A night in the Snow Hotel

When you go on holiday to a place like Lapland in December, where temperatures can fall below -30°C, you’d think that your reward for a day out in the Arctic conditions would be a nice warm hotel room to sleep in. But some choose to then spend the night surrounded by ice and snow too. Of the five nights we spent in the area we slept for three of them in an airbnb apartment in the town of Rovaniemi, but then for the last two nights we headed 30km north west to the site of the Arctic Snow Hotel.

This small resort offers two types of accommodation: the snow hotel and glass igloos, and we spent one night in each. There are also a few ancillary buildings: a large reception/restaurant in a normal, heated building, another restaurant in a large yurt-type structure, and some sauna facilities. The snow hotel from the outside is nothing much to look at: a one-storey white oblong with no windows and only two doors. They build it every year, starting in November, and it takes about six weeks to complete. The entrance is fairly unassuming, although I did like the furry doors.

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Inside most of the corridors look like this, but the layout is fairly simple so getting lost isn’t a problem.

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There are individual rooms, family rooms, and suites. Here’s our family room, with two double beds and one single. The beds are blocks of ice but inside them are proper mattresses covered with reindeer hide. The LEDs in the base are the only lighting in the room.

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Adjoined to the snow structure are a couple of temporary wooden structures housing toilets/showers and a locker room/changing room. As the snow rooms are pretty small and dark, the idea is that you put all your stuff in a locker, get changed into a couple of thin layers you’ll wear in bed (for most people this means pyjamas with thermals underneath), and then take a pillow and sleeping bag back to your room. The bunks you see here are then available to sleep on if you decide during the night that you really can’t stand sleeping surrounded by snow.

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You are free to wander around the rest of the structure and even visit other people’s rooms, which is safe since no one leaves anything valuable in there anyway. There are no doors as such on the rooms, but you can draw a curtain and hang a “do not disturb” sign outside. There are a lot of LEDs to add some colour to the surroundings.

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The suites are a lot more elaborately decorated, and probably have a price tag to match. You don’t get any extra facilities or services, but a bit more space and light, and something to look at.

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You can also just visit the hotel and look around the rooms even if you’re not staying there.

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If the cold gets too much you can always warm yourself by the fire. The ICE FIRE, ha ha.

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There’s a small chapel where you can get married. Or pray, or whatever.

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There’s a restaurant where we ate dinner one night, and a bar where you can, er, chill out.

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My shot of cloudberry liqueur in an ice glass was very pleasant, and we bought a bottle in the airport on the way home.

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But of course what you want to know is, what was it like to sleep in? Well that depends who you ask. The rest of my party slept just fine. I barely slept a wink. Maybe it was because I found the sleeping bag uncomfortable and restrictive (I haven’t used one since scout camp over 30 years ago). The hood part of the bag came right up over and covered everything except a small area of my face. At a minimum my eyes were exposed, and I tried a couple of times just covering my head completely but that got too stuffy and claustrophobic, so I had to put up with my eyes and/or nose feeling chilly. Either way I just couldn’t get comfortable enough to drop off, although I think I eventually managed to get about an hour of sleep towards the morning. Staff members come and wake you up at 7:30am, but I was already up and dressed and keen to get out for breakfast by then, much to my family’s sleepy-eyed bemusement.

On the second night we slept in a “glass igloo”, which was much more to my liking. Essentially they’re individual cabins with domed glass roofs to allow you to see the Northern Lights if and when they appear (there’s also an alarm in the igloo which rings to let you know when the lights could be seen).

We’d been to Lapland once before in 2001 and seen nothing due to overcast skies, and by the last night of this trip I was resigned to having missed them again, in spite of having paid for an aurora notification app during our nights in Rovaniemi. And then, on our way back to the igloo from the restaurant on our final evening, just before 8pm, something started to happen in the sky. Nothing like as bright or spectacular as the images we saw every day on postcards in the gift shops, but it was there nonetheless. For about 20 minutes we saw several wavering bands and shimmering blobs of green. The photos don’t do them justice; I should have had a tripod for starters, but they should give you some idea.

