When we visited Pompeii and Herculaneum a dozen years ago, everybody warned us to avoid Naples like the plague! They spoke of gangs of street-urchin pickpockets who would descend on us like locusts, fleets of Vespa-riding handbag-snatchers, piles of garbage and walls covered with rude graffiti. And then there were the suicidal drivers. In Milan, goes the saying, traffic lights are the law; in Rome they are a suggestion; in Naples they are Christmas decoration!
So in the year 200 we barely popped our heads above ground when arrived at Naples train station from Rome. We scuttled along to the Circumvesuviana and only breathed a sigh of relief when we were safely on the train to Sorrento. On a return visit in 2005 my husband and I stayed at charming but remote Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi and used ferries, buses and taxis to visit Misenum, Baia, Ischia and Piscina Mirabilis. It was fun but cumbersome and not entirely successful. The Piscina Mirabilis was closed and we couldn’t manage to fit in Sofatara or Cumae. How much easier if we had made Naples our base! But we didn’t realise that then.
Then, last January my husband and I went on our first Andante Travels Tour to Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was fabulous. Our brilliant and learned lecturer, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, proceeded to explode one myth after another: ‘Vesuvius’s first eruption wasn’t on 24 August; don’t call it a lararium; don’t call it the Decumanus Maximus; we don’t know if this is the Villa Poppaea; we don’t even know if this place is called Oplontis.’
And another myth: ‘Don’t be afraid of Naples,’ he said. ‘It’s a vibrant, exciting city. Be sensible and keep your money and valuables out of reach, but enjoy it!’ So, we took his advice and booked another Andante Tour which would be based in Naples. Land of the Sibyl, our tour was called, and it promised us sites we’d tried to visit before such as the Piscina Mirabilis, Solfatara and Cumae (home of the Sibyl).
My reason for returning to this part of the world is that I am hoping to do a Young Adult retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid. The poet from Mantua (Virgil) was based in Naples and I wanted to connect with him.
The excitement started for me when Andante told us we would be staying at the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia right down on the waterfront. I Googled the hotel and thought it looked vaguely familiar. I had seen that arch somewhere before. Then I remembered: in an episode of the ground-breaking, award-winning TV series The Sopranos. In season 2, aired in the year 2000, Tony (a mafia don from New Jersey) and two of his men go to Naples. I looked up Commendatori, and sure enough, it was the same arch: the Fountain Santa Lucia. Tony stayed at the Hotel Excelsior and ours was right next door.
From that moment on, the bard from Mantua was overshadowed by the don from New Jersey. Played by the brilliant James Gandolfini, (who sadly died in Rome this summer), Tony Soprano is not likeable but he is compelling.
The first full day after our arrival I coerced some of my fellow travellers to venture inside the Hotel Excelsior. We walked through the plush lobby where Tony is first addressed as commendatore, “commander”. Up on the 8th floor we discovered a gem of a bar with stunning views of Vesuvius. The famous volcano was lit golden by the setting sun behind us. Sipping our Campari sodas and nibbling typical Neapolitan tidbits, we felt like Mafia dons and donettes.
A few days later our tour took us into the centre of Naples. It is a vibrant noisy city full of colour and life. The ancient road called Spaccanapoli is supposed to be the charming one, but I preferred Via dei Tribunale with its vegetable stalls, cafés, graffiti and a wonderful bulldog. This is where Paulie goes to have an espresso and greets some Italians at a nearby table with a cheerful ‘Commendatori!’ The three Italians, (one of whom is series creator David Chase in a cameo role), ignore him. In real life, Neapolitans are very friendly.
One day we went to Virgil’s tomb just a short distance from our hotel. In the gardens surrounding the tomb was a marble bust of the poet along with shrubs and trees mentioned in Virgil’s three works, next to signs with relevant excerpts. But I didn’t feel any sense of the bard, despite a tripod and garland of flowers left by another Virgil fan in the lofty tomb. (below)
Opposite our hotel was a delightful castle called Castel dell’Ovo AKA the Castle of the Egg. This is where the medieval Neapolitans believed Virgil, who by now was considered a magician, kept his magic egg. As long as the egg was safe, it was believed, Naples would prosper. The little cobbled village at its foot was pretty enough to be a film set and indeed, they were filming the remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the week we were there, and a helicopter was constantly buzzing around, filming establishing shots.
In Commendatori, Tony meets Annalisa, the stunning daughter of the former head of the local Mafia (suffering from dementia) and wife of the current head (suffering from life imprisonment). So she is in fact the acting head of the local Mafia. Tony finds it hard taking orders from a woman, but I met several beautiful, dynamic and powerful women in Naples, two of them the head teachers of schools. Tony and Annalisa have seafood lunch in front of another castle and the OMLIN shipyard, then they go walking on a beach. I kept my eyes open for this location and found it on the day we visited Baia. Baia (or Baiae as it was known 2000 years ago), was the St Tropez of the Roman World: a place of decadence and immorality where men bathed with women. I used it as the setting for my 11th Roman Mystery, The Sirens of Surrentum.
After visiting the so called Temple of Mercury, with its flooded floor and atmospheric dome, and saluting the upside down fig tree in a vault nearby, we had lunch down at the seafront in Bacoli at a pretty beige building called Locanda dei Re. After lunch, I skipped dessert to see if I could find the exact location of Tony’s lunch with Annalisa. It turned out to be a seafood restaurant called Lucullo. Appropriately, Lucullus was an ancient Roman famous for his banquets. Back in Naples the Castel dell’Ovo is built on the foundations of his once opulent villa. In the scenes between Tony and Annalisa you can see Locanda dei Re next to some other pretty pastel coloured restaurants. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. helicopter was buzzing around here, too.
On our final day of the tour we went to Cuma. At last! The Sibyl! But once again Virgil was eclipsed by Tony and friends. Cumae is where Annalisa ‘prophesies’ Tony’s future and also propositions him. He is tempted by her, but wisely demurs. I was glad to see they’ve cleaned up the garbage since they filmed that episode fourteen years ago. In fact Naples was remarkable free of garbage and the graffiti was mostly delightful. My husband and I supplemented our Andante Tour with one of the open top tourist buses and it was great fun. We also listened to Rick Steve’s excellent podcasts and read Naples 44, the harrowing and hilarious wartime diaries of Norman Lewis.
When Tony arrives back in New Jersey, you can see the regret on his face. He has obviously fallen in love with Naples and regrets leaving. So don’t be squeamish about visiting this most vibrant and beautiful city. Wear a money belt, or just take small notes spread about your person. Be sensible and you’ll have a great time.
Like Tony Soprano, I fell in love with La Bella Napoli and hope to return soon. And next time I WILL find Virgil!