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Naples...and back across the Atlantic for now

Nearing the end...



“Stories happen to those who tell them.”

– Thucidides



We’ve had a fine visit to famous Sorrento and its gorgeous clifftop setting, and now it’s time to move on. But we have plenty of time before the ferry leaves to indulge in a bit of breakfast at a little street-side bistro. And what is it about glistening pastry delights in the case at an Italian bakery that makes a morning complete? With, of course, a cup of rich Italian coffee.


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And we’re lucky to have time for another fond last wander in the streets of Sorrento, to gather a few more memories and take a final photo (or several) before departing this compelling place. Every day we spend here reminds us that this whole area has been a special kind of resort since at least Roman times.


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After a good long morning we grab our bags and hail a taxi to get us down the hill in time for a quick lunch at the dock before we board the ferry across the Bay to Naples.


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The ferry pulls in at the far end of the dock, and soon we’re away, leaving a swirling wake and a famous cliffside village behind us.

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The ferry whisks us past several ships at anchor in the Bay of Naples and an impressive representative of the Italian Navy, and we can see various busy port facilities on the nearby shore. It’s a quiet and well-protected Bay – except for, well, a very famous nearby volcano looming over it all.   

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Due to its strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean, the Italian peninsula has long stood astride several major routes in the global shipping industry. The Port of Trieste, at the border with Slovenia, with east access to the heart of Eastern Europe, is Italy’s largest with a gross volume of 62.68 million tons (2018). And the Port of Naples is the country’s 11th largest, at 17.68 million tons. 

Naples is also an important stop for numerous ferries serving ports around the western Med, and the many cruise ships that access Pompeii and other sites in the area.  


We pass the big green pylon that marks the entry to the inner harbor of Naples and soon are ashore, dodging the throngs of cruise ship tourists boarding their day-tour buses. Then Jaime and Norma head off to find their rental in another part of town.


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We leave the port behind and duck into an alleyway, and we quickly find ourselves in grungy narrow streets with outdoor cafes, posted handbills, and laundry hanging from apartment balconies. Wonderful Sorrento was perhaps a bit too wonderful and removed from reality – good for a weekend break – but this is the real living, gritty, and vibrant Naples we were hoping to find!  

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Np31Our lodging is a good trek away, and our durable big-wheeled bags are still ready for more of the rigors of urban life. An antique iron-clad elevator awaits to carry us to the fourth floor and we’re greeted by a smiling older lady who delights in sharing her charming quarters with travelers. The courtyard is simple and  utilitarian and there’s not an excellent view, but plenty of good light pours in through the large window and it’s a quiet space for sleeping. It’s also just a few blocks from the University area and near the center of most things in Naples.

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And as the afternoon shadows grow long, the first order of business is to find something for dinner – like maybe some good Italian food (just around the corner!) before we settle in for the evening.

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In the morning we awake to the blessing of a very good coffee and pastry place just outside the courtyard entry door to our building. While it’s true that urban living can have its challenges, little sidewalk bistros like this one are among the many advantages.


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After a strong cup or two of Joe we’re quickly powered up and ready to take care of a bit of future planning. Instead of waiting for the last minute to plot our moves, we’ll do an early ‘run-through’ to familiarize ourselves with our future departure routine. And with the train schedule.

In a few days we’ll leave Naples to catch a ship departing from Civitavecchia, north of Rome, for our return to the New World. So we’ll check out the route and the timing involved to have fewer last minute surprises. And as part of getting to know better the daily life of the people who live here.

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The nearby Toledo Metro station (with its lavish ‘Acqua’ art) becomes part of the adventure, and we’re soon delivered to the immense station at Napoli Centrale. We had been to a small portion of this station a few days ago to change trains for Sorrento, but there’s a lot more to the place than we realized. And checking it out is time well spent since we’ll be using the Metro system over the next several days of our visit. So with that now behind us, and tickets in our pocket, we’re ready to explore the city. 



Np49We hop back on the Metro and resurface near the soaring glass roof of the Galleria Umberto I. It’s a spectacular space, similar to Milan’s grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which is just by the famous Duomo. The Galleria in Milan is filled with some of the most expensive shops in that fashion-forward city, while the one here in Naples is more subdued. But it’s a fine place to enjoy a bit more of the fine delectables on offer as we watch a TV crew on the ornate floor of the rotunda interviewing passersby. Meanwhile, a cleanup crew of pigeons is hard at work on a nearby table.  


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As we depart through a side door into the streets, we encounter a couple of older fellows singing operatic arias for tips. Their voices echo nicely from the surrounding stone walls and it’s a fine way to enjoy some of our time here. 


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Naples is a city of hills, and there are plenty of funiculars to help the populace get from one level to the next. It reminds us of the port of Valparaiso, Chile, which also has its share of inclined railways. We soon team up again with Jaime and Norma to ride the old Funicolare Centrale, built in 1928. 


