Naples – You Can Love It or Hate It

Before you make up your mind on what your impression of Naples is, you should either read what I am about to write or go and visit it for yourself. If possible I would suggest the latter.

When I was back- packing my way around Europe with my girlfriends, we decided to bypass Naples because of the rumours we had heard and read…”Watch out for all those men who hassle women on their own and be careful of pick pockets.” There were other negative comments I’m sure but this is the one that stuck in my mind. It was definitely not on the ‘bucket list’ of most travellers back then and, unfortunately, not so for some even today. I must confess that I would not have chosen to visit Naples this time around while in Italy if it hadn’t been for Hubby and some friends who lived there in the ’80’s. At first, I met their enthusiasm for this great city with scepticism, but thankfully my open mind and curiosity won over. Here are my impressions of this controversial city which will hopefully give you some idea why people either love it or hate it, or perhaps fall somewhere in between.

The Architecture

The proliferation of fine old buildings reflecting a mix of architectural styles including Baroque, Gothic and the more modern art deco designs introduced by Mussolini before the second world war are outstanding. In fact, Naples was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. There are hundreds of beautiful churches, castles and palaces, and famous piazzas commemorating the city’s heroes in its historical centre.

Its Setting

Naples has been gifted with an ideal setting. The beautiful Bay of Naples provides it with one of the world’s busiest ports as well as gorgeous sunsets. It is the launching pad for ferries travelling to one of Europe’s most glamorous regions: the Almafi coast, Sorrento, and the islands of Capri and Ischia. The mountains of Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei provide another lovely back drop. Surrounding all of this are miles of fertile land which produce fruit and vegetables year round due to the mix of Mediterranean and tropical climates.

The Narrow Streets

It’s famous for its one-pedestrian, cobble stoned streets strung with lines of laundry and hanging off balconies. Everyday life is highly visible and can be chaotic but that’s Napoli. I never felt unsafe or encountered any rude behavior. Shops with mouth-watering pastries and cafes serving up the best coffee from the region, abound. It’s almost impossible not to stop and sample some of this so why not indulge? As we discovered, a coffee and a delicious pastry will cost 2 or 3 Euros… about 3 to 5 Canadian dollars.

The National Architectural Museum

This museum is a must see. It houses one of the world’s most complete collection of  sculptures reproduced by the Romans from their older  Greek compatriots, as well as mosaics and paintings from the cities of Herculaneum and Pompei which were devastated by the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. The first floor of this magnificent building is devoted to sculptures depicting Roman heroes both real and mythological. You can’t help but be mesmerized by the beauty of both the male and female anatomy…especially those male bums! Another sculpture which should not be missed is the “The Torture of Dirce” or the Farnese Bull carved from one solid piece of Italian marble. Michelangelo worked on its restoration. The second floor is filled with lovely mosaics and paintings rescued from the ruins of Pompei. Apparently you can see more of how life was lived at that time than if you went to visit Pompei itself. In recent years a little room portraying the sex life of the citizens has been added. Now dubbed the ‘porno room’ it has drawn considerable attention. My thoughts on this display were that it’s not so different from the tantric sex motifs one can view in India. Good for Napoli for daring to portray the reality of their past life.

The Torture of Dirce sculpture built AD 212 to 216.

Teatro de San Carlo

The ornate Teatro de San Carlo was built in 1737 making it the oldest working theatre in Europe. We were fortunate to hear one of the best symphony concerts I have ever heard, not only because of the wonderful acoustics but also the program conducted by Leonard Slatkin from the US. His excellent conducting skills, the appearance of Alexi Volodin, a Russian pianist who received two encores and could have had more, and an interesting modern piece composed by Slatkin’s wife, Cindy McTee, made this a memorable evening. The icing on the cake was accidentally meeting Slatkin and McTee at the Architectural Museum the following day where we had a great chat about the previous night’s performance and other things musical. Hubby was in his element sharing stories of great conductors and musical performances he attended during his employment at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto.

