Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Mediterranean Magic (2016)

A day in Naples

ABOVE: Arrival in Naples, in beautiful morning sunshine

Royal Princess docked right in the heart of Naples (Italian: Napoli) around 7am. It looked like a glorious morning, and we couldn't resist capturing a few preliminary shots of our latest port of call. In due course, following breakfast in the International Café, we went ashore around 9:30am, leaving plenty of time for a bit of basic orientation and impromptu wandering before our scheduled food tour at 11 o'clock.

After an easy stroll along the quayside and past the medieval Castel Nuovo, we meandered through the impressive (but only partially restored) Galleria Umberto shopping arcade. This led on to the Via Toledo, on the eastern edge of the Quartieri Spagnoli. Naples was already proving to be something of an assault on the senses, with its busy, narrow lanes featuring washing draped from balconies, motorcyclists who routinely mingled with pedestrians while ignoring 'one way' and 'no entry' signs, and graffiti on an epidemic scale. As expected, it was turning out to be a gritty, chaotic and somewhat dirty working-class town. Yet we both felt an instant attraction to the place based simply on that short introductory stroll, finding it far more likeable than disappointing Messina. This was something of a relief, because in a similar manner to our Sicilian stop, the conventional and safe option would have been to join an organised tour to the likes of Vesuvius, Pompeii or the Amalfi Coast - or even to make for nearby islands such as Capri or Ischia.

ABOVE: Taking a look around the Piazza del Plebiscito

As 11 o'clock drew closer, we made our way to the city's main square, the Piazza del Plebiscito, containing the Royal Palace of Naples, now a museum and in any case covered over for restoration. Other notable buildings on the square included the striking San Francesco di Paola basilica, somewhat reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome, and the Prefettura di Napoli, headquarters of local government in the city. Among all this splendour, sitting relatively modestly on a corner of the square, was the Caffè Gambrinus, the meeting point for our independently booked food tour. We wandered around outside looking for signs of a group forming, or for a tour leader holding a sign of some description. We even asked a few likely-looking suspects, but to no avail. By 1105 I was starting to get just a little bit concerned, when an Italian woman approached me with a slightly flustered look, and said "Excuse me, are you Mr Bruce?" No, but close enough, I briefly thought to myself, before breaking into a broad smile.

ABOVE: The tour got underway at Caffè Gambrinus

Our guide blurted out that it hadn't even occurred to her that she might be looking for two men, but we forgave her for that little moment of forthright honesty. It turned out that we were the only people on the tour which, following introductions, got started in Caffè Gambrinus, an incredibly ornate, 'olde-worlde' coffee house that reminded me of Vienna. We enjoyed a Neapolitan version of elevenses, consisting of an espresso and a sfogliatella - a sweet pastry featuring ricotta, candied lemon peel and cinnamon.

Our small group of three then set off past the Royal Palace, the Carciofo fountain, the San Ferdinando church and the San Carlo theatre. We made one more pass through the Galleria Umberto before heading in the direction of the city's Old Town district, where the remainder of our eating locations would be found. When walking through the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, our guide suggested that we might find it interesting to call in briefly at two highly contrasting churches. Both were Roman Catholic - no surprise there - but as promised, they could hardly have been less alike. The first, the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo, had unusual external walls featuring geometric shapes, and a decorative, ostentatious interior. The second, Santa Chiara, was of medieval construction and plain to the point of austerity.

A short walk along Via San Sebastiano and left into the narrow Via Port'Alba soon brought us to our second food stop of the tour: a small, family-run establishment that claimed to be the oldest pizzeria in Naples and possibly the world, going by the name Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba. Perhaps ironically, we weren't actually here to eat pizza. Instead, we had a first course of eggplant Parmesan with bitter spinach, and this was followed by a pasta dish alla puttanesca (which means - brace yourself - 'in the style of a prostitute'! ) Well, I suppose the whole point of travel is to broaden one's horizons! That distraction apart, it interested me that the restaurant's name, which refers to sunrise, could also be viewed as a tribute to my native land. (If you don't believe me, look up 'Alba' in Scots Gaelic.)

We then continued our Old Town walk, much of it on Via dei Tribunali. During the rest of the food tour, we made no fewer than five further stops that involved eating and/or drinking. These were:

  1. a tiny shop selling deep-fried pizza; (See photos below - and they talk about the Scots!)
  2. a similarly diminutive limoncello factory and shop; (See photos below. We tried a creamy version and the original, as well as a delicious herbal variant made from rucola (a.k.a. rocket and arugula).)
  3. an opportunity to try Buffalo Mozzarella; (See photo below - the Mozzarella was made from the milk of a water buffalo.)
  4. trying an unusual pairing of a nutty, salty, hard doughnut with a delicious and unusual sparkling red wine;
  5. polishing it all off with a small ice cream.
ABOVE: Continuing our walk through the narrow streets of the Old Town of Naples
LEFT: The feasting continues with deep-fried pizza!
RIGHT: One of the high points of the tour turned out to be a minuscule limoncello factory / shop
LEFT: The next delicacy on offer was Buffalo Mozzarella and salami
RIGHT: Making our way back towards the ship

At the end of another thoroughly enjoyable food tour, we had no difficulty whatever in making our own way back to the ship on foot. Was the day effectively over at this point? Not a bit of it! It was still a gloriously summery afternoon and we had time for some relaxation before the ship's scheduled departure shortly after 6:30pm. We opened the second bottle of Taittinger champagne that we had brought on board back in Athens, ordered some canapés from room service and enjoyed the departure of Royal Princess from Naples in the comfort and privacy of our own balcony, in lovely, warm and sunny weather.

It was the second formal night of the cruise, and in due course we got dressed up and set off for Crooners as usual for pre-dinner cocktails. After that, we took up our 8pm reservation at Crown Grill, the first experience of this Princess brand for both of us. As ever, the food was free, but a $29 cover charge helped maintain an air of exclusivity. We both really liked the venue, except for the fact that they had placed it right in the middle of the Wheelhouse Bar and in doing so had gutted what had previously been our favourite onboard watering hole.

I had a scallop starter, followed by a Porterhouse steak with Parmesan fries and sautéed mushrooms. It was very nice indeed, and hopefully an experience to be repeated on another cruise some time.

Altogether, this was one of those wonderful days where everything had been a rip-roaring success from start to finish, and all of it blessed with the most beautiful weather imaginable. After hearing and reading some negative reviews of Naples, I had ended up thoroughly enjoying my first visit to the city. As I drifted off into a well earned sleep, I realised that I could hardly wait to plan a return to the region, perhaps to have a second bite at the city itself, but most certainly to see the many other nearby mainland and island attractions.

Thursday 26 May

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