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On a side note, the famous song “Funiculi, Funiculá” was composed by Luigi Denza and Peppino Turco to celebrate the opening of the first funicular on Mount Vesuvius in 1880. It quickly became a popular tune and was recorded by artists ranging from Mario Lanza and Connie Francis, to Alvin and the Chipmunks. Alas, when the volcano erupted again in 1944, the jaunty funicular was destroyed, so we were unable to ride this once-famous train to the summit of the still most active volcano in continental Europe.

Pavarotti sings “Funiculi funicula,” along with the lyrics in Italian.



At the top stazione of the Funicolare Centrale we step right into the vibrant street life of the Vomero district, a well-to-do area noted for good food and fashion. One store even sells what appears to be a gold-plated representation of Mt. Vesuvius to grace your mantel or tabletop.

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We wander through a nearby gate for a refreshing stroll through the extensive woods and gardens of the Villa Floridiana along pathways lined with the lush and ever-present leaves of acanthus. 

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Np75The museum lies hidden away from the rumble, the storm and stress (the stürm und drang) of street life, and it has an abundance of treasures to consume our time. There are fantasy landscapes for the escapist buried deep within you (and certainly me!) to imagine arriving by fully-rigged caravel to explore those ancient ruins with some of the colorful local people who lived back then along the farthest shores of the Mediterranean.  

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The peasant woman holding that jug of – is it wine? Her befuddled expression might suggest that it is, and that she’s happy to share it with us! And we could help ourselves to a few of the apples and the grapes in the next painting while enjoying whatever fantastic stories she would care to spin over a pleasant afternoon.  


There’s still more wandering in store for us through the grounds down to the Fontane – and its turtles! Roly-poly, topsy-turvy, and clumsy they are, sunning themselves on the dock, but elegant while coursing through their pond shared with languid shoals of goldfish.


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Yet the woods and the steps beckon us ever onward, down to the broad Belvedere and its view across the hazy Bay of Naples to Vesuvius – with a peek into the backyard lives of the neighbors, and their dog, just below. 

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Np102  Another little dogleg through the woods brings us to the Tempietto, a real life fantasy vision straight out of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” as portrayed by the creatives at Disney in that fabulous movie, Fantasia (1941). (I’ve always been a dreamer.) And we get another naughty peak into the private lives of the neighbors, where we spot a guy rummaging in the shrubbery below. I’m guessing it’s probably the giardiniere, and not the owner of that impressive spread.



Back on the streets of Naples we realize there are so many things we’d do if we could just stay here for a while. So much good music, so many other events we could really enjoy – other than, say standup comedy in Italian, which we could never understand! – if we’d just rent a little place here for a month or two.

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There’s a poster for Eduardo Bennato, the brother of Eugenio Bennato who we saw playing in the cathedral of Sorrento. Eduardo is considered one of the top rock stars of Italy, and the author of many important protest songs. It would have been great to see him in person and feel the emotions of the crowd. But alas, there’s a ship that will be waiting for us in a port north of Rome, and that’s dictating our schedule. 

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We climb up a long set of stairs that we think might even lead us to a nice restaurant to enjoy dinner with a gorgeous view over the Bay. That would be sweet indeed. But at the top of the stairs there are more view-blocking buildings, and streets which we dutifully follow in hopes of a miracle. We encounter some languid dogs, but not the bistro-with-a-view of our dreams.


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Instead we stop at a fine little place nestled right into the street life of Naples, and with enough icy Aperol Spritz on offer to make everything better. And when you can find a setting with food such as this, who needs a Bay view anyway? 

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A new day dawns and we provision ourselves once again at our neighborhood panetteria with enough good coffee and delights to see us into the day as we simply wander off to savor whatever the city has to offer. Europeans are, in many ways, far more energy efficient than most of us who live across The Pond. And that can be interesting to experience up close and personal. 

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Naples has a good, and clean, Metro system. There are plenty of motor scooters stuffed into every sort of parking spot. And there are e-bikes for rent. The trains of Italy are fast and comfortable. And for a quick getaway by sea, there are frequent ferries, operated by Grimaldi and other lines, giving access to most of the islands and other ports in the Mediterranean. 


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If the name Grimaldi rings a bell, it’s the family that Grace Kelly married into in 1956 when she wed the dashing Prince Rainier of Monaco.

