Sunday, April 28, 2013

Italy Part IV - Pompeii, Herculaneum, Naples, Plastic bags as Decoy against Snatch Thieves

Naples - the birthplace of Pizza, a city that has also gained notoriety for crimes and association with Mafia. A few months before the trip, I got to know an Italian working in Singapore through a language exchange event. He told me to be very careful there. "If they see that you are not local, especially like you, they may approach you with bad intentions."

After the picketpocket incident in Rome, we were more cautious and maybe paranoid. I was still fine with taking public transport to our hostel. The rest chose not to risk it and with all the extra weight from shopping in the lugguage, we decided to take a cab instead. Turned out to be a good choice because there was a steep hill on the way to our hostel, Giovanni's Home.

Through the intercom on the ground floor, we informed Giovanni of our arrival.

"Come in, take the stairs up to the 4th floor."

There was no elevator! As we were lugging up our luggage up the unevenly spaced step, Yusra cried, "We should have checked if there is an elevator before we book the hostel."



My bad, I was the one in charged of planning for Naples and chose Giovanni's Home because of the raving reviews.

Giovanni welcomed us with this cheeky smile that he always wears. We entered the apartment, panting like a dog.

"Are you hungry?" he asked.

"Yes," we uttered between our breaths. Lugging up our luggages up 4 stories exhausted our calories that were in need of replenishing.

He sat us down at the common room and returned with 4 plates of pesto conchiglie pasta for us. Being a sucker for pasta, I wolfed down everything, not leaving a single morsel on the plate. Nadia could not finish her portion. We thought it was rude to leave leftovers so I finished it for her.

After the simple and delicious meal, he sat us down at his desk, like 4 students waiting to be reprimanded by the teacher. But no, he played a Youtube video and began singing an Italian song called Singapore.


"Do you know this song?" he asked.

"Erm.... No..."

"Ok, can I have your passport please?"

He took our passports and broke into his singing spasm again.

After the check-in was done, he lit a cigarette, reclined on his chair and asked, "So, what have you heard about Naples?"

I told him what the Italian friend shared with me.

"Where is he from?"

"Genoa."

"Nah.... " he scoffed.

He went on to try dispel some of the bad reputation Naples has held for very long. On the computer, he dug out some statistics on crime rates of all the different Italian cities. The murder rates were comparable with Milan's.

"Most of the murders here are gang-related. If you are not part of them, they don't touch you," he said.

"Sexual violence against woman here are low here. Women are left to fend for themselves while their men are in jail. They will not touch another gang member's woman."

"Regarding robbery, women are not so much targeted. So you, three walking in the streets together (referring to Nadia, Yusra and me), is ok, but with you, (pointing to Khidir), maybe."

Even the act of stealing has some etiquettes there. Interesting.

Giovanni went to show us videos on how pickpockets work.

"This is in Milan." In the video, a young boy sneaked up behind an oblivious woman and stealthy slipped his hand into her bag and removed what seemed like a wallet. He played many other videos of pickpockets and snatch thieves in their exploits.

"Do you see what they target? Handbags, backpacks, suitcase... Wherever there are handbags, backpack, what do you think is inside there? Wallets, camera. So don't bring handbags. Put your valuables in grocery bags. If you are a thief and want money, would you snatch a grocery bag?"

That is an ingenious decoy!

"Do you know that Naples was a capital?" Giovanni went on to give a introduction about Naples. He took out a photocopied map and placed it before us.

"We have the world's oldest aquarium here..." With a highlighter, he marked out the places to visit on the map and shared a brief history about the places. I was very impressed by Giovanni. He seemed to know every nook and cranny of Naples, proud and knowledgable about his city.

"Where we are is the Historical Centre," as he marked on the map, "It's an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Everything's preserved as it is. That's why there's no elevator." I see.

"If you are hungry, I recommend this pizzeria nearby, Gino Sorbillo."