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The next morning we woke at our leisure after a good night’s sleep, and saw our igloos in the daylight for the first time.

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Prompted by seeing the Japanese tourists from the next igloo doing it, we boiled a kettle of water and threw it into the air outside to see how it reacted to the chill morning air which was getting below -30°C (-25° Fahrenheit).

And finally, the aurora borealis wasn’t the only unusual atmospheric phenomenon we saw in Lapland. One morning while on a husky safari we saw these strangely coloured blobs on the horizon. They’re nacreous clouds, whose mother of pearl colours are caused by the light being diffracted by ice crystals. They’re also bad for the ozone layer.

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Reading Between The Lines

“Reading Between The Lines” is the name of a sculpture located in a field just outside the small town of Borgloon in the Belgian province of Limburg. The satnav brought us to a small residential street where we saw a sign pointing along a path leading up the hill to the “Doorkijkkerkje” (literally the “little see-through church”).

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The path runs through apple and pear orchards, and after about ten minutes walking we came to another sign explaining that the church/sculpture is made of 100 layers of steel weighing 30 tonnes.

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And there it is.

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Because it’s constructed of horizontal layers of metal, its transparency varies with the angle at which you view it.

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As you get closer to it and look up at it the layers start to overlap, giving an impression of solidity.

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Inside, looking up at the ceiling, the layers overlap completely. Apparently the type of steel used “is a group of steel alloys which were developed to eliminate the need for painting, and form a stable rust-like appearance if exposed to the weather for several years.”

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Looking up inside the steeple.

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And of course even semi-transparent structures can cast solid shadows if the light is coming from a certain angle.

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Here’s a timelapse video of its construction in 2011.

Treasures of Aachen

The German town of Aachen sits on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a medium-sized town which is pleasant to wander and we’d visited a couple of times before, notably for the Christmas market. This time we were there to meet a friend who was passing through on her way to Switzerland on business. We felt the need to do something cultural and worthwhile, and so we headed straight for the cathedral, which dominates the town centre.

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It was originally built in 796 AD on the orders of local boy made good Charlemagne, although it was added to and amended several times over the intervening centuries. Charlemagne is everywhere in Aachen, which is understandable considering his historical significance.

“He united a large part of Europe during the early Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France, Germany and the Low Countries. He took the Frankish throne in 768 and became King of Italy in 774. From 800, he became the first Holy Roman Emperor — the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” (Pater Europae),[3] as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church. All Holy Roman Emperors up to the last Emperor Francis II, as well as both the French and German monarchies, considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne’s empire.” (wikipedia)

This is his statue outside the cathedral which also houses his tomb. This photo is from a previous visit; we couldn’t find it on this trip and suspect that it’s hidden under scaffolding as part of the church is undergoing renovations.

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Inside you enter almost directly under the main dome and the first thing you notice is the rich and sparkly mosaic work covering most of the ceiling.

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Alcoves on the first floor (inaccessible to the public when we were there).

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Looking directly up into the dome.

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As you head towards the altar the stained glass windows draw the eye. I’m a big fan of these more abstract designs as opposed to the classically illustrative ones. These ones were installed in the 1950s after the originals were destroyed during WW2.

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First time I’ve seen a mention of corporate sponsors on a church’s windows.

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The gift shop outside had the usual array of postcards and books, and also a selection of religious DVDs. This German dub of the Irish film Calvary stood out, as it’s actually a fairly depressing film about murder and the decline of priests’ social standing. The German title translates as “On Sunday You’re Dead”.

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The other main draw here is the Aachen Treasury, which holds a bewildering array of religious knick-knacks and arts and crafts. Many of these are elaborate and shiny reliquaries, containing fragments of bone, hair and wood of dubious provenance and authenticity. But the containers are very pretty. Especially this enormous hand.

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Nice veins on the back.

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That’s Charlemagne, slightly larger than life-sized.

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The top of his head handily flips open to reveal…

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Well you can’t really see without the aid of a mirror. There you go: Charlemagne’s real, actual skull bone inside.

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A bit of femur.

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There are also some amazingly well-preserved books. This one’s over one thousand years old.

