Naples & the Amalfi Coast


“See Naples and die”, the saying goes, as if for pure pleasure alone, nowhere could be as beautiful or as brilliant as Naples.

Of course there are other – less voluntary – ways. Messing with the owner of a late-night coffee bar who may or may not have been affiliated to the Neapolitan Mafia (the Camorra) was one of them. Unfortunately, this only occurred to me after I had insulted him.

I was having too much of a good time. Knocking back the grappa, I noticed a framed photo on display in one of those glass cases with the boxes of biscuits, the sort of photo you see in hairdressers or shampoo ads.

Everyone I had been so friendly, I made a joke to the barman about whether the picture was of someone famous and then finally, fatally, about the dumb expression on his face. Even when he told me it was his brother, I ploughed head and laughed “he’s ugly your brother.”

Ugly and, of course, dead – something that only began to dawn on me as the man’s face fell and I speculated as to why he would want a photo of his brother on display in a cabinet with the biscuits, inadvertently answering my own question by joking about him sleeping with the fishes.

Even though the bar staff seemed to be discussing what to do with me speaking in incomprehensible Neapolitan, it was time to leave.

People say Naples’ reputation – as the dirtiest, poorest, most lawless city in Italy – is changing nowadays. But of course you never know.

A huge place, a port, with the same kind of rough and ready atmosphere of somewhere like Marseille, Naples manages to feel both frenetic and easy-going simultaneously. Although much of it has the look and feel of a typical Italian city, the vibrant pace of the streets and the friendly energy of the people make Naples unlike anywhere else in Italy.

The first time I came here I thought see Naples and die meant from amazement.

Coming out of the station, the first market stall I came to was for punters betting on Chase The Lady. When a 750 cc motorbike nearly knocked me off the pavement, it was inevitably being ridden by three kids whose ages combined wouldn’t have made them old enough to drive legally.

These days, people say, thanks to the new mayor, the city has been cleaned up, calmed down, and made more organised to be more tourist-friendly. Still, these things are relative.

“All that means,” our first taxi-driver told us, turning round to face us, narrowly avoiding several high-speed accidents in the process, “is that nowadays some people stop at traffic lights.”

I was about to become one of them.

As I sat at the wheel of my hired Twingo for the first time, the advice from the man from Avis was to say the least unusual – warning me to beware of kids selling parking spaces.

I nervously eyed the tide of traffic heading towards me as he assured me it would be fine.
“Close your eyes and just put your foot down,” he smiled.

If this was the attitude of the man from Avis, what would the rest of them be like ?

I had visions of making the local paper’s front page with the headline CRAZY TOURIST LETS DRIVER OUT OF SIDE STREET !!!

Driving in Naples is certainly an experience (a near-death experience). Everything seemed to be heading our way: cars, bikes, Vespas, pigeons, cats and dogs, even pedestrians as if, in typical Neapolitan style, a deal has been made: they can walk in the road, we can park on the pavement.

And if all that is not enough to cope with, Naples also has trams (no-one mentioned trams.), trams that come clattering up one-way streets straight for you.

Spending their teenage years riding Vespas means Neapolitans see cars as adult dodgems. Their attitude is: attack the space. STOP signs don’t matter, brakes and indicators are redundant, high-speed lane-weaving is obligatory. It’s fantastic, though whether the Metropolitan police will regard it as a constructive influence remains to be seen.

Out of their cars though, the people couldn’t be friendlier, even inside the likes of Prada and Sergio Rossi. When you ask for directions, in Naples they tend to just leave what they were doing and come with you.

If the scale of the buildings and the grandeur of some of the piazzas could be Rome, the old town (known as ‘Spaccanapoli’) is classic old-time Naples with its narrow cobbled streets and high stone buildings.

The steep side streets off the main boulevard, Via Toledo, are decked in cascades of washing. Through the constant buzz of Vespas, blaring televisions and beeping cars-horns, Neapolitan hip-hop mingles with traditional classics like Torna A Surriento and Give Me Cornetto.

