Last weekend was the epitome of year abroad fun times. I met a whole load of new Italian people, visited two new places and ate more food than I thought was physically possible.
On Saturday night, I was invited to a nearby town called Ruvo di Puglia to eat a wintery cheese fondue. It was pouring with rain outside as we bombed down the lonely road leading from Molfetta to Ruvo and the bad weather carried on all night. The streets of the old city were like rivers and I didn’t see much of the town because there was constantly an umbrella in my face. Luckily I had bought sparkly wellies just that morning: they were worth every cent of the 20€ I paid for them because quite frankly, the streets of Southern Italy are poorly equipped for all this rain. Leeds wins on the drainage front.
The fondue was the classic, heavy and gloopy goodness we all know, with the Italian twist of porcini mushrooms and ‘salsiccia di Norcia’, which is a kind of sausage from the central region of Umbria. Over the cheese and pickled onions, I was asked what Scotland was like and (hypothetically) the best way to invade England. I also received a valuable tip about the digestivo: don’t ask for it at the table, go to the bar to pay the bill and then afterwards they give it you for free. Limoncello all round then. As if I hadn’t eaten enough, we trekked through the downpour in the rabbit warren of the centro storico to go for dessert at a famous patisserie and chocolate shop called Berardi. I got a thick slice of chocolate and cream cake for €2.40 and yes, I ate it all. But look at how pretty:
The next day, I had to be up at quarter past five. Why? I was getting on a bus, in the dark and the pouring rain, to go on a day trip to Naples. Originally I was supposed to be going with a friend I met a few weeks ago but after she told me she couldn’t make it anymore, I was given the choice to cancel too or to go anyway. I embraced the year abroad philosophy and paid my 19€ regardless of the probability of being the odd one out in a group of friends, the English interloper. Luckily, the whole group was very friendly and included a family with children who liked speaking English. The bus journey took about 2 hours and a half, with a quick stop at a service station to fight over croissants and toilet stalls. There was an interesting CD on loop with alternating salsa music and Italian rap, to wake us up I suppose.
We drove into the urban part of Naples to see pedestrians sodden, windswept and scurrying about with inside out umbrellas. A good sign for visiting a new city. We made our way down Corso Vittorio Emmanuele in the rain but after stopping for a breakfast of espresso and a typical Neapolitan pastry called sfogliata, the day gradually cleared up. Weather can make or break first impressions of a city: last December I visited Milan on the first day of heavy snowfall. Wearing completely inappropriate footwear (ie. Vans). The slushy grey roads and the freezing cold emphasised the beauty of the department stores and the art galleries but I can’t say we spent much time outdoors. Here’s a picture of frozen me in the snow last year, such a fool:
I’d heard mixed reviews of Naples before visiting, mostly in terms of how a driver will run you over as soon as look at you, and how your bag can vanish in an instant. Rucksack firmly under the arm, and eyes watchful, I was determined to remember these warnings and judge Naples on its merits. I thought that the atmosphere was great: kind of rougher than other Italian cities, the centre is not pristine but you stumble across impressive palaces, façades, galleries and theatres, which all seem so unpretentious that you can’t help but stop and admire them. I saw the famous café Gambrinus where the President stops for breakfast when in Naples. I stared at shops with carts of desserts, pastries and pizza, and walked around the huge statue of Dante. We walked up and around the Spanish quarter, with its stone and staggered steps and all the washing hung out to dry, as the cliché goes.
It turns out that Naples is a place to visit around Christmas time because of Spaccanapoli. This is a long street that goes down the middle of the historical centre of Naples. In December, the Christmas market sets up its wares and attracts crowds of people with its showcase of nativity scenes. It seems that in Italy, or at least in these parts, the presepe or the model version of the stable where Jesus was born, is as indispensable as a Christmas tree. We passed massive stables, sprawling cliff faces, rows and rows of figurines, some even animated by clockwork. And because of course you need your bit of tat, there were whole stand of terrifying Father Christmas figures, maniacally playing drums and jumping out of chimneys and whatnot. In the crush of people wrapped in woolly hats and eating street food, the Christmas spirit was truly present.
On Saturday I was told not to come back from Naples without first trying the pizza. Lucky for me then, that for lunch we went to a traditional pizzeria, serving the original Neapolitan pizza with the high soft crust. I picked a very simple topping and yes: it was delicious, the base doughy and soft but still very light. This was rounded off by chocolate pudding and brusque, cutlery slamming, we-know-our-pizza-is-good service.
We had to catch the bus at 6, and having spent all morning touring Naples, the afternoon was whiled away shopping and trying to stick together as a group of fourteen, which included two children doing circus tricks with umbrellas and singing either ‘Miami Beach’ or ‘Miami Bitch’ in chorus, I couldn’t tell. It turns out it is quite fun to go round the Disney store with an 8 year old when you are not their parents. I was glad to get back on the coach and eat the sandwich I was offered and try to ignore a shouting match up front.
Naples was an excellent way to spend a Sunday but when I passed the sign saying PUGLIA on the motorway, I felt like I was returning to home soil. Next weekend though, I’m cheating on my adopted region again with Lazio, more specifically Rome :)