There is an old joke about traffic lights in Italy, it states that in Milan they are an "instruction", in Rome a "suggestion" and in Naples a "decoration". I have been buying in Naples for some years and I have fallen in love with this magical ancient city of hills, varied districts, staircases, winding roads, indeed every mode of public transport - which includes cable cars and funicular railways - and an encyclopaedia of crumbling buildings from the birth of cities to the present day. You know when you love Naples when you can cross the road - with confidence. The trick is to step off the curb and without deviation, hesitation or repetition you steadily cross. It is an act of faith and you will reach the other side alive. Amazingly, the cars don't want to run you down, they will stop but they are always in a hurry and they won't stop just for fun or for any sort of road sign, but they will to spare a life. The belief that the Neapolitan driver in some small way loves you is a spur to love them back, and I do.
We are staying in the Chiaia district around the Castel Dell'Ovo; this is where most of the antique shops are but there are others dotted around throughout the city. The shops are all semi private - in other words you go in and ask a few questions and they then offer to show you their warehouse - a small rub on the oil lamp and many an Aladdin's cave is opened up. Naples loves history and this is one of the last cities to be still home to a vibrant, copious and energetic antique trade. Here the much vaunted global intoxication with all things 'vintage' is kept in abeyance.
But though I cannot resist poking my nose into various familiar shops I am here with Esther to immerse myself in churches and sea food. Naples spreads itself out densely over its seven hills overlooking no corner. The inhospitable, sometimes vertiginous, terrain is ignored, furthermore the heat of the summer is accommodated as the buildings are high, close together and very often with balconies on every floor. This delivers a cooling breeze down the narrow streets and shade as you walk along the near ubiquitous cobbles. The museums and churches of Naples need no description though I would encourage all to experience the streets and restaurants which offer for me the fullest immersion into Naples. Sitting sipping an intensely black robusta bean espresso with its dark brown crema and pitch black liquid whilst gloriously consuming a cannolo stuffed with sweet ricotta and tipped with a sprinkle of rough cut pistachio fragments is both contact with divinity and deep into Naples life.
Morphing from pedestrian to driver reminds me of the puppet television programme Joe 90 from the late 60s. He was a normal boy until he put on these specially programmed glasses. Once I don my sunglasses seated behind the steering wheel I am transformed into a ducking and diving Neapolitan, sitting behind the bumper of the car in front and overtaking on every blind corner. Despite the desperate screams and frantic phantom breaking from the passenger side we make it out of the city and to Paestum without physical incident, it took a few further hours for Esther to speak to me again. The legendary site of three Greek temples revealed a wonderful extra I had not noted before, a wonderful vast swimming pool with an elaborate underwater labyrinth for swimming round and through. It must have been fabulous fun, on a hot day visitors must look enviously downinto the imaginary water. The museum cafe surprisingly offered up a beautiful lunch, a shady terrace and fine espresso to brace us for the journey to Reggio.
If you have never seen the Riace bronzes make time to do so. Their home in Reggio certainly celebrates them, the museum is bedecked with pictures and every sign points towards them. They have a special room which is protected by an airlock. You stand for 3 minutes and are swept with some sort of special air and then the door slides back and you are in front of them. Two naked bronze men of lush physicality, they stand contraposto, one with an air of impossible swagger the other with a touch of humility. They are life size and are magnificent. It is impossible to describe adequately their super-reality but standing before them you cannot help but be both humbled and impressed. They had an old man with them originally but he has mainly rotted away and all that remains is a magnificent head and a fair amount of lame cgi via a screen at the back of the room.
On into Sicily and we visit Messina for cakes at the 1920s cafe Doddi and the fountains of Orion and Neptune, masterpieces from the mid 16th century by, the pupil and studio assistant of Michelangelo, Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli. These two works were pioneering and are superbly expressive and dramatic. Though Montorsoli was from near Florence originally he seems to offer with these two works a perfect baptism into the drama and intensity of Sicily.
In order to get around Sicily without a human guide or a map we relied on the Sat Nav of Tomtom. This was a mistake. Esther's theory was that it was a conspiracy by either the car hire companies to force you to damage your car so that they can claim on your insurance or by the mafia to lead you into dark and secluded spots to be mugged. Either way Tomtom, which I have found elsewhere to be impeccable, led us down an endless litany of dead ends, up the wrong way of numerous one way streets, down narrow roads - that only a skinny cyclist could pass through, and finally it tried to make us drive up a staircase. Tomtom had to be ignored. Happily Google maps stepped in and saved the day. The only problem is that it often fails to keep up or indicates left when you need to turn right. But at least it, stumblingly, did work. We came and went from town to town with hardly any u-turns or mishaps. In the end we had to be happy as I can remember the old days of maps when no couple were loving enough to survive the pressure of map reading without tears and acrimony.
