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Return to Napoli

Two weeks ago, my wife and I concluded a magical trip to Naples Italy, where I had served for a year as a member of the Naval Security Group prior to my discharge. It is still a fascinating place. Read on and maybe you might be making plans to visit there soon, and if you do, be sure to book a room at the Grand Vesuvio Hotel.



Neal P. Gillen

Day One

I had left Bella Napoli in late April 1958 on a U.S. Navy courier flight from Capodichino Naval Air Station to Le Bourget Airport in Paris, France, enroute to New York for my discharge from the Navy. Though I passed through Napoli on a bus trip from Rome on my way to Pompeii and Sorrento in 1976, I had not seen the city up close until my return last month.
This time I flew from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to Naples International Airport in Capodichino. The U.S. Navy is still there, albeit a far less formidable presence and close by the efficient and modern terminal. It was a beautiful day, clear, sunny, with temperatures in the high 70’s as it would be for the remainder of our stay.
I had been awake for 24 hours, and though tired, I was excited to be back in this noisy, scenic, charming, and mystical city where I had lived and worked for a year when I was 20. I was fueled by the additional knowledge that I had learned on my flights reading Michael A. Ledeen’s interesting book, Virgil’s Golden Egg and other Neapolitan Miracles, which documents the derivation of the creative nature of the energetic denizens of this marvelous city who live within the ominous shadow of Mount Vesuvius in one of the world’s most captivating settings.
On the whole, Neapolitans are overly friendly and helpful with a few of its natives beguiling. Be forewarned that some within the latter category will take advantage of you, should you be so naïve as to let them. That, however, is part of the charm of this sloping city of narrow busy streets and no reason not to take full advantage of all the wonders that Naples has to offer, including its people who seemingly thrive amidst it turbulence.
Government officials are well aware of the mischievous propensity of a few of its citizens, including its cab drivers, no different from cab drivers anywhere else. The airport has signs advising you of fixed rates to your destination, and other signs warning you of pickpockets. Armed with a year’s experience of living there, a briefing by Mike Ledeen who visits there yearly, a perusal of the appropriate guide books, and newspaper and internet articles, my wife, Mary-Margaret, and I were greeted by Antonio Sabato, a charming and persistent taxi driver who would monitor our activities in the days to come.
Having driven a taxi in New York City for part of the summer in 1959, I eagerly conversed with Antonio trying to nail him down on what it would cost in the coming days to get from place to place in the reasonable comfort of his vehicle. Mary-Margaret, who is not keen on chatting up cab drivers, kept adding that we had no plans tied down and if we needed him we would call.
Antonio navigated the impossible traffic with skill and in no time we alighted from his taxi at our destination, the Grand Vesuvio Hotel on the stylish Via Partenope facing the Bay of Naples looking out at Capri to the right and Mount Vesuvius to the left. Directly in front of the hotel is Castel dell’Ovo and the Bogo Marinari a unique setting for a truly grand hotel where Enrico Caruso died, Oscar Wilde stayed and played, Humphrey Bogart closed the bar, Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were frequent guests adding to its luster, and more recently Woody Allen and Julia Roberts enjoyed its splendor.
Well-staffed by capable, friendly, and courteous front desk personnel, we were greeted warmly and told that our room was ready and that the manager had included breakfast in our reasonable rate. Our room was spacious with fine linen sheets and pillow cases, a large bath replete with plush bath towels, linen hand towels, thick cotton robes, slippers, and a generous array of lotions, shampoo, conditioner and other toiletries. Best of all, was the view of Mount Vesuvius from the room’s balcony.
Revived by the fresh breeze from the Bay of Naples and energized by our surroundings, we quickly unpacked and set out on foot for the fashionable Via Chiaia and its marvelous shops - all small, fashionable, and trend setting be they merchandising shoes, bags, dresses, suits, shirts or ties. We soon made our way to Piazza del Plebiscito and stood in awe looking at San Francesco di Paola, a replica of the Pantheon across the Piazza to the Palazzo Reale, the home of the Bourbon Kings who once ruled Naples. We then headed to the Galleria Umberto, a unique mall-like structure of shops and business offices topped by a huge glass dome, its massive cross-shaped hallway paved with an intricate mosaic of tiles. It has always been a hot-bed of activity, especially during my service in Naples in 1957-58. While still a marvelous structure, it was undergoing renovation and seemed to have lost some of its energy.
Navigating the traffic going into the Galleria we came upon a motorcyclist surrounded by bystanders. He had been hit by a small truck and was lying in pain in the street with no help in sight. He was still there when we left the Galleria, as he was about an hour later after our tour of Teatro San Carlo, when an ambulance and police had finally arrived on the scene, the crowd still present and hovering over the unfortunate man.
The tour of the San Carlo opera house was magical. I had attended a number of operas there in the 1957-58 season and always marveled at this magnificent horse shoe-shaped theatre, rising up in six gilded levels from the orchestra level.
Our small tour group was taken to a large box on the third level center, where we were privileged to watch two rehearsals of the concluding act of a forthcoming Verde opera. Each performance sounded identical to me, but the director was obviously seeking a level of perfection, indistinguishable to my tin ear, but befitting the exemplary reputation of Teatro San Carlo.
We left San Carlo to encounter a man our age walking seven aged dogs with the small dog and obvious leader of the pack unleashed. We stopped for a broken English and poor Italian conversation about his dogs and our dogs. We observed him lead them to a small park area beyond the Palazzo Reale and set them loose, where each dog staked out a spot to mark as his own, while the sole Dachshund rushed to the furthest point in the grassy area to discourage people from entering the area now occupied by the members of his troop.
We walked back to the hotel, took long baths, changed, and walked across Via Partenope to Zi Teresa, a world-famous sea food restaurant. It was cold, the stylish interior of the restaurant was closed, and we choose not to join the shivering few brave souls sitting inside a plastic tent abutting the marina. After a short stroll on Via Santa Lucia we found a small restaurant, Il Basilico, where we shared a fresh octopus salad and a wonderfully cooked sea bream with a smooth tasting Tuscan wine. It was a wonderful way to cap an exciting day. Before we turned out the lights for a much needed rest, we had a look at the bay glimmering in the moonlight.

