Sunday, 24 January 2016

A (very) late postcard from Campania, pt II: Positano and Naples

I was determined that we would get seaborne at some point of our stay on the Amalfi coast, but with just a couple of days before heading back to Naples it looked like this plan might be scuppered. It seems that the weather really doesn't have to be that bad at all to get the ferries that scurry between the various harbours along the coastline to down tools. What breeze that there was abated enough on our last full day in Ravello to encourage us to get the bus down to Amalfi town, and take a boat trip to Positano.

Waiting for the boat in Amalfi
We crammed on to the ferry with an international crowd of tourist-folk and set off west. From the water the coastline is unrepentantly dramatic, punctuated by the remains of the watchtowers that once provided the first warnings of impending Saracen raids. Drawing closer to Positano, it was clear that this town, rising improbably from the sea and clinging less plausibly still to the cliffs, is the Platonic ideal of Mediterranean gorgeousness.

Positano beach
 We, clearly, were not alone in having had this thought, as the place fairly hummed with sightseers in search of sights. We climbed up from the harbour, past legions of of art galleries, limoncello-mongers and tat-slingers before reaching a height at which the tourist cloud dispersed slightly and we started to case out likely spots for lunch.

A funny thing this aversion to tourists, when that's exactly what you are yourself. There are, of course, any number of ways of inhabiting the role of "foreigner", but the performance of some of these seem intrinsically more tasteful, and more cool than others. British, Americans and Germans seem particularly to struggle. Perhaps the aversion to the bum-bagged and selfie-stick touting capite censi comes from the terrible thought that, basically, despite your hastily-gleaned knowledge of the local history and foodstuffs, they are no different to you. Hi, I'm Lee, and I'm a self-hating tourist.

(Not that) Far from the madding crowd, Positano
A bloody tourist, at Ristorante Bruno
The ramshackle facade of Ristorante Bruno encouraged us to think that it might be a good place to have lunch, notwithstanding the sensational view,and so it proved. I don't expect to have many finer plates of gnocchi in all my days, this one full of charred aubergines, outrageously good shellfish and a stunning, buttery tomato sauce. Kasia's pasta was similarly brilliant.

View from Ristorante Salvatore, Ravello
Back in Ravello, we marked our last night there by eating very well again with another spectacular view. 

Ristorante Salvatore
The food at Ristorante Salvatore was interesting to say the least. Delicious cured local fish with a foam of something or other was succeeded by an unusual but excellent surf and turf combo of prawns on calf tongue. I followed this with blinged-up (adorned as it was by silver leaf) braised ox-cheek which came with very orangey gnocchi, studded with hazlenuts. Bit weird, that one. 

Up with the larks the next day to head back to Naples for the last couple of nights. A combo of bus and train got us there, via Salerno. We were braced to be jolted out of the bucolic state of extreme relaxation that we'd slipped into over our stay on the Amalfi coast, but Naples is just something else again. Not so much a city as an assault course for the senses, it's a wild, unpasteurised kind of place that slaps you in the face with visions of extreme beauty and coarse grimness all at once.

Navigating the densely claustrophobic area around the Via dei Tribunali felt, ignoring the ever present scooters, like we'd been spat out into some properly medieval citadel, and somewhere much more of the south than just about any city I've visited. I imagine this is a bit like how Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro feel. The default building height is five storeys, packed so closely together that what looks like a motorway on Google Maps turns out to be a dark and slightly forbidding alley that you don't feel like you perhaps want to wander down, not on your first day here at least; not until you've gotten the measure of the place. Every now and then you emerge into the light of a compact piazza, and are presented with yet another stunningly beautiful but gracefully decaying church. How many churches does a town need? A shit-load, apparently. Everything seems to happen on the street. The imaginary line that distinguishes "inside" from "outside" appears to have become so worn by the centuries that no-one knows where it is anymore.

The rulebook you're carrying around in your head which states things like "I have a right to personal space" and "10 year old kids shouldn't ride scooters, especially not on the pavement which I'm walking on right now" is of no currency here whatsoever. The impression, rightly or wrongly, that I got is that this city operates by codes which are ingrained into it's sense of itself and are certainly impenetrable to anyone dropping by for a couple of days. What is detectable is a strong sense of not really giving too much of a fuck. Perhaps that's what comes with living in the shadow of an active volcano in a densely-packed metropolitan area of some four million souls, served by a transport system which is in permanent gridlock. In case you're wondering, I absolutely loved it and would go back in a flash.

