Our Roman tour guide had a strong distrust of any Italians who lived south of Rome, and it is