Hernicus Cesanese del Piglio (a red from Roman Lazio region). We asked our waiter to choose a red for us and he did well.
The next morning we returned to Trastevere via the 170 bus. We first went to the east bank area just across from Trastevere, where the ancient cattle market, the Forum Boarium, was located. Saw the temples of Hercules, 2nd cent. BC, said to be the oldest marble structure, and of Portunus, the cattle god. The Portunus temple is very fine, a small version of the Nimes temple. Then across Tiber Island to the Villa Farnesina. Marvellous Raphael fresco of Galataea and the Hall of Perspectives by Peruzzi. One of the guards told us that Mussolini had an office just off this hall, but it was closed with no signage. In the 1920s and 30s there were excavations on the garden grounds and one of the finds, a big marble cattle drinking trough, now stands in the entry foyer.
Late lunch at Bir e Fud near the Trilussa square: friends of ours recommended this place. It is run by a young chef, has about 30 different Italian and British draft beers and serves very good lunch fare. We had one amber and one bitter beer and a sampler of three different kinds of suppli (=arancini fried rice balls) with different sauces, one small pizza with buffalo mozzarella, and eggplant croquettes with onion sauce and toasted rosemary twigs. Really fun and tasty. Just as we settled in for lunch there came a torrential downpour which lasted an hour, then cleared up and off we went.
Then on to the beautiful mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Cecilia before hopping the #8 tram to Piazza Venezia and a 10-minute walk back to the hotel.
Dinner: bus H back to Trastevere and dinner at Da Enzo on Via Vascellari, just a block from Da Teo where we had eaten the night before. We had reserved a week before. It’s a very small and popular place. Outstanding caccio e pepe, very good pasta alla gricia (guanciale), good but not great coda alla vaccinara, unacceptable abbacchio (lamb)—bony and gristly. All was redeemed by the waiter’s choice of wine: a Lazio red Baccarossa 2011. We do not know wine lore, we just asked waiters to choose a local wine to go with the meal, red or white, and “no bancarotta per favore” and they usually came up with very good bottles priced around 18 – 22 euros.
We caught the Frecciarossa fast train to Naples in the morning. I had bought our two fast train tickets (the Rome to Naples leg and another at the end of the trip, Salerno to Rome) two months ahead of time on the Trenitalia web site and printed out the email with the PRN number. I’m always wondering whether the conductor is going to look at my email printout and ask what the devil is that, but no, on the last three trips this has worked very well.
From the Naples train station we walked around the edge of the extensive construction going on in Piazza Garibaldi up Via Carbonara. A lot of the rebuilding of the piazza and the Garibaldi metro station is now completed, very snazzy, lots of shiny tubing interlaced beam kind of things on the surface and a new shiny entrance down to the Garibaldi metro.
People say “Napoli si ama o si odia, senza mezze misure” – you love Naples or you hate it, there’s no middle ground. (Borrowed from the excellent web blog of Maria, “skipblog.it”) Plunging into Garibaldi square was a sudden immersion into the South: sidewalk merchants selling everything from miniature sewing devices to kebabs to “iPads just like new we make you good price”, tourists like us dragging their suitcases through the crowd, Neapolitans blithely wading through the traffic (we following like baby ducklings), and lots and lots of noise. Once we reached Via Carbonara (it branches off the northwest end of Garibaldi square) it was an easy 10-minute walk past a couple of scruffy blocks into more sedate territory and eventually to our hotel, the Palazzo Caracciolo.
The Caracciolo family has been a major force in Naples history for centuries. The church of San Giovanni a Carbonara, half a block from the hotel, is chock full of splendid medieval and Renaissance tombs of the Caracciolo. The Palazzo Caracciolo was their palace, built in the late 1500s. It was also the palace of Joachim Murat, one of Napoleon’s generals who was made King of Naples by Mr. N. Murat reigned for a few years but was killed by the locals in 1815 when Mr. N. met with unpleasantness on the battlefield. We loved the place. A big, beautiful arched courtyard and a smaller garden court, lots of places to drink a prosecco in the afternoon or take your morning cappuccino. Big and varied breakfast offerings.
The hotel does a fair amount of convention and guided tour business. Usually we don’t like the atmosphere of a big convention hotel but this felt much more relaxed and comfortable, elegant but not slick. Very friendly and knowledgeable hotel staff. Strong air conditioning in the rooms. We asked for, and got, a room on the first floor (i.e., the American second floor), with big French doors opening onto a little terrace overlooking the big courtyard. A real deal for 100 euros a night.
Another reason we liked the Palazzo Caracciolo is that it was just beyond the old centro, an easy 10-minute walk past the Duomo to Tribunali. This meant that we were just beyond the noise and hectic energy of the centro, which we did not want to experience at night when time to sleep. Some comments on the web saw the location as a disadvantage but for us, it was a plus.