The Cappella Sanservero

The Sansevero Chapel Museum is a sepulchre located in the heart of Naples. Created by Giueseppe Sanmartino, its prime focus is the Cresti Velato or Veiled Christ. People of strong faith, or not, can’t help being moved by the intricate realism of this sculpture where every nuance of Christ’s suffering is vividly portrayed in his body shrouded with a thin veil so real you can almost feel it. Many other masterpieces can be found in this chapel making it one of the ‘most impressive monuments ever conceived by the human mind’.

Neapolitan Food

As all Neapolitans would like us to know, pizza was invented by them, but did you know that the Margherita pizza is named after Queen Margherita and that the ingredients for a true Neapolitan pizza are regulated by law? Since 2004 only a special kind of flour, yeast, and mineral water can be used so only those restaurants who meet these requirements can claim they make the ‘real thing’. Patrons of these restaurants will know because each restaurant must display a special logo at their entrance. The Neapolitans also lay claim to being the masters of spaghetti especially the seafood dish. Then, as I already mentioned, there are those yummy pastries which again they are masters at producing. Napoli’s signature pastry is called a sfogliatelle….light layers of flaky pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese.

Art and Culture

Their art and culture, which goes back centuries, is still very much in evidence today especially in their churches and major museums. After admiring the Duomo, the largest and most significant of Naples’ churches, we visited the Misericordia where Michelangelo Caravaggio’s famous art piece …”The Seven Acts of Mercy”…is housed.  Another major undertaking exposing the culture of the Romans is ongoing. An underground city under the present day city is slowly being unearthed and giving us a close up of early Roman life.

Caravaggio’s “The Seven Acts of Mercy”

There are numerous other sites for which Naples is noted, but I would need at least a week or more to see them all. They are all the things that people love about this city. Now for the things that some people hate about it so much that they have vowed never to return.

Garbage

A few years ago, Naples made the world news when the garbage collectors went on strike for more than a year. You can imagine the problems this created which didn’t do anything to help the city’s already negative image. I hate to say that even though the strike is over the city is still having some problems. Although some garbage bins were visible, there were not enough as garbage was usually spilling out  around them, not to mention everywhere else. Nevertheless, I don’t think their problem is much worse than many of the cities I have seen in South East Asia, such as Phnom Penh in Cambodia and the country roads in Viet Nam. Proper garbage disposal and the citizens’ concern for keeping their cities or towns litter free simply aren’t a priority in many parts of our world. For Italy it has always been Naples and many contribute this to the poor choice in municipal government influenced by the Camoura, an organized crime network.

Graffiti

Yes, there is a good deal of graffiti in Naples, which I don’t think is worse than some other European cities I have seen. I remember that Lisbon and Athens both had problems with it as I suspect many other European cities have. Walking around the historic centre of Naples, I spied one shop keeper painting over some of the graffiti on his storefront. It is a shame that the city hasn’t been able to stem the tide as it does contribute to its overall grungy, dirty appearance.

Begging, Touts and Pickpockets

Naples is one of the poorest places in Italy so there is bound to be begging with desperate people looking to make money any way they can. I noticed some begging around the Central Train Station but none on the trains or the subway. We were approached by one tout who wanted to help us purchase our tickets, but he backed down fairly quickly when we stated firmly that we didn’t need his help. We experienced much worse in the medinas of Morocco.

Lying, Cheating, and Thieving

Over the years Naples has been accused of them all. During our two-day visit, we encountered only one incident: lying. This happened where we least expected. After finishing a delicious Neapolitan meal of antipasta, seafood spaghetti, red house wine, and frizzante (fizzy water), and of course, the crusty bread served at every meal, we were presented with our bill which totalled 55 Euro…about $80 Canadian. We were astounded! Hubby had eaten at this restaurant last year and paid much less. This was our reason for returning…good, authentic food cooked up by the family who run the place and at very good prices. They had no real menu other than a set price for whatever they were cooking for the day and another higher price if we chose what we wanted. He told us they had seafood pasta so we thought, why not, if that’s what is on the menu for the day. He didn’t present any other options. When Hubby picked up the bill the whole place heard a loud, “What”? Immediately our waiter left our table and returned with a new price of 45 euro! Having looked at their pricing for the two sets (with or without choice) as we were entering the restaurant and seeing that the counter offer still wasn’t good enough, I jumped in and pointed to the sign at their door. Realizing again that he didn’t have a strong rebuttal, he brought the price down to 40 euro. Allowing for the possibility that prices had gone up from last year, we stopped at this point and paid our bill. If we hadn’t been so savvy, he would have gotten away with it. Too bad as this is the sort of thing that Napoli has been known for and why people are reticent to go back.

