When you travel to a distant and exotic place you might experience what is called a cultural shock – the senses overload and general unfamiliarity creating confusion and disorientation. I might not be the most seasoned traveller but I have been to a few places and apart from my first visit to US, many years ago, when I stepped out of JFK terminal and was faced with all those big trucks, yellow cabs I recognized from the Hollywood movies and later on with loudness and massiveness of Manhattan, I never really struggled with absorbing ‘the new’.
But Naples surprised me. I didn’t know how to cross the street without being run over by a car or a moped! The city was messy and disorganised – I think it just wasn’t what I expected and what I’m used to back home. So it didn’t take much convincing to get away from this madness and go on a trip to a nearby island of Procida the very next day after our arrival to Naples.
Evening beforehand we went to a ferry terminal to check the departure times. There are three ferry terminals in Naples and a few operators that sail from different terminals. The schedule doesn’t specify where the boat departs from. There must be some sort of logic to it since loads of people use them every day and somehow manage to get to their destinations, but I wouldn’t be brave enough to share publicly what that logic might be. In any case the following morning we ended up at the wrong terminal and had to walk back 2km in the direction where we just came from. Good job we’re organised people and allowed enough time for all those shenanigans.
Ferry tickets aren’t particularly cheap. Depending on the distance and speed of the boat you’re looking at about €10-€20 one way per person. But at least they are reliable and depart on time – at least from our experience. If you’re going to a very popular destination like Capri, make sure to book your tickets in advance – the ferries are big and carry lots of people but such is the demand that you might find that all the tickets for your chosen route are already sold out.
Procida isn’t one of those ‘must see’ places and that’s exactly why we decided to go. It’s a tiny (4 km²) but very picturesque island south of Naples, relatively undisturbed by tourists. It has been used as a set for quite a few movies, most well know of which would be Talented Mr Ripley. The colourful houses of Marina Coricella are the first buildings on the approach to the island and make for a great first impression.
We had no plan and no map for the visit. So we just went for a stroll: more narrow lanes, lovely Mediterranean houses – some run down and sun beaten, some well-manicured overlooking the bay of Naples, lots of massive lemons, smell of jasmine and of course a few mad scooters.
Procida being an island has of course a few beaches, although they wouldn’t be considered the best. So it wasn’t a big shame that when we finally reached some of them, the sun decided to hide behind the clouds. Instead we walked back to Coricella and enjoyed our coffees and pastries in one of the cafes overlooking the marina, before we caught a ferry back to Naples.
VESUVIUS AND HERCULANEUM
One of the things we wanted to see when in Naples was Vesuvius – the infamous volcano that in AD79 destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
So we’ve done our research on how to get there, checked the train timetable and set off to the Porta Nolana train station. Porta Nolana is the first/last stop on a few routes in Naples and only about 10 minute walk from the main station on Piazza Garibaldi. It so happened that it was closer from where we stayed, but it’s worth starting your train trip from here if possible, as the train gets full before it leaves this station.
Using the trains was one of the things I did not enjoy in Naples. Yes, they are cheap but the few times we used them they were never on time (and I’m not talking about a few minute delay; more like one train went missing sort of delay), they were rather rough looking, people were smoking on the station, platforms and once even on the train (though there were ‘No Smoking’ signs everywhere) and it was a haven for pickpockets (we saw a tourist who got off and realised that his wallet was stolen on the train). So beware and be prepared and you’ll be fine.
For Vesuvius it’s best to get off in Ercolano Scavi and catch one of the Vesuvio express buses (€10 return per person plus another €10 entry fee to the park). Once the bus actually arrives it’s about half an hour to the entrance to the park. There you’re told you have 90 minutes to get back to the bus. Otherwise your ticket is invalid. It’s probably a good estimate but I can imagine if you’re slower of it’s particularly busy on a path you might be rushing to make it on time.
But before you go anywhere look up and check the sky! If there’s a big cloud over the mountain you won’t see anything. Simple, yet we were among those, who didn’t look and as a result didn’t see a thing up on Vesuvius.
From the entry there’s still about 900m walk uphill to the crater. Whether it’s a challenging climb or not is a matter of physical ability and opinion. If you’re used to walking you’ll be perfectly fine. But the path might get congested as all those busloads of people need to get up as well. And I can only imagine that on a nice sunny day, the views must be spectacular, so that would probably slow anyone down even further.
But for us it was a very brisk walk up and down in a dense cloud. It was cold and although we wore warmer clothes than were required in Naples, up on the mountain it was a complete different climate zone and we were freezing, hence the near-run up the hill. We looked, we blew at the cloud and we hoped it would go away, but it didn’t. So we didn’t see anything and we were just glad to get back down to Ercolano where it was significantly warmer and surprisingly cloudless…although Vesuvius remained in the cloud for the next couple of days, so we were somewhat mollified that it wasn’t just one 90 minute window of unfortunate weather.
Once back in Ercolano we decided that we needed a lunch of sorts and stopped at a random tratorria on the main road to Herculaneum. We ordered the usual pizza and beer and were amazed how delicious the pizza in this random place was! That just proves the point that you can’t go wrong with pizza in this region!
Happily filled we headed to the archaeological site of Herculaneum – the lesser known and more recently excavated Roman town destroyed by Vesuvius eruption in 79. The question which one to see: Herculaneum or Pompeii is a very popular one and you’ll find many opinions if you check the net. Since we only went to one, I don’t feel I’m in a position to give any advice. I can only say why we decided on Herculaneum: we were already there and it was meant to be more compact yet still contain more original structures and relics (those of Pompeii were moved to the Archaeological Museum in Naples). And since the site was covered by meters of hot volcanic material, it was well sealed and even things like wooden elements are still preserved for us to see.
And we both thought we made the right call and after visiting the site we didn’t feel the need to go and see more of the same (I’m quoting a person we met in Ercolano, who saw both sites) in Pompeii. But visiting at least one of them should be on everyone’s agenda.