Beyond pizza and pompeii

Updated: 2013-09-22 07:59

By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)

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 Beyond pizza and pompeii

The view of Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples unfolds from the window of Romeo Hotel. Photos by Rebecca Lo / for China Daily

Beyond pizza and pompeii

The sunny city of Naples lies in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius and is credited with being the birthplace of pizza. Rebecca Lo finds that it offers a lot more to intrepid travelers.

My friend Liana warned me not to go to Naples, the city of her ancestry. She herself was planning to go while backpacking through Europe many years ago, but was told to avoid the place while on an Italian train heading south.

However, my dreams of visiting the birthplace of pizza and walking through the ruins of Pompeii overcame my trepidation about visiting an alleged mafia-run town. My father decided to join me, as his last trip to Europe was in the 1960s - way before I was even born!

As I wanted to make things smoother for dad, we decided to rent an apartment for our week-long stay where I have the option of making rice for dinner. Airbnb is perfect for sourcing this type of accommodation and we were able to spot Luigi Imperatore, the host of our ground-floor apartment, without a hitch upon arrival.

Luigi lives upstairs in another flat in Chiaia, an upscale hilly district adjacent to the center of town and below Vomero, a leafy suburb. Armed with Luigi's helpful suggestions, we began with pizza for lunch.

We walked down the hill to da Michele on Via Giuseppe Martucci, a bright pizza joint that has been operating since 1937. A large wood-burning pizza oven and an elderly gentleman deftly tossing fresh dough assured us that we picked the perfect place to feast on caprese salad and mushroom pizza with ham.

It was the best pizza I ever had. The chewy crust, charred here and there and infused with fragrant olive oil, was delicious enough in its own right. With a white sauce, bits of mushroom and dotted with fresh ham, it was elevated to an art form. Plump tomatoes and thick slices of firm buffalo mozzarella were a yummy summer accompaniment.

Over lunch, I glanced through my Rick Steves' Italy guidebook, concentrating on the sections on Sorrento, Pompeii and Naples. The American travel author is my trusted companion throughout Europe - and it is clear that Italy is his favorite country. He can't tell you where the Prada shops are, but it's probably handier to know where to find public washrooms near major sites.

We decided to take a tour of the city on one of the hop on-hop off red buses found in many large metropolises. Not only does this have the advantage of giving us a self-guided tour of Naples, it is also a good option for sightseeing on a rainy day. For dad, it offered the added benefit of a recorded description of sites in various languages, including Chinese.

After a somewhat confusing start when I thought that we could hop on to a bus from near our apartment - and the bus turned out to be too full - we ended up going into the city center to the terminus at Largo Castello.

There are four routes: One sticks mostly to the Naples' core; one heads up to the Catacombs and Bosco di Capodimonte museum; one loops around the hilly areas of Montesanto, Vomero and Chiaia; and one goes all the way out to Posillipo in the east of the city.

We decided to save a few euros by buying the Campania Artecard. This card is available in many Italian cities and combines public transit with entry fees for a fixed price.

It allowed us to use Naples' handy metro and funicular system for a period of three consecutive days from the day of validation and access to two sites, with discounts to the rest. You can pick up the card from any participating site; we got ours from the Royal Palace in the Piazza del Plebiscito and used it to get a discount on our bus tour.

The ride out to Posillipo was glorious. Most of the route snakes along the bay, heading ever higher past luxury villas hugging the coastline.

We also took one of the city routes and got off a few stops earlier so that we can walk along Via Toledo through the Spanish Quarter. I loved the jumble of Spaccanapoli - its narrow street teeming with Italian color, life and melodrama, just like a Fellini film.

After consulting the schedule at Teatro di San Carlo, Europe's oldest opera house dating back to 1737, I was disappointed that the season hadn't started yet - and I couldn't even get a tour of the theater.

But the ticket seller assured me that I would be just as happy attending a concert that evening at the Duomo. Dad wasn't up for an evening of Vivaldi and Bach, so I was on my own.

Although I got lost trying to find the Duomo and was nervous wandering around downtown Naples on my own, a couple of helpful locals pointed me in the right direction.

It was worth the effort, as the cathedral is a resplendent homage to gilding and 14th century Renaissance frescoes. The outstanding acoustics enhanced the San Carlo orchestra and vocalists' performance all the more.

The next day, we took the Circumvesuviana, a commuter train connecting urban Naples with the Campania countryside, and rode around the Bay of Naples to Sorrento.

Dad has fond memories of going there in his youth and hummed a song about Sorrento the entire time. Although I found the town quite touristy after the edginess of Naples, we still had fun lunching in the Grand Hotel Ambasciatori.

The grand dame is perched along the cliffs and its restaurant offers a dramatic view of the sea. Waiters in tuxedos and blingy chandeliers made us feel that it was a place Sophia Loren frequented in her heyday.

Lemons are what the region of Campania is famous for and they abound in Sorrento. We saw knobby lemons, all sunshine yellow, in open-air markets, and transformed into goodies including the famous limoncello liqueur and refreshing lemon gelato.

I purchased some lemon-scented soap for friends back home, and dad got some lemon candy for my mom, sister and brother.

We checked out the archaeological museum back in Naples. For me, the highlight of this rather unorganized destination was its Battle of Alexander, a fresco originally found in the ruins of Pompeii. The Secret Room with its erotic sculpture is also worth taking a look at - even if I was with my father!

Luigi mentioned that there is a weekend antique market along the waterfront of Chiaia, and I went to take a stroll the next morning.

It has a lively, festive atmosphere with children on donkey rides and live musicians. I splurged on a beautiful Art Deco crystal jar and hesitated over a crystal cocktail shaker - then decided that my luggage couldn't take much more weight.

On my way back to pick up dad, I stopped by Tramontano, a luxury leather goods shop with a huge celebrity following.

Since 1865, its handmade bags have been produced out of Chiaia for the likes of Tom Cruise and Woody Allen. Although its designs didn't suit my tastes, I nevertheless appreciated the brand's fine craftsmanship and supple, high-quality skins available in a rainbow of hues.

Back on the Circumvesuviana heading to Pompeii, dad was fascinated by the map of Pompeii in my guidebook. It is every inch the modern metropolis, only two thousand years old and buried in volcanic ash.

We saw where citizens would grab take-out fast food from corner vendors, and how streets would be cleaned daily yet still allowed people to cross them while flooded with water.

I loved the perfect symmetry of its coliseum and theaters, and the detailed sarcophagi in the Necropolis - the city of the dead. With the peak of Vesuvius looming over us, it was an unforgettable site that illustrated how everything was temporary.

With Naples being a seaside town, its open-air fish market is a pungent reminder of how many earn their livelihood. Squid, octopus, shrimp and practically anything that swims are available here. I bought a jar of anchovies in olive oil; I have since discovered that they are best when sauteed with a little onion for a simple pasta sauce.

We spent our last night in Romeo Hotel, a boutique hotel on Via Cristoforo Colombo chock-full of art and sculptures in every corner. Its top-floor Il Comandante Gourmet Restaurant overlooks the bay and we were treated to a splendid sunrise over breakfast.

While sipping my morning coffee, I was glad that I didn't listen to warnings about Naples. The city, though rough around the edges, has a lot of charm that makes it a memorable destination for much more than pizza.

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Beyond pizza and pompeii