Day Two

Eleven hours later we were seated at a table overlooking the bay and Castel dell’Ovo and enjoyed a delicious breakfast from the lavish buffet prepared by the Grand Vesuvio’s efficient kitchen staff. After breakfast we walked out of the hotel to visit the Castel dell’Ovo.
Walking around the marina and then the Castel, we didn’t find the legendary egg that Virgil, the Latin poet and sorcerer, reportedly sealed in the Castel’s foundation. The myth is that were the golden Griffith egg crafted by Virgil to be destroyed so too would Naples and the Castel would fall into the sea. We did, however, find Antonio Sabito, the ubiquitous taxi driver, who was waiting for us on Via Partenope.
“Go to Pompeii and Herculeum today. I have special rate of 119 Euros.”
“Not today, Antonio,” I said.
“It’s a beautiful day – go today – maybe rain tomorrow,” he urged.
As we turned to walk to Piazza del Plebiscitio, I explained to Antonio that our day was planned and we would call him if we needed him. At Piazza del Plebiscito we entered the Palazzo Reale for an interesting and informative tour. Its grand staircase gives you the feeling that once you reached the top you would be met by royalty. The rooms are grand, leaving no doubt that Naples was a wealthy city during the reign of the Bourbon Kings.
From there, we walked two short blocks to the funiculare that took us up to Vomero, where we navigated up and down the steep streets to the Castel Nuovo, where at its top is an unsurpassed view of the city, in fact of the entire region out to Sorrento and Capri. Descending down from the top in a dark, wide, and cool passageway that once moved men, including prisoners, supplies, armor, and munitions we walked down the hill about a hundred meters to a unique and special place, Certosa di San Martino, the ancient monastery built in 1368 by the monks of the Carthusian Order, the Order of Saint Bruno. The well-preserved building is now a museum of little note with the exception of a meticulously crafted Nativity scene considered to be among the world’s finest. Aside from the spectacular view, the gardens descending down the hill, and the courtyard where the monks are buried, the principle purpose to visit Certosa di San Martino should be to see the unusual Baroque chapel and its surrounding prayer rooms, where the ceilings are painted with colorful frescos of unusual brightness and clarity, the highlight being the elaborate crucifixion scene above and behind the altar.
After we lingered in the chapel, we were off again on foot, uphill and then downhill with a brief stop for gelato outside the Montesanto Metro station. The gelato shop itself is a work of art displaying over 20 colorful and flavorful choices and multi-colored cones affixed with different colored M & M’s. We were surprised to find the Metro station to be a genuine stunning work of art. One moves down the escalator through a cone of stainless steel ribs over the moving stairs and on the ceiling above is a series of blue fluorescent circles. At the foot of the escalator one is greeted by a huge modern mosaic of colorful tiles. Two stops later we arrived at the Museo Archeologic Nationale where we explored the many treasures unearthed in Pompeii and more recently in Herculeum. It is a truly splendid museum comparable to the one in Athens.