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I forget the technical name for this thing, but it’s basically a little bucket for containing holy water, which you then sprinkle on whatever it is you want to bless.

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This box supposedly contains Jesus’ belt. There was another one for Mary’s belt, and one for the very whip which was used to scourge Jesus’ flesh. Hmm. Still, it would make a good curse, I feel: “Christ’s belt!”.

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Jesus With The Disproportionately Small Head.

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More old books. I was more interested in the form that the content.

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A fantastic triptych (artist unknown) full of fascinatingly weird detail.

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Like this dog bothered by a wasp in its ear.

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There were more paintings upstairs, and I was amazed at how easy it was to go right up to them to photograph details. These things are centuries old and presumably priceless, but I could have just reached out and touched them if I’d wanted to.

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Angel with peacock wings.

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Literally everyone in this picture has the same face. Including the baby.

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Finally out in the fresh air we noticed basketball hoops in the courtyard. Reminds me of the scene in Nanni Moretti’s film Habemus Papam when he gets a bunch of priests to play volleyball in the Vatican grounds.

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In a square nearby we saw a classic “Where did that chicken come from?” statue.

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All this culture and history had made us thirsty, so we stopped at a wine bar whose menu gave handy visual hints as to the flavours of their various offerings.

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The Twisted Beech

Below is a favourite tree of mine from Hyde Park in London. The wide, knobbly, twisted trunk reaches a certain height and then the branches all droop down towards the ground, forming a canopy. It’s great for hiding underneath.

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Last weekend we were driving through the Champagne region of France and I noticed in a tourism brochure that there was a forest of “dwarf beech” trees called “Les Faux de Verzy” just outside the town of Reims. We made a short detour on our way to Reims and spent half an hour wandering there, glad of the leafy shade on this hot, sunny day. It was possibly not the best time of year to really appreciate the structure of these trees, as illustrated by this sign:

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Barriers prevent you from getting too close, as the forest management understandably don’t want people climbing on them. But as they’re covered with foliage it’s often difficult to see much more than a leafy mound in the clearings between other, taller species.

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Fortunately some of them are close enough to the barriers and have some gaps in their branches where you can slide a small camera through to take a closer look under the canopy at the elaborate twistednesses.

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I’ve been unable to find any explanations online as to why the branches form in this way.

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Afterwards we stopped briefly in Reims cathedral. The famous rose window was covered for renovations, and the Marc Chagall window at the other end didn’t do much for me, but I was rather taken by these two pieces located over the baptismal fonts by local artist Brigitte Simon. According to the official cathedral website “Entitled L’Eau Vive, The Water of Life, the window’s blue-grey tones evoke light reflecting on a river”.

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Florida notes

A few final random notes about the recent trip to Florida, and the “little differences” I noticed.

Of the towns we saw in Florida (Cocoa Beach, St Petersburg, Fort Myers, Homestead) most of them were fairly visually uninteresting, at least to my European eyes. Wide and flat, with little in the way of distinctive architecture. Now admittedly we were there for the wildlife and theme parks, so this wasn’t a deal breaker. And we stayed mostly in chain hotels in probably the least interesting parts of town. We were usually just off a large through road surrounded by malls and fast food restaurants, so not the kind of place where you’d just want to go out for an evening stroll, but we did see the downtown areas too and they looked like more of the same. Our final stop, Miami, was wildly exotic and full of imaginative design in comparison, even though I’m not that big a fan of ostentatious, pastel-hued Art Deco.

Speaking of hotels, we had contrasting experiences with two big chains. Hampton Inn was fine, but considering how much they charged you’d think they’d be able to provide proper crockery and cutlery at breakfast. Instead I felt like I was at a children’s party, eating off of paper plates with plastic knives and forks, all of which gets thrown away at the end of the meal, of course. Large trash cans dominated the food area. Tacky and incredibly wasteful.

On the other hand the Staybridge in St Petersburg was very good. Not only did they have proper, grown up plates and cutlery, but they even gave us free food to put on it. I mean, not every meal, but Monday to Wednesday evenings there was a free buffet dinner and glass of wine for all guests. And a free DVD rental on our first night (although our kids insisted on watching The Phantom of the Opera). And a free shuttle bus to anywhere within a three mile radius, which meant most of the main sights as the hotel was centrally located.

