Every May Bank Holiday my husband and I visit Italy for a long weekend. Last year it was Bologna and the year before that, Venice. It was a tradition created unintentionally but happily because of the fact I had only visited Italy twice before, despite being the world’s biggest pizza, pasta and prosecco lover. Naples had, for me, been at the top of my wish list for a long time. It seemed romantic, rustic and historical in a way that is radically different to its northern counterparts. We decided also to visit Ischia, an island just off the coast of Naples near Capri, because my former assistant, Marianna, is from there and we had heard and read so many wonderful things about it.
My first Neapolitan experience was taking the taxi from the airport. I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie so am not usually perturbed by broken speed limits and not-so-by-the-book overtaking. When I say I feared for my life, I mean it, literally. The whole journey comprised of my husband and I sitting, white-knuckled while the taxi driver breezed along at a cool 100mph, with no regard for cars or any other obstacles that might be in the way. This carried on after we left the motorway and reached the town with its impossibly narrow and winding streets. Needless to say we were relieved to put our feet on the ground and catch our bearings a little.
We arrived at our lodgings, Albergo del Purgatorio. I would include a link for you to click on and book, but there isn’t one. In fact, it took me a good three months to acquire the correct email address to book the “hotel” (more on that in a little while) in the first place. I did try telephoning the number provided on a couple of travel websites but had no luck. Eventually I was reading through a French travel blog and found Nathalie’s email address (I’ll post it at the end of the article) and sent an email hoping for the best. I’d read about the Albergo in Chufy’s travel book published by Maison Assouline. She described this other-worldly residence, right in the middle of Naples; pin-drop quiet and redolent of the residence of minor European royalty. She was right, almost. The place is enormous, both in breadth and height. A palace was built there in the 15th Century but its present incarnation is a result of Trojano Spinelli’s restoration in the middle of the 18th Century. The ceilings must be five metres tall and the staircases that lead you up to the front door are made up of the kind of stone slab that hasn’t been used in the building trade anywhere in Europe for well over 150 years.
Museo Nazionale di San Martino and street views
It’s not really a hotel. Someone meets you to take you in and show you around, gives you a set of keys and then you are left to your own devices. There’s a kitchen, bathroom and an enormous communal living room (we were the only ones staying there over this period so we didn’t see anyone else). The cost is 175€ a night and you have to pay 25€ each to become a “member”, the idea being that whenever you visit Naples the Albergo can be your residence. Oh, and each person must leave a book behind for the next members to enjoy (evidenced in the photograph above). I really loved staying here and it truly was a splendid location but there is no getting around the fact that the palace is in a state of decay. I don’t say that to be condescending or sniffy – I can only imagine the kind of work and money that must go into properly maintaining such a property – but in the interest of full disclosure I would say that you’re there for the experience more than your usual creature comforts. It didn’t bother me but it might bother some of you and I feel I have to be honest. Don’t expect crisp, fresh luxury but do expect an infinitely fascinating experience that may involve you needing to put up with a slightly damp bathroom and some musty wall textiles. Would I go again? Yes. It was like being in a 19th Century novel and every time we returned we didn’t really notice the slightly worn aspects of the place. We felt like we were living and breathing Napoli.
Gino e Toto Sorbillo
This leads me nicely on to what we got up to while we were there. We arrived Thursday evening and left Monday morning (and we visited Ischia during this time). This wasn’t really long enough to be honest and we had the added distraction of the Isabelle Fox website going down on Friday morning, which meant that I spent much of Friday working in a fancy hotel (for the WiFi – available but unforthcoming in Albergo) trying to get it back on its feet. I would advise that you take a good five or six days to do this trip and to enjoy it properly. We did, however, manage to tick off a couple of must-sees.
First, my favourite thing in the entire world: pizza. My friends mock me mercilessly because of the amount of pizza I eat (3-4 times a week and that’s when I’m holding back) but I can’t help it, I just love it and I never get bored of it. I’d wanted to try Gino e Toto Sorbillo for years and, serendipitously, it turned out to be across the road from the Albergo. One obstacle, though, was that when we arrived in Naples we saw the size of the queue to get a table. It was about 21h45 when we arrived and there must have been a mass of 200 people trying to get in. The restaurateur stands at the door with a megaphone shouting out names and table availability, which you can’t book in advance. Queuing is not something I’m usually enthusiastic about because I hate wasting time, especially because the thing you queue for so often seems to be a disappointment. We decided to get there the next day 15 minutes before it opened to beat the queue. When we arrived there must have been 100 people queuing already. We decided to hold out and in fact everything turned out fine. The place is really quite big so provided you get there just before or as it opens, you’ll be able to walk straight in and bag yourself a table. The menu is pizza and pizza only. They do one type of red wine, one type of white wine and water. From what I could see most of the ingredients are certified organic and, interestingly, the dough type is specified on the menu. It’s pleasingly affordable (my enormous margherita was around 5€) and it really was the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. If you visit Naples you must go. If you’re not keen on dinner they do have a takeaway counter a little further down the street but beware that the queues here are just as bad. In terms of what to do after dinner, there are abundant bars scattered around the city but a lot of them are quite raucous and seem only to sell highlighter coloured Sex-on-the-Beach-type concoctions. We headed to Enoteca Belledonne after it was recommended to us and it certainly exceeded our expectations. It’s chic but understated on a relaxed but atmospheric street with a stellar wine list. Drinks are reasonably priced: we drank the organic, local prosecco, which was exquisite.
