Italy: Rome, Naples, Procida
We don’t know if you have ever read a travel story about Rome where the author didn’t bother to write about a single major tourist sight, but this is exactly the case with our story. In all the 80km we walked across the capital of Italy, we skipped The Vatican, Villa Borghese, The Colosseum, The Palatine Hill and The Foro Romano (the Roman Forum). Actually, we drove around the Colosseum many a time, as Massimo and Allessandra’s flat was only two blocks away from this famous spot. Now that we mention the feeling of historicity, we have to admit we spent four days in a street named Marcus Aurelius and every day at lunch we drank a toast to love in a tiny trattoria, where virtually everything – the notice over the front door, the lamps, the coasters – bore the famous image of Einstein sticking out his tongue at the world.
It all started half way through the summer when I found out George and I are very much alike at reading and interpreting geographical knowledge. He is better than me, though. I once mentioned I had long been dreaming of visiting Belogradchik, meaning of course, a repeat trip in the Rhodopes. Needless to say, he burst out laughing: I’ve never been good at knowing where exactly locations are in the chaos inside my mind, as I always want to be everywhere, and, preferably, at the same time. Just like this: let the earth go round and let me run along all the greenwiches and meridians. Run incessantly and run undeterred.
– Yana, do you know where our second Rhodope trip is going to be? (about the first one, look here, there are lovely places to explore)
– Where, George? (I’m hoping we might visit Belogradchick after all).
– Rome! – George says, after remaining silent for a whole meaning to add to the surprise effect. Well. I was surprised. August is cool in the Rhodopes, you need to put on a jumper in the evenings, and I do love jumpers. But August in Rome is like May in Dubai. It’s Hot.
I calmed down when George reminded me I had survived a temperature of 43 degrees C in the Labob desert. So eventually I was fine and began to anticipate the scorching heat of a Roman August. I must admit being hot in Rome is a totally different experience. A lovely one, in a different way. For four days we retreated to the long-forgotten afternoon naps and our Roman life began again at 17:00.
We’re at Sofia airport. We’ve both had an hour of sleep before the flight. We are sleepy, but efficient. We had combined packing with putting the finishing touches to a website, a job George was hired to do, and an advertising article, my assignment. We were setting off on one of the few trips without a flash memory crammed with work schedules. And there we are at the airport, leaning against each other and waiting to board the plane. We seem to be falling asleep. George suggests standing up or we might otherwise wake up at noon at the same airport. I pace to the boarding gate and back, as I find out that even standing upright but not moving, I’m falling asleep. We think it’s funny, but are so drowsy we are unable to laugh aloud. An hour passes in slow torment. The flight afterwards seems to only takes seconds, much as a nap does. From Ciampino airport we took a shuttle we had pre-paid in advance for 9 euro per person return and in 35 minutes we arrived at Termini Railway Station. It was there that we made a decision that was to keep us awake until it was time to check-in at the flat: no public transport, we’ll be walking and dissolving ourselves in the Roman atmosphere.
So we arrived at the address, left our bags and waited until check-in at14:00. And then we just smelled the pillows and forgot about the world until 17:00. But the first impression we got from midday Rome was of people moving about in a trans-like state, overwhelmed by the sun. A considerable number of pedestrians, however, didn’t seem to be affected by it and were instead trying to strike the fanciest, sexiest and altogether most photogenic pose for a photo by the Colosseum and the other famous sights in this city, once an imperial one… We didn’t practice for a selfie. George usually takes a picture by shouting “Yana, look!” and by the time I have located the tiny point I am supposed to see, he’s already shot me. This is our first photo in Rome. Obviously, I didn’t want to look at anything in particular.
At lunch time, which we eagerly expected so that we could check-in in the accommodation of our choice, and of which I had been prepared with the words “You’ll be totally gob smacked to see what I have booked!”, we found the trattoria where Einstein had been proclaimed Italian. Surely they believed it, printing his joking face everywhere. We do recommend the place. They served us the freshest sangria ever. At 14:00 we climbed the stairs to Massimo’s third floor apartment in an imposing old building. Each doormat in the building featured the word “cats” or “love and kiss”. As we love dogs, we left the cats to those going to the second floor. On the third floor, we stepped over Love, as it is not to be trodden on, and we got home. It was a beautiful surprise, indeed. George had booked the best accommodation – Massimo’s home, and I have never stayed anywhere better. All the world and all human emotions seemed to have gathered in this home. Old utensils, hand-made plates and cups, tea from all the world’s mysterious nooks,, amulets,500-year-old chests of drawers, oriental cushions, the spirit of the East and books from the West, old rugs with long tassels and others with embroidery on them, a bathroom with paintings on the walls, a clay basin and many, many candles. Lots of them. Had it lit them all, we would have lighted the whole of Marcus Aurelius St. We only lit a few. They burned all through the first night, while we were talking and examining all the numerous objects in the flat, trying to guess at their history. Only the next morning did we read the book of house rules, where rule number one was ”Please, don’t light the candles!” The first day we just hugged the pillows for a couple of hours and woke up at 5 a.m. ready to be Italian. And what are Italians very good at? Sweet doing nothing! And how could we possibly associate sweet doing nothing with queuing for hours for admission to the famous sights, where half the world was already waiting lined up in neat rows of four? Well, we failed to see the association. I had already been in Rome a year ago, had spent a whole day in the Vatican, had climbed every little hill, had seen Rome from the above, at sunset and at sunrise… I was secretly hoping we could skip all that. Like the true gentleman he is, George suggested we should remain in the dolce far niente state and thus explore all the tastes Italy created here in Rome, Naples and Procida.