St Petersburg, by the way, is known for its excellent Dalì museum, but there’s plenty of free art in the streets too, with murals all over the place, and especially near Central Avenue. These two were spotted near Haslam’s bookstore.

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Finally, I was struck by the flight attendants on our American Airlines. No, they didn’t hit me. I mean I was surprised at how old they all were. This was true to a certain extent of Disney World staff too, and I’ve noticed something similar in certain sectors in the UK. It seems much more common these days to see people near or even past retirement age working in the service industry, no doubt caused in part by the pensions crisis and a generally ageing population in the west. Considering that we were in Florida I’d expected to see fewer of these senior citizens serving me food and drinks and more of them sunning themselves on the beaches.

Coral Castle

On the morning of the penultimate day of our Florida holiday I thought we might briefly drive past Coral Castle, which our guidebook noted was a quirky, kitsch little sculpture garden; the kind of curious roadside attraction to be filed alongside Carhenge. They were seriously under-selling it, as it was one of the most memorable things I saw on this trip.

It was built by a Latvian immigrant called Ed Leedskalnin in the 1920s, supposedly as a tribute to his 16 year old fiancé who’d jilted him at the altar. There are three interesting aspects to this place: what Ed built, how exactly he built it, and Ed’s personal story.

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The entire construction is made from massive blocks of oolitic limestone, which Ed quarried single-handedly out of the ground surrounding the property. Many of the pieces are not only very large, weighing several tonnes, but bear no obvious cut marks, and fit perfectly together. A couple of “gate” stones are so perfectly balanced as to be able to spin easily with the slightest push (you can see some video footage here).

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In fact it was originally built in another location, and Ed moved the whole thing, again single-handed, in order to be near a newly-constructed highway which he hoped would bring more visitors. No one ever saw Ed at work, and in fact he worked only at night so as to avoid scrutiny. When quizzed about his methods he usually gave one of two answers: “It’s easy when you know how” or “I know the secrets of the pyramids”. He used only simple tools made from scrap metal found at a nearby garage. Here’s the view of the main garden.

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Many of the pieces are of astronomical significance. There’s a sundial and a “telescope” lined up to allow viewing of the pole star.

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There are various chairs angled so as to receive maximum sunlight at different times of the day. Ed spent a lot of time sunbathing as he’d been told that it would help cure his tuberculosis.

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There are several outdoor “rooms” obviously intended for his erstwhile fiancé and their hypothetical future children, including a bedroom with baby cot (at top). He also built a “repentance corner” where naughty children (or his wife) would be made to stand with their heads through a hole in the rock while he lectured them on their failings.

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A well.

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Ed himself lived on the top floor of a small two storey tower, sleeping on a wooden board suspended by chains from the ceiling.

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The room below shows some of his work tools such as simple pulleys and metal levers.

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Over the years many theories have been elaborated as to how Ed managed all this by himself. People talk of anti-gravity, harmonic resonance and, of course:

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Others maintain that for all the seeming impossibility of the task Ed, an experienced stone mason, was simply applying well known principles of leverage. Many videos on youtube and self-published books offer detailed arguments to support their theories.

There’s a brief overview of the site and its history on wikipedia, but I also recommend the book I bought in the gift shop, which gives a fairly comprehensive account of Ed’s strange, solitary life and his unconventional ideas. In the end for me the man is as interesting as his work, which is best seen not just as an engineering puzzle but as an expression of his view of the world.

Make time to visit if you’re ever anywhere nearby.

7 things to do in Naples

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I recently spent nearly five days in Naples. It was my first time there, but with any luck it won’t be my last. Of the expectations I had, some were confirmed (great pizza), others debunked (less squalid and dirty than I thought it would be). In many ways it reminded me of the Italian town with which I’m most familiar: Genova. It’s an old port with a ramshackle central quarter full of narrow, dark winding alleyways which are great fun to wander, good seafood, and some great scenery close by. But let’s break this down into numbered points, shall we?

