Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Where the Locals Go

We have three islands easily accessible to us via a short ferry ride: Capri, the mainstream of high class tourism with the fancy shops and 7euro coffees to prove it; Ischia, the preferred destination of mainland Europeans and ex-pats living in Naples, with a focus on the hot spring spas dotting the island; and Procida, the island where the locals go. Without Capri's fancy-schmancy shops and Ischia's hot spring spas, Procida is an island of quiet beauty and simple charms. Only a 20 minute ferry ride away, Procida is a quick and undemanding trip for us, and getting off our ferry, Nathan and I immediately fell in love with it. The small harbor is fronted with a sailboat filled marina and colorful, peeling paint buildings housing pizzerias, bars, and cafes. We were there with a friend of a friend who was spending a couple of days with us. Our Procida visit coincided with his last few hours in the region, so we elected for a walk out of our guidebook to show us the highlights of one end of the (sort-of) crescent shaped island.

Up a hill we walked, gaining our footing on the cobblestones and passing typical, beach town shops selling flip-flops, T-shirts, and beach bags. A quick turn to the left took us past apartments opening directly onto the street and into a small piazza, bordered with a cafe, a bakery, a beautiful, yellow church, and a stunning view down into another harbor area, called Marina Corricella. Pastel painted buildings tumbled down to a short embarcadero along the water, and the view from above looked exactly like my imaginings of small, Italian seaside towns. We continued past the church with vibrant mosaics both outside and in, up past a castle and another beautiful viewpoint, through a tunnel "Romantico," and onto the tip of the island to the Abbazia di San Michele Arcangelo, a former monastery built in the 11th century. Nathan had no interest in the catacomb and "secret chapel" tour, so he read on the church's beautiful terrace while our friend and I took the Italian language tour of the catacombs (which consisted of a library and a room with a big pile of bones viewable through a plexiglass window, and a couple of frescoed chapels once used for prayer and meditation). I have found that no matter how much I concentrate on these Italian language tours, there is just very little information that I take away. I might catch a couple of dates and be able to read some body language on some points, but overall, unless I have a one on one tour, I never learn anything to really expand my knowledge of the site. But still, the Abbazia was interesting and beautiful.

After this visit, we headed back down the hill, via the old castle moat, and into that gorgeous riot of buildings I mentioned before, Marina Corricella. We walked down narrow stairways, between buildings painted bright coral and yellow and pale green, we watched a delivery man use a motorized cart to carry his wares up the steep stairs, and we finally landed at the water, where a small inner harbor held sailboats in miniature - tiny, wooden daysailers - and an outer harbor held the larger, liveaboard and charter sailboats. We'd planned for lunch here, but options were few (only one option really), so we headed up, up, up another steep set of stairs, where we promptly took a wrong turn (my fault) that led us past grand villas with grand gardens, set back from the road and locked away behind ornate, iron gates. With time getting short and bellies crying, we turned back to the main marina in order to have time for food before our ferry back to the city.

Our short tour of Procida was enough for us to know that the island takes its place as our favorite. While I absolutely love Capri's quiet neighborhood of Anacapri, filled with white houses and narrow streets bordered by flower spilling walls, Capri can be hard to visit. It takes quite awhile for us to reach the port for the ferry, and the ferry can be a rough ride. Once on Capri, it's a fight to the finish to fit yourself onto a bus (every time I've gone, the funicular has been broken). In Anacapri, it's gorgeous and serene, but getting there and away can be a long and stressful journey. Ischia, for me, isn't much better, although the hot spring spas are a powerful draw. But lovely, lovely Procida is the island to relax, walk, and take in all the color. Next time, we should rent Vespas.

Monday, July 25, 2011

And the Winner Is...

We're approaching our one year anniversary of living in Naples. I thought I'd wait until the official year anniversary to announce where I did indeed find the best gelato, but I can't wait. I'm jumping the gun and calling it. I have two favorites, one found yesterday right here in Naples: Casa Infante, Via Toledo 258. This is the place. With a wall of sugar cones lining the back of the restaurant and fluffy, yummy, artisan gelato flavors filling the chilled cases, Casa Infante is officially my favorite gelateria for the year. They even coat the bottom of your sugar cone with a bit of chocolate, so that once all the gelato is gone, you still have a special treat to enjoy at the end. Casa Infante has two locations, but Nathan and I happened upon the Via Toledo on a quiet Sunday in Centro (downtown). As long as you don't want to shop or see any sites, Sunday is a great day to be in downtown Napoli - it's so quiet, some streets become pedestrian zones, and there's enough tranquility to really enjoy the area rather than sneak quick glances at buildings while dodging Vespas, cars, people, trash, and dog poop. Fortunately for us, one of the few businesses open along sleepy Via Toledo (never thought I'd write those three words together) was Casa Infante, and we had a family consensus: best gelato.