I am ashamed to say that during my year in Naples as a young sailor, I had never seen the things I saw this day. Maybe it is best that I had waited almost a lifetime. Little did I know what I had missed, but I was too young and restless to focus on the details revealed today. I only wish that I had more time on this trip. There is so much to appreciate and absorb.
Since our Metro pass was good for 24 hours we took the Metro to Bagnoli at the other end of Naples, where I had lived in the Hotel Tricarico during my Navy service. Mary-Margaret was exhausted, but always the good trooper she agreed to extend the day.
The long Metro trip was relaxing, and the walk from the Bagnoli Metro station, all downhill, had me all but off and running to see what remained of the Tricarico. I waited for Mary-Margaret, and as we walked I tried vainly to recognize familiar places, bars, restaurants, or the shoe repair, laundry, and barber shops I had frequented. They were long gone. New apartment buildings had sprouted, the street had been widened, the people seemed better off, and the shops were clean and busy. It was a different place. A woman noticed us looking about as if lost and in excellent English offered help. I explained that I had lived there many years ago in the Hotel Tricarico. She smiled and told us that it had been closed for years, but it was still there at the bottom of the hill. And down the hill we found it, the same structure, but now the Rossini school for restaurant and hotel employees.
I was stopped in the lobby before I could explain my past connection to the building and told in a friendly manner that the school was closed for the day. I had promised Gil McDonald, a former roommate that I would take a photo of the back of the hotel where our room was located on one of the upper floors. As we walked up the street to find access to the rear of the hotel, two aged, albeit friendly, dogs blocked the narrow sidewalk. One dog began to smell my shoes and the bottom of my pants obviously noting the scent of our two dogs. Mary-Margaret and I petted the dogs and smiled at a short man in coveralls standing in the entrance to a small auto repair shop. As we began to walk off, he held up his hand and said, “Aspett, aspett!” (Wait, wait!) We stopped and watched as he reached into a cabinet inside the doorway and pulled out two dog treats giving one to each of us. We fed the dogs and began an effort to converse. He introduced himself as Mario Esposito. When I got across to him that I had lived in the Hotel Tricarico, he explained partly in Italian augmented with hand motions that his mother, “Mama mia,” he said pointing to the hotel while he moved his hands up and down his waste as if doing laundry. “Mia madre ha lavorato in lavanderia,” (My mother worked in the laundry) he said.
“Jesus,” I said to Mary-Margaret. “This guy’s mother cleaned my sheets.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me inside his shop, where I noticed two different much older dogs, resting comfortably against the back wall on large cushions. Mario was fully animated as he motioned me to his work bench as he searched through a file cabinet pulling out a circa 1950’s color brochure for the Hotel Tricarico that he gifted to me. Then, he pulled out a large file of pictures including those of his mother and other hotel employees. I recognized two of the waiters who worked in the dining room. We extended the conversation with a waiter from the adjoining Pizza bar who spoke reasonably good English. Mario explained to the young man that the Hotel Tricarico had been a popular seaside destination. He wasn’t sure why the hotel had closed. It was not until I informed our translator that in early 1957 it was taken over by the U.S. Navy to house the sailors and marines from the Naval Support Activity command that was spread throughout Naples. He then conveyed that fact to Mario, who seemed grateful to learn the reason why the hotel had closed.
Before I left this kind and joyful man we posed for photos, but not before he gave me two copies of photos of Piazza Bagnoli taken in the early 1950’s. I have since sent Mario a long letter with copies of photos of the two of us that day and of the hotel and of me when I had lived there.
As we trekked up the long hill to the Metro station, Mary-Margaret said that meeting Mario was worth the whole trip. He was the essence of Naples, hard-working, kind, friendly, and helpful. Back at the hotel it was warm baths again to soothe our tired legs, and then around the corner to Via Sana Lucia and a new restaurant, Marino, that would become our final destination for the next four nights. A hearty green salad, pizza, and Chianti topped off a wonderful day.