1. Pizza

Naples claims to be the home of pizza and, more specifically, of the Margherita pizza. I was very slightly sceptical about their claims to make the best pizza in the world. Just because you did it first doesn’t mean you do it best, and I’ve had great pizza all over Italy and beyond, but I was willing to give them a chance. Some places are more traditional and stringent than others, and offer only the two old recipes margherita or marinara. Marinara is just topped with garlic and oregano, and as far as I’m concerned no cheese = not a pizza, so I wasn’t going to let “authenticity” concerns hold me back. Our first visit was to a place called Brandi, which has a plaque outside asserting that the margherita was “born” there in 1889.

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My wife ordered one of those:

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while I went for one topped with sausage meat and broccoli leaves.

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You notice at once certain characteristics of Neapolitan pizzas: they’re thin, slightly soggy in the middle, and have a pretty thick, gummy border. I tend to prefer just a little more crunch in my crust, but I didn’t let this put me off and finished it all (I’ve never understood people who leave the crust on their plate).

The other place we tried was also pretty famous, and pretty busy, but we managed to beat the queues by arriving as soon as they opened at 7pm (Italians would eat later than that). Sorbillo’s is slightly less venerable than some other Neapolitan pizzerias, being less than 100 years old, but it’s still one of the best regarded. It has impeccable credentials in the sense that it’s recognised as a Slow Food establishment, and they’re involved with Amnesty International (hosting meetings, and you can order an Amnesty pizza as a way of donating to them). Here’s part of the menu.

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And here’s what I ordered: topped with ‘nduja (soft, spreadable, spicy southern Italian salami) and cacioricotta cheese (harder and more mature than normal ricotta. All I can say really is that it’s probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.

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If you want a more comprehensive overview I recommend this post, in which one guy ate at 12 pizzerias in Naples in the space of 24 hours.

2. Fried pizza (and fried food in general)

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For some reason Neapolitans love fried food. I’ve never seen this many chip shops in Italy before. Not that they approach British or Belgian levels, but they’re pretty common. And they deep fry all kinds of things. Even so, I was shocked to find out that they also deep fry pizza, which sounds like the kind of thing you’d find in a place like Glasgow, alongside deep fried Mars bars. But no, it’s a thing here, so of course we had to try it. We went to a pizzeria called Dal Presidente, which is known for specialising in this stuff. Like many Neapolitan restaurants the walls are plastered with photos of visiting celebrities. Many of these are unrecognisable unless you know a lot about Italian TV or music, but there was a picture of Bill Clinton. The US president visited during the G7 meeting held here in 1994, and the restaurant was renamed in his honour. In fact we saw photos of Clinton in almost every eatery we visited in Naples, which makes you think he did nothing but eat the whole time he was here.

We started our meal with a selection of other fried nibbles, including the quite well-known arancini (rice and various other savoury ingredients in a doughy fried ball).

 

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That was already pretty filling, so we were somewhat dismayed to see the size of the fried pizza (one to share between the two of us) when it arrived. Fortunately a lot of that was air, and it deflated in front of us.

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It was filled with ricotta and little slivers of pork (“cicioli”), and in spite of being deep fried it wasn’t heavy or greasy. Still something of an acquired taste, perhaps, but I’m glad we tried it.

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3. Coffee

Coffee is another of those things where you could be forgiven for thinking “Well they have that all over Italy. Do I have to go specifically to Naples?”. But it’s different in Naples, you see. Not in every bar, but if you choose the right one they’ll prepare it in a special way. The coffee here is stronger, so they often assume you’ll need sugar in it, and you have to ask for it “amaro” (bitter) if you don’t want it sweetened. And if you do want it sweet, rather than just giving you some sugar to add yourself, they’ll often prepare a bowl with a creamy mixture of sugar and coffee which is then spooned on top of the espresso where it sits, like a syrupy topping.

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And if you’re stopping for a coffee you should probably also have a sfogliatella, which is a typical Neapolitan pastry made of many ruffled layers and filled with ricotta.