We had arrived in Naples on a Wednesday, mid-day. I had checked beforehand and knew that Capodimonte Museum and the San Martino Cloister were closed on Wednesdays so we had made other plans for Wednesday afternoon. We walked from the hotel to the Via Sofia, just on its eastern side. I wanted to check out a church on this northern part of the centro, the Santi Apostoli. The façade today is nothing but a blank stucco front and a doorway. Nothing prepares you for the baroque blast of the interior. Jeff Matthews, A Brit expat living in Naples, author of an excellent blog, “Naples: Life, Death & Miracles,” calls this a “Wizard of Oz Moment”. Not only is the interior loaded with baroque richness, but the interior has a powerful cohesiveness. The church was built relatively quickly in the mid-1600s and the interior has not been altered or disrupted by later additions. Even though this is not a huge structure, the visual impact is very strong. One of my baroque favorites of the entire trip.
Then down Via Duomo, visited the cathedral (a big jumble of beautiful pieces but the overall impression is uneven), then down Tribunali to have a late lunch at Sorbillo, the older 32 Tribunali place, not the newer one a few doors away. Everybody except us were Italians; pizzas were flying out of the kitchen. We ordered a margherita and a prosciutto and a bottle of water, wolfed them down, terrific. The bill came to 9.40 euros.
On to the Cappella San Severo. This has been described often in this forum and elsewhere, so no need to go into great detail. We found this to be a magical and spooky place. We talked to a couple of the guides about the symbolism, including the importance of the color green for the Freemasons. Raimondo di Sangro, an ardent Mason, apparently developed the green material which was used on the ceiling frescoes. The masonic symbolism represented by the Veiled Christ and the other statues was fascinating. The “anatomical devices” in the crypt, with the precise modeling of the arteries and veins of the human body, made me wonder why a simple DNA test could not be done to answer once and for all whether these things were in fact remains of human bodies or some kind of complex sculpture. But the Sangro family still owns this place, we were told, and maybe they just do not want to do any scientific testing.
Back to hotel, change, a prosecco from the bar served in the big courtyard as dusk arrived. This is a great place!
Dinner at Pulcinella Bistro in the centro, not far from Santa Chiara. This is a small family-run place in a beautifully restored space. For openers, suppli rice and anchovy balls and varied marinated seafood; mains – scialatelli (=fat spaghetti) with prawns and also with mussels; dolci – semifreddo with strawberries and amaretto. The waiter’s wine choice was a nice cold white Falanghina. 75 euros total, delish.
Thursday morning we had our first encounter with the massive breakfast buffet offered by the Caracciolo: plain and chocolate cornetti, sfogliatelli, various breads, salamis, cheeses, scrambled eggs, English-style bacon, scrambled eggs…..and fresh green beans (?!@*?!!!) Actually I had a big pile of green beans, a refreshing bit of vegetables for starting the day. And cappuccino for the asking. All under the massive arches surrounding the big courtyard.
I had gotten up early so after breakfast I crossed the street to visit San Giovanni a Carbonara. The name “Carbonara” was given to this area because the townsfolk used to burn their garbage in this area, which was just outside the walls of the town. San Giovanni is not visited very much. Founded as a church and a monastery by the Augustinians in 1343, it offers splendid medieval and Renaissance tombs and frescoes, many of them glorifying members of the Caracciolo family. Leopold Mozart brought little Wolfgang to Naples in May 1770 seeking music contracts and they stayed here in the monastery for a few days.
On entering the church I was dumbfounded by the immense sculpted tomb of King Ladislas and his sister, Giovanna II, 1428, 36 feet high. At the very top of the monument is a statue of the king mounted on horseback with his sword raised high, almost touching the ceiling of the church. Behind the main altar, walking through a doorway under the Ladislas monument, you enter the chapel of Caracciolo del Sole, 1427. It contains the (can I say “magnificent” again?) tomb of Sergianni Caracciolo and a floor paved with thousands of small majolica ceramic tiles with images of leaves, geometrical designs, and human heads.
This chapel’s walls are covered with frescoes depicting the life of the Virgin by Leonardo da Besozzo. Also frescoes of the lives of the hermit monks by Perinetto da Benevento. The monks are shown making bricks, preaching, and one scene shows a monk swatting the devil on his backside with a stick. The scenes of Mary’s life includes a crowded picture of the birth of Jesus, with all manner of everyday details, such as a cook preparing a chicken for dinner with the house cat perched on the kitchen table waiting to pounce on any stray chicken bits
To the left of the main altar is the chapel of Caracciolo di Vico, a Renaissance chapel completed in the early 1500s with tombs and sculptures of many members of the Caracciolo family. The dome is luminous and white, a small version of the Pantheon’s dome.
Today was the day we had planned for visiting two big sights, the museum of Capodimonte and and the monastery of San Martino. We got a taxi from the hotel to Capodimonte. The taxi driver regaled us in English with tales Naples history and he approved our lunch yesterday at Sorbillo 32. On approaching Capodimonte we saw a tall, modern, steel building and he said it was the Theological University, Naples having a very high percentage of theologians, as well as a multitude of lawyers and doctors. I said that if the town also had a high number of undertakers it would be the perfect combination.