In Naples, everything happens out on the street. There are dogs and children playing everywhere. It took me a while to realise the old ladies who sit in the sun all day talking, with packets of Marlboro in little piles beside them are not heavy smokers but actually selling contraband cigarettes, at half the price in the shops (3000 lire/£ 1.15). Some seem to have emptied out the contents of the living room to sell and so many of them are selling packets tissues, you wonder how Kleenex ever make any money at all.

In 1817, Stendhal said “Europe has three capitals – Paris, London and Naples” and the city is overburdened with run-down old churches, huge museums and monuments.

The Galleria Umberto arcade is built under a vast glass dome worthy of Milan and Piazza Plebiscito has majestic white colonnades to match St.Peter’s. While Piazza Bellini, on oasis of peace, with its terracotta buildings and classic Italian shutters, could be Siena. But unlike the attractions in somewhere like Florence or Rome, the ones in Naples seem spotless, untarnished by tacky tourists stalls or traffic.

You come to Naples for the bustling atmosphere, the colourful characters and the faded grandeur, but above all for the pizza.

Two days before I left for Naples, I had an appointment at an eye hospital in London, where, it turned out the doctor was Neapolitan.

When he heard where I was going, it was his professional opinion that instead of anti-biotics, what he should prescribe me was pizza,

Rather than the Ristorante Brandi, which claims to have invented the Margarita back in 1889, he recommended Pizzeria Da Michele, opposite the more famous Trianon.

Walking in two days later, I could see why.

Though it’s the sort of place where the same people come every day, there are no frills, despite the marble table-tops, just a paper place-mat and a mini plastic cup for your aqua minerale.

The pizza ovens though are like igloos built on a mountain of sawdust and for only 6000 lire (£ 2.10), the frutti di mare have so much sea food on them, you feel like calling David Attenborough. Hippo Pizza have clearly got their got work out.

Tearing ourselves away for trips to Pompeii or the islands of Capri and Ischia seemed too difficult, so instead we took a fairly gentle stroll up Mount Vesuvius, which hovers over the city wherever you are and is thought to explain the Neapolitans’ desire to live life to the full – while they still can. There is even a ghost town on the lower slopes from the last eruption in 1944 to remind them.

There’s not much too look at when you get up there (thankfully) – just the dormant crater, the Bay, and a few bizarre, all-black souvenirs made of mica/pumice – hedgehogs, tortoises, and some Afro-centric looking all-black versions of Botticelli’s Venus and or the Last Suppers. Vesuvian wine is grown on the slopes and is so weird, it actually tastes like it was too.

Part of Naples’ appeal, ironically, lies in leaving.

The two-hour drive from Naples to Ravello along the famous Amalfi coast is like being in a Bond movie: a precariously narrow, winding road, stunning landscapes, vertiginous cliffs, and Italians in fast cars inches behind you, flashing their lights, and weaving in and out, trying to over take at high speed. And that’s just the OAPs.

Every turn may offer death-defying drops or a tourist coach careering towards you but gazing at the view proves unavoidable, each time it hits you – a vast, dazzling, sea of glitter and deep, deep blue with Capri and Vesuvius hovering on the horizon.

Still, as I pointed out to my passenger, if you’ve got to go, at least it’ll be the last thing you see (practically worth it).

The towns along the Amalfi coast – Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi, Ravello – line up along the coast like jewels each designed to out-dazzle the previous one.

High up over the bay, Sorrento is a lovely, small town of pastel colours and lemon groves – so tasteful and virtually colonial that the Italians say the English discovered it before they did. When we arrive, the compact main square has been taken over by so many English tourists it looks like a scene from the Henley regatta, full of people in white sunhats brandishing the Daily Mail.