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Among European cities with about a million or more in population, Naples ranks as #4 in density, after Paris, Barcelona, and Bucharest. Yet the tight quarters of Naples (8,183/sq km) might feel as nothing against such other world cities as Manila, which ranks as #1 in the world at a density of 43,062/sq km. So with a population density that’s less than 20% of Manila, Naples might just seem ‘cozy.’ (Note: five of the ten densest cities in the world are in the Philippines) 


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With the sun slowly setting after another good long day of aimless wandering, we’re ready for some dinner. And we find ourselves in the narrow lanes of the Universitá area, which is home to the oldest public nonsectarian university in the world, founded in 1224. And there’s all the good food that we’d expect to find near such an ancient school and its hungry students. There’s a place in an alley that most appeals to us, a tiny and intriguing bistro named Hosteria e Grill Bencott, but it isn’t open yet. So we find a spot to hang out nearby to wait as the street life goes by.




Then we notice there’s a chocolate shop just beside us and we score a bag of that while waiting! Soon the lady in charge of the bistro tells us to come on over. We might as well sit there while we wait. And then she hands us some menus to peruse. We imagine that she’s the owner of the place, or the matriarch of the family, or at least the nonna of the guy inside, and she bends the rules to take our order. 



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The next delicious portion of our evening was memorable and definitely worth waiting for, and we were in no rush to move on. I think we’d both readily agree that it was a major highlight of our visit and the rare kind of place we love to find when traveling. And I always enjoy reading any menu containing such a charming mistranslation as “Sea Trash.” That alone gets extra points from me.

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Eventually, the guilt of two satisfied patrons being ogled by hungry-others-in-waiting overcame us. We paid the bill and moved onward into the evening, with a fond backward glance at that memorable little place in an alley in Naples. We find those once in a while and they stay long in our memories.  

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The streets of Naples are still beguiling in the nighttime as we make our way back to the apartment to rest up for another full day.


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Np150During daylight hours the streets in the center of this old town (settled by Mycenaean Greeks around 2000BC, once called Neápolis, and allied with the Romans in 327BC) are filled with activity, shops and churches, and colorful doorways, along with their own forms of urban artistic fantasy, protest, expression, and mirth. Lest we assume that graffiti is an urban curse that is unique to the modern world, there were Greek mercenaries in Egypt who carved their memories into the leg of the statue of Rameses II in the year 593BC. And who knows how much painted graffiti has been washed away over the millennia. 


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Every morning the shopkeepers are open for business, the narrow alleys are jammed with delivery trucks, and the Polizia do their best to sort it all out.


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An elderly couple returns from the vast variety of hardware stores and street markets with ample fresh food for the day.

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And we decide to pause our trek to share a delicious savory pastry.

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Np184You may well imagine that we had no purpose for our morning ramble, that we’re just easily distracted, and often that may well be true. But we were actually in search of MADRE (the Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina) to see what challenges and surprises the modern artists of Naples might have in store. The Museo was well tucked away into the grand warren of alleys that so easily distracted us from our mission, such as it was.


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And there’s plenty of arte arrayed through the place to keep us interested, and sometimes bewildered. I believe it is the right and the purpose of each new generation of artists to challenge my perceptions of what actually constitutes ‘art.’ And sometimes I will admit that I just don’t get it. But that's ok.

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Yet even the most famous of artists spent some of their early years trying to figure out what they wanted to say. (Van Gogh didn’t discover bright light and vivid color until he went to the south of France, and then he finally broke with his dreary Northern European past.) Many of these early efforts are now avidly collected to illustrate the process that led to an artist’s later genius, but few rank among their more important works. And there’s Picasso, who got bored at the pinnacle of his artistic fame and tried his hand at whatever else he found lying around. Among his few later failures I would have to list his sheet metal creations – yes, really! – and you can see a few of them for yourself in some of the many Picasso museums that litter Europe.  


   Np198By the time we got to Naples we had been through plenty of museums and other ‘must sees’ in six or seven other countries, but who’s counting? In Naples we mostly just wanted to hang out and enjoy the city’s famous street life. And spend a lot of our days just walking. But our time was drawing to a close and there were still a few more things to experience. Like maybe finding that special (and perhaps mythical?) restaurant that overlooks the Bay of Naples, with a view of Vesuvius in the distance. It just had to be out there somewhere.



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In our search of that fantasy restaurant we spot a plaque to honor Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino two very effective prosecutors with a long list of convictions against Mafia members. They were “barbarously killed by the Mafia” in 1992 during their long fight against the mobsters.


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They both grew up in Palermo and each was murdered in Sicily by a car bomb. Francesca Morvillo, a magistrate and the wife of Falcone, was also killed, along with three bodyguards. Five more bodyguards were killed with Borsellino. We’d like to believe that brought the hammer down on the Mafia of Sicily, plus the local Commora and the Ndrangheta of nearby Catania, as we haven’t heard much about them lately. 


Np209We also wanted to check out the massive Piazza del Plebiscito, built to commemorate the Plebiscite of 1860 when Naples voted to join the Kingdom of Italy. This is the broad plaza where large gatherings are held; it’s probably where Mussolini thundered "Our program is simple: we want to rule Italy,” to a large crowd of Fascists in 1922 before his famous “March on Rome” to indeed seize power; and where such current stars as Bruce Springsteen and Elton John have performed. Today a mounted horseman stands tall astride the cobblestones, pointing into the distance at Mt Vesuvius.


