Saturday, May 9, 2009

Napoli, Pizza, Pompeii

Marisa already posted about Tuscany, but I thought I'd briefly fill in what we did before that.  Between our visit to Rome and Tuscany, we went down to Napoli (Naples) for two nights, mostly because we wanted to visit nearby Pompeii without feeling rushed doing it as a day trip from Rome.

We took the train from Rome to Napoli.  That itself was quite an event for the first half hour.  We took the second class extremely slow 3 hour regional train (the fast train is about an hour), and we got to the train station only 20min before departure.  It is very easy to buy Italian train tickets, so we had no trouble quickly buying a ticket and running to the train about 10m before departure.  Unfortunately when we arrived at the train we quickly realized there were no open seats.  People were standing between cars and we noticed so0me space near the slightly stinky bathroom, so I threw our giant backpacker bags down on the floor (I carry them both because of Marisa's knee problems).  This formed a seat on which Marisa could sit, while I stood next to the bathroom.  We were crowded into the space with maybe 6 or 7 other people who were also late and had no seats.  We stood there for 30 minutes preparing ourselves to stand for 3 hours next to the bathroom in the muggy heat.  Luckily, though, this was a regional train, so within 30 minutes probably half the people had gotten off at various stops outside Rome.  We jumped into the next car and were able to sit down in decent chairs for the rest of the trip.

We arrived at Napoli after dark.  Napoli has a bad reputation.  There is lots of mafia activity, and there is supposedly more than 25% unemployment and thus a lot of disaffected youths.  During our walk from the metro station to our hotel (which we had trouble finding), we definitely felt a little uncomfortable.  There were many disaffected-looking youths standing on all the street corners.  The center of Napoli is medieval.  It ended up being cute in the daytime, but after dark mostly we noticed that it was dark, the walls hang over you, and there's a disconcerting amount of graffiti everywhere.  It felt like a night and day difference from Rome, which seemed beautiful, inviting, and warm everywhere we went.

We ended up finding our hotel after a frustrating hour of walking.  The entry to the hotel itself was through an unmarked, thick steel door covered in graffiti.  But we checked in, and everything was OK.

Napoli is known for inventing pizza, and they are very proud of their local variety.  They are especially proud of Margherita, which is just tomatoes, mozarrella, and basil.  We got some very good and pretty cheap pizza there, although I think we had better pizza in NY at Grimaldi's in Brooklyn, and at a place we once went in Milan.  Our first night we ordered Margherita, because that is the Neopolitan specialty.  The second night we went out for pizza again but wanted to have something different, so we ordered Margherita con Panna, which means margherita pizza plus italian cream which they pour over the top of the pizza.  That sounds weird (pizza with cream on top is rare in the US), but we'd had it before, and it's quite good.

Some Italians (we think local Neopolitans) at the table next to us overheard us order Margherita con Panna, and they got really excited/disgusted.  They said loudly, "Con Panna!  No Con Panna!  MARGHERITA!"

We said to them, "Si, Con Panna!"  We had the impression they thought we were clueless tourists who weren't going to try the local favorite, but we didn't try to explain that we had just had margherita the day before.

Then, to our astonishment, one of them went up and ran after the exiting waiter.  "Solo Margherita!"  The waiter nodded back to them.  They'd just changed our order!

We frantically waived the waiter back.  When he came back over we said, "Con Panna!"

The guys at the next table repeated "no con panna!" and started laughing.

Our waiter look at us for agreement, and Marisa, practically shouting with frustration said, "No, WITH PANNA".  (She wasn't really going to cry, but I think we were both afraid we weren't going to get it with panna.)  At this point our waiter nodded and walked away.  Later we did get the pizza with panna, and it was quite tasty, so it worked out.

We spent most of our day in Napoli visiting Pompeii, which was amazing.  Probably most people know, but it was a town buried under volcanic ash before the people had time to escape.  It was later discovered and dug up, and was remarkably preserved, unlike most Roman towns which were built on top of by later civilizations.  The bodies of the people there left cavities in the earth (filled with bones).  Archaeologists were able to inject plaster into the cavities, so when they dig out the bodies you get a replica of exactly what the person looked like as they died.  The result is really eery and quite creepy, as you see the death masks of all these normal people.  Despite it being creepy, the people at the site all seemed very respectful of the artifacts.

Besides the eery plaster bodies, the other impressive aspect of the town is how large and complete it is.  You can walk around and see the bakeries, the theater, the houses, and even a brothel in the center of town, which is decorated with still preserved lewd frescoes.  The town has been uncovered to the elements for awhile, so it has surely now decayed more than when it was first unearthed, but it still feels like walking around a real Roman town.  It was so large that despite spending 8 hours walking around and looking at stuff, we probably only saw 25% of it.

Besides Pompeii, the other exciting thing that happened to us in Napoli was... someone stole our credit card number and charged $4500 worth of clothes at fancy designer clothing stores.  Since we didn't have much access to internet in Italy, we only figured it out a week later when we checked our balance and saw the enormous charges on it.  The charges were easy to pick out because we certainly never spend that much money on clothes, in fact we don't really buy clothes unless absolutely necessary (okay, slight exaggeration, but we both hate shopping).  Ironically, that week was the only time during our entire trip when we did buy some nice clothes.  (We went to a store where I bought a sweater and Marisa got some new pants.)  We're still not sure how the thief was able to charge at the store, because our credit card company claims they used a physical card, but we didn't lose our actual plastic credit card.  It's completely possible for a number of people in Naples to have stolen our number, though, as many people had access to the physical card when we were paying for things.  We don't know if this is related or not, but one stupidity of Europe is that receipts often have the entire credit card number printed on them!  We try to shred them or keep them with us, but we may have left one somewhere.


  1. So I'm curious. Were you as scared on your walk to the hotel in Naples as you were on your taxi trip from the Delhi Airport?
    Your Pompeii visit sounds great. I'm glad you made time for it. Your description makes me want to go.
    And lastly, did the credit card take off the charges? You know, up until a few years ago, the credit card receipts not only had your whole number but your name as well. Are you just using a different card now?

  2. Impressive ruins. The plaster casts of the deceased must have made the catastrophic effects of that volcanic eruption seem very real. Your description of Napoli had me looking in your pictures for "disaffected youths."

  3. I think we didn't even take any pictures of napoli because it wasn't very appealing. (although it was prettier in daylight). When we got our rental car, the driver asked us where we were going. Even though we said we were going to tuscany, he warned us about parking the car anywhere in napoli, because "It might get stolen." (Ironically, we were at that moment standing in the center of napoli at the rental car desk at the train station...)

    Anyway, walking through Napoli wasn't anywhere near as scary as the taxi ride. It was dark but there were people with kids walking around as well. It just didn't seem very nice.