Monday, March 29, 2010

See Naples and die...

...is the meaning of the saying in Italy that goes 'vedi Napoli e poi muori'…and no, it has nothing to do with the Mafia. Before I go on to describe why the saying is true, I should also mention that although I really had a good time in Naples, I am in no hurry to die (in case the Devas/Angels are listening and saying Thathasthu/Amen :D) !

The birthplace of Pizza Margherita
It would come as no surprise if I said that I had the best pizza in my life for the first time in Italy; it was in a small restaurant close to the Piazza San Marco (city square) in Venice….it was this moment of revelation where I thought to myself ‘ohhh…so that’s how a pizza really tastes like’ while the fresh mozzarella cheese mixed with the San Marino tomatoes were still melting in my mouth. Once I tasted the pizza in Naples, I have had to rethink those thoughts again.

The pizzeria, Brandi, in Naples is considered to be the birth place of Pizza Margherita. This was when the pizza was named after the Queen Margherita who had dined there and chose the pizza with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil (representing the colors of the Italian flag) as her favorite.

I had the good sense to google for other good pizzerias in town (I was there for 3 days and had 6 meals, excluding breakfast and there was no way I was going to try just one pizzeria :D) and ended up having a really delicious pizza at the Pizzaiolo del Presidente (shown in photo below), apparently named so after Bill Clinton dined there and this was rated even better than Brandi.

Making pizzas in Naples is not just a trade, it is more or less a way of life. There is a society (Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletena) that goes around checking the quality of the pizzerias (that are members) as well as pizzas and if you fail the test, you can make no more pizzas. The pizza is cooked only in wood burning brick ovens and it takes at least 2-3 years of formal training for someone to become a pizzaiolo (the one who stretches the dough)...you gotta love Italy for this, not only do they never let down vegetarians but they take food seriously!

And my rule of thumb: if you can eat a pizza with one hand (either using cutlery or not) then its not the Italian kind….the real Italian pizza crust is soft and light and will need both hands !

And then there is Sfogliatelle...

No, no, that’s not swearing in Italian, it’s a dessert, looks very much like our samosa with multiple layers and is filled with vanilla or chocolate. While you enjoy the crunchiness, the chocolate melts in your month and this is when I think ‘oh..you poor skinny models’ :D !

The 2000 year old city of Pompeii
Its 79 AD. A volcano erupts and viciously wipes out an entire city.

Its 1748. Archeaologists are digging for remains of a used pot, some weapons and lo! they find an entire city, preserved underneath layers of volcanic ash with so much detail that they can completely reconstruct how the city would have looked 2000 years ago - the city of Pompeii with its houses, cemetery, sports arena, market square, theatre and above all, the gladiator arena aka the amphitheatre. The ancient city boasts of both Greek and Roman ruins and thanks to Asterix, the movie Gladiator and my ever-ready-to-go imagination, I was able to picturize everything like it was and that was an experience worth every minute of the 3 hours I spent there all the while wondering why I hadn’t planned more time for it.

The place is fairly well-labelled and it was impressive to see the effort they have put into recreating the vegetation within the ruins to resemble the actual city as much as possible. The more time I spent there, the more I started thinking about Indus valley civilization that dates back to 4th millenium BC….many people are hardly aware that it was one of the earliest civilizations. What is sort of frustrating for me is their inaccesibility today because of their location and the safety factor associated with it (Harappa and Mohenjo-daro are in Pakistan), maybe I can visit Lothal in Gujarat…oh..well…I digress.

Pompeii is a must-see place if you go to Naples and here are some tips:
- Wear good shoes. You would think that this is a no-brainer..well, think again...I almost laughed out loud when I saw people women with flip flops and even worse, high heels, wincing with oohs and aahs….how hard is it to understand that you need good shoes to walk on stones and it is totally not the time to display your fashion sense ?!
- Take a guided tour if you have enough time or choose the next option, an audio guide.

The history-creating volcano, Mt.Vesuvius
How can one see the ruins and not see the volcano that destroyed and ironically, also preserved it all these years?There is a bus ride from the Ercolano station to Mt.Vesuvius but if you want to get a really good feeling of Italian driving, you should take one of the taxis (they are reasonably priced)….if ever you have taken a bus or a taxi up on the mountains in Kodaikanal or Kulu, you would understand what I mean. Imagine Indian driving but at much higher speeds with some swearing in Italian and loud Italian football commentary in the background.