Neapolitan seafood spaghetti.

My conclusion on Napoli is that like many cities it has its good and bad points. If you go looking for the good, with an open mind, and some common sense, you will accept it for what it is and leave on good terms. However, if you buy into the negative hearsay and look only for its bad points, you will come away with the wrong impression and never want to return. If you choose the latter route, then I think you will have missed experiencing a city which is vibrant and real. Beneath the layers of grime you will find beauty and the remains of a storied past.

A gallery of additional images of Napoli. Click on each picture for the caption.

Life on a Homestay in the Mekong Delta

Life on a Homestay in the Mekong Delta

The prospect of spending more than a day or two in Ho Che Minh City…again…held no appeal this time around so I opted to make a quick trip back to the Mekong Delta specifically to experience life on a Homestay.

Homestays are cropping up like flies all over this part of Viet Nam notably on the numerous canals that meander through this fertile and densely populated part of the country. They offer tourists a break from the fast paced life of the cities and a chance to see and experience how life and the commerce of the delta region is conducted.

I booked myself into the Minh Viet Homestay about 12 km outside the largest city in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho. However, getting there was not as easy as I had anticipated. After two bus rides from where I was staying in HCMC to the bus station where I would get the bus to Can Tho, I then faced a three hour ride. This was fine as I had a sleeper bus so could recline leisurely as we travelled along a fairly straight highway. I must add that the highways I travelled while in Viet Nam were in good shape. The trouble began when my bus left me off in what seemed like the middle of no where on the outskirts of the city. The driver’s assistant spoke no English so pointed that I could get to my destination by going over to the left where there were lots of buses but no station, or to the right which appeared to be a huge department store. Neither looked promising and there were no taxis in sight except for a couple of men wanting to take me on their rather dilapidated motor bikes. The only thing to do was to solicit some help from someone who could speak a little English. Luckily I found a young chap with a phone who called my Homestay. I was hoping they had got my message on the time I would be arriving and would be able to meet me. No such luck! They advised me to grab a taxi. I had the choice of a motor bike or an auto taxi which had miraculously appeared. I took the car and showed the address to the driver who nodded he knew where to go. However, I soon realized he didn’t have a clue where he was going. Several stops for directions, a few phone calls, a couple of back tracks, and we finally found the correct address. All this time I am watching the meter creeping upward to a point well beyond what I paid for my bus trip. I guess I should have taken that motor bike after all!

Arrival at a homestay isn’t anything like that of a hotel or guest house. There is no desk and there may or may not be someone there to greet you. In my case, there was a woman who I later found out was the mother of this family. She spoke no English but was smiley and kind. She showed me my room and that was it. My room was small and rustic…rustic meaning it had just the bare essentials: a bed with a mosquito net, a small wooden table, and a cabinet for putting clothes in. At least I didn’t have to share a bathroom as I did at my place in HCMC. Although my room was small and dark, it did face on the canal so I had a view.

My room at Mien Viet Homestay.

Feeling somewhat marooned and very hot and thirsty after my long journey to get there, I spied a cooler with cold water and drinks so grabbed a water and sat down at one of the tables in the open air dining room to get my bearings. I had no sooner sat down wondering if I had made a mistake coming here when out of the blue an older couple who spoke English arrived. I was starved to have a conversation in English with anyone who was willing to do so, and like all Dutch people who are very much at ease with our language, they were more than happy to sit down for a chat. We soon found out we had lots in common on the subjects of travel and the political and other problems facing our respective countries. For the duration of my stay they were my meal time companions and bicycle tour guides.