The places that never let us go hungry…
La Pacce del Cervello. Fast service, delicious food in the traditions of old Roman cuisine, evenings spent with board games and fabulous sangria with apple, orange, banana and kiwi. The place with Einstein everywhere.
La Follia Bar. A little café on the corner of Via Capo’d Africa and Via Ostilia. The pizza by the piece, the focaccia and all the desserts they make in house (and a tiny, narrow house it is), were great. In addition to creating the best taste for breakfast, they also collect banknotes from all over the world. They had a 5 lev one, too. Their coffee was short, strong and much cheaper than anywhere else we woke up with coffee.
Rossopomodoro or Pizza Napolitana in the centre of Rome. There we learned that Quarto Formaggi is actually 5- cheese- pizza. This is a lovely, pleasant and very delicious restaurant, exactly the place to taste Pizza Napolitana in Rome.
Pompi in Via della Croce. Before we get here, we haven’t even imagined there is an event like tiramisu tasting.
The bakeries serving pizza by the kilo in Trastevere. Whichever pizza takeaway you choose, make sure one piece won’t do. It’s up to you how heavy a piece you’ll have, but you’ll definitely want some more. Here I was the Winnie- the Pooh of pizza.
We walked 25 km in our red sneakers, passing up by the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Fontana di Trevi, Piazza di Spagna, Via Margutta, Piazza Popolo and the cobweb of little streets around them. By sunset we had already reached Trastevere , darkness fell and the day ended on the pavement right in front of Basilica San Pietro, where we dreamed up a new journey. This cannot be told. We just sweetly did nothing.
On our last day we took photos of the favourite spots we had come across during our walks and squandered away the remains of our Roman budget in a … soap shop. This place took our time and we were only too happy to give it. Viewed from aside, we could have been taken for two people who had never seen a bar of soap in their life. We came back to Sofia like soap importers. “Lush” is the name of the shop and it certainly is a shop with a difference in terms of vision, products, aroma and experience.
We had strong coffee in the Roman café we’ve already written about. Federica recognized me and remembered that last May I had been alone. “Alone “obviously meant without a man by my side, as back then I did have a company, but it was a woman – an old friend from university. Sant’ Eustachio il Caffe is a historic café, visited by Henry Kissinger. It is located in a quiet place in the centre of the square locked between the first Roman university and a church with deer horns on its dome, which actually tell the life story of a saint.
Our Roman trip will be remembered for the severe sleep deprivation. Massimo’s flat didn’t predispose to deep sleep; it was rather a dream of a long, unfamiliar road where you travel with your eyes wide open.
Naples was my surprise for George and it coincided with the 21st day of the month and 21 is our favourite number. We’ve been celebrating it every month since we met. We had decided upon the final destination for this trip during an hour’s boat trip and debarking at Procida. For this reason I had asked George to bring along his backpack with photo equipment. And he took some gorgeous photos.
We took a train to Naples Centrale at 8;10 from Rome Termini station. A return ticket for two was 91 euros. I booked them late, only two days before the flight to Rome, so logically enough, this also resulted in more expensive train tickets. If you book early, you can travel from Rome to Naples at half this price. We got to Naples in an hour. The return journey took three hours, because we travelled with the state-owned railway. Between the two of us we called it ISR (after an analogy with its Bulgarian equivalent BSR). This is not, of course the company’s real name, but we laughed a lot, as we seemed to have been temporarily transported to the Bulgarian reality: trains with seats in compartments of dubious standards. Fair enough, the return ticket was half as expensive as the Rome – Napoli one, on a comfortable and very fast train to Naple’s central station. However, we were more surprised to discover we had booked a return ticket where Rome was not the final destination, but a mere stop on the way to Turin. Anyway, our eyes were closing, our smart phones had nearly gone dead. All the passengers in our compartment mysteriously filed out while we took turn to have some sleep. Now George is a gentleman. He loves me. He is a nice person, so I hardly kept any watch, unlike him. I laughed a lot on the train. I laughed at George’s childish dream to sleep and sleep and wake up at Stazione Termini, believing someone will eventually throw us out of the train, even we were fast asleep. Imagine the expression of disbelief on his face when the conductor wished us a pleasant journey with the Italian railways, politely reminding us that we’re getting off at another station in Rome, Rome Triburtina. If we failed to get off there, we’d have to spend the night at a totally different station – that of Turin!
