We went to the Amalfi coast brimming with a real sense of excitement and curiosity. So much has been written about Naples, its charms, its horrors. Rick Steves says if you like Italy as far as Rome, go further south—and we love Rome, so we thought we might like it. But we weren't sure. Certainly, people talk vociferously about the safety issues in Naples. It is described as gritty, which right away makes it at risk of being hated by Nicolas (the child of mine with the greatest impulse towards clean and fresh cities). Concerned that perhaps we'd hate Naples, we elected to stay on Procida, an island off the coast. Our plan was to arrive in Procida on Thursday afternoon and explore the island, spend Friday in Naples, and then on Saturday return to Naples if we loved it. If we didn't love it, we'd either spend the day on Procida or take the ferry to the neighboring island of Ischia for part of the day and walk around Procida in the afternoon. And then Sunday we'd visit Pompeii or Ercolano (I'm going to use the Italian word for Herculaneum here, as I can neither type or say Herculaneum with any ease), drop by the palace of Caserta, and continue home.
Those were our physical plans. I, of course, had culinary plans. There are 45 foods of Campania that are listed in the Slow Food movements Ark of Taste (a catalogue of heritage foods that are in danger of vanishing). Forty-five. To put that in perspective, there are three in Umbria—a bean from Lago Trasimeno, a pulse called roveja, and sedano nero. Now, I'm not sure if this is because the Campania region is more rife with heritage foods, or if this is because Umbria cares for their food-ways such that they are not threatened. What I do know is that this makes for much food hunting for this 4 day adventure. I went to Campania armed with the following list of foods to look for:
agerola fior di latte
alburni caciocavallo podolico
amalfi sfusato lemon
white pertosa artichokes
castellemmare violet artichoke
cilento dotted fig
cilento goat cacioricotta
casoperuto (round goat milk cheese, rubbed with oil and vinegar, stored in clay containers or glass jars)
monte marzano pecorino
neopolitan papacella (vegetable)
roman conciato cheese
san gregorio magno soppressata
san marzano tomatoe
sant'agata dei goti annurca apple
We arrived in Procida hungry and happy. The four hour drive had passed easily, with just a quick stop at the Autogrill for provisions. The Autogrill is a fabulous Italian concept. They are like commercial rest-stops in America, only awesome. You can get a quick espresso, a panini, some have restaurants where you can get pasta or a lovely salad. And there are packaged foods to go, like sliced meats, candies, fruit, and in Campania, buffalo mozzarella. We got olive-crackers and salami to last us until we arrived in Pozzuoli, where we were to catch the ferry. I had mapped out a restaurant in Pozzuoli, but there wasn't enough time for a sit down meal as the ferries were few due to the holiday (All Saint's Day). We ate fried pizza on the boat. You heard me right. Fried pizza. It was sort of like a donut, but in a calzone shape, stuffed with pizza toppings, and then fried. Four of us devoured them, but Nicolas was not enthused. That was our first indication that he wasn't feeling well. He was an incredible sport about it, but he was battling an illness for most of our trip (which mostly manifest itself as a stuffy nose, a persistent cough, and an aversion to foods he would normally love—like ciambelle—while happily eating tuna pizza).
The ferry ride over was incredible, we passed caves hidden amongst cliff faces, a lighthouse, the wind was fresh and the air was warm. Our first view of Procida was delightful. Colorful buildings hemming in a blue-green marina, with an ancient city set high above. Stunning. We'd arranged with Francesco, who we were renting a house from, to have his friend pick us up. So we arrived at the house in rapid time. And I mean rapid. As we were to find out, Amalfi taxi and bus drivers know not the concept of taking one's time, or the concept of keeping your hands at ten and two. Or slowing down to avoid rapidly approaching narrowing walls.
We jumped out of the car, and our hosts opened the door into what seemed like paradise. An arbor was covered with kiwis, and fruit trees spread orchard style though a green and verdant garden. An absolutely dizzying array of fruit trees—lemons, limes, clementines, oranges, grapefruit, kumquat. We spent our tour of the garden with our mouths agape, the children squealing and racing. The house and garden have been in the owner's family for generations, and we were particularly interested in the parts of the house that are no longer livable, but which illustrate an antiquated way of living. The tile-covered stove, with the coffee bean roaster, was fascinating. As were the tanks for wine, and the casks.