Based in Modica, we roamed around embracing the multiple strands of the ancient, the baroque and Commissario Montalbano. The Ancient Greek, the roman, the Norman, the Angevin, the Spanish and the baroque treasures are numerous and well catalogued but hand in hand wherever you go you come across buildings that proudly proclaim the fact that they are and were locations for the detective series noted above. The cult of Montalbano is so strong that there are dedicated tours and various towns have either renamed themselves to fit the books or added their fictional sobriquets to the town names. We visited a beach beside a town called Sampieri and in the distance we saw a ruined brick factory, oddly it is a ruined Sardine factory in Montalbano, perhaps the writers thought bricks were not sufficiently Sicilian? Walking round the baroque streets of Scicli we saw filming around the town hall, they were actually shooting for the next Montalbano series, it is the police station in the show.
Modica has its own Montalbano locations, it features in the title sequence, but it also justly famous for its two great baroque churches, San Giorgio and San Pietro; the latter has in its shadow a chocolate purveyor which is the oldest in Sicily. The Dolceria Bonajuto was founded in 1880 and a picture of its founder looking like an old mafioso graces their bags. This chocolate is lauded throughout the town and the whole of Sicily. It is famously still rolled on a stone block and retains its 19th century character. It is special because it is slightly gritty. The sugar is not fully merged, the oddity is that I assume this must at first have been simply a mistake, and somehow through ingenious marketing and general bravura, the mistake has become a much copied emblem of the city. Modica has another claim to fame that some might hide rather than trumpet. In the 15th century it had the highest Jewish population in Sicily. Where we were staying was in the remains of the historic Jewish quarter. Back then an enthusiastic Catholic priest whipped up a foment of hatred for the Jews and inspired the nations first pogrom, almost all Jewish residents of the town were killed irrespective of age or gender. Modicans mention this fact with a certain awkwardness. But there it is. When told we did not know whether they wanted us to be proud of their historic first or ashamed. I guess that perhaps in 500 years the people of Auschwitz might also be uncomfortably proud of their place in history.
Of course we did not have enough time to see Sicily with any thoroughness, we rushed around barely stopping between sights and delights. We caught a flavour of it and we did see the great post-earthquake of 1693 towns. We saw superb articulated facades and fantasy plaster work, we saw the Norman duomo in Ortygia that shows the columns of the Greek temple it was built around bursting out of its monotheistic hold. We saw mosaics of such imagination and condition that images will stay with us forever. We saw a lot of sunshine and ate better than anywhere in the world. In summary we are already planning our next trip.
Places: A snapshot of recommendations.
Naples - B&B Luna de Caprese, top floor of a crumbling palazzo; N'tretella, small restaurant, classic, old school; Da Ciro a Mergellina, again an absolute classic, bright lights, stone floor, simple but perfect food, black Aglianco wine and a short walk from the Ciro cafe, late night buzz and fresh graffa ( a local type of doughnut ); Da Ferdinando, another old school classic. The museum restaurant at Paestum, good simple food, very fresh fish. The town of Amantea and another palazzo B&B - hard to find but carefully looked after, the Barone was Italian ambassador to Irag and Saddam Hussein as well as soviet Russian - the family photographs are thus most extraordinary. The Bel Soggiorno in Taormina, beautiful views, lovely breakfast, rooms with terraces, ask for room 24. Ristorante Nero D'Avola, superb service, excellent wine list and seriously gastronomic food. B&B Talia in Modica, beautiful old buildings, part of the 15th century Jewish quarter, brilliantly redesigned by husband and wife architect team and with the best service and breakfast. In Modica the Osteria di Sapori Perduti, sadly too much touristic hustle and bustle but a genuine local and flavoursome cuisine. locanda Del Colonnello, a quiet family run place and perfect for an uncomplicated but good meal. the Duomo in Ragusa, two star Michelin, a bit grand, stuffy and full of anyone but Italians, despite that - a truly imaginative, delicious and very Sicilian meal by the celebrity chef Ciccio Sultano. In Noto the Crocefisso, run by young, enthusiastic and quite cool staff, delicious and creative twists on classic Sicilian food.