I do have to give more than a nod to Rome's Gelateria della Palma at Via della Maddalena 19/23 (a couple of blocks from the Pantheon). I love this place, despite the absolute hordes of customers at all times. The gelateria offers every flavor possible to dream up, and while I've read that others think they offer too much to keep their quality good, I lucked into a favorite flavor the first time around...and went back for the same flavor the next day (honey and pine nut). The high crowds make it difficult to get a good look at all your options and the menu list at the cash register is absolutely horrible at explaining the different cones and prices. Even worse, like any place that has that many customers throughout the day, the service is a "get 'em in and get 'em out" style, so Gelateria della Palma doesn't get the winning vote...but for me, they are a must visit when in Rome.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jazz Among the Ruins

A couple of weeks ago, there was a jazz festival here, held in a few different tourist sites around Pozzuoli. Concerts were held every night, most in the Solfatara (which is that stinky place I wrote about back in September 2010). Since I vowed never to return to the Solfatara, those concerts were out for me. But one was allegedly held in the Baia Terme Archaeological Park, my favorite ruins in our immediate neighborhood. This is the place that is an old Roman spa complex and villa, and so lacking in visitors that most visits, I've had the complete complex to myself. There is an old swimming pool, a fabulous, domed spa, tunnels heading down into the ground, and a wonderful view of Baia and the Bay of Pozzuoli beyond. Naturally, I was very excited to attend a jazz concert there. I'd made arrangements to go with new friends, who know the festival organizers. They said the concerts always start late, so we didn't rush and eventually arrived to the venue about 30 minutes after the start time...and the venue was completely dark with a chained gate locking it up tight. Okay, this is Italy - maybe they're starting really late. We headed down the street to a popular bar for drinks and snacks. An hour went by and other friends showed up. As it turned out, the venue was printed wrong on the flyer. Possibly the concert was now over, but with good drinks and good company, the evening carried on anyway.

Saturday night was the final concert of the festival - my last chance. Nathan was out of town, but a co-worker couple of his had expressed an interest in going - this concert was at the Temple of Neptune, a ruin that is usually closed to visit, but does have a soccer field attached to it where the local kids play. I'd never even heard of this ruin, so I was quite excited to see something new. Once again, we arrived a little late in hopes we'd get there as the concert was starting. It seems that when my friend told me the concerts don't ever start on time, he was not exaggerating. The 8:00 concert started about 9:25. But what was even funnier is that the venue didn't even fill up until about 9:15 or so. I was wondering if this was a chicken and egg riddle - Did the concert start late, so no one showed up on time...or did no one show up on time, so the concert started late? Which came first? But, as my friend said, "It's Italy." And remember...now I sort of smile at that instead of doing internet searches for cheap flights back to the U.S. Regardless of the start time, the evening was absolutely lovely. A cool breeze had blown away the humidity, our "early" arrival landed us seats in the back where there were cushioned chairs around tables, the better to rest our glasses of a local wine, and when the concert eventually started, we were able to chat quietly with a background of live jazz filling our ears. The night ended perfectly with a visit to a neighborhood pizzeria, where I ordered some of the best pasta I've eaten in Naples. Unfortunately for my friends, they and the rest of the neighborhood had ordered pizza, which took about an hour to come out - highly unusual, here, but the pizzeria was hopping. At midnight, families were still pouring in - families, as in Mama, Papa, Nonna (grandmother), and at least two young children. At midnight. It really is different here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Market Bounty

Last week, my friend took me to her vegetable stand at the Pozzuoli Fish Market (which quite obviously, also has vegetable stands). She'd been telling me how good her place was - the veggies are usually fresh and the prices are great. She did not tell a lie. While Nathan and I have been getting our produce at either the grocery store or a veggie stand down the road from our house, we've found the produce a little old and usually expensive. And had I gone to the stand at the Pozzuoli Fish Market alone, my bounty may have cost significantly more. But an introduction from a long time customer, at any small business here, can work wonders. For the largesse above, my final bill came to the princely sum of 13euros. I tried, unsuccessfully, to cram all my purchases into the small backpack I'd brought. In the future, I will haul along a granny cart (large bag on wheels with a handle), a gift from the same friend.