Our accommodations were above this older level. It was similarly evocative. The variations of tile floor, ancient tea cups, multiple terraces, and antique furniture gave a real sense of historic life in Procida. Our kitchen was stocked with a basket of oranges, another of limes, a tray of kiwis (Francesco told us that they don't ripen until they are removed from the vine and placed beside an apple), bottles of home-preserved tomatoes, and eggs from their chickens. In the bookcase were old books that also added to the feel of heritage. There was even a cookbook, in which we found a recipe for orange cake written onto a piece of paper in antiquated script. We enjoyed deciphering the recipe, and I copied it to try to make it later.
Once settled, and after enjoying a cup of fabulous coffee offered by Francesco (who says he has been making it in a moka since he was six years old), we set out to explore the island. Unfortunately we were not without challenges, the biggest of which was Gabe. He was just in a horrible mood, and complained constantly. There are few things more exasperating than a cranky five-year-old, unless it's a cranky five-year-old who can shriek really loudly. That's the kind we had. And we were all very hungry, and had a hard time getting our bearings. So while we admired the colorful buildings, we mostly just felt the walls. We had planned on going to a restaurant recommended in my research. Particularly after Francesco endorsed it and said that a boat could pick us up from one harbor and take us to the restaurant (as the beach is hard to access). This sounded pretty much as cool as it gets, but when we called the restaurant, they were closed for the winter.
It was early, but getting dark so quickly, we decided to abandon the pretense that we could function Italian style and just eat dinner at a sacrilegiously early hour. La Locanda il Postino (named such because the movie Il Postino was filmed in Procida) was beautifully situated in a quiet marina with fishing boats and a long view out to the ocean. The owners were loud and friendly, showing us the fish they had available, telling us that if we got cold outside, we could move inside at any time. Their enthusiasm was cheering, and even Gabe got swept up in the spirit. I thought the food was fine, but everyone else loved their meals. Keith and I each got a different fish, one grilled and one served in a tomatoey sauce. Nicolas and Siena ordered fried calamari and shrimp which were pretty tasty, and Gabe got a plate of fried fish that he loved. He reports that eating fish with eyes is really fun. He had quite the time, removing spines, investigating the head before he popped it in his mouth. He is not squeamish.
As we ate on the dock, the neighborhood cats enjoyed our presence. They were odd cats, with a strange, almost human look to their faces. I wonder if island living leads to much inbreeding of felines. In any case, they jumped in our laps, batted our knees, and curled up under our chairs. The children found this marvelous. Keith and I not so much. Though watching the cats jump into the fishing boats was admittedly pretty cute.
That was probably the longest stretch of time we spent on Procida. Other than this exploratory venture, we had breakfast at a bar at the port the following morning, and then at a bar called Bar Roma the next two mornings. Bar Roma was wonderful. Excellent coffee, a wide variety of pastries, including lingue di bue (this translates to ox tongue, but is actually layers of puff pastry around a honey-flavored cream). One of the mornings we had time after breakfast to go to a pasticeria called La Panetteria, was which unbelievable, with the most glorious breads, rolls, and pastries, including a kind of shortbread pizza. They had beautiful gnocchi that I really wanted to cook up with our home-jarred tomatoes. I told Nicolas this idea, and he suggested adding seafood from one of the fishmongers. Oh, my...I wish we were staying for much longer. Particularly after I witnessed the mozzarella van rolling slowly down the street calling "mozzarella!" up at all the houses.