Capodimonte is sometimes rated as a secondary sight in English language guidebooks. This seems bizarre. The palace and grounds are beautiful and the collection of paintings, thanks to the Farnese-Bourbon folks, is breathtaking. The palace itself is very un-Baroque, almost severe, with the ground floor dominated by tall grey stone arches and the exterior walls painted almost a Pompeiian red color. There are two huge interior courtyards and a handy coffee and snack bar for a break.
For me, the dominant space in the collection was the gallery containing several works showing Pope Paul III and his family. The central work is Titian’s, “Portrait of Paul III with Two Grandsons”. Sometimes this work is labeled “…with His Nephews”, but the Italian word can mean grandson, and in this case it definitely does. The pope himself is shown as an aged an aged spidery gnome, turning to his left, with a cagey look in his eye. He is balancing power politics and family politics (at this time in Italy they are the same), juggling his alliances among Spain, France, and the Emperor Charles V, maneuvering his grandsons into ecclesiastical positions and/or strategic marriages. The grandson on the left, Alessandro, is 24 years old, already a cardinal, and scheming to become pope after grand-dad departs this world. His left hand is on the back of Paul’s chair, indicating his intent. Grandson Ottavio, 21, on the right, is angling for the wealth of the Duchy of Parma; he is bowing in obsequious homage to grand-dad. This is a contrast to Alessandro’s stance, who turns his confident gaze directly to the viewer (or to Titian as he is painting the scene?) All the while we can hear Grandfather Paul chuckling to himself, “heh, heh, heh, little do they know what I am about to do….” A supreme portrayal of papal family dynamics.
This Titian portrait is flanked by another portrait of Paul III alone and by two fine sculpted busts of the pope. On the right wall is Raphael’s portrait of Paul III when he was a young, on-the-make cardinal allying himself with Medici wealth to climb up the slippery ladder of papal politics. He looks serene, assured, holding some piece of bureaucratic paperwork in his elegant hand, clothed in brilliant cardinal scarlet against a black background, with a small window scene of the countryside in the distance.
And we need to thank wily Paul III and his progeny for the bulk of the Capodimonte collection we’re enjoying as well as the antiquities in the archeology museum in the city below.
So many other wonders in Capodimonte, hard to focus. Especially wonderful is Masaccio’s Crucifixion, part of a large altarpiece composed of many paintings, now dispersed in different museums in Europe and the U.S. Masaccio has placed his realistic figures on a flat golden Byzantine background, a transition from medieval to early Renaissance. This Crucifixion piece was designed for the very top of the tall altarpiece and Masaccio elongated the mourners at the foot of the cross and foreshortened Christ’s head. The whole thing looks out of proportion today as we look at it at eye level, but it was designed to be seen looking up ten or more feet and His head would be sunk on His chest at the moment of death. The museum curators have placed this masterpiece in a single room, completely dark except for lighting directed on the painting. With the gold and scarlet and blue colors, it glows like a jewel.
A light lunch in the courtyard snack bar: a slice of pizza stuffed with slightly bitter friarelli greens and mozzarella, a toasted salami and mozzarella panino, followed by a good espresso. Then we took the R4 bus to Piazza Dante, hopped the Montesanto funicular to the Morghen stop on Vomero hill and walked to the San Martino Certosa.
San Martino: if I stop to describe this place I’ll never finish this trip report! Chapel, oratory, library, and other spaces chock-full of fine woodwork, sculpture, and frescoes. Baroque splendor high on the hill overlooking the city, the bay, Vesuvius, Sorrento, and Capri. When Naples is good, it is very, very good.
We took the funicular back to Montesanto and the metro to the Cavour stop on Via Foria. It started to drizzle, I missed our street for the hotel, and a downpour ensues. Water flooded the side streets. Where are our umbrellas? Back at the hotel, of course. We wandered and wandered, soaking wet, like drowned rats. Finally we found Via Carbonara, the rain let up, and we passed a little tavola calda and bought some suppli for moral support. Good grief they were wonderful, crispy crusts and stuffed with gooey cheese, a little meat, and peas. One euro each. The rain stopped. We sloshed back to the hotel, showered and got ready for dinner.
Dinner was at a family place often recommended by the hotel and well rated on web advisory sites, Pizzeria Lombardi on Via Foria, a few blocks from the hotel. We asked for advice on fresh seafood and boy did we get it: apps of marinated anchovies and fried anchovies and then paccheri with lobster, mussels, octopus, prawns, and squid with a little fresh tomato and parsley for the juices. The suggested wine is Aglianico Mastroberardino, excellent and priced around 20 euros. Dolci: a kind of ricotta-chocolate thing, called “cassatta” on the menu but not like what I thought cassatta was. No problem, it was delicious. Limoncello and amaro as digestivi. An outstanding, simple dinner, one of the best of the trip.
Back to the hotel and prep for the next leg: the Friday morning train to Paestum.
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Rome - Naples - Paestum - Salerno - Ravello Trip Report
ITALY 2014 TRIP REPORT FOR FODORS