Slowly - oh, so slowly - I feel more and more settled here. The last month of getting out to markets, finding a favorite drink at the coffee bar, dinners with friends, and discovering stores for everyday life (Metro is my new best friend and will one day get it's very own post) has calmed my mind from the near constant anxiety of always feeling behind the curve, of not knowing what's going on, of never knowing exactly what to say. A common refrain I hear is that "Naples isn't Italy. Naples is different." While every region in Italy has it's own quirks, customs, dialect, cultural norms, Naples truly is a world unto itself. So many times in conversation, when speaking about some event, idea, whatever, people just sigh and say, "It's Naples." I'm finally able to hear that with a little bit of pleasure rather than an immediate desire to hop on the nearest plane home. After all, as I've had to tell myself in six other cities before Naples, this is my home now.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Perfect Summer Day in Italy

Yesterday was as near a perfect day as I've had this summer. I headed back to the beach with a friend who lives down the street. We set up our chairs and umbrella, pulled out water, snacks, and books, then promptly set to the hard job of relaxing on the beach. Our view took in the Baia Castle up on the nearest cliff, then on to Capo Miseno, that famed home of the Roman fleet at the time of Pompeii's eruption, and off in the distance, Capri was visible in the clear air. When time for a cool down swim arrived, I donned snorkel gear, and we set off for a nearby buoy. Where the buoy floats was once dry land, and with this particular stretch of the coastline being a former hotbed of vacation villas for wealthy Romans, under the waters lie the ruins. There are more watery ruins down the road in Baia, but those are for divers. The Arco Felice bits lie just off the beach where we were set up and the water is so shallow that in a couple of places, had I put down my legs, I would have been standing on an old, villa wall. The only villa we found during this swim was not one that had a mosaic floor, although those are out there, too. This one did have several columns, creepy with the algae covering up their former glory. One toppled column was not covered with marine life, so it's brick facing was clear. In other places, the columns just rose up out of the sand bed, with the walls of the villa surrounding them.

I'm always a little wary when I put on a snorkel. I'm not completely comfortable in the water, and for me, the unknown can sometimes be a good thing. I'm not sure I actually want to know what creatures are swimming around me. As with everything else in my new life, things are different here! There is no marine life. Nada. Just around the villa, I was thankful to finally see a few small, colorful fish - I suppose due to the marine growth on the ruins providing food. That made me feel a little better, but I've never snorkeled a place that just had nothing going on. Is it water pollution? Just a fact of no food = no creatures? Come to think of it, I now recall a headline from a couple of weeks ago in Italian, meaning I paid little attention to it. It was a news banner flashing across my email home page with the words "bianca" (white) and "Naples" in it and a picture of a shark. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention. This seems like it could have been important now that I'm actually swimming in these waters...okay, I've just done a Google search on the matter and found nothing. Although apparently some company named Evinrude is now distributing something called the White Shark line in Italy - see, that headline I read could have said anything. That's why I just count on ignorance and prayer to stay safe here.

Following a few hours under the summer sun and sporting a lovely stretch of skin that my sunblock spray missed, we packed it in and headed to our respective homes. Since sitting in the sun all day is hard work, I had no desire to cook dinner. As it turns out, a J-O-B. is actually hard work, so Nathan, too, was missing a desire to cook. He made the most lovely suggestion for dinner. You might think it was the words, "Let's eat out." That, however, is not the relaxing, easy way out - dinner out can be complicated, and very long, unless it's pizza. Since we're just off our diets, we're trying to spend weeknights with more healthy options. Off we went to Gennaro's, where we picked up prosciutto, salami, mozzarella di bufala, fontina cheese, and a large loaf of bread. Back home, adding in some olives and tomatoes and fresh basil to our spread along with glasses of wine, and we enjoyed my favorite, Italian dinner of all. And best of all, while we were at Gennaro's, we also stopped in to the gelateria for dessert first - a cone of biscotti gelato, and the day was perfect!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Going to the Market