We also had two more dinners in Procida. None of the restaurants we'd planned to go to were viable options since they were closed for the winter. I guess this was the hidden downfall of not coming during tourist season. Keith asked one of the fishmongers where we should go, and all three surrounded him debating the question. Full of Italian gestures that were hard to decipher (an "okay" symbol held low and rocked back and forth), but clear that the options were few. The best was on the other side of the island (and, ultimately, closed), but La Medusa was okay. Truly, if you want to eat good seafood, I think better to consult the local fishmonger than Trip Advisor. The restaurant lacked the effusiveness of Locanda del Postino, and we were told that only some of the menu items were available (a very small percentage—our choices were limited to bruschette, and a few primi and secondi). The house wine was so awful I couldn't drink it...so awful that even Nicolas could tell it was not good wine. But the food was wonderful. Gabe and I each had tiny fried calamari ("Oh, look, I'm eating the whole thing, eyes and all! I think the eyeballs are tasty!"), Keith had a pasta with tomato sauce and the same miniature calamari. Nicolas's bruschetta with olive paste was oddly bitter, so he ate most of Gabe's calamari, and Siena enjoyed her deluxe salad, as she had been feeling after a bumpy boat ride from Naples.
Almost the best part of each evening was walking back to the house. Procida at night smells amazing, like woodsmoke and garlic and jasmine.
I loved Naples. I really loved it. It was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, full of colorful buildings with ornate balconies and trim work, and I loved the avenues of shops that each inhabit one room. The street of musical instrument shops, the street of bookshops, the streets of varied shops, but still, each one occupying one room, so that the whole street feels alive with color and smell and activity.
I do think, though, that my love of Naples has something to do with coming to it from Spello. Though there are spots of Renaissance and ancient Rome in Spello, the stonework shows its status as a lovely example of a medieval town. So the bright colors of Naples were unexpected and fabulous. Also, I have been living in a city without sidewalks for months now, so dodging traffic isn't so cumbersome as it would have been had I arrived from Virginia. It was crowded, but somehow I was able to overlook that. Maybe because I was always looking up. Up at the next remarkable building. Up to sniff the next amazing smell.
I believe that one's impression of a city is half derived from the city itself, and half has to do with the approach of the visitor. My feeling about Florence comes immediately to mind. I really didn't like it when we were first there, but I think it has much to do with my socks that kept bunching around the arches of my feet. When I went two months ago, I loved it. So coming from Spello I loved Naples, where if I'd come from home, I might not have. And Siena, surprisingly, did not like Naples, where I would've expected her to love it. But I think that's because I had to take her aside and give her a stern and emphatic talking to within our first 10 minutes of arrival because she kept veering into incoming traffic. After that, her enthusiasm waned, and she looked mostly at her feet saying, "I don't think Naples is my city". It was aggravating, as Naples is a city of continual surprises that I wanted her to be able to experience, but I think she was holding her curiosity and engagement hostage. Nicolas and Keith found it charming, and liked it much more than they expected, though keeping the kids out of the way of speeding scooters preyed on Keith more than it impacted me. Gabe was Gabe. He was mostly cheerful, game for most things, except when he had forays into cranky-town and then became unpleasant.
After a little while of feeling tense about our safety, that anxiety melted away. I was careful, but the images of someone driving by on a scooter and yanking off my backpack and dragging me away with it dissolved, leaving me much more expansive. I found the people to be friendly. Particularly when we were getting our ferry tickets home and Keith told the ticket seller that we had 2 adults and 3 children, and the seller asked in Italian the ages of our children. Keith told him, and the guy said he thought Gabe was four. Keith said, no, he's five. The ticket seller looked at me and said, "ha quattro anni, davvero?" and I said absolutely he was four. Keith caught on and agreed that he was four, thus saving us buying him a ticket. The seller added that Gabe's birthday was probably tomorrow. Keith replied it was actually the day after tomorrow...and we all had a good laugh.
The eating in Naples was excellent. We began with a trip to Sfogliatella Mary, a stand that is known for its eponymous pastry, the sfogliatella. What I didn't know is that there are two kinds of sfogliatella. One is a triangle of pastry leaves (sort of like baclava, but not sticky), filled with a ricotta cream. The other has the same cream, but is round and made of more of a shortbread pastry. This is puzzling to me, as the name suggests sheets or leaves. So I expected the layered phyllo, but not the dome shortbread. In any case, we got the phyllo kind (Keith got the shortbread kind on our last morning in Procida, and it was marvelous, and perhaps something we can replicate at home). I was in pure pastry heaven. I've never had anything like this. The filling was the creamiest ricotta, flavored with orange and a hint of maybe cinnamon, and little bits of candied citron. This was not the ricotta filling one finds in cannoli. That has a metallic taste to me because of the powdered sugar (insult me all you like for this barbarous statement, I get enough of it at home), this was almost like custard. The sfogliatella was warm and flaky and sweet and creamy.