Dining and rest area.

We started out the next day after breakfast, on free bikes from our homestay, to explore our surroundings. Unfortunately, free bicycles often means they aren’t always in the best condition. Out of the two that were left, I chose what looked to be the best and off we went. We hadn’t gone very far before one of my bike’s brakes gave me some trouble. We tried fixing it to no avail since we didn’t have the right tools. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go too far before we spied a house which looked like it might have what we were looking for and sure enough it did. One of the men quickly had it fixed, and we were once again up and running.

Could there be anything more peaceful and uplifting than this, I wondered? Seeing the homes… some fancy, others not…having the children greet us with their smiling faces, waves, and chirpy “hellos”, along with the proliferation of colourful flowers and greenery, was a wonderful treat. I must add that the motor bike traffic wasn’t a problem. The only time we had to get off our bikes and walk them was when we came to a village with a market. The land is flat so we had no hills to climb. However, the weather was hot and humid so we stopped often to keep ourselves hydrated with drinks.

Early on we came across a family party for their grandson’s 1st birthday and were invited in to celebrate. Not wanting to intrude, we didn’t stay too long. However, the Viet Namese don’t look at such a visit as an intrusion. For them it is more an honour to have us help them celebrate such an occassion so they immediately provided us with drinks and plates of food. The only way to return the favour was to take some pictures of the family which I was able to share with them and later send along via email.

The birthday boy and his mother.

One of the main attractions for visiting Can Tho and its environs is to witness the early morning floating markets. The one which draws the most crowds is the largest and most colourful: the Cai Rang. After speaking to the one member of this family who spoke fairly good English, the son, Minh, about his tour to the floating markets, we decided to forego it. For me it was the expense of doing it on my own since my Dutch friends opted to do it on another day. Furthermore, I was not keen on having to be up at four in the morning. I needed to rest up after the trip down. I only had one full day at the Homestay before heading back to HCMC so couldn’t do it all. For me it was either the all day tour visiting not just the Cai Rang market but a smaller one, the Phong Dien, in the other direction which would have meant more boat travel rather than actual sight-seeing, or taking the leisurely tour on bicycles on our own which would cost nothing and be just as stimulating. If I ever do another homestay in the Mekong Delta, I will plan for at least two if not three full days to really have enough time for both.

The one thing that Mien Viet Homestay excelled in was the fabulous meals that the women of this family produced. My room fee included both breakfast and dinner at $20 a day. You can’t beat that. The breakfasts were fairly standard with a banana to start, followed by eggs (any style), bacon, a crusty bun or baguette with jam, and good Vietnamese coffee. Freshly squeezed orange juice was available for an additional cost. For both dinners, we had appetizers, a main meat or fish dish with rice and vegetables, ending up with fruit. Every plate was tasty and there was always something different…with the exception of rice which accompanies every meal. I would see the women washing, cutting and preparing food throughout the day. They took their craft seriously making sure their guests were happy and well fed.

Mother and grandmother.

I don’t think it’s really possible to sleep in while you are at a homestay if it fronts a canal. Canals play a big part in the Delta’s transportation system and are the life source for the people who live along them. Boats of all shapes and sizes laden with just about anything and everything seem to be constantly plying the dirty brown waters of the canals. Business usually starts about the time the sun rises and doesn’t cease until it sets, if not later. Add to this the proliferation of boats transporting tourists and you have a constant stream of activity.

My two nights and a day at the homestay allowed me to observe first hand how families live and work in this vast delta, dubbed “the bread basket of Viet Nam”. There is a noticeable hustle and bustle as the inhabitants go about their personal and commercial business. The people are friendly and appear to want to share their lives with all the visitors who seem to be coming in droves. There are many homestays to choose from. The one I stayed at was fairly basic but some offer more amenities and are better run. They will cost more but are more suited to those who want a little more comfort. If a homestay of any kind is not your preference, you can stay in one of the many hotels available in Can Tho. Tours to the floating markets and canals are available from there. Whatever choice you make, you are bound to enjoy all that this driving force of Viet Nam has to offer. I know I did and am glad I went.