Museo Nazionale di San Martino wearing the Sophia dress
Another great, albeit simple, thing to do in Naples is simply to walk around. The city is so full of life and character that I wouldn’t bother using public transport at all. As you meander through the streets, you’ll see washing strewn up, be so close to windows and doors that you’ll feel as though you’re perched in someone’s living room and watch the locals go about their day-to-day business without even noticing that you’re there. There are dozens of tiny bakeries, cafés and bars with no other tourists in sight. One thing that really struck me about Naples, however, is how much poorer it looks in comparison to the big cities of the north. This is in no way a negative about the city and it was something I had anticipated, though I must admit that even I was surprised by how obvious it was. The result of this is that you don’t get that ‘museum city’ effect you sometimes get in powerhouses such as Florence and Venice, you feel like you’re in a living, breathing 21st Century city. We walked up to the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, a former monastery and one of the most beautifully situated buildings in the whole of Naples. It’s quite a steep walk so if you’re unfit or not great in the heat it’s best to head up early and take it slow, but I promise you it’s worth the effort. From here you not only see the breathtaking monastery but also the city and landscape beyond it, as well as the Bay of Naples.
On the Saturday we decided to visit Pompeii. I have it on good authority that Herculaneum is actually the more interesting and better preserved of the two, but I’d never seen Pompeii and I really wanted to see it. It was already blisteringly hot when we arrived and there were masses of people buying over-priced novelty hats and fridge magnets. In the end the queue was not too bad and the sheer size of Pompeii meant that we didn’t feel too crammed in. The scope of the place is what impressed me the most and I found it fascinating to see it finally in the flesh – definitely worth a visit. It’s really easy to take the train from Naples and I would suggest you go early, earlier than we did (around 9:30am), and be prepared to walk a lot. If you have a full day free then I believe you can visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day, which is what we would have done had we had the time. I’ll make it there next time.
On the Saturday afternoon we took the boat over to Ischia. The route is extremely well organised – no need to book in advance – and takes around an hour. One thing we had underestimated was the size of Ischia island. For some reason I’d assumed that it was small and it isn’t. Make sure you check which port your boat is docking at so that you can make it to your hotel without having to take a long (and very expensive – my one gripe with the whole trip) taxi ride to the other side of the island. When we landed in Ischia it was like landing in another era. Many of the taxis are tiny motorised rickshaws and every corner you turn is prettier than the last. We took a taxi up to where we were staying, Il Monastero, and were utterly blown away by what we saw.
Dinner at La Lampara overlooking Il Monastero
Albergo Il Monastero is a hotel located on a tiny islet connected to Ischia by a causeway. The building itself is a medieval castle built by Alfonso V of Aragon in 1441, though the very first settlement and construction on the islet dates back to 474 BC. It served as a fortress, home and monastery to thousands of people for thousands of years until the British shelled it to almost complete destruction in 1809. It has been in the process of restoration since the 1960s after private owners acquired it in the early 20th Century. Crossing the bridge that traverses the sea takes you to a lift part of the way up the islet before you have to climb stairs to reach the very top of the precipice, which is where the hotel is located. The rest of the island serves as a museum and art gallery. The hotel itself is basic but immaculate. It’s inexpensive in comparison to its luxury counterparts (we paid 150€ a night for a double room with sea view – a must) and the experience is, in my opinion, significantly better. The view of the sea from our room was like something out of a painting, the breakfast was excellent and all the staff were really helpful. We didn’t dine at the restaurant in the evening but we did visit the vegetable garden where they grow all of their own fruit and vegetables organically. When we arrived I thought it might be a hassle getting in and out but it’s actually very straightforward as you’re given a key to access the island itself and then there is someone on reception 24hrs a day to let you in. There is a very small village next to where the castle is situated with plenty of shops and restaurants, or you can walk down to the larger port town in 15-20 minutes where you’ll find plenty more.
We followed all of Marianna’s recommendations and they didn’t disappoint. We dined at La Lampara the first evening (booking essential), which is situated on the rooftop of the Miramare e Castello hotel. The food was absolutely divine: we ate all local food and wine – including pudding – and couldn’t fault any of it. It’s a really special place where you can watch the sun set and really relax, and it’s only a 6-7 minutes walk from Il Monastero. Both afternoons we had in Ischia we also went and ate the chocolate tarte in the monastery’s café (you can’t miss it as you walk up to the hotel), which was the best I’ve ever eaten. We ate ice cream at Da Luciano’s and had drinks at Porto51. We bathed in Ischia’s thermal baths at Negombo Thermal Gardens after lunching in Sant’Angelo for the afternoon (we had amazing pasta pomodoro at Dal Pescatore). All-in-all we had the most amazing sun-filled, food-filled 36 hours. If we’d been there for longer we would have taken the boat over to Capri or even Sorrento. Ischia is perfect because you can get over to these places but don’t have the endless crowds and queues. It’s very relaxed and much more understated, but still perfect in its own way.
Il Monastero and lunch at Sant'Angelo
On Monday morning we reluctantly took the boat back to Naples to take an early flight home to London. Again, everything worked well and we got back to the airport with plenty of time (we took the boat at around 6am). As I mentioned earlier, my only gripe with the whole Naples-Ischia experience was the taxis. Not only are they inordinately expensive, every taxi driver we came across tried to add on extra money at every given opportunity. The taxi drivers are allowed to add on small surcharges for airport transfers and luggage but our drivers were adding on arbitrary 10-15€ simply because we were tourists. In the beginning we ignored it, not speaking the language, but after the final taxi ride I blew up and had a huge argument with our taxi driver who, when I threatened to call the police, very quickly put the fare back to what it should have been. I wish I’d stood my ground throughout the whole holiday but it does dampen the mood somewhat when you have to go to such extreme lengths to be charged fairly. In the end, however, the trip really was worth it. The south of Italy has a deep romanticism not known to its polished, northern equivalents. Everything is a little more mysterious, a little more unexpected. I’ll be heading back very soon with some basic taxi-Italian under my belt.
Albergo del Purgatorio contact: Nathalie, email@example.com