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Source: Daily Telegraph
By Jeremy Seal
We put ashore, history heads firmly on, to explore the Parco Archeologico at Baia. Our guide, quoting Seneca and Vitruvius, set about performing the impressive trick of breathing life into the 2,000-year-old ruins, palatial villas whose crumbled footings and scraps of mosaic extended across the fig-tangled terraces above the domes of the great bath houses.
In satisfyingly fetid wafts, the past rose from this Roman-era playground and spa on the Bay of Naples – a place of legendary licentiousness where the likes of Pompey and Caligula had staged scandalous entertainments and Nero had his mother murdered.
This was top-drawer history tourism, with no shortage of contemporary parallels: crowding Baia’s bay were lavish mega-yachts, all laundered fortunes, thong-style swimwear and bling-laden security details, suggesting that little had changed among Italy’s ruling class, even if today’s lot appeared to prefer their palaces offshore.
On this last point, if on it alone, our little group of history-lovers were at one with the oligarchs. We were on a new cruise taking in world-class sites such as Pompeii, along with archaeological attractions on islands including Capri and Ischia and visits to idyllic ports, such as Amalfi and Positano.
But we weren’t on a traditional cruise ship – our home during our cultural tour was a timber schooner. And its shapely lines, we noted with satisfaction, stood out among the gin palaces, trumping every one of them.
A high galleon stern, sweeping decks and long bowsprit marked her out as a gulet, a “traditional” Turkish design which has become popular with small-group cruising holidays by virtue of its requiring neither sailing aptitude nor much in the way of sea legs. The miraculous adaptability of the gulet – sometime sailing boat and spacious mobile villa, and a fully staffed one at that – has lately spurred operators to try the same format in places like Greece and Croatia.
So it had surprised me, a confirmed devotee of these romantic but utterly practical holiday boats, to learn that the first gulet-based holidays were only now appearing in the Bay of Naples, a region plainly abounding in the same essential elements as Greece and Croatia – exceptional archaeological sites, a world-renowned regional food culture, and largely sheltered waters by way, among other things, of keeping said food down – which have underpinned the original Turkish template.
At a marina south of Naples we were shown to our cabins: compact but elegant, with varnished bulkheads and en-suite bathrooms. With a capacity of just 10 guests, plus five staff at our service – guide, captain and cook included – relaxation appeared assured. Another positive, a house-party atmosphere, was soon established across the spacious decks and in the beamy saloon.
It helped that our convivial British guide, as much as an enthusiast and Italophile as an authority on the region’s ancient history, was quick to banish any lingering fears that we might have signed up to some high-minded study course. He was among the guests who plunged with celebratory whoops from the bowsprit into the Tyrrhenian Sea as we anchored off Procida the following morning. Others boarded the gulet’s twin kayaks to poke about along the island’s grotto-riddled coast.
Meanwhile, the island’s little port of Corricella had caught our eye, as it had caught the eyes of others, to judge by the prominence of its streets, squares and bars in the films Il Postino and The Talented Mr Ripley. We put ashore to wander the fishermen’s quays and the steep scalatinelli, the stone stairways linking the stacked terraces of pastel-painted houses, until we had worked up something of an appetite.
Which was a good thing, given the lunch which awaited us on the gulet’s shaded rear deck. A profusion of regional antipasti including alici (marinated anchovies with capers and red peppercorns) and fritella di alghe (seaweed fritters) were followed by plates of pasta with Sorrento clams, accompanied by Ischia’s renowned biancolella wine.
Our chef had begun as she meant to go on. Constantly putting ashore to procure fresh ingredients, she somehow conjured an unbroken succession of exceptional meals from the cramped confines of her galley: enormous gamberoni (prawns) from Capri; Ischian courgettes, aubergines and peppers which she grilled with pancetta; tiny wild strawberries, which topped a heavenly flan; and the ricotta and prosciutto which went into the filling of a polpettone (meat loaf).
There were adventurous encounters with the likes of ricci di mare (raw sea urchins) and neonato (newly born tuna) while the afternoons brought tea trays heaped with freshly baked almond biscuits.
Hard to credit, then, that the cuisine – a monument to the fertile volcanic soils and the diverse seafood of Campania felix, or Happy Country, as the Romans knew the region – was merely a side dish. There remained the tour’s main course – a rich, often scandalous and at times catastrophic history – to put away.
We followed the cruise ships into the harbour at Naples to visit the city’s archaeological museum, among the most impressive of all Roman collections, and to marvel at the Romans’ splendid frescoes, especially from Pompeii, their monumental statuary and their filthy imaginations (the eye-poppingly erotic contents of the museum’s Gabinetto Segreto, or Secret Room – entrance forbidden to unaccompanied minors – suggesting, among other things, that the Roman age was no time to be a goat).
Better by far to be an emperor, to judge by the palatial Villa Jovis, which the reclusive Tiberius had raised for himself on the heights of bijou Capri. From the volcanic island’s eponymous town, a Fellini set overrun by convertible taxis, Moschino boutiques and shop windows stacked with bottles of limoncello, we followed the Toy Town lane which a recent wedding party had scattered with grains of arborio rice and sugared almonds.
Pressing ourselves against doorways to make way for the speeding buggies of the island’s postal service, we walked on past the gated villas of Italian CEOs, through orchards of persimmons and figs, until the villa’s high-walled remains loomed above us. A stairway led to Tiberius’s Leap, where a tumble down a 1,000ft sea cliff once awaited those who had fallen from imperial favour.