Before I moved to Naples, the women who had lived here in the past kept telling me about the wonderful markets. "Oh, I miss the markets." "You're going to love the markets." "The markets are the place to buy anything you want, especially Italian shoes." This last one really caught my attention. Despite the fact that I essentially wear two pair of shoes only, black loafers for winter and flip-flops for summer, I adore shoes. Heels especially - very practical for walking on cobblestones, especially for someone who trips when wearing flip-flops. Thankfully, we go to church, so I have an outlet for my fancy shoes. I probably get holy points deducted for that - possibly it counts as pride. I'll have a moral crisis over the issue at another time, though. Today, we're talking markets.

Naples has many markets spread around the city. We even have one right here in our neck of the woods on Saturdays, although I've yet to drive over to it. Some markets operate every Monday-Saturday, some are just one day of the week, some are just a monthly market (can-not-wait to go to the Naples Antique Market one of these months). Markets are typically outdooors, with vendors set up under large tents. Some are produce/food only; some are a mix of everything - food, clothes, shoes, housewares. They are not like a market with handicrafts or artisan products. That's a completely different entity. Way back when, a friend invited me to join her group of girlfriends for the Monterusciello market and coffee after at a fancy pants coffee/pastry joint. We had a good time, but as for the market, I just didn't find a whole lot. The clothes and shoes seemed cheap. And maybe it was the fact of being in a group of six that made me more hesitant to take my time looking. Maybe it was that I was still overwhelmed by just living in this country, and I was still operating in a bit of a daze. But since that time, I'd yet to visit any other markets. In the past couple of weeks, I have determined to make a change in my weekly routine - read, get out of the house!

A new friend and I were going out to lunch, and we decided to go to the Fuorigrotta Market first. We both thought we'd cruise through the market, probably not buy anything, just get a feel for what a market is like. Wrong for both of us. We found beautiful shoes, vintage tablecloths, adorable bathing suit cover-ups, gorgeous beads (for jewelry making), and even a little bit of produce for each of us. Despite the fact that we are under a weather advisory for extreme heat and the temperature reached well into the 90s, we soldiered on for over two hours, exclaiming over every booth and having the most fun with the shoes. After the heat had beaten us, and we'd explored every booth, we headed back to the port town of Pozzuoli for lunch. Finding a wonderful, "climatized" restaurant, we finished our market day with a delicious bowl of penne arrabiata, delighting in our good deals and the opportunities we have here, from big travels to such fabled places as the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany to smaller events, like a Market Day.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Caves and Beaches

Santa Maria di Castellabate beach - A Blue Flag beach (=good)
Summer weekends are fast disappearing, and we've been very lazy this season in our exploration. For the weekend of July 4th, Nathan had four whole days. This is prime travel opportunity time, but we decided weeks ago to spend the time exploring our own region of Campania. The plan was one beach day, one day on the Amalfi Coast, one day in the Cilento National Forest, and one day at home. Good plan. We didn't follow it. After two entire days of lazing about, we finally decided to actually get off the sofa and see something. On the Fourth of July, we drove to the Cilento region to visit Grotte dell'Angelo. There are two main cave systems in that area, this one and Grotta di Castelcivita. While I want to visit Grotta di Castelcivita someday - who wouldn't with this description out of Lonely Planet: "There are longer, three hour tours between May and September when the water deep within the cave complex has dried up. Hard hats and a certain level of fitness and mobility are required." - we opted on this trip for Grotte dell'Angelo, mainly because the tour starts in a boat that you take into the cave system, and you "disembark just before the waterfall" (again with the LP guidebook).
Cave Entrance
On arrival, we found that the next English speaking tour was in three hours. And off we went on the Italian language tour departing in 20 minutes. Therefore, I can tell you next to nothing about the cave. But it was awesome. We rode the boat, then walked for about an hour through caves and halls and itty, bitty little grottoes chock full of stalactites and stalagmites, many that had met in the middle over the millenia of growth. This and the other cave I mentioned have shown signs of human habitation, and Grotta di Castelcivita (the one we didn't visit) takes it's place in the record book as the site of the oldest settlement in Europe, with evidence of habitation dating to 40,000 years or so, give or take a few millenia. This makes our local, Roman ruins seem pretty puny.