The 1.5 Km walk up the mountain to see the crater came in handy for burning off all the calories from the pizza but you forget all that when you get to the top and see the crater on the one side and get a view of the city on the other. Peeking into the crater gave me goose pimples !

Another must-see place if you go to Naples and here are some tips:
- Wear good shoes and stay away from white or other light colored clothes unless you think that the volcanic ash and dust might give your clothes a rugged look
- Unless you are pregnant and/or very asthmatic, you should attempt the climb. If you are not too fit, it might take you longer but there are 3 shops on the way where you can rest or get a drink.

The Godfather ?
Thanks to many books and movies, I have always associated Naples and Sicily with the Mafia. Anytime I saw someone well dressed with a long overcoat, greasy hair and earrings, I gazed at him for a split-second longer wondering if he was one of them….sadly (or luckily ?) I had no encounters with them but I did meet a Pakistani who told me that the Mafia indeed controlled everything. I then remembered the Naples trash crisis from 2008 where the Mafia was heavily involved and breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t anywhere near to witness it.

Haggling with cab drivers or TTR* – take your pick
Someone who does not know the ticket system in Italy or Spain would think that I am a chain smoker….I am always looking for tobacco shops since that's where you buy tickets for the public transport (for whatever reasons) and many times they will not have the tickets you need, so you end up buying the expensive ones (single tickets instead of day tickets), then there is the ticket validation that you do when you first use the ticket. Most of these machines are out of order most of the time and as luck would have it, it will work when the TTR tries to use it. So, this fellow says something to us in Italian and we try to explain in Italianglish that we tried but it didn’t work and the fellow keeps repeating the same thing. We wonder if we should just step off the bus or if we have to pay a fine, when a girl next to us said something to him that sounded like she saw our failed attempt. As soon as she started, the others in the bus started saying the same thing and the TTR left with a shrug. Napolitenas either love tourists or hate TTRs

Taking a taxi is not very expensive, if you know the distance, have an understanding of the route and can haggle with the driver BEFORE you get into the taxi. Well, thanks to Chennai Autowallahs, I am a master of that game.

Is Naples really Europe?
No one cares about pedestrian crossing or traffic rules
There are no proper plans for public transport
Buses stop anywhere according to the driver’s wish for people to board
Cars are allowed within the historic center and there are no pedestrian walkways
You haggle with cab drivers or you end up being taken for a ride (pun intended!)
There are street vendors everywhere who insist that you buy a Prada bag for 20 bucks!
If you do not hold on to your wallets 24/7, they will be gone.

Naples comes as a shock to many tourists and even to some Europeans who are unprepared for all of the above and are used only to cities like Milan or Florence that are completely in a different league. It was very amusing for me to watch a couple of English tourists struggle to cross a major road with cars whizzing by with no concern whatsoever for pedestrians and they were gaping at us as we were just darting through the cars and buses with practiced maneuvers….I was thinking ‘idhellam oru mattera, naanga ellam remo stylela** mount roade cross pannuvom’ (cannot translate this, feel free to use your imagination :D)

Anytime I saw a scooter (it was a vespa) or an apartment with umpteen antennae mount on the terrace or colorful clothes hanging from a balcony, I couldn’t help but grin…call it primitive, under-developed, developing or whatever, I don’t care….I have fond memories of them and its not everyday that I get to see them in Europe.

On the flight back, I met travel agents from India back from a 4-day trip on the Amalfi coast sponsored by Italian tourism. They were to promote these places back in India. I wish ‘Incredible India’ does something like that too, we surely have a lot more to offer than any other country (and no, I can’t be impartial when India is involved !). On another note, at end of the conversation they gave me a box of our very own Made-in-Bombay kaju...one has to accept that this will happen only with desis, God bless them for that !

The Island of Capri (which is a short ferry ride from Naples) is probably the most frequented place in Italy by rich party-loving people. But it also a great place for a weekend-getaway from the city. If you have enough time in Naples, Capri is definitely worth a day-trip. The archealogical museum in Naples can easily occupy a good part of a day while a walk through the historic center or a visit to the Naples Underground can keep you busy for the rest of the time.

In short, Naples is a great place to visit, just keep your mind open and bags locked !

*TTR: It is actually a travelling ticket examiner but for some reason, the person is referred to as TTR (instead of TTE) in India.
**Remo style: In the tamil movie Anniyan, Remo (Vikram, the hero) crosses a busy road (near the beach in Chennai) backwards to prove a point (!?)

Copyright for Vesuvius aerial photo: spatiallyadjusted.com
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