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We reconnect with Jaime and Norma on our last day in Naples to board yet another funicular that will surely lead us to that restaurant with a fabulous view that truly sums up the essential experience of this old city. Np210  And indeed we find a good view, a kind of local hangout, but no restaurant. By this time we’ve been climbing the hills for a while and we’re hungry. Back at street level we find a decent pasta palace near the waterfront. There’s no view at all, yet the food is good and we’re as satisfied as we really need to be. It’s been a fine first trip to Naples, and maybe next time we’ll find that perfect ‘view-over-dinner’ of the Bay.


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Afterward, Jaime and Norma head back to their apartment, while Carolyn and I start walking toward ours in search of a late night bus stop. It becomes something of an adventure, in a long and beautiful night along the waterfront. We never actually found a bus stop and we each ended up with about 19,000 steps ticked off on our Steps Apps. Overall it felt like we put in 10 or 20 miles until we were passed out in our bed for the night. In the morning we’ll depart from this gritty-beguiling city, once more to catch our next train. We'll bypass Rome along the way, and frankly there's something more appealing about the simple pleasures of Naples. 


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The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante lists high among the many reasons I’ve found myself attracted to Naples. I have to confess to not having read her work yet, but I wanted to experience this enticing place first in order to ‘feel’ her unveiling of the city which apparently plays its own role in these novels.

There are other cities who perform as characters in novels (The Stones of Venice by Ruskin, Dubliners by Joyce, The Alexandria Quartet by Durrell), and I’ve felt at a disadvantage when reading such works without having actually been there. Good literature, as they say, should be universal, and that might infer the unimportance of the actual setting. But call it my stunted imagination, or maybe my craving to fill the details into the scenery. Whatever, I find works to be richer if I can actually touch the place.

‘Elena Ferrante,’ who remains anonymous after 30 years of notable writing, has said, "books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” And I would agree, if the work reaches that rare pinnacle of excellence which few of us ever attain. And so, I can now look forward to burying myself soon in these works of Naples to maybe feel the deepest of currents that have long flowed through these old streets.



In the morning we pack up and head off to the Metro and the Stazione Centrale to scan the big board again, and catch another fast Frecciarossa train heading north, with a train change at Rome’s Termini Station. The miles roll by our window until we’re in a small town named Ladispoli. And no, we had never heard of Ladispoli. We just wanted to find a quiet, small Italian town for a few days with no tourists around to get an idea of how actual Italians might spend their days. There’s an important Etruscan cemetery in nearby Cerveteri but we’ll just wander the local streets instead. And we might even score some Italian food!

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Ladispoli is a quiet little town, and it’s only a few blocks to our lodging where we kick back for a welcome nap. Later we wander the evening-dusted streets until a sleek place named Mood World calls us inside. There’s hardly anybody else around, the waiters are friendly, and the food is everything we could hope for. 

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In the morning, the quiet tree-lined streets of Ladispoli (translates as ‘Oil City’ in Greek!) are a delight for walkers, and for making our way to the well-stocked local outdoor market. 


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While the extensive black sand beaches are maybe not the town’s greatest attraction, we find a good little pizza place named Alice for a delicious quick lunch.


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And in the evening once again, we find more fine edibles at a place called Sarusso.

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On our final evening a very elegant place named Joya calls us through the doors. So if you happen to be in the neighborhood, and at a loss for great food (hard to imagine in Italy!), simple little Ladispoli can surely fix that for you. (Sort of looks like all we did in Ladispoli was eat, right?) In the morning we’ll depart with more fond memories of our Eastern Europe sojourn.



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It’s a short train ride to our last stop in Italy, at the port of Civitavecchia, established by the Emperor Trajan in the 2nd century AD after Ostia, the old port of Rome on the Tiber River, became silted up. Today this is a busy link from Rome to ports around the Mediterranean, and this is where we’re boarding a ship for the New World – a nice alternative to the cramped quarters of a cross-Atlantic, Sardine Airlines flight. The old fortress from the 1500s, that we can see just across the harbor from our ship, was the work of Bramante and Michelangelo, both of whom were crucial to the construction of St Peters in Rome. History is always deep just about anywhere you stand in Europe. 


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After a long and excellent meander through much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the time has come to bid the Old World a fond farewell.  We’ve been on the road via trains, buses, and ferry boats since July and now we’re nearing the end of October. The people we met throughout our trip have treated us kindly, and fed us well. As our ship departs into the afternoon we will be looking forward to a return to another part of historic Europe in about two years.

We’ll see you then! — PRW

April 15, 2023

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