Okay, here's where I get on my soapbox. To all Americans traveling overseas: (1) If you decide to take a tour in which the guide is speaking the language of your host country, IT IS RUDE to talk to your partner loudly while your guide is talking. Just because you can't understand him doesn't mean the others in the group can't; (2) It is also rude to just walk off in the middle of his sentence - you picked going on a foreign language tour, so by golly, stand there and pretend you know what the heck your guide is saying; (3) In a cave, DO NOT touch the stalactites and stalagmites; (4) Even though you didn't understand your guide saying do not take pictures with a flash, I'm pretty sure you can read - and there's a huge sign IN ENGLISH at the entrance with instructions - like "Don't touch anything" and "Don't take flash pictures." There were even accompanying pictures to these instructions.

Soapbox over, and I won't go into even more detail how completely Nathan and I were embarrassed by our fellow countrymen (on the Fourth of July, no less), but I will say we had a serious sidebar discussion about pretending we were Canadian in order to distance ourselves from these folks. With the tour over, we'd planned to visit a nearby monastery, one of the biggest in southern Europe, but we were toured out and in need of some beach time. Around the mountains and to the sea we drove, landing in Santa Maria di Castellabate, mainly because the town sounded nice and has a two mile beach, key in this high traffic, beach season. Parking was a dream, and we were lying on the beach in no time - the sand a nice golden color, refreshing after the black sand beaches closer to home. It was already a bit late in the day with a brisk breeze blowing, so rather than a swim, we promptly fell asleep with our books turned face up on our bags. Upon waking and sitting up, staring groggily out at the sea, a man came up, asking if we spoke English. Upshot is that he is from Naples and used to have many American friends who have now moved away. He is looking for someone with whom he can practice his English. Hopefully, we can get together with him as we're hoping to make some connections with Italian families.

All in all, a pretty good Fourth of July - although I sure missed parades and picnics and flags flying everywhere. I didn't miss fireworks. We have fireworks here every night. That's not an exaggeration.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Long Delay

Oh how I wish I had a fabulous excuse for my long silence here. Something like traveling all over Italy, attending loads of local markets, or spending the days lounging by the Mediterranean (side note: we're actually on the Tyrrenhian Sea, but that's so much less interesting to type). Instead, I've been dieting. My first ever and extremely difficult. For a few days there, all I could think about was food. Have you ever watched the show Survivor? Invariably, each season, the players start talking about food, in detail. That's what I was like. I imagined sitting down with a bag of chips, pictured drinking a nice, cold glass of white wine, dreamed of eating the chocolate bar sitting on our hutch. Then I pictured the beaches here in Italy, full of women in bikinis. Now admittedly, Italian women here in the south are not as fit as what I think Americans imagine - the svelte beauty, limbs toned. But that's the media for you. Instead, Italian women aren't obsessed with covering up their body flaws - or maybe in this culture, extra pounds and stomachs curling over the tops of pants aren't considered flaws. I don't really know. Bikinis reign here, regardless of age or size. The nonnas (grandmothers) do put on full coverage bikinis, but that's about the extent of their concern.

I went to the beach last week, my first time this summer. This is a crying shame since we literally live one block from the beach, including a free beach and three pay beaches. I believe I've mentioned the beach culture before, but just to clarify, the beaches are lined with "beach clubs," places who clean the sand, have bathrooms, maybe a cafe or restaurant, and chairs/umbrellas for rent. Entry is somewhere from 3-10euros per person, with extra costs for chairs, umbrellas, and so on. Some clubs have pools, too, which is yet another cost. The pools, I have found out, are very important here because of water pollution. There is a sewage treatment plant about 20 minutes up the coast that routinely dumps sewage into the water. Our location is in a large bay, separated from the coastline by a couple of peninsulas, so my guess is that the water near our house is okay for swimming, given the water current. However, when we go to church on Sunday (our church is located on a huge stretch of beach heading up towards the plant), the beach is filled with families enjoying the day...and not a single person in the water. It's a little eery, actually. We're hoping to do some beach exploring this summer and kicked that off on the Fourth of July. More on our Fourth later, but I hope you all had a lovely holiday and that you ate lots of burgers, chips and brownies, which is what I dreamed of all day long.