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

My latest post “A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam” mentioned three reasons for returning to this country. It should have been four.

Returning to Dalat is the fourth for me and a good reason for anyone visiting this country for the first time. If you like anything that is reminiscent of Paris or anything French, such as fresh baquettes, colonial architecture, an Eiffel Tower look- alike which happens to be the city’s radio tower, wide, tree-lined boulevards, and just plain old charm, then take a side trip up to Dalat.

Dalat's Eiffel Tower

Dalat’s Eiffel Tower

Discovered and built primarily by the French when they occupied the country in 1912, it was an answer to their search for a retreat to escape the heat of Saigon. Dalat’s location at 4,900 feet above sea level offers a temperate climate where the yearly temperatures hover at 15 to 25 degrees C. It’s no surprise that over the years it has earned another appropriate title…”the city of eternal spring”. If you don’t like this title, then how about “city of a thousand pines”? The city has so many tall pines that you can actually smell them. If it weren’t for the usual traffic woes, I would have a hard time believing I was in Viet Nam.

A nice pine-scented view.

A nice pine-scented view.

My first visit to Dalat was five years ago. The city, I am happy to report, hasn’t lost its charm, and there are little if any signs of climate change. The one and only complaint I have is the constant traffic which is chaotic and noisy as it seems to be no matter where you are in Viet Nam. It’s just the way they drive here, and we either adapt or end up as toast.

There is a motor bike under there.

There is a motor bike under there.

Dalat’s temperate climate in the Lang Biang Mountains has created an ideal place to grow things making it literally the ‘bread basket’ of Viet Nam. All kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers can be found growing year round. Their speciality is strawberries, black currants, and artichokes in the produce department, and when it comes to flowers, it has to be hydrangea and roses found just about everywhere throughout the city… lining the boulevards and hanging from lamp posts.

One of the best places to see what grows here is the Dalat City Park located near the Xuan Huong Lake. This lake was created after the construction of one of the area’s many dams resulting in one of the city’s main attractions. If you are one for walking, it’s a 7 km trek all the way around. I got marvellous views of the city from all angles because of the lake’s configuration which resembles a banana.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat's churches.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat’s churches.

A view from the other side of the lake.

A view from the other side of the lake.

To some, the Park borders on the kitschy with its ceramic animals placed strategically amongst the flower beds, and the gaudily adorned horse-drawn carriages readily available to transport weary visitors. Nevertheless, the gardens themselves with their variety of flowers and shrubs are absolutely beautiful on a perfectly clear, sunny day such as I had.

Dalat Park entrance.

Dalat Park entrance.

mui-ne-and-dalat-075

Inside the park.

Inside the park.

Coffee is another rapidly growing industry here putting Viet Nam in second place on the list of the world’s coffee producers. Their focus has been the Robusta type used primarily in instant coffee like Nescafe, but since its lofty position as number two coffee producer, the farmers are beginning to move over to the Arabica type and gaining recognition there. Coffee cafes are on every street corner, but most don’t serve Italian or American coffee – just Viet Namese which is very strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I find it ironic that most locals still prefer to drink tea.

Wine production is becoming a serious concern of late. It started with the French in the ’50’s and has now morphed into a viable industry. Dalat wines can be found throughout Viet Nam and Japan and other SE Asian countries are now importing it to good reviews.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Dalat, like all cities and towns of a certain size, has a market as one of its central attractions. Nestled between two hills in a tiny valley, it’s a beehive of activity any time of the day or night. Smack in the middle of the city, it’s close to a host of small hotels and hostels and great places to eat. My hotel was probably a ten minute walk away as ‘straight as the crow flies’, but in order to get to it, I had to go down one hill and up the other making my trip much longer. The city is very hilly so walking can be difficult as the streets seem to meander up and down and around. Walking around in circles can be frustrating for those of us who are directionally challenged.

Looking down on the market at night.