Day Three

Day three, May 1st, began with a superb breakfast, and then, upon leaving the hotel there again was Antonio touting his services, but we were off to Capri I told him. “Don’t worry, I’ll call you, if we need you.” We walked off down Via Partenope along the sea wall and down and around the park to the pier at Molo Beverello where the hydrofoils leave for Capri. There were throngs of people desperately trying to buy tickets.
It was Labor Day, an Italian holiday, and the tickets were sold out. Our 24-hour Metro pass was still valid. We walked a block to Piazza Municipio and took the tram to Piazza Garbaldi and walked through traffic to the train station, where for eight Euros, we purchased round trip tickets to Herculean and Pompeii. Michael Ledeen had advised me to visit these historic sites in the early morning before it became too hot. He was spot on, but circumstances dictated the hour of our journey. After arriving at the Ercolano train station, we made the long downhill walk through this thriving suburban town to the ruins of Herculean set deep below the town in a quarry-like setting. As we descended down the long ramps into the ruins, the temperature rose from the heat trapped below ground level. The ruins are elaborate and intricate with fully well-preserved frescoes and intact floor tiles. The interiors of the thick-walled buildings were cool causing one to linger and absorb the culture and life in Roman times. It was a visit worth making, and one that I would make again. We made the climb out of the ruins and up through the town to the train station, where after a short wait our train to Pompeii arrived.
Our entry ticket to Herculean included admission to Pompeii. As we made our way through the main entrance it seemed considerably different both from the two or three occasions in 1957-58 when I visited as well as my 1976 visit. There is much more to see – two to three times more than in my earlier visits. Most of the streets are fully cleared and many of the buildings had been extensively restored. Here again, too much to see and too little time. Pompeii and Herculean deserve two separate and full days to visit with early starts to avoid the discomfort of the midday sun.
At the far northern end of the Pompeii ruins there is the fully restored Villa dei Misteri, the Villa of Mysteries, that is now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you will find displayed a number of incredibly colorful frescoes so well preserved that one would think they were recently painted. It was the highlight of Pompeii. Tired as we were, we both agreed that the Villa itself was well worth the trip and the endless walking that the wonders of Pompeii impel one to endure.
We were tired, thirsty, and hungry and succumbed to the temptations offered by the welcoming, albeit kitschy, restaurant just outside the gate, Bacco E Arianna. It was a mistake. The beer was cold and the small pizza tasty, but the 25 Euro price was about a third more than one would pay downtown and the offering not half as good, but I guess there is a premium on location and for being a tired tourist.
We slept on the train returning to Naples where we welcomed the levity of the city at the height of the rush hour. Our spirit was uplifted by the cacophony of car horns and loud voices. The tram to Piazza Municipio was delayed by an accident a few blocks above our stop swelling the crowd ready to board. It was pick-pocket alert time. I noticed two unsavory looking characters edge their way into the crowd as we boarded the tram through the rear entrance. I pushed Mary-Margaret ahead of me, and as I did the two characters made an effort to sandwich me between them. I elbowed the guy behind me and pushed the one in front of me, each of them protesting loudly. The pants I was wearing have special zippered pockets designed to thwart the two rogues, who made off with nothing. They shouted at me as the tram moved forward and they quickly exited two blocks later at the next stop, the bus terminal, where they may have had better luck.
We returned to the hotel, enjoyed warm soothing baths, and left for our second meal at Restaurante Marino, where we enjoyed a salad, seafood pasta, and a hearty Chianti. Soon thereafter, we closed our eyes after a memorable day, but not before booking our trip to Capri for the next day on the internet.

