Tuesday, 13 November 2012


What would you do with three weeks in Europe? After much indescision, we decided on an ambitious grand tour of Italy (with a wee bit of the UK thrown in) which would knock 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites off our list.
We first became aware of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2006, when we noticed the same logos popping up at various tourist attractions around Eastern Europe. What began as a running photo joke escalated into a full blown obsession, with a spreadsheet keeping track of how many we’d visited compared to the rest of the family.

I guess it was inevitable that this would eventually culminate in a trip more or less planned entirely around visiting UNESCO sites. And what better country to choose than Italy, which boasts more UNESCO sites than any other in the world?

Our goal was to pick up a rental car in Naples, drive up the coast via Rome, Florence and Venice, plus all the UNESCO sites in between, then return it in one piece in Milan. This is what happened.

Historic Centre of Naples

From the Neapolis founded by Greek settlers in 470 B.C. to the city of today, Naples has retained the imprint of the successive cultures that emerged in Europe and the Mediterranean basin. This makes it a unique site, with a wealth of outstanding monuments such as the Church of Santa Chiara and the Castel Nuovo - http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/726
Unlike Rome (the colosseum), Florence (the duomo) or Venice (Piazza San Marco, that bridge), Naples doesn’t really have a thing which is iconic - something you to go, take a photo of/with, and go, right, I’ve ticked Naples off the list. If anything, I guess it would have to be the narrow streets in the historic centre. And eating a pizza.
Naples at its most atmospheric - at night
Our first stop in Naples was Da Michele, allegedly Naples’ most famous pizzeria. It was already after two o’clock when we found the place after dumping our rental car and bags at our B&B in Ercolano, about half an hour out of town by train. After getting a numbered pink slip from the grumpy old man at the till, we waited patiently for a table with the rest of the tourist crowd.
Hapless tourists waiting to sample a famous Napoli pizza
Since the dawn of TripAdvisor, Zagat, Chow, and restaurant review sites in general, waiting patiently for a table at a culinary hotspot is now par for the foodie course. I once waited two hours for a breakfast in San Francisco which ultimately turned out to be fairly disappointing, despite my determination to love it. I really don’t know what’s worse, paying too much or waiting too long for average/crappy food... why do people do it? I guess it’s a perfect encapsulation of ‘FOMO’ or Fear Of MIssing Out.

Anyway, after we were finally squeezed in, we waited patiently for our table to be cleared. Then we waited patiently for someone to take our order. Then we waited very, very patiently for our pizzas to arrive. It took freaking ages. Every attempt to flag down a harried waiter failed utterly. While this was our first formal introduction to what southern Italians call customer service, I had an inkling something had gone awry when a table of Italians abruptly deserted their tables in disgust, and by all appearances left without paying for their drinks, after having had enough. In the end, while we never found out what caused the delay, we suspected we had become collateral damage in some sort of employment relations disagreement.

I didn’t count the minutes but it would have been well over an hour from when we arrived to finally getting our pizzas. Which, by the way, took about 30 seconds to assemble and about 5 minutes to cook, judging by what I could see of the kitchen (when it was going). By the time we had the slices in hand we were absolutely starving, so the first mouthful was amazing - hot, tomato-y, cheesy, chewy.

Unfortunately it went a bit downhill from there.

As we quickly began to learn throughout our meals in Italy, there was a very close, inverse relationship between the tastiness of pizza/pasta, and its temperature. By the time we were halfway through it was a stone cold, sloppy, unappetising mess, and in the end we had to give up without finishing the whole lot.

Overall, I’m sad to say that my first experience with ‘authentic’ Neopolitan pizza will be memorable not for its culinary merits. I’m not sure how things would have turned out differently if we’d gone to the other famous pizzeria, Gino Sorbillo, or found somewhere else, but to be honest with a good recipe (like this for dough and this for sauce), I would say that anyone could match - or perhaps even beat - the deliciousness of ‘real’, Napoli pizza at home.

Another random photo of Naples at night
The next night, while trying to catch the train back to Ercolano, we managed to get embroiled in more strike action, this time by the train drivers. As more and more people arrived and realised the trains were going nowhere, an angry mob started to form around the drivers’ break room, where they were handing out notices presumably explaining the strike action.
It's a shame I couldn't get a shot which truly captured the passion of the crowd, but I was trying to remain unobtrusive
Of course, I couldn’t understand a word but I imagined the gist of the argument to go something like ‘we’re going on strike because we want more pay and benefits, even though the European economy is going down the gurgler and we can hardly afford it’ and ‘How could you do this, we have no way of getting home now, get off your lazy asses and drive the trains, dammit!’

If you’ve never seen Italians argue in real life, it’s pretty much exactly how it’s stereotypically depicted in movies and TV shows - lots of hand gestures and shouting. The fact that I was worried it might turn into a riot aside, it was all pretty amusing. Certainly one of those ‘had to be there, money-can’t-buy’ cultural experiences.

Thankfully, the drivers eventually caved and decided to go back to work after all, to everyone’s immense relief.

On the more positive side, Naples certainly lived up to expectations when it came to the ambience of the streets, especially at night. A highlight was the subterranean tour, which took us into the tunnels and chambers under the city. True to local form, the tour ended up starting about 20 minutes late for no apparent reason, and we were forced to wait around. The most fun was of course the part where we all got to carry a candle and shuffle along a narrow walkway for about a hundred metres.
Some of the narrow tunnels in the subterranean tour
I know that some people think it’s more ‘authentic’ to visit ‘gritty’ places like Naples, and that the graffiti and terrible customer service is part of its charm, but as a whole it could probably do a lot better for itself, and draw more of the crowds from further north by cleaning itself up a bit.

Overall, while I wouldn't rank Naples up there with New York and Budapest in terms of 'favourite cities I've ever visited', it's still worthwhile to go at least once, and a perfect place to base yourself to explore the other attractions (i.e. UNESCO sites) in the region.

[Flickr set of Naples here]

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