We went to a widely renowned pizza restaurant, Pizzeria Di Matteo, to sample real Neopolitan pizza. But first we had to wait. And wait. And wait. Outside, where we continued to dodge cars and scooters who were weaving down the alley around other scooters, unsuspecting pedestrians, and an old woman who exited the restaurant and sat on a dining room chair in the middle of the alley. From our birdseye perspective, we watched workers race down the alley with tomato sauce and pots of beautiful, vivid cooked spinach. We saw workers bringing down from the upper areas of the restaurant what looked like shallow drawers full of rising pizza dough. And we saw the cooks light their cigarettes, and keep those ash logs beside them as they rolled out dough or fried the pizza calzones. All under the sign forbidding customers from smoking.
It was great pizza. Soggy, which my Chowhound reading had prepared me for, but the crust was airy and the sauce was intensely tomatoey while still tasting fresh and vibrant. The cheese was fresh mozzarella (hence the soggy—fresh mozzarella gives off buckets of liquid when it cooks), which none of us except Siena prefer. She got buffalo mozzarella magherita and was in heaven. Nicolas would've loved this tuna pizza best of all the pizzas he has had, except the cheese just doesn't suit him. Keith prefers our crisp-crust, more Roman style pizza. I love it all, and appreciate the variety. We also got appetizers— fried croquettes of mashed potatoes with herbs and arancini, which are fried balls of rice with a little surprise inside. Ours had cheese and sausage. Yummy.
Our final eating delight was Gay Odin, a chocolate shop that serves the most insane gelato. This gelato ranked up there with every member of my family's list of "top three foods on this trip." Siena had chocolate-cinnamon nestled alongside glazed chestnut gelato, that was unlike gelato in its density. It really seemed like a frozen, molten glazed chestnut. Nicolas got giunduja and raved about the rivers of nutella, but I can't speak to it because he didn't offer any bites. Gabe got chocolate-hazelnut and squealed whenever he got a hazelnut. Keith got chocolate-coffee and relished all the flecks of coffee beans. I got chocolate-orange which was rich and balanced. Chocolate nirvana. And with it I had crema, which also had an orange tinge. Certainly the best chocolate gelato any of us have ever had, and my crema was the best crema I've ever had.
Keith followed up the gelato with a coffee from Caffe Mexico, a shop that I had read served coffee that ranks best in the world. I wish we had found it earlier in the day, as I would've liked to have tasted it, and by late afternoon coffee drinking runs the risk of keeping me up all night and making me headachy in the morning. And Keith reports it was astonishing coffee. Perhaps better than Sant'Eustachio, or as good as Sant'Eustachio was years ago when he first had it and the hype wasn't as noisy. The coffee itself was utterly perfect, and it had a wonderful creamy element. Says Keith. In general, all the Amalfi coffee was tremendous. These are a people who know how to brew a cup. No fanfare, no hiding behind panels or charging egregious prices. Eighty cents buys you a cup of rich and creamy coffee perfection. Now you and me both wish we'd had some.
As for sights, we didn't see that many. We paused at piazzas and churches. We went to Santa Chiara so that we could see the tiled cloisters but there was a fee when we thought it would be free, and we were running up against a dire need to eat lunch, so we skipped it. We passed the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, but didn't have time to go in to see the Roman ruins underneath, which is unfortunate as it reportedly houses the remains of aRoman street including a bakery and a laundry, and even a layer of Greek ruins. We did see evidence of ancient Greeks in Naples at Piazza Bellini, where a large pit exposes Greek ruins. We gave the Church of Sansevero an intentional miss as we thought that though the marble veiled Christ would have been eerie and interesting, the anatomical machines would've given our younger two nightmares when they are still struggling with sleep. We walked along the Spaccanapoli (the street that divides old and new Naples), but it was kitschier than I liked, and I wish we could have spent more time along the other intriguing streets. We joined the hordes of people in Christmas alley and purchased some articles for our nativity scene—including a basket of silvery fish and lemons, though not the chestnut roaster which I didn't notice until we were hightailing it out to meet the ferry.