Day Four

One could not wish for a nicer day. At breakfast, we looked out at Capri in the distance anticipating our visit to this enchanting island.
As we walked out of the hotel onto Via Partenope, true to form, there was Antonio Sabato waiting to take us somewhere – anywhere. When we told him we had already been to Herculean and Pompeii the previous day, he was crushed. He had already spent that 119 Euros he was expecting from us. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the train tickets for both of us had only cost eight Euros.
We enjoyed our walk to the pier at Molo Beverello, and once on board the hydrofoil I quickly dozed off for most of our 50-minute trip to Capri. When the hydrofoil docked, we followed our fellow passengers out of the marina into the throng of people gathered in Piazza Vittoria for a long wait for the funiculare that would take us up to the Piazza Umberto, the heart and soul of Capri. Once there, we found the air crisp and the sun high above us as we stepped into a maze of fashionable and expensive shops and restaurants tightly hugging the narrow winding streets. It was a dream world of sorts as we ogled attractively displayed merchandise and beautiful people passing by as we made our way to one of the world’s most elegant hotels, the Grand Hotel Qvisisana, perfectly set into the hillside looking down at the Faraglioni, the three large majestic rock formations, Stella, di Mezzo, and di Fuori, a few hundred meters off the shore of Capri. We walked for an hour through the side streets to find more shops and lush gardens surrounding the many villas and small hotels layered down to the shore line.
When we returned to the marina to arrange for a boat trip around the island, we spurned a 124 Euro offer for a special personal cruise from an Antonio look-alike, who was most likely from the sea transport branch of the family. Instead, we opted for the 18 Euro per person cruise on a well-maintained speed boat with ten other people. It was a magical trip in which we cruised through the cavity in the center of di Mezza, the middle rock formation of the Faraglioni, stopped to photograph the Green Grotto, and near the end of the cruise, visited the Blue Grotto.
We were back to the Grand Vesuvio by 6 p.m. and from the balcony looking out at Capri, we savored our day. It was back to Restaurante Marino for a dinner of fried calmari, sausage, eggplant parmigiana, salad, and another great bottle of Chianti. After dinner we walked along Via Partenope enjoying the sea air and the full moon that illuminated the Bay of Naples – another magical moment.