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4. Churches

Yes, we did manage to get some culture in Naples in between face-stuffing activities. There are any number of churches and arty artifacts to gawp at, but if you only have time for one you must go to the Cappella Sansevero. This is the one which contains the amazing “Veiled Christ” sculpture, made out of a single lump of marble. No photography is allowed inside so the photo below is from the official website, which is richly illustrated and full of information about the chapel and its creator Raimondo di Sangro. The picture doesn’t really do justice to the delicacy and realism of the sculpture, and the chapel is also decorated with several other stunningly realistic and intricate statues. And if you’re there make sure you go down into the basement to see the creepy “anatomical machines“, which are basically real skeletons with fully preserved circulatory systems. No one knows quite how they managed to make these with mid-18th century techniques, but they’re very impressive. I was so impressed I bought the souvenir bookmark.

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While we’re talking about religious knick-knacks, Naples has a thing about “presepi“, or Nativity scenes. Again, you see these all over Italy, but they’re bigger and more elaborate here, with whole shops (sometimes whole streets) dedicated to enormous displays of dioramas and figures ranging from Lego-scale to Barbie-scale.

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I saw this one outside a workshop in a side street. Obviously it will be painted later, but I quite like the monochrome look.

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5. Via Toledo

Naples is great for people-watching, and Via Toledo, one of the main shopping streets, is a great spot (or strip) for it. The best time to go may be early in the evening, as everyone comes out for a leisurely stroll before going out (or home) to eat. I saw a lot of memorable and interesting faces and once again felt the urge to take my camera out and photograph them, but various practical problems would prevent that. I also thought of buying a GoPro camera, mounting it on my head or chest and just walking along the street, filming the people I passed. Again, I can think of several obvious reasons why that’s a bad idea.

Via Toledo is also a good spot for one of Naples’ less obvious (to me, anyway) shopping opportunities: shirts. This area has long been known for its gents’ tailoring, and it’s one of the few places in the world where I’ve seen almost as many menswear shops as there are for women. I ended up buying six shirts, which is almost unprecedented for me. That’s all my clothes shopping done for the rest of the decade, barring accidents.

6. Capri

The island of Capri is a short boat ride away from Naples’ port. One of the main attractions on Capri is the Blue Grotto, so imagine our disappointment upon arrival at the port when we were told that the grotto was closed that day because of rough seas (they weren’t that rough, but the entrance to the grotto is small so I guess they have to be careful). So instead we just wandered the town and sat on the cliffs looking at the view, which was quite pleasant enough. Capri seems to be something of a celebrity magnet. Everywhere we went there were signs boasting that a certain hotel or restaurant had been visited by Pablo Neruda, Churchill, Lenin. The restaurants in particular had a much more impressive visitor photo display thatn most of the places back in Naples, with the likes of Beyonce, Spielberg, Springsteen, and Stallone prominently featured. We had lunch in the place with a photo of Nicolas Cage.

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7. Vesuvius and Pompeii

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We took a combined day trip (there are plenty of companies offering this) to these two related sights, which are only a short drive south east of the city. The Pompeii complex is far larger than I imagined, and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around looking at ruined (and not so ruined) buildings.

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The partial remains of murals, mosaics and statuary were especially interesting and evocative.

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I mean, look how engrossed by it all these British school kids are!

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The Romans may have been good at building straight roads, but they were less successful at making them flat.

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It’s not far from there to the car park halfway up the slopes of Vesuvius. In the background of this shot you can see where the lava flowed down the hill during the 1944 eruption.

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Then you just have to walk another twenty minutes to reach the summit.

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Don’t ask me for any details about the volcano. When it comes to vulcanology I’m something of an igneoramus.

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Unfortunately the day we were there it was cloudy so the famed view across the bay towards Naples looked something like this:

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But if you want to see across the rooftops of the town you can do it from within Naples itself. Take the funicular railway from near the top of Via Toledo up to the Vomero district, and from there you can see the whole city laid out before, and a cloud-obscured Vesuvius in the distance.

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It’s obviously a popular spot to sit and have a drink, judging from the amount of discarded bottles on the nearby rooftop at bottom right…

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Lots more photos in the flickr album. Go take a look.