Thursday, 9 November 2017

Tony Soprano's Naples by Caroline Lawrence

A few years ago, my husband and I visited Naples properly for the first time. 

On previous visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum everybody warned us to avoid Naples like the plague. They spoke of gangs of street-urchin pickpockets who would descend on us like locusts, fleets of Vespa-riding handbag-snatchers, piles of garbage and walls covered with rude graffiti. And then there were the suicidal drivers. In Milan, goes the saying, traffic lights are the law; in Rome they are a suggestion; in Naples they are Christmas decoration!


So whenever we found ourselves in Naples we hardly dared pop our heads above ground. Instead, we would hurry from the airport to the train station and only breathe a sigh of relief when we were safely on the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento. Once we went so far as to stay at Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. We had to use ferries, buses and taxis to visit Misenum, Baia, Ischia and Piscina Mirabilis. It was fun but cumbersome and not entirely successful. The Piscina Mirabilis was closed and we couldn’t manage to fit in Solfatara or Cumae. How much easier if we had made Naples our base. But we didn’t realise that then.

In January 2013 we went on our first Andante Travels Tour to Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was fabulous. Our brilliant and learned lecturer, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, proceeded to explode one myth after another: ‘Vesuvius’s first eruption wasn’t on 24 August; don’t call it a lararium; don’t call it the Decumanus Maximus; we don’t know if this is the Villa Poppaea; we don’t even know if this place is called Oplontis.’ (Read more about his myth-busting HERE.)

Another myth he busted was the Avoid Naples Myth: ‘Don’t be afraid of Naples,’ said Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. ‘It’s a vibrant, exciting city. Be sensible and keep your money and valuables out of reach, but enjoy it!’ So, we took his advice and booked another Andante Tour based in Naples. It promised us access to sites we had tried and failed to visit before: the Piscina Mirabilis, Solfatara and Cumae (home of the Sibyl). Also, I was cooking up some books based on Virgil’s Aeneid and wanted to see the place he loved so much so that I could somehow connect with the Bard of Mantua

The excitement started for me when Andante told us we would be staying at the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia right down on the waterfront. Googling the hotel, I thought a nearby fountain arch looked familiar. Then I remembered where I had seen it: in an episode of the ground-breaking, award-winning TV series The Sopranos. In season 2, aired in the year 2000, Tony (a mafia don from New Jersey) and two of his men go to Naples. I looked up Commendatori, and sure enough, it was the same arch: the Fountain Santa Lucia. Tony stayed at the Hotel Excelsior right next door to the Santa Lucia.

From that moment on, Virgil was overshadowed by the don from New Jersey. Played by the late great James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano is not likeable, but he is compelling.



The first full day after our arrival I coerced some of my fellow travellers to venture inside the Hotel Excelsior. We walked through the plush lobby where Tony is first addressed as commendatore, “commander”. Up on the 8th floor we discovered a gem of a bar with stunning views of Vesuvius. Sipping Campari sodas and nibbling typical Neapolitan tidbits, we watched the setting sun gild the famous volcano. 

A few days later our tour took us into the centre of Naples. It is a vibrant noisy city full of colour and life. The ancient road called Spaccanapoli is supposed to be the charming one, but I preferred Via dei Tribunale with its vegetable stalls, cafés, graffiti and a wonderful bulldog. This is where Paulie from The Sopranos goes to have an espresso and greets some Italians at a nearby table with a cheerful ‘Commendatori!’ The three Italians ignore him. One of them is series creator David Chase in a cameo role. In real life, Neapolitans are very friendly.


One day we made a pilgrimage to Virgil’s tomb just a short distance from our hotel. Virgil is my favourite Latin poet and I was hoping to find some inspiration for two retellings of stories from his Aeneid. In the gardens surrounding the tomb was a marble bust of the poet along with shrubs and trees mentioned in Virgil’s three works, next to signs with relevant excerpts. It is a beautiful spot but I didn’t feel any sense of the bard, despite a tripod and garland of flowers left by another Virgil fan in the lofty tomb. 


Opposite our hotel was a delightful castle called Castel dell’Ovo AKA the Castle of the Egg. Medieval Neapolitans believed Virgil was a magician and thought he had built this castle on a magic egg. As long as the egg was safe, it was believed, Naples would prosper. The little cobbled village at its foot was pretty enough to be a film set and they were in fact filming the remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the week we were there. A helicopter was constantly buzzing around, filming establishing shots.

In Commendatori, Tony meets Annalisa, the beautiful acting head of the local Mafia, (which in Naples is called the Camorra). Tony and Annalisa have a seafood lunch in front of another castle and the OMLIN shipyard, and then go walking on a beach. I kept my eyes open for this location and found it on the day we visited Baia. Baiae as it was known 2000 years ago, was the St Tropez of the Roman World; it was a place of decadence and immorality where men bathed with women. I used it as the setting for my 11th Roman Mystery, The Sirens of Surrentum.

After visiting the so called Temple of Mercury, with its flooded floor and atmospheric dome, and saluting the upside down fig tree in a vault nearby, my husband and I had lunch down at the seafront in Bacoli at a pretty beige building called Locanda dei Re. After lunch, I skipped dessert to see if I could find the exact location of Tony’s meal with Annalisa. It turned out to be a seafood restaurant called Lucullo. 

Appropriately, Lucullus was an ancient Roman famous for his banquets. In fact, the Castel dell’Ovo is built on the foundations of his once opulent villa. 


On our final day of the Andante tour we went to Cumae, home of the Sibyl, the wise prophetess who tells Aeneas how to get to the underworld. But once again Virgil was eclipsed by Tony and friends. Cumae is where Annalisa ‘prophesies’ Tony’s future and also propositions him. He is tempted by her, but wisely demurs. I was glad to see they’ve cleaned up the garbage since they filmed that episode. In fact Naples was remarkable free of garbage and the graffiti can be quite charming. 
My husband and I supplemented our excellent Andante tour with one of the open top tourist buses. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. We also listened to Rick Steves excellent podcasts and read Naples 44, the harrowing and hilarious wartime diaries of Norman Lewis. 

When Tony Soprano arrives back in New Jersey, you can see the regret on his face. He has obviously fallen in love with Naples and already misses it. We fell in love with Naples, too. So if you are tempted to go, don’t be afraid. Wear a money belt, or just take small notes spread about your person. Be sensible and you will have a great time.


Caroline’s two retellings of stories from Virgil’s Aeneid are The Night Raid, about Nisus and Euryalus from book 9, and Queen of the Silver Arrow, about Camilla from books 7 and 11. The reading level is easy but the content is dark. 

A version of this post was originally published on the now-defunct Wonders and Marvels blog

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