Day Five

Another spectacular day started with a superb breakfast followed by a walk to Piazza Amadeo, where, after some delay buying Metro tickets from a balky ticket dispensing machine, and a long wait for a train running on a Sunday schedule, we arrived at Piazza Cavour. We walked downhill on Via Foria a few blocks to Via Duomo, stopped briefly at the Duomo di Napoli, and then made our way down a narrow street, close by the Duomo, to Piazza San Gaetano, the location of Napoli Sotterranea, the ancient underground caves 40 meters below street level. It was here where business was once conducted by the Greeks, who settled Naples and by the Romans who followed them, in small shops shaped from the stone. Justice was dispensed and disputes were resolved from a judicial court that is part of the complex, which is but one of the labyrinth of such tunnels and caves carved into the tufacea rock throughout the city. The adjoining museum holds many of the artifacts discovered in this subterranean maze.
We then walked back to the Duomo for the one o’clock High Mass. Formally known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of Santa Maria, to Neapolitans it is the Cathedral of San Gennaro (Januarius), the patron saint of Naples, where a vial of his dried blood is preserved. The vial is brought out twice a year, on the first Saturday in May and on 19 September, when the dried blood reportedly liquefies. Legend has it that if the blood fails to liquefy that disaster will befall Naples. This magnificent 15th structure, replete with beautiful frescoes, and a glimmering main and side altars, is a marvel that everyone should see.
Back again to Piazza San Gaetano, we walked down the narrow and winding streets where artisans carve, paint, and fire clay figures in small electric kilns of saints, sports heroes, public figures, nativity scenes, and arrays of flowers. Unlike many such places in the world, these artisans were busy at work and were not huckstering. We leisurely looked at the wares as we made our way past the shops.
There was more to see on our last full day. We returned to Piazza Cavour for a Metro ride to the Mergellina area on the Bay of Naples at the foot of Posillipo. Friendly people directed us to the funiculare that would take us up to Posillipo. Mary-Margaret, who never misses a detail, noticed that our 1.5 Euro tickets were good on all public transportation for the next 90 minutes. Here again, my adrenalin level soared when we stepped out of the funiculare car. Just around the corner was Via Manzoni, where up this winding street on the northern edge of Posillipo, my old office was located.
I stepped off at a fast pace, leaving Mary-Margaret, a slow walker, well behind me until I found the old building, now a sports center. It was a letdown. Here was a building that once housed a plethora of talented personnel who supported the Sixth Fleet, one of the most powerful naval forces of the 20th Century. Now the energy generated in the building was solely of a physical nature. I stood there for a few minutes looking down at the valley below, the same magnificent view that I had once taken for granted as I looked out from the window of my old office when I was not staring at the radio receiver or the old Underwood typewriter in front of me as I listened to the radio signals streaming across the Mediterranean area of operations.
I waited for Mary-Margaret before we found a bus stop. The 31 bus took us all around Posillipo to the small terminal at the end of Posillipo overlooking Bagnoli, where we transferred to the waiting 40 bus that would take us down the Bay side of Posillipo to Mergellina and along Via Carracciolo adjacent to the Bay’s sea wall to Piazza Vittoria, a short way from the Grand Vesuvio. As we waited 15-minutes in the empty 40 bus for the driver, who was sitting in the small shack 50 meters down the hill, smoking and talking on his cell phone, I was reminded of a trolley escapade late one night in 1957 (see “The Last Trolley to Bagnoli” in Moments of Truth), when a group of us made off with an unattended trolley.
When we alighted from the bus at Piazza Vittoria, we turned the corner and joined the great mass of people strolling on Via Partenope. True to form, I had gotten ahead of Mary-Margaret until I heard a familiar voice call out, “Neal, Neal.” I turned. It was the ubiquitous Antonio Sabito standing by an amused Mary-Margaret.
“Are you leaving tomorrow?”
“Yes, Antonio, be at the hotel at 10:30, we have a 12:50 flight.”
“Ok, 23 Euro. See you tomorrow.”
As we entered the hotel we smiled at each other. Antonio was not to be denied. He was like the description of God in the Baltimore Catechism – he was everywhere. Antonio would have cringed had he known that all our travel throughout Naples that day had only cost us seven Euros.
Warm baths again, relaxing in the room, and then our last dinner at Restaurante Marino – seafood salad, pasta, green salad, and a superb bottle of Chianti. Another full moon topped off the night before we closed our eyes.

Day Six

After another delicious breakfast topped off by an extra two sfogliatella, the delicious coned shaped pastry made with thin layers of dough filled with orange-flavored ricotta cheese, almond paste, and a candied peel of citron, we said goodbye to the staff.
Leaving our inviting and comfortable five star residence, Mary-Margaret and I paused, wondering if and when we would return. It was a wonderful stay in the most pleasurable surroundings one could find anywhere in the world.
We requested the bellman to get Antonio from the taxi line – indicating that he was our driver. The bellman called out for Antonio and waved. Another car pulled up, it was not Antonio.
“Where’s Antonio?” I asked.
“He driving someone else,” our driver said.
I looked at Mary-Margaret and smiled. “He’s given up on you,” she said.
“Don’t worry Antonio, I’ll be back – I’ll call you,” I said to myself. And, when I do return I will look for Antonio. He knows his way around.
Arrivederci Napoli – you were a wonderful host in a magical week.

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