After 10 miles of winding down to the sea, the impossibly pretty Positano, is like a mirage of impeccably painted white houses draped in bougainvillaea, clinging to a cliff. It’s a tiny town – just one road giving way to a maze of intricate alleyways – dominated by a huge glittering Moorish Dome with nothing to do but take in the beauty of the town and the Bay. We sat on the terrace of a small pensione for coffee, and ended up asking about staying. The owner told us 90, 000 lire a night but urged that when we called back we should ask for Rosaria, “because my mother will tell you 120, 000.”

Amalfi is right down by the sea, but has become so cluttered by commercialism, even the Moorish Cathedral is being squeezed out of sight out by shops selling postcards and pottery.

Half an hour on, you climb up to Ravello – which is so high Andre Gide once described it as “closer to the sky than the sea.”

For somewhere that attracts so many visitors, there is nothing really there – just one, small, virtually empty, square and its “irresistibly romantic” gardens at the Villa Cimbrone which has spectacular views to top them all.

At our hotel, the Hotel Villa San Michele, just outside Amalfi, the owner’s son, Nicola, greeted me like a long-lost relative.
“Hey ! Shelley !” he smiles. “Welcome to Paradise.”

We tour the hotel, admiring the proof – the impeccable mosaics, bathrooms looking out over the Bay, and orange and lemon groves running down to the sea – “mio mare” as he calls it.

Still, living here, in one of the most romantic and beautiful Villas in Italy, has its price. After 8 years, his wife is still waiting for him to find somewhere more fabulous to go for their honeymoon.

We end up, like Nicola, spending most of the time, sitting on the terrace, just looking out, in amazement at the view(s), not even reading, just taking it in.

Once in a while, a tourist boat chugged past and we would catch snatches of the commentary, which seemed to consist of Joyce Grenfell regaling tour parties with anecdotes about the coast’s famous residents, like Wagner, DH Lawrence and Steinbeck.

“They make them up,” Nicola shrugged telling me to swim after them if I wanted to know the rest of the story.

Nicola had obviously taken it as his mission to fatten us up. In two days, we ate more seafood than two of those whales that just swim along the bottom of the ocean with their mouths open. Sautéed vongole, fresh pasta and mozzarella the size of shot putts, were followed by blood oranges and local cakes like struffoli or zeppole, all washed down by limoncello licquer (like lemon curd laced with petrol).

The expressos in the South are tiny, but strong, like tar. When I suggest that for Neapolitans like him, the coffee in England must seem disgusting, he disagreed.
“It’s disgusting by the time you get to Milan.”

We had to leave before we exploded.

There are beaches in Amalfi, Maiori and Minori, but they are small and stony and in summer, heaving, so, in search of sand, we hit the road, and headed south past Agroppi, to Santa Maria di Castelabate, a small fishing village blessed with beaches.

This is an area Italians never seem to talk about, a non-area, an Italian Twin Peaks.

Bombing along the deserted autostrada, through whole towns seemingly dedicated to the making of mozzarella, there were no tourists, not much sign of life of any kind. Even the countryside seem to prove even Italy can be nondescript.

The car got so hot, the lighter I’d bought at the toll-gates, a kitsch bottle designed to resemble a bottle of Moskovaskaya vodka, was melting. Smoking.

“It’s gonna blow ! ” my passenger screamed, watching it burn. (David Lynch eat your heart out)

The chalets at the hotel had a kind of ‘Crossroads-sul-mare’ atmosphere. The Neapolitans which flee here in summer hadn’t arrived yet and the restaurants in town greeted us with suspicion, as if either we had escaped from the hotel grounds or turning up early was cheating. The strange Twin Peaks atmosphere remained: the road was blocked by a ship being ‘launched’ and the golden beach was deserted. It even had a trailer park in the woods (also deserted) complete with an abandoned swimming pool.

We spent the rest of the week, lying by the hotel pool on our own in the sunshine, studying the lizards and watching the swallows dive-bomb the swimming pool for insects/cigarettes.

When I closed my eyes though, the chaos of Naples and the dreams of pizza were calling me.

See Naples and die of pleasure is right.