About Naples… As we’ve already admitted, we spent four days in a state that was close to hypnosis. Something between wakefulness and sleep. We got off the train and before heading for the historic centre we loaded Via Tribunale on the tracking app of the smartphone, a substantial detail being, as we found out later, we had forgotten to add the word Via. So instead of directing us to the left, the smart phone directed us to the right and we slowly walked 4 km to the court, all the time asking ourselves why on earth we had been walking past the city prison wall and what it had to do with the historic centre. There is a tourist information center at Naples railway station with detailed descriptions of the historic routes as well as maps of the city. Don’t make our mistakes, get a map there.
Walking around the prison we saw loads and loads of washing hanging out to dry, and in Rome we never saw any! Colourful clothes hung from all sort of terraces under all sorts of tents. A particularly picturesque chaos it was. From the tribunale, where we finally succumbed to an argument as to who mislead the other one, we took a taxi. The taxi driver didn’t speak any English but was a lovely person. Three pages will not be enough to tell how exactly we managed to explain to him we wanted the historic centre. Eventually the man dropped us close to Piazza san Gaetano. This square is the very heart of Naples’ historic centre, which in 1995 was declared by UNESCO to be part of the world historic heritage, but long before that, in 1995, was recognized as Europe’s largest historic centre. As we only had two hours in Naples, we skipped San’t Elmo Castle, which can be reached if you take a rail lift down and, when you get there, admire a lovely view of the city and the Bay of Naples. We couldn’t visit Vesuvius either but we saw it at dusk from the ferry back from Procida. And just as we didn’t enter the Vatican while we were in Rome, we didn’t taste the famous Pizza Napolitana. If you love pizza and are keen on exploring history through pizza, you have two unique opportunities. One is to visit Italy’s first pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, which opened in the 19th century. The second is follow Julia Robert’s steps and just like in “Eat, pray and love” do the same in Antica Pizzeria dal Michele
We decided to pulsate in Naples’ historic heart. And we don’t regret a single second… or calorie. According to George my addiction to sweets is charming. I am the Sherlock Holmes of desserts. The night before, while he was sleeping, I was already searching “Naples desserts”. This is how I learned of baba, sfogliatelle, rococo ( soaked in champagne) and struffoli ( it is because of them that we are going to return to Naples for our first Christmas in Italy). In all the 20 km we walked across the tiny streets of Naples and Procida, my guilty conscience forgot about all the syrup in a huge baba (this sweet dish strongly resembles a syropy sponge cake, or a Bulgarian Revane) The symbol of Naples is a chilli pepper. It brings good luck and protects from evil omens. I have hung one on my handbag and quite soon will be able to tell you whether it attracts money as well. If it does, I shall immediately add that to the travel story.
The old centre of Naples is unique. Chaotic, colourful, gregarious. In the streets various craftsmen display everything that illustrates daily life in Italy. Pizza, of course, is an accent. The tiny streets leading down to the sea take you away from the crowd and into the port. That’s where we had headed for, anyway.
In about 30- minute walk we reached Mollo Beverello, where at 12.10 we took a boat to Procida. A single ticket for two is 31 euro and the crossing takes 40 minutes. On the way back we went for the upper deck of the ferry and paid 11 euro less, but travelled for an hour longer. Nevertheless, it was a budget option. Procida is an island that has two sides. One, where the port is, is more dynamic. It resembles a meeting point where various groups of people sit down over a strong lemon spremuta and then set off to climb the steep little streets to reach the other part of the sunny island. You’ll see it described in various catalogues and travel brochures under the heading “Italy’s most colourful islands”. On the other side of the island is the shore where the fishermen village of Coricella is – Procida’s oldest port, where you can try delicious seafood at quite reasonable prices. The houses are certainly interesting. They rise one above the other, so as not to block the neighbours’ view to the sea. The island here is at its most authentic, as most tourists seem to prefer Capri. And Procida is a precious jewel, as dear as the one your granny gives to you on your wedding day, to be passed on to future generations. We chose this colourful island over the larger, and nearer to Naples ones. We promise to come back one day. In a summer that will be long enough with time to spare for both the Rhodope Mountains and Italy.
Coricella is a popular place for fun. The name comes from the Greek “kora Cale”, which means a nice neighbourhood. There is no traffic. People walk up and down the little stairs and narrow passages between brightly coloured houses.
One day is quite enough to feel, browse and remember Procida’s colours. You can visit sights that don’t charge admission like Abbazia di san Michele (the abbey’s library has a book dating back to 1534), the medieval heritage of Terra Murata, the Santa Maria delle Grazia and Santa Margheritta Nuova, the typical 15th century architecture of Casa Vascello.
How do the locals differ from the tourists…. The Italian wears patent leather shoes and perfectly pressed trousers. He is always involved in animated conversations over a cup of cappuccino, as if life, with all the excitement it deserves only starts this very morning and will never be repeated. The Italian drinks wine in a beautiful company. Or he quietly contemplates, he doesn’t watch. It is sweet for him to do nothing. We went to Italy because wherever else we had been before, we were always asked whereabouts in Italy we came from. The likeness probably comes from George’s beautiful shoes, my rapid speech and our love for each other.
Doing nothing isn’t very exciting, unless you find the person to do nothing with. Only then can far niente be dolce.