The one tourist attraction we elected to visit was the National Archaeological Museum, as I'd read that it is an almost necessary accompaniment to Pompeii and Ercolano, as many of the treasures excavated at these sights were removed to the museum. The giant marble statues were astounding, and the frescoes were beautiful, and the glass and metal housewares were wonderful—but it was the mosaics that made all of us gasp. Such miniscule tesserae, creating such massive and intricately-detailed works of art. It was wonderful to be surrounded by art that had mythological themes, rather than the biblical themes of the medieval art found in our area. Siena has been reading myths at school and for fun, so she was our resident expert on the stories behind the images.
The museum also had a secret room, which we were curious about. The children wandered into it, and were promptly kicked out. Turns out, it was the ancient porn room. I admit, I didn't know such a thing existed. But there they were—plates, statues, frescoes—with sexual themes. I had this image of a toga-clad ancient Roman inviting his buddies over to check out his new lewd mosaic. In reality, I find it puzzling. The ancientRoman art I've seen is so clean and pure of intention, with mythological themes or exemplifying virtues, it's strange to think that this one aspect of humanity is codified, rather than creating images of music or cooking or devotion. Was it humorous (the fresco of the guy battling his own member seemed pretty funny)? Universally admired? Just another way to pray to a deity of fertility and strength? Niche art? Or like a pin-up calendar, cherished by a similar segment of the ancient Roman population?
In any case, not appropriate for our younger two children. We ignored their request to know why they weren't allowed to go in the secret room. Okay kids! Time to head out! Who wants gelato? Gelato, as it turns out, is a nifty distraction for many circumstances.
Ischia is the largest of the three islands in the bay of Naples. Procida is the smallest, but most densely populated; Capri is at the other end of the bay, and famous for its fancy shops, as well as its scenic coastline and blue grotto. Ischia seemed perhaps a middle ground. Large enough to have undeveloped land, but without the tourists and Prada. The silhouette of Ischia is remarkable for its volcano, which also heats the water that is tapped for thermal baths. I'd read about Sorgeto, a rocky beach where the volcano-heated water spills into the cool ocean waters and thought the children would be interested. And I wanted to hike up the volcano.
So we spent Saturday in Ischia. Siena was enraptured with the island from the moment we landed. I'm not sure if she wanted to be enthusiastic after her less than exuberant reaction to Naples, or if our sunny arrival felt warm and embracing, or if, as she says, it just felt "open". Which could make sense, the streets of Procida are lined with high walls, which makes walking the streets feel more closed in than we anticipated. And in Naples the buildings were so tall. Perhaps walking on an island where the houses are more spread out so the vista is less encumbered felt freeing in some sense. All I know is, she reports that Ischia ranks up there with Spello and the Piedmont. As for me, I thought some parts were lovely, but it didn't have wide areas of open nature which I had hoped for.
We began with a trip to the tourist office for a map and clarity on where to find Sorgeto and also where to find the trail that winds up the volcano. Then to buy bus tickets. We decided on full day tickets, since we didn't know if we'd be able to buy bus tickets where we'd be later in the day. This was a huge mistake. Huge. The bus system in Ischia is largely awful. First of all, the bus schedule is more of a comic sidebar. Secondly, there are far too few buses, which means the buses were so full that people were actually standing in the millimeters of space between the seats, and the bus doors would repeatedly get caught on people pressed against them. People waiting to get on either ran back and forth along the bus looking for a door with an iota of space they could wedge themselves into, or looked panicked as the bus paused and left. We were all standing, which was not easy on these twisting, winding roads along the cliffs. The view down to the water was beautiful, but hard to appreciate when fighting to keep down one's morning pastries. Thirdly, the stops are not marked. Not one stop was marked. So the bus would stop, but we would have no idea where we were, or if we should get off; and there was no way to ask the driver, since we were pressed so close to our fellow passengers that I could smell the garlic of last night's dinner on the breath of the fellow three people away from me.
