Mom and I arrived in Italy on Thursday after leaving very early from Nottingham for our flight and found our hotel without too much difficulty. After getting food recommendations from our lovely host we headed out and stumbled across one of the few sites I knew I wanted to see before we had arrived – the religious complex of Santa Chiara, particularly the incredible cloisters decorated with majolica tile work and with gardens full of lemon trees. We happened upon a wedding in the church and then stopped for pizza and had our first gelato before crashing early!
Friday was our first full day in Naples and the temperatures were supposed to hit thirty degrees Celsius. We bravely donned our lightest clothes plus plenty of sunscreen and headed down the via Toledo to explore. The via Toledo is one of the busiest streets in Naples and one of the oldest – in existed since in the ancient city as well. It’s a main shopping thoroughfare with the higher-end shops concentrating towards the bay. The street ends at the Piazza del Plebiscito – the main square of the city. Its bounded by the Galleria Umberto (a huge beautiful shopping centre), the Opera-teatro di San Carlo (the oldest continually running opera house in Europe), the Palazzo Reale (one of four seats of the Bourbon kings in the area) and the San Francesco di Paola Church. They’re all incredibly beautiful buildings, but the gallery has one of the most beautiful interiors I’ve ever seen.
We arranged a tour of the opera house for later that afternoon and then we continued down to the harbour front and walked the promenade until we came to the Castel dell’Ovo. The castle was once on an island, but time and building projects have turned it into a peninsula. The name translates to Castle of the Egg because of a local legend about Virgil. During the Medieval Ages Virgil was thought to have been a great magician and it was thought that he placed a magical egg in a cage in the castle to keep it safe and stabilize the foundations. The legend was so persistent that during a storm when a rival prince escaped from the castle a rumour spread that the egg had been broken and panic spread throughout the city. This continued until the rulers issued a statement saying they had undertaken repairs to the egg and all was well!
After a well-deserved stop for gelato we headed to a second major castle in Naples – Castel Nuovo – the architectural symbol of the city. It was built during the 13th and 14th century by Charles I of Anjou and his successors and has always been an important part of the city’s political life. It served as the seat of the city council until 2006! Then we headed to a café to wait for the start of the Opera tour. The building is incredible and very opulent. We were also able to witness last minute presentations for La Boheme which was opening the following week.
Later the evening – to top off our busy day – we headed to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and the Secret Museum to see the impressive collection of marbles as well as many of the artifacts found during the excavation of Pompeii – the glassware was particularly incredible. Then, starved and tired we stumbled into a tiny restaurant and had one of the most memorable experiences of our trip!
We walked in and sat down. The owner came over and asked if we wanted appetisers and we said yes. First he brought us bread and a bottle of his homemade red wine. We chatted for a bit and watched as he fussed about in the kitchen and then suddenly brought us plates of food filled with different preparations of eggplant, salami and mozzarella, marinated peppers, bruschetta and two types of greens. It was incredible and then followed by pasta with eggplant, tomato and mozzarella. Finally be brought out a platter of seafood – fried squid and octopus, shrimps (heads and all) and deep-fried minnows , all served with green beans and potatoes. Despite being stuffed, our lovely host then brought out berries and melons marinated in sugar and basil. Once we finished our wine he poured us each a shot of limoncello – a lemon liqueur produced around the Gulf of Naples that’s bright yellow, tart and strong. One of the older men who worked there kept petting my hair as he went by and encouraging us to eat. We got hugs and kisses goodbye when we left and it very much made our day!
Saturday we slept in – not late really, but it wasn’t the early start to the day like we’d hoped and was partially due to the 32 Swiss youth staying down the hall from us who were particularly rowdy. I slept through it all as usual, but mom didn’t. After we got going we stopped for a croissant and headed for the train station in order to get to Caserta. It’s a lovely little town about thirty kilometres out of Naples and the home of the former Bourbon kings of Naples. In fact the palace that was constructed there was built to rival the grandeur of Versailles and although I’ve never been, Mom said it definitely kept up! The main complex is beautifully maintained and the royal apartments were spectacular – the king’s private chambers were renovated in the 19th century to include electricity! The entire palace is gilded to the hilt and they had maintained some very special artifacts from the monarch’s lives in the palace before the last king went into exile in 1861.
The rear gardens had a very different feel to them from Versaille – much cleaner, simpler lines as we exited the palace. However, as we progressed through the gardens they became much more ornate. It was quite the walk in another day of extremely hot weather and we stuck to the shade as much as possible, only coming out to see the increasingly intricate fountains. The gardens ended in a waterfall cascading off a mountain; and just off to the right was a spectacular twenty-one acre park and English garden with plants and trees from all over the former British empire. Overall the site was absolutely beautiful but certain elements (like the front gardens and two flanking buildings had been left to decay and were in a sorry state. I always find old buildings nostalgic and wistful – I wish I could have seen them how they were. After six odd hours wandering around the palace complex we caught the train back to Naples and hunted for a place to eat.
We were thrown off track by our first and only pickpocket who unsuccessfully grabbed at the necklace I was wearing and got an elbow for his trouble. I was slightly shaky after that but settled once we found a pizzeria and had enormous pizzas (breakfast the next day too!) which were delicious with fresh tomato sauce and thin crispy crusts. We spent most of our time there watching the organized team churn out pizzas every five minutes! After we’d boxed up our leftovers we wandered around the cute streets and shopping district and then made our way over to our hostel owner’s favourite gelateria where we had our last gelato in Naples. Next we’re off to Salerno!