Basso living

Vesuvius broods over the the Bay of Naples like some great beast. Even at night it is visible as the absence of light on the otherwise brightly lit shore. We arrived in Sorrento around ten-thirty last night after 3 hours on the high speed train from Florence, another hour plus on the creaking Circumvesuviana line and a twenty minute walk. The hotel bar was open! Need I say more.

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We’re in seventh heaven, literally. Our hotel is the Settimo Cielo which translates as, wait for it, seventh heaven. It hangs on the side of a cliff above the Marina Grande in Sorrento.

We lolly gagged around this morning heading out for Napoli around one in the afternoon. The rickety excuse for a commuter train held us in the station for half an hour with some sort of mechanical problem. The doors would repeatedly open, shut and open again. Each time hope rising that the thing would actually start to move. Finally some unintelligible squawk that I can only assume was Italian came over the address system and everyone, including us, ran for another train that was sitting on the next track. At this point I swore I was through with Italy and would never return. Despite having the contents of two trains packed into one, once we were moving I thought better of it. You gotta love Italy.

Our first stop in Napoli was the Archeological Museum containing the best of Pompeii’s treasures as well as Roman statuary known as the Farnese Collection, mostly discovered at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The place is a bit overwhelming and completely amazing. One of the highlights is the Farnese Bull, a massive, marble 3rd c. C.E. copy of a lost, bronze Greek original depicting the sons of Antiope tying Dirce to a bull in revenge for stealing their dad, Lycus, from their mom. Michelangelo helped restore the work when it was uncovered during the renaissance. Those Greeks really knew all about payback. If you look carefully through Dirce’s flailing arms you can see Antiope looking on coldly.

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The museum visit took it’s toll so we headed for CafĂ© Mexico and the best espresso in the known universe. This place is old school, no tables, you stand at the bar. For one Euro you get a glass of water and a shot of espresso that is the strongest, smoothest, tastiest coffee you’ve ever had. Thus revitalized, we went deep into basso living down Spaccanapoli in the heart of old Naples. The streets are tight. Scooters careen through crowds of locals and tourists. Laundry hangs from the balconies. People yell, laugh, cry and gesticulate as only the Neopolitans can. What a scene.

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Near the end of our walk we dropped by L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. They’ve been wood firing their pies since 1870. Da Michele makes two kinds of pizza – marinara with tomato sauce, oregano and garlic, and Margherita. Pizza as we know it, tomato on flat bread, can be traced to the 18th c. in the Napoli area. By the 19th c. it was a popular street food among the poor. According to legend, in 1889 chef Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi created Pizza Margherita in honor of the newly unified Italy’s first queen representing the country’s new flag – tomato for red, mozzarella for white and basil for green. It must have been shortly after that when Michele Condurro incorporated it in to his limited menu. A document signed by Queen Margherita hangs on the wall of da Michele attesting to the authenticity of their pies.

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We sat next to a delightful Neapolitan couple who spoke about two words of English. Despite this and our limited Italian, the gentleman taught us the proper way to eat such a pie – cut the 18 inch disc into quarters, fold a quarter in half lengthwise forming a narrow triangle then in half again. Once folded eat with our hands, using a fork only in case of eminent collapse. Repeat for the other 3 quarters. Oh so good. Like I said, you gotta love Italy!

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