Keith ended up making friends with an Italian family, who asked around and found out when we were supposed to get off. The man, Rocco, was boisterous and very chatty, and gave Keith a lesson in Italian gestures, once some people had departed and there room to move one's hands again. Rocco had lots of questions about our upcoming election, and told Keith that the problem with Romney was that he wasn't strong enough. Which is interesting, I wonder where that characterization comes from? Our limited Italian doesn't lead to much political discourse other than agreeing that yes, we too would like Obama to be president another four years. (They sure love Obama here. Almost every Italian we meet wants to talk to us about Obama. You are voting? You are voting for Obama? Okay, good. From people at restaurants to taxi drivers, it is one of our most common conversation with natives.)
In any case, we did find our way off the bus, and down to the water. It was a hike, and as we walked, we were already determined to take taxis for the rest of our day. The cove was beautiful, and would have been more so if it there hadn't been so many people. I'm not sure why I had an image in my head of us being the only people there, building cairns from the rocks, giggling as the warm water wound streamers of heat around our cool feet, swimming in the azure waters. Sometimes I'm too romantic for my own good. In actuality, the place was fairly crowded (not full, but more people than I envisioned), there was a fence along the gap in the cliff face where the warm water surfaced (and people seemed to be encamped behind the fence which just seemed creepy to me), people were sitting at the source of the warm water and weren't giving up their seats for anything, and there was no place to change (the changing room was locked, perhaps for the season). Plus, Nicolas just wasn't himself. The slight nausea he'd had earlier had been activated by the bus ride. He didn't want to get in the water. His mood was gracious and cheerful, he just wasn't feeling adventurous.
So I took my two littlests into the water, as close to the source as we could get. And I was actually grateful for that fence, as it gave me something to cling to, as I had one had firmly in Gabe's, to hold him up as the waves rushed in along the slippery ocean floor. The warm water was lovely, and the color of the water was stunning. But we didn't stay long. Just long enough to make cairns, giggle, feel the water, and breathe the air. I'd read about a restaurant right above the cove, so after huffing it up the stairs we arrived at Hotel Punto Chiarito. Or as we like to call it, nirvana. This place was heaven, and arriving there felt like the clouds parted and we had lucked into golden palace of ease and joy. The bread was deliciously spongey. Our meals were perfect representations of seafood ecstasy (especially the boys' octopus salads, the best I've had). The wine was liquid sunshine. The dessert was a miracle—our cheerful, smiling waiter called it a Caprese cake, an unctuous chocolate almond cake so good I bribed Gabe with future candy if I could have more bites. And Keith and I had limoncello so startlingly good, it made our hearts sing. Add to this a phenomenal panorama framed by olive trees, and it all just felt too good to be true. And then Gabe. Oh, sweet Gabe. He delights in finding the bathroom at whatever restaurant we are at. He wants to ask on his own. So he did, and accidentally wound up in the kitchen. He said the cooks invited him in and offered him something to eat. Why he didn't take them up on it, I'll never know.
We left, and I stopped in the little concierge office to get advice on our next step. We decided to skip the volcano and look for an actual beach. The one next to where we were appeared promising on the map, but by foot it looked too difficult. The concierge helpfully offered to call a cab for us, and thus commenced a truly novel experience. Our taxi driver, Giorgio, was hysterical. He pulled out all the English he knew for us, and greatly enjoyed playing tour guide. He stopped the car periodically and pressed a button to heave open the sunroof. And then he would insist that we "must make beautiful photo." He waved enthusiastically to all the German tourists he knew (he informed us the Ischia has a long history of tourism by Germany), and when we gawked at an orange juice stand, he stopped the taxi on the winding, cliff-lined street and backed up. He told us not to hurry, we should try this juice. He pulled the taxi up alongside it so Keith could hop out, purchase beautiful glasses of juice, return the glasses once we had polished off every luscious drop, and then hop back in. I told Giorgio in Italian that this juice was fantastic, and he added that it was full of vitamins. It was squeezed right there, mostly of oranges, but with a little lemon, and then topped with a jot of lemon granita. Amazing.