Looking down on the market at night.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

In spite of the heavy traffic, Dalat’s air is clean which was a real treat for me. Certainly its lofty location contributes to this, but another reason is because other than growing food, the only industries are in education and scientific research. Many schools were started by the French so Dalat quickly became a learning base for all Indochina. Today there is a large training school for teachers and a thriving university. Tourism is growing, too, as travellers and locals seek a respite from the heat in the south and the cold in the north especially at this time of the year. For the adventurous tourist, there is trekking, canyoning, and mountain biking. There are numerous minority villages to visit for handicrafts, silk farms, six good-sized waterfalls, pagodas, and lastly the number one attraction right now…the Crazy House.

Is it the name or is it the fact that the weird architecture of this house reminds tourists of Gaudi’s creation in Barcelona? Whatever it is, it’s become a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Dalat. I have to admit I didn’t go to see it this time around because I toured it five years. My husband and I joined in the fun of exploring its maze of tunnels, climbing its ladders, and being constantly surprised by what lay ahead…spiderwebs, mushrooms, strange animals, with everything seemingly sprouting from the trees. A Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of the successor to Ho Chi Minh as Prime Minister of Viet Nam, received her Ph.D in architecture from Moscow. Her objective was to build a house which would bring people back to nature so she began with a giant banyan tree. It’s absolutely amazing what she has accomplished over the years. She is still alive and her creation has garnered the reputation as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Inside the house.

Inside the house.

Yes, Dalat has much to offer tourists who come here, as well as the people of Viet Nam who are beginning to tour their diverse country now that they have the means to do so. The Viet Namese are romantics at heart so Dalat provides them with the perfect setting for their wedding pictures or a honeymoon. Roses, flower gardens, a beautiful lake setting, and hotels that cater to them, is this not enough? Apparently not, as not only locals, but bus loads of tourists will include a trip to the Valley of Love for even more love theme kitsch. As a mature, solo traveller I might have felt a little out of place so didn’t make the effort.

Dalat does have more serious attractions for visitors, however. The French left behind a noticeable legacy with their catholic churches exemplifying their gothic architecture. They are lovely to look at from the outside but, unfortunately, aren’t open for viewing.

Lovely gothic style church.

A more modern church.

A more modern church.

However, there are numerous elaborate pagodas to visit reflecting the Chinese architecture. They are open for viewing. My choice was to check out the Truc Lam Pagoda. This zen monastery sits on top of a mountain to the south of the city and is easily accessible by cable car. After a hair-raising motor bike ride out to the lift, I was then treated to my own cable car for a 15 minute ride through the lush greenery of the pine forest. I instantly felt at peace and totally safe. What a fantastic view of the city and its environs! The grounds of the monastery were almost as peaceful save for some bus loads of Russian tourists who arrived. This wasn’t a problem for me as the grounds are so spread out and beautifully designed, providing many secluded spaces with tables and benches for sitting and meditating or just getting away from people.

Entrance to the pagoda.

Entrance to the pagoda.

A temple with huge bell.

A temple with huge bell.

Hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Descending down a tree-lined path, I came upon Tuyen Lam Lake, another man made lake.

I was surprised to find stalls selling souvenirs and one in particular caught my buyer’s eye. Taking a chance and wandering in, I found some money belts handcrafted by a minority village in the area. They were a decent price so I bought some.  Over to the left, at the end of the lake, I spied some signs advertising food and coffee. Hot and weary, I decided to check them out. I didn’t see anything that whet my appetite until a restaurant advertising classic cars and ‘weasel’ coffee grabbed my interest. In case you don’t know, ‘weasel’ or civet coffee is made from this animal’s poop… and it’s expensive….way too expensive for my budget! However, since I hadn’t had my coffee fix for the day, I decided my caffeine treat would be a mocha latte…made with regular coffee. Yum! I thought this was an appropriate way to end my visit before heading back to the city.

My mocha latte.

Would I return for a third visit? Without a doubt should the occasion arise. Dalat may not have the history and culture of other hot spots, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi Han, Hue, or Hanoi, but it does have a comfortable climate and enough things to see and do to keep visitors there for at least a few days. Like the French over a century ago, we tourists are searching for a place that not only offers a relief from the sweltering heat, but also some of that irresistible French charm they left behind.