View across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius
We spent our short time in Naples doing quite a lot of wandering and gawping. The Via Toledo, and the Spanish Quarter just off it made for excellent strolling. We found our way to the Capella Sansevero, where the 18th Century frescoes and sculptures commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro are beyond breathtaking. At the centre of the chapel is Giuseppe Sanmartino's Veiled Christ, one of the most astonishingly beautiful things I expect ever to see.

We also ate some great pizza, of which there is no shortage in this town. The places which  are doing it right, according to the strict dictates of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (click here for an 11-page PDF on the rules and regs!) are recognisable as they carry that organisation's emblem.

Pizzeria Trianon
One of these, Trianon, was just a couple of minutes from our Hotel. On the Sunday lunchtime of our arrival it was packed with families. As the pizzas take only 60-90 seconds to cook, wait times are short.

Pizzeria Trianon, Margherita con buffala
Although the menu here (unlike da Michele over the road where your choice is either Margherita or Marinara) is large, I felt to order anything other than a Margherita would have been a profane act in this church of dough. Here are some observations on a sublimely good pizza:

The dough was substantial, but delicious. More chewy than crispy, it was nonetheless digestibly light due to a long, slow fermentation. There was the most wonderful smokiness to its charred edges. The middle is "soupy", a result of the mingling of the whey released by the mozzarella and the tomato sauce. A knife and fork are required, for a least part of the operation of consuming this thing. And what mozzarella. The most perfect balance of creaminess and lactic tang. The tomato sauce was light, quite plain, but naturally sweet with no sourness at all. The flavour of it reminded me of something I couldn't quite place, but then I got it: the sauce from fucking spaghetti hoops! That might not sound like a compliment, but there you go. So anyway: what a bloody pizza. Seven Euros for a piece of heaven.

Pizzeria Starita
We also hit up Starita  in the Materdei area, as I'd read on Serious Eats that this was the one. The deep fried courgette blossoms were brilliant and the pizzas were certainly premier league, sporting the "leoparding" on the crust that distinguishes the best. Far be it from me to dissent from the view of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, but we preferred Trianon. Many, many other pizzas are also available.

Herculaneum, with Vesuvius in the background
On our last full day we did some proper old-fashioned sightseeing, catching the train to Herculaneum to wander, and wonder, round the Roman town that was destroyed by the Smaug-like fire breathing beast of Vesuvius in 79AD. Pro-tip: get there early. We had the whole place nearly to ourselves for the first half hour or so which made contemplation of the ruins particularly enjoyable and atmospheric.

Leaving behind the physical remains of the poor sods who had taken shelter on what was then the beach, it seemed grimly apt to get the bus up to the crater of the fiery bastard that had done for them. Walking the last section, we climbed up into a cloud, so I can't tell you much about Vesuvius other than it was knackering getting there, and the landscape was like something off another planet.

Me, on a volcano. Honest.
And that was that. A wonderful trip to an amazing part of the world. The sadness of heading back to blighty was tempered by the knowledge that it would scarcely have been possible to enjoy a holiday more. If you have the chance to visit Naples and the Amalfi Coast, I can't recommend it enough.


  1. Did you visit Capri too? We enjoyed Herculaneum more that Pompeii. As for ascending Vesuvius I can agree that it is shattering. When we arrived at the top a tour guide took a liking to me and had me sitting on a ledge just inside the cater whilst he cooked an egg beside me!!

    We like you avoid other tourists - weird isn't it? Also I try to learn at least some of the language. It's amazing how differently you are treated if you have a go. A few words and the locals congratulate you as being fluent.

    1. Hi Sue. No we never made it to Capri unfortunately. Tourism snobbery is indeed a conundrum! That, plus the fact it was closer to Vesuvius, was partly why we went to Herculaneum rather than Pompeii- less crowded, and easier to see all of it in one go.

  2. I will definitely be saving this post as the Amalfi coast is somewhere i'VE wanted to visit for a long time, maybe next year!

    1. History, beaches, great food, stunning scenery- it's got the lot. I'd defo recommended at least a full day in Naples though, it's a remarkable place.


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