Giorgio then dropped us off with careful instructions for how to find the beach from the parking area. He told us to watch for the volcanic steam vents along the pathway, so hot that one could cook potatoes or a chicken. This was such a funny thought that we giggled about it the rest of the day. Once we saw the steam vent, we realized we'd seen them all over the island, but had mistaken them for chimneys. Silly, given the heat, but now it clicked together. The water was cool, but not cold, and lovely to splash in. Clear and such a miraculous color. And then Siena made a wonderful discovery. She was running through the water and stepped into a patch of hot water. She shouted and we all congregated around where she had stepped. The water was hot, and the sand underneath it was very hot. Oh, she was so excited to have discovered her own patch of volcanically heated water. There were only a few other people on the beach, and they came running over to join us and feel the miracle of this hot ocean water. So odd that the rock beach was crowded with people trying to get close to the acqua calda, and on this beach it seemed like we were the first to notice it (not true, of course, but it had that sense of discovery because there was no one there).
Back to the taxi, where we unhappily realized our camera was broken. Which means no photos of the place where we were staying beyond the pictures we had already taken, no photos of our next day's adventures, and we had to pretend to take pictures when ordered to "make pretty photo" by Georgio. Georgio was so adamant about our taking pictures and looking at the thermal baths (which I would love to partake of some time, it looks so fun and relaxing—the Hotel Punto Chiarito had a lunch bargain of a meal and time in their baths, in retrospect that would have been a good idea), that I thought for sure we were going to miss our ferry. But luckily, he had investigated the ferry schedule and found a ferry leaving from a port closer to where we were so we made it with time to spare. I found it lovely that he took us to the closer port, which gave him more time to make us stop and admire Ischia, when he could have taken us to the further port and gotten a larger fare.
We are a little in love with Giorgio.
We went to bed undecided on what we should visit the next day, Pompeii or Ercolano. Ercolano was an ancient Roman seaside resort that was destroyed by the same Vesuvius eruption that demolished Pompeii, but it is better preserved because Vesuvius filled it with boiling mud instead of ash, leaving much of the wood intact. More wood means more of the structures have roofs, as well as second and even third stories. But Pompeii is Pompeii—amazing, grand in scope, a "must see" for those who love the history of ancient Rome. But, as it turns out, we "must see" it another time, as Nicolas woke up much worse, and there was no way we'd put him in a position of having to do the amount of walking and touring that Pompeii would require (particularly as we'd read that the most interesting sights are furthest in). Ercolano it was, enough to whet our appetite, while being manageable for our fading son. And the grand palace of Caserta would have to wait for another trip.
As it turns out, Ercolano was amazing. I can't compare it to Pompeii, obviously, but I can say that we had a thoroughly unbelievable visit and I'm grateful that we went. It is small—about nine square blocks—but those are incredible nine blocks, that reveals an intimate approach to ancient Roman civilization. I had no idea so much was preserved. I had taken pictures in the National Archaeological Museum of the mosaics and frescos, so that we could scroll through them while visiting the ruins and therefore have a sense of the grandeur of the place. But we didn't need them. We saw mosaics of surpassing beauty and completion (particularly in the women's baths), frescoes decorating rooms in almost every house, marble friezes, graceful courtyards with marble basins for the water that would run off the slanted roofs, seats for the baths, marble street plaques, red columns (I didn't even know they painted the columns), large amphorae sunk into counters for selling soups and stews at the Roman equivalent of a fast food restaurant (poorer Roman dwellings tended to not have kitchens), and even a fresco that seemed to be a price list for wine jugs. It was a powerful place, and brought the day to day life on these ancient people into stark relief.
I also appreciated the sense of street life. The shops were like they were in Naples, one room each, and after our visit to Naples, I had much more of a feeling for the bustle and hum that kind of city structure offers. As well as the peace that would be inherent in the lives of wealthy families, as they could step off the busy street, into a large hallway that led immediately to a serene courtyard. And these houses, long ago, had ocean views. I'm sure being poor in an ancient Roman community would be awful, but being from a wealthy family would be amazing. Though perhaps that can be said of now, as well.
