Heather and I are just back from our first real European holiday. That’s not to say we haven’t been vacationing. We’ve done our fair share of that. But this year was the first that I was entitled to my full, state-provided five weeks of paid holiday. Seeing as I had to be in Rome over the Fourth of July weekend for a conference, Heather and I decided to make an extended vacation out of it, starting with two days in Napoli before the conference. After Rome we went on to Florence and further to Switzerland, but we’ll leave that for another post.
We flew from Aarhus to Copenhagen on July 1st and from there directly to Napoli. The flight was uneventful but SAS service is clearly going down hill. There’s now only free coffee but no free water. Ugh. Luckily, it’s a pretty short flight despite being on the other end of Europe. Lying under the shadow of Vesuvius, the whole Napoli metro area is enormous and sprawling but the airport is tiny. So tiny, in fact, that it doesn’t have any gates. Just deplane on the tarmac and bus to a door.
Our initial experiences with Napoli were chaotic. We got in line for a taxi at the airport only to watch taxi drivers repeatedly yell at one another and then refuse service to some passengers for no obvious reason. For 20 Euro we managed a relatively uneventful taxi ride to our hotel near the central train station. The contrast with Denmark, however, was striking. Napoli is hot, crowded, and loud. And motorcycles are everywhere, going every direction, all the time. Honking of horns seems to be a signal for everything from “Hello!” to “F* off.”
We stayed at UNA Hotel Napoli based on some internet recommendations and price comparison. It turned out to be a great decision because for 12 Euro we were upgraded from a standard room to an Executive Suite, which I can only describe as the nicest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. It had three balconies, a full bathroom, various electronic controls, and a free mini bar. You can see it in the pictures below; you can see where the room is on the fourth floor of the building, in the roundish section on the far left of the picture. They also had a rooftop patio where breakfast was served. All for about 100 Euro/night. Again, from Denmark, these prices are unimaginable.
Our main reasons for being in Napoli were (1) pizza, (2) Herculaneum/Ercolano, and (3) something Heather remembered from The Borgias. We took care of pizza right away by eating the best pizza I’ve ever eaten at Pizzeria Fortuna. Some pizza the next day from Pizzeria Donna Sophia was still good but not as excellent. Fortuna is about as much of a hole-in-the-wall as a restaurant can be, so maybe I was biased by it’s charm. Five Euros is also similarly unimaginable from a Danish perspective where that amount of money might buy a can of CocaCola but certainly not a pizza.
As I said, our primary cultural objective was to visit the excavations of Herculaneum, a Roman town destroyed (along with Pompeii, etc.) in the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Most tourists apparently visit Pompeii because it is more famous and larger. But guidebooks pointed us to Herculaneum as a better-preserved site despite being smaller. Given temperatures in the high-80s F, we figured a smaller site was more manageable. It turned out to be a good decision. The site is located about 30 minutes from Napoli, which we accessed on the Circumvesuviana commuter rail line (which, IMHO, is one of the best names trains of all time…of all time). The modern town, Ercolano, seems economically impoverished (like much of the Napoli region) with the strange addition of a short tourist strip between the train station and the site. Some relatively recent changes, however, meant that the entrance to the site was well-marked up to a point after which the directions were essentially “go left and it’s over there somewhere.” Luckily, when we reached the point of maximal confusion in a somewhat narrow intersection of alleys, a friendly local pointed us (unprompted) in the right direction.
As you can see in the picture, the site is quite large and its setting shows the scale of the devastation from the eruption. Modern Ercolano can be seen as the buildings at eye level in the rear of the image. The entire Roman town was buried in ash underneath that level. The entrance to the site is at the lower-left (you can see a line of people there), about 30-40 feet below modern ground level.
The site was fascinating and well-worth a few hours of exploration. It’s moderately well described through a combination of map, guidebook, and some sign postings. Many of the buildings are strikingly well-preserved. A set of bathhouses, in particular, shed light on the nature of life in the wealthy town. Many of the houses are two story structures with central fountains, balconies, and ornate tilework or frescoes. Some pictures are included below.
After visiting Herculaneum, we headed back to Napoli (again on the Circumvesuviana). The return trip lacked the gang of apparent drug dealers evading police, break beer bottles, and smoking weed, but was still pleasant. But then there was the heat.
We had another half day in Napoli, which we used to do a bit of additional sightseeing. Again, it was really hot, so we didn’t venture around much. But we figured we needed to attempt to take Neapolitan transit, which was probably a mistake – the system is chaotic (like many things in Napoli) – and not helped by the lack of schedules, the fact that buses, trams, and metro are all controlled by different companies. But, after a short tram ride, we did manage to take a look at the harbor and a couple of castles. The area around Castel Nuovo was much more touristy than the more trash-filled area around the train station; there was a lot of shopping there, and shopping that seemed nicer than the guys selling mobile phone cases on cardboard tables outside our hotel. Indeed, a neoclassical mall, Galleria Umberto I, is just across the street from the Castel. Oddly, all the stores were out of business.
With that, our trip to Napoli was over. We got a taxi ride back to the train station, where the drive let us out in the middle of a road with traffic going by because he said it was the best place to get out.
Onward to Rome!
PS. Napoli is also famous for the Rum Baba. We are not fans, despite the pre-consumption optimism shown in my face below.