There were also visits to the excavations beneath the church at Lacco Ameno on Ischia, where kilns, amphorae and early graves had been left in situ, their layered remnants a compelling evocation of passing civilisations, and to the magnificent frescoes at the Roman villa at Oplonti.
At Pompeii we walked the astonishingly complete streets and forum which Vesuvius, its cone looming over the ancient town, had buried in ash in AD79, and we contemplated the death-throe casts of citizens asphyxiated in that apocalyptic eruption.
At Amalfi, where the fishing boats were cardinal red with island-blue trim, washing hung above the shrines of neighbourhood saints high in the port’s whitewashed vaulted archways.
In Caffè Pansa, Amalfi’s antique pasticceria, we drooled over sfogliatelle – filo pastry cornets filled with ricotta, orange peel and cinnamon.
For all this glut of pleasure, however, we were always glad to return to the gulet. By somehow contriving to be at once practical and romantic – minimising the need for the minibus transfers which dog most tour itineraries, for example, but also with dolphins riding the bow wave – our holiday home, restaurant and chief transport mode rolled into one stole the show.
It was a fact that even a passing oligarch conceded one afternoon, launching himself into an extravagantly respectful bow from the lavish sun deck of his mega-yacht. Here was true travelling pedigree.
|DID YOU KNOW?|
|Naples is one of the world’s oldest continously inhabited cities|
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) flies to Naples from Gatwick from £39 one way; easyJet (easyjet.com) from Stansted from £33; and bmibaby ( bmibaby.com ) from East Midlands from £50. Alibus (0039 087 763 2177) services depart every 20 minutes from Naples airport to the city centre, taking 30 minutes and costing €3 (£2.40).
I travelled with archaeological and cultural tours specialist Peter Sommer Travels (01600 888220; petersommer.com ). The Cruising the Amalfi Coast tour costs from £3,595 per person (based on two sharing), including seven nights’ full board aboard a gulet, transfers, all entrance fees and expert guiding but not flights.
The next departures are on Saturday and September 15, 2012, and are limited to 10 guests at a time. Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com ) has three nights’ b & b at Naples’s Grand Hotel Vesuvio, including return flight and private transfers, from £699 per person.
Despite the recent introduction of a one-way system, both the traffic and parking can be difficult in Naples. The city’s atmosphere is best enjoyed on foot. Start by walking the Spaccanapoli, the long straight road which divides the centro storico. For longer journeys use taxis (but check that the driver has switched on the meter) or use the extensive metro system.
The Circumvesuviana ( vesuviana.it ) train leaves its station on Corso Garibaldi every 30 minutes for Herculaneum, Pompeii and Sorrento. Good maps, including ones of the downtown area and the railway network, can be downloaded free at unicocampania.it .
THE INSIDE TRACK
The best-value option for visitors keen to explore a range of the region’s ancient sites is a €20 (£16) ticket available at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplonti, Stabia and Boscoreale that allows access to all five sites over a three-day period ( pompeiisites.org ).
Naples’s recently restored Teatro di San Carlo (081 797 2331; teatrosancarlo.it ) is Italy’s biggest and oldest opera house. The opera season runs from November to July. Tours of the opera house cost €15 (£12) and are often available on Sundays.
- An essential read is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 (Eland; £10.99), a compelling account of the great travel writer’s experiences in the war-ravaged city. Also pack Pompeii by Robert Harris (Arrow, £7.99) for a thrilling fictional account of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79.
THE BEST HOTELS IN NAPLES
Hotel Duomo £
The pick of Naples’s cheap hotels; clean and central, with en-suite bathrooms (Via Duomo 228; 0039 081 265998; hotelduomonapoli.it ; doubles from €50/£40 per night, excluding breakfast).
Casa Rubinacci ££
A smart b & b recently opened by one of the city’s renowned tailors, Mariano Rubinacci, and showcasing his excellent style. Five elegant suite apartments with kitchens, a garden terrace and solarium (Viale Maria Cristina de Savoia 2; 081 660030; casarubinacci.it ; suites from €135/£109).
Grand Hotel Vesuvio £££
Historic seafront hotel recently restored to its Belle-Époque magnificence, with wonderful views over Vesuvius and Capri. The lovely alfresco restaurant on the ninth floor is named after Caruso, the famous tenor, who was one of the hotel’s many distinguished devotees (Via Partenope 45; 081 764 0044, vesuvio.it; doubles from €195/£158).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Da Michele £
Classic old pizzeria in the home city of the pizza, serving margherita or marinara – the only varieties that many Neapolitans recognise. No frills. No reservations. World class and worth the queuing, which you can minimise by eating earlier than the locals (Via Cesare Sersale 1-3; 081 553 9204; damichele.net ).
La Stanza del Gusto ££
Brilliant one-off, with the ground-floor “cheese bar” serving informal quiches,
soups and an extensive selection of cheeses for around €25/£20, while the foodie “tasting room” upstairs (€65/£53, reservations recommended) specialises in regional Campanian dishes served in “taster” portions (Via Sant Maria di Constantinopoli 100; 081 401578; lastanzadelgusto.com ).
Osteria da Dora £££
Small, family-run seafood restaurant that is a Naples institution; very busy later in the evening. Pasta with clams, fish stews and lots of serenading (Via Ferdinando Palasciano 30; 081 680519).