I loved the areas we visited. They had a wash-worn, lived in feel that I enjoy. I'm sure peeling paint and graffiti are unpleasant to many, but I am pretty adept at looking past that. Those who enjoy Venice must do the same—see past the grit and uncomfortable sensations to appreciate the richness and beauty lying underneath. This isn't Paris of pristine, romantic buildings, or Geneva with immaculate streets. Naples and Procida are Italian cities, where the heartbeat thrums loudly and clearly. As long as you can avoid the scooters.
All in all, we ate quite well, though if we ate anything from the Ark of Taste is was purely by accident. Family favorites were the gelato at Gay Odin, the pastries from the Bar Roma in Procida, the little-tiny calamari from La Medusa in Procida, the chocolate and almond Caprese cake from Ishchia, pizza from Di Matteo in Naples, and the ciambelle from La Panetteria in Procida. Gabe adds his little fried fish from Locanda Il Postino. Keith adds the coffee in general, but particularly at Caffe Mexico and at Bar Roma—Nicolas insists the "boat coffee"(decaf cappuccino) from the ferry was excellent. Keith and I rate the limoncello in Ischia as one of the best things we had. And I thought the sfogliatella from Sfogliatella Mary was probably the best pastry I've ever had. Not bad for ignoring the heritage foods I'd meant to seek out.
Other than culinarily, the trip was great, but I think too rushed. I like traveling the Slow Traveler way—really taking our time, getting a sense of place, digging in. This felt a bit too checklist-y. But, on the other hand, there was nothing I could have taken out. Though I would go back and do some things differently so as to spend less time in transaction. For instance, I'd find out about a guide or tour of Ischia. Much as I stay away from these normally, I thought Ischia was harder to manage, and would have been improved if we'd had someone saying, okay, now you need to go here. I'll drive. Once we found our blessed taxi-driver things got much nicer. The bus ride was hell.
I would have stayed in Naples longer, as we barely made a small circuit through the historic center. But on the other hand, it was wearying to have to watch out for vehicles and crowds. What we came away with is that Keith and I would like to go back, preferably without children to manage. I would want to spend maybe four days in Naples, and then three days on an island. I'd love to go back to Procida as I don't have any feeling for the "natural" part of it because we didn't have time for the walk I'd mapped out. Or Capri, as our friends who visited Capri said it was easy enough to avoid the chichi parts and get to the gloriously beautiful parts. And I'd really like to see some undeveloped parts of Amalfi.
Keith suggests that next time we bring two medium suitcases rather than one large one, as it was hard to manage such a heavy, large suitcase up the narrow ferry steps, and through the rocky streets. Being as I was not the one having to do such lugging, I'd be perfectly happy repeating the way we did it this time. Siena wants to live in Ischia. All the children would want to stay on an island again, as the boat rides were some of their favorite moments (aside from the time we road the passenger ferry rather than the car ferry—its blazing speed precluded outdoor seating, and the bumpy ride below deck made Siena seasick). I want to bring home limoncello. Francesco told us about a place where he likes to buy it, but we never had the chance to buy it.
I also want to see Pompeii, and even go back to Ercolano. Here is another spot were I think a tour could be beneficial. We bought a book in Ercolano that I read aloud on the way home, which helped our understanding of the homes and the forum and the sacred spaces. But I want someone to say, "here is the kitchen. It would've looked like this. Here is the shop, they would have sold the following foods and they would have served them in this way." Basically, I want someone to create a narrative I can put to the image. I also want to write a novel that takes place in Ercolano, it was a fascinating and captivating space. I would love to just sit in Ercolano, among the mosaics and frescos and courtyards and let the spirits guide a story.
The whole area is intense and evocative, and has a feeling of living history. I can see why some people wouldn't care for it, and on another day I might be disinclined to enjoy it myself. But when the weather is rainy and cool in Umbria, I know I'll be dreaming of sipping limoncello looking out over the vast blue Mediterranean waters.