19 August 2016

Naples II: Pompeii Excursion and Espresso Heaven

We woke up early on Wednesday morning — too early for breakfast in our hotel's famed baroque breakfast room, but the perfect time to take the Circumvesuviana train to the Pompeii ruins before both the heat and the crowds. We did also have time for a cornetto (Italy's answer to the croissant) and the first of many espressi at the pasticceria opposite Porta Nolana station. My research hadn't yielded much in the way of speciality coffee in Naples, but most of the espressi I drank during my short stay in the city were decent and some were very good.

We arrived at the Pompeii ruins just after 8.15 am. Both of our guidebooks, including my 2016 Lonely Planet, had indicated that the site opened at 8.30, but a piece of paper on the front gate indicated that this had been changed to 9 am. Still, our early arrival combined with the fact that we had booked our tickets online meant that we were among the first visitors to enter the site once the doors finally opened. Several large tour groups arrived just after us so we headed down towards the amphitheatre enjoying having some of the city's ghostly ruined streets to ourselves.

One of my GCSE Latin set texts was the letter written by the poet Pliny the Younger to Tacitus about the deadly eruption of Vesuvius on 24 August AD 79, almost exactly 1,937 years ago. We studied a little bit of the historical context and I have also read Robert Harris's excellent novel Pompeii, but none of this really prepared me for the scale of the disaster that froze an entire town in time.

So many of the buildings are beautifully preserved, from the decorative frescos to the phallic symbols on the walls that indicated that a lupanaria (brothel) was nearby. We went into one such lupanaria and the beds were still intact although didn't look especially comfortable. Meanwhile, Vesuvius looms ominously in the background.

We spent a good two hours exploring the ruins before heading for the exit; by the time we left, the queue to get in had grown greatly — it was probably a 60- or 90-minute wait — so we felt that our early start was vindicated. The train was packed on the way back to Napoli too (the Circumvesuviana line runs from Sorrento to Naples with various stops on the way and it is often busy).

My plan had been to head to one of the top pizzerias, Da Michele, for an early lunch but alas, it was closed for the holidays. We jumped in a cab to another highly recommended pizzeria, Gino Sorbillo, but that too was closed so we walked along Via Tribunali and went back to Di Matteo, where I had eaten on Tuesday night. The queue was even bigger so we decided to get takeout — as I mentioned yesterday, you can just go inside the pizzeria to order takeaway pizzas but we queued up to get some of the fried food, including the arancini to go.

One of the enotecas on the street was selling glasses of Prosecco for €1.50, which we enjoyed while we were waiting. It wasn't the best Prosecco I've ever drunk but €1.50, who can complain? We took our pizzas to eat in a nearby square while we watched Naples go by. The pizza was even better than the night before — probably because I was actually hungry.

I split from my parents and walked up to the Museo Archeologico Napoli, which is a 10-minute walk from Via Tribunali or Spaccanapoli. The museum was thankfully open but had undergone a massive price hike since the publication of my guidebook six months earlier: the entrance fee was now €13 instead of €8. Although there are some interesting artefacts in the museum, especially from Pompeii, I think €13 was too much; for the size of the museum, €8 is a fairer price. You would probably get more out of it if you hire an audio guide but I couldn't stomach paying another €6.

After verifying that another top pizzeria on my list, Starita, was also closed for the holidays, I wandered back downtown, through Piazza Dante where I paid my respects to my favourite Italian poet. Thanks to a recommendation from Commodities Connoisseur, I stopped for my seventh espresso of the day (and second worthy of mention) at one of the branches of Leopoldo Infante. I had a very fine espresso at the counter, which cost just €0.90 (a bargain even at the current poor GBP exchange rate) and came in a smart polka-dot cup. They even offer you a choice of still or sparkling water with your coffee.

I continued working my way down Via Toledo to Gran Caffè Gambrinus, a very grand and beautiful café that has been serving coffee on Via Chiaia for more than 150 years; it's a real Naples institution and is one of the few cafés on my list that weren't closed for the holidays. You pay for your coffee at the till and then take your receipt to the counter where you can watch the waiters prepare it for you. I had both an espresso and a caffè alla nocciola, a Neapolitan speciality that combines espresso and hazelnut. I don't usually like sweet coffee but I love hazelnut, so I rather enjoyed the nocciola. The espresso was pretty good too and the cups and the setting cannot be beat.

It is only another ten or fifteen minutes' walk from Gambrinus down to the waterfront, via the colourful Piazza del Plebiscito that offers views up into the hills above the city. I had a quick walk around the 13th century Castel Nuovo ('new castle', but 'new' in the sense of 'New' College, Oxford, which costs €6 to get in and which has an interesting history. There is a small museum and a terrace looking out over the Gulf of Naples and Vesuvius, although you can't climb up onto the ramparts (Castel dell'Ovo ('castle of the egg'), further to the south, is better for that).

I returned to the hotel to freshen up before dinner and we then caught a taxi back down to Santa Lucia, near the aforementioned Castel dell'Ovo. It was golden hour and the castle, the boats and the Neapolitan hills all looked beautiful. We had dinner at one of the restaurants overlooking the water. The setting was lovely but the food was decidedly mediocre.

Yesterday morning, I just had time to enjoy breakfast at our hotel (the baroque breakfast room was indeed splendid) and source a couple of espressi before it was time for our ferry to Sorrento.

For coffee, I went to Centrale del Caffè on Via Benedetto Croce (part of Spaccanapoli), which I'd found during my research and which was conveniently located just around the corner from my hotel. They roast their own coffee and the café had a clean, modern vibe; their pastries looked great too. My espresso was so good I ordered another one (when you can get a nice espresso for €1, it would be silly not to.

I would have liked to spend another day in Naples exploring some of the other neighbourhoods and, of course, eating more pizza but with the high temperatures and summer closures, we just wanted to get to our sea-front hotel in Sorrento as soon as possible. I'd definitely like to return to Naples in the spring or autumn, though; another one to add to my list...


  1. Hi Bex,

    Glad to see you found some decent espresso. I have very fond memories of Naples and of a little espresso bar around the corner from the hotel I stayed at, where I would go for coffee every morning. Do they still make it Napoli style in Naples these days (that is, infused with sugar)?

    Pompeii is wonderful. I'd love to go back and spend a day or two there, preferably off season when there are fewer crowds around. I never thought to get a ferry to Sorrento: while I was there, I took the train from Naples (the same one you caught to Pompeii).

    Looking forward to your next instalment!


  2. Thanks, Brian. Yes, the espresso definitely performed. They did at least ask whether I wanted my espresso 'con zucchero' or 'zuccherato' so I could say no. And in an unlikely looking coffee bar inside Porta Nolana station, they even asked whether I wanted my coffee 'amaro' (bitter) or 'dolce' (sweet); I opted for the former but it wasn't too bitter and definitely wasn't sweet!

    I would have loved to spend the whole day at Pompeii but having parts of the place largely to ourselves — at least for the first 30 minutes or so until the big tour groups caught us up — was a nice experience. Again, spring and autumn seem like the optimal times to visit. I'll just have to add a return visit to my (increasingly long) travel list!