"Avoid going to these area," he marked out the Spanish Quarters and area around the train station, Piazza Garibaldi.

The map provided by Giovanni was invaluable.
Yellow area - Historical Centre
Green area - Interesting places to visit
Orange line - Recommended route to take
Purple shaded area - Keep clear of these places
We actually spent around one and half hour on his desk, going through maps and books and also history of Pompeii and Herculaneum. With one day spent at Pompeii, Herculaneum and another half day at Campi Flegrei for snorkelling, I doubt we had enough time to explore all of Naples.

Giovanni brought us to our room where we were sharing with girls from different countries.

"You can leave your things here your passport here, nobody will take them," he said. Our roommates began introducing themselves to us. Clothings, inner beauties, toiletries and gadgets were strewn all over the room rendering it difficult to walk. There was some kind of camaraderie there, a common understanding that we are all travellers in the same boat and we would not steal from each other.

One blond girl below my bunk bed was packing her stuff and told us she was travelling alone and was leaving soon to meet her family in another country.

"The best thing about travelling alone, I can do whatever I want!" she said excitedly. I listened to her in admiration. Later when I bumped into her in the common room, with her mouth stuffed with pizza, she told us, "You know what, the pizza is so good that I can eat this everyday!" Very funny girl.

Another girl was about to leave the room with a handbag slung on her shoulder. Giovanni stopped her and said, "Hey, hey, what did I say about handbags? Grocery bags!!" She smiled sheepishly, "Ok, Ok."


Hostel Giovanni's Home
Via Sapienza, 43, 80138 Napoli, Italy ‎
+39 081 1956 5641 ‎
http://www.giovannishome.com



View Wonderfulmalaysia.com in a larger map

Pompeii

Before our arrival in Naples, I posted an event on Couchsurfing to arrange a meet up with the locals. Paris from Mexico City responded that he would be in Naples during that period and would like to visit Pompeii as well.

We were late in meeting him at the train station and I was not able to inform him because my phone credit was insufficient. He dropped a message that he would wait for us at Pompeii train station instead.  Once we alighted, I saw a guy waiting there. We approached each other and asked if we were who we were. I introduced Paris to the rest, but I am not sure if they were open to sightseeing with a total stranger.

As we explored Pompeii, we introduced ourselves to each other and began warming up. We learnt that Paris is an archeologist. He would be travelling around Europe to attend conferences for 2 months. He was in Bari previously. His next stop will be to Rome, Venice and Vienna.

"Is Mexico City safe?" Yusra asked. We heard a lot about the drug wars and all in Mexico. Paris gave a quizzical expression and said, "Yes, I think it is ok."

Nearing the end the of Pompeii exploration, I received a call from Fabio, a local Couchsurfer who confirmed a meet-up that evening.

We were looking for a train station that could take us to Herculaneum. Paris communicated with a police officer for directions.

"You speak italian?" I asked Paris.

"No, I was speaking Spanish," he said. I came to learn that there are many similarities between Spanish and Italian. Native speakers of both languages can mutually understand each other.

Mount Vesuvius in the backdrop







Cowering in fear in resignation to his/her fate more than a thousand years ago.
People of Pompeii frozen in time of their escape from the volcano eruption.
Conek.





The basement maze?
Furnaces
More conek!

The theatre.

Kitchen
Direction from Naples to Pompeii:
  1. From Piazza Garibaldi station, take the Circumvesuviana Napoli-Sorrento line. (Giovanni recommended to take the 8.13am train which is less crowded, less pickpockets, and faster because it skips some of the small stations.)
  2. Alight at Pompeii S. Villa Misteri which is around 30-40mins ride. 
  3. The entrance to excavation site is only 50m from the station.


View Larger Map

Remember to get the maps and leaflets from the entrance so you know what you are seeing.

For unlimited public transport and discounted entrance fee to museums and site in Campania region, do get the Campania Artecard.

Herculaneum

Herculaneum is a smaller excavation site and better preserved than Pompeii. Despite being situated nearer to Mount Vesuvius, the damage inflicted by the eruption was lesser than Pompeii due to the wind direction on that fateful day.


Sight of Mount Vensuvius from Herculaneum.


Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite
Taking a toilet break in the ruins.
Women bath house.
This place used to be a fabric shop and this was an iron press.
Ancient potty
Kitchen

Direction to Herculaneum:
  1. Take the Circumvesuviana Napoli-Sorrento line. Herculaneum lies between Naples and 
  2. Alight at Ercolano Scavi. 
  3. From the station, take the stairs that goes down and you will see Via Vittorio Veneto. There is car parking area.
  4. Follow this road and you will see a roundabout.
  5. Take the 12 o'clock exit to Via IV Novembre.
  6. Just walk straight down towards the sea around 1km and you will see the entrance to Ercolano.


View Larger Map
Remember to get the maps and leaflets from the entrance so you know what you are seeing.


Naples

I informed the rest about the meet-up in the evening. At the hostel, I could see that Yusra was a bit uncomfortable with it. Many questions started to pop up, "What if they are not nice people?" And many other what ifs.

"If you are not comfortable, we will leave. I don't want to force you but I don't mind going alone to meet them with Paris," I said. In the end, we decided to go together. We bought a few Sorbillo pizzas to eat as we made our way to the rendezvous, Piazza Bellini.

As we were waiting at the Piazza munching on our pizza, there was some commotion at a bar nearby, some cheering and shouting. Yusra became startled and asked, "Is Paris coming soon?"

Soon enough, we spotted Paris and offered him some pizzas.

A man arrived on a scooter and approached us, "Are you from couchsurfing?"

"Yes, yes, are you Fabio?" I asked.

"No, no, I am Francesco. Fabio is on his way."

He saw us holding boxes of Sorbillo pizzas. "Ahhh... you know this pizza."

When Fabio arrived, we introduced ourselves.

"Are you tired? If you don't want to walk, we can find a cafe and sit down to have a drink and talk," he asked, knowing that we had spent the entire day walking at Pompeii.

"It's ok. We can walk a little."

As we walked down Via Toledo, Fabio was making and taking some phone calls. Gradually, more and more people joined us. I really appreciate Fabio's effort for taking the trouble to help get everybody together. There was another Francesco, Ilario, a lady and a gentleman from Kuala Lumpur working in Naples.

They pointed out the Spaccanapoli which is a long and straight street that divides the historical centre into two parts. Along that street are many historical churches and building. Ilario told me that Via Toledo is also called Via Roma. I later learnt that the disparity in the naming got to do with Italian unification. The Neapolitans really know their streets and history. I was in awe. Ask any Singaporean to tell you about the history of Singapore's streets and places of interest, I doubt many can. I know I cannot.

Paris came over to me and said, "It is more interesting to see Naples through the eyes of a local." I agreed.

Looks like Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan
Teatro San Carlo, the oldest and still active threatre in Europe. I have seen the photos of the inside but too bad didn't get the chance to go in.
It was a shame that I did not bring my camera that evening out of paranoia of losing it. Or else I would have taken more beautiful photos.

Fabio and the rest were very understanding hosts that evening. He kept asking if we were tired and need to stop and rest. They occasionally organise meet-ups for language exchange. Hosting guest from other countries is a good way to practise the languages.

We had some beer and tried something that looks like Gingko nut at a road side stall. They taught me how to peel off the skin and eat it. Yusra took the entire thing and popped it into her mouth to the aghast of Francesco.

"What will happen if I eat the entire thing?" she asked.

"Indigestion? But a little bit is fine."

As we were walking down the street of Naples in a group that evening, not moment I felt threatened with them. As we part our ways, we exchanged hugs and kisses the Italian way. I thanked Fabio for arranging everything and gave him a small chinese knot as a form of my appreciation.

I felt that our time in Naples was too short to discover all the marvels and beauties it holds. There were many places I wanted to visit but did not have the time. We missed out the oldest aquarium, the National Archeological Museum, Castel St Elmo, Napoli Sotterranea (Underground city) that has a Roman theatre under a trapdoor of a Neapolitan's home. I have not walked the entire stretch of Spaccanapoli and sampled sfogliatelle there. It is a city that I will definitely return to.

Despite the reputation Naples has, I realised the locals have come to deal with those statistics everyday - taking the necessarily precaution as anybody would in any big city, instead of passing each day in fear of getting mugged. In Naples, not once were we in position of under threat, however, we were surrounded by 5 pickpockets and stalked by strangers in Rome.

Probably we were just lucky, but our stay in Italy was too short to prove any statistics. The point I was trying to put across is that shit can happen anywhere. My friend got robbed in Singapore and my mum got pickpocketed in Hong Kong. To the locals of Naples, the city's reputation is becoming like stereotype as what Fabio mentioned when I showed him the plastic bag and reason for carrying that. He showed me his bag and the precautions he takes to deter pickpockets. He always put his bag in front of him.

As long as it is a big city where population is high, chances of bumping into people with ill intentions are high. It is not easy surviving in a city, I reckon some of those people are doing these out of desperation to feed their family.

Singapore city is probably an exception, we are very used to going out in gaudy dress-up and ostentatiously wearing expensive jewelleries. Walking around like these in other big cities is like a bait to thieves. If you always expect to do things like how it is done in your country, I only got to say, Suck it up. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or in our case, when in Naples, do as the Neapolitans do.

Watching Naples sparkle from the Bay was beautiful. This dodgy photo doesn't justify.
Behind us was Piazza Plebiscito. Photo credit: Fabio Altiero
Back at the hostel, Giovanni asked us our next plans. In the morning, we would be going to San Martino Museum which is located at the top of the hill, afternoon to Campi Flegrei for snorkelling. The following day, Francesco was coming to pick us up from Naples to his town Barile for Couchsurfing.

Giovanni began asking lots of question - Why are you going there for? There is nothing there! What is his name? If people are living there, there must be something I thought to myself.

"Becareful about couchsurfing. There was a Canadian girl, a very beautiful girl who came here after bad experience with couchsurfing. The man treated her very nice, buy her nice dinner and then you know... She was horrified. Many times, couchsurfer feel bad about leaving a negative reference when the host treated her so nice."

I could see the other are having second thoughts about the next plan already.

"I have a friend, Martina who owns a hostel in Praja A mare. There are beautiful beaches there." he showed us photos of the place on the computer. "You can consider going there instead, let me know I can arrange with her."

I know this Couchsurfing thing is bad business for hostel owners but what he said was also valid. I was not sure of the true intention behind this conversation. It could be out of good will or because there was some kind of referral arrangement between him and Martina. Nevertheless, Giovanni was still a good host.

Yusra suggested that we could still go there but stay in a hostel instead of his home. I tried to search for hostel there but there was only one Hotel which charges exorbitantly.

The next day, we met up with Paris to explore San Martino Museum which was located at a hill overlooking Naples.

I chatted with Paris privately about the exchange yesterday and how I felt.

"I have conversed with Francesco for the past 8 months, I feel that he is ok. The rest only met him once on Skype so I don't expect them to feel the way I do. I really don't mind going there alone but it will be irresponsible of me to just break out of the group. We agreed to travel together in the first place," I told him.

"If I were you, I will go. You will never know what is there until you go there. If you don't go, you will never know. If there is something wrong, just leave. I was in Bari couchsurfing before I came to Naples. I had a good time there. My host even lent me his scooter to travel around," he said.

Naples from San Martino Museum, Mount Vesuvious towering over the city.

After the morning of exploration, Paris had to catch an afternoon train to Rome, while we had to go Campi Flegrei to snorkel.

Our last photo with the gentle giant before parting ways.

Campi Flegrei

One of the few places in Europe with a supervolcano. The volcanic activities had resulted in the sinking of some ancient cities. It is like underwater Pompeii. I would recommend scuba driving if you wish to see the more. I could not see much with snorkelling but Nadia saw the mosaic tiles.

Some steps or something?

I can't make out anything.
Centro Sub Campi Flegrei Scuba Diving.

That evening, we had to decide whether to go Barile or go Praja A Mare. When Yusra asked the couchsurfers about going Barile the night before, the response ranged from, "Why there? There is nothing there." to "Ah, I have been there. It is nice." Nothing more. Although I still want to go Barile, she explained that not all of us have the same thinking as I have and were not willing to take a certain risk. It was 3 against 1.

"I respect your decision. During this trip, I learnt a lot about the kind of traveller I am. We are very different when it comes to travelling. I see a lot of similarities between myself and Paris in our attitude towards travelling. I understand why he travels alone now. Honestly, I don't mind travelling alone too," I told them.

So we were going to Praja A Mare and made arrangements with Giovanni.

I bought Francesco a white elegant Kurta from Little India and some other gifts for his nephews and niece. How am I going to hand them to him? Mail them? How was I going to break this news to Francesco who was supposed to pick us up from Naples the next day. We were looking forward to meeting each other. I felt horribly bad.

I called Francesco and told him sorry, we were not coming to Barile. He asked why. In my limited Italian vocabulary, I could only say my friends did not want to go.

He kept repeating, "I don't understand." I could sense his disappointment.  He said he just picked up two Chinese couchsurfers who he would be hosting concurrently and asked if I want to speak to them.

So I spoke to them and explained my situation in Chinese more concisely and hopefully she could help me relay them. She told me, Francesco looked very disappointed.

My previous vacation was 3 years ago. It is not everytime that I get the luxury of travelling oversea. If I don't meet him in this trip, when will the next time be? I worked and scrimped to save for the trip. It meant a lot to me but I was being delusional to be imposing my expectation on others. I cried as I spoke to Francesco because I felt awfully disappointed and bad for letting him down. He must have made preparations for our stay.

On the train to Praja A Mare, I was texting group chat "Family Conference" about our sudden change of plans and my utter disappointment. Brother said, never mind, we will go together next time. Mother was worried and said please get along with your friends. She spoke to Francesco before and knew how much I look forward to meeting him.

It was the first time I was travelling so far with friends. I realised that travelling in a group is a lot about compromising especially when individuals have different goals. Different travellers have different degree of tolerance towards risks and unknowns. I felt that I compromised to the point that I was no longer enjoying my trip because I belong to the other end of the spectrum. Not everybody is willing to meet up with strangers and stay over at stranger's home while overseas.

While the rest enjoyed the beach at Praja A Mare, I stayed in hostel, chatting with a Spanish and Argentinian couple who also came from Giovanni's Home. I could not enjoy anything. At times, I felt the impulsion to just take a train to Barile but no, we were accountable for one another. When Yusra, Nadia and Khidir returned from the beach, I did not know what to say or do. I was not angry with them, I was angry with myself for being delusional.

Yusra then approached me and said, "Juve, we spoke, if you want to go Barile, you can go yourself but give me your parents contact so in case anything I can inform them."

It will no longer be 4 of us going there together, it will be just me alone. I reflected what Giovanni said about couchsurfing. Many things went through my mind. Should I? Should I not?

"I will think about it and let you know later."

During dinner, I was still thinking about it. I also recalled what Paris said. "You don't know how it is like until you are there. If you don't go, you will never know."

Ok, so I decided.

Italy Part I - Couchsurfing, Learning a Language, Milan, Venice
Italy Part II - Vespa Birthplace, Pisa, Siena, Florence
Italy Part III - Rome and Vatican City, Encounters with Pickpocket Syndicates
Italy V - Couchsurfing in Barile and the Remarriage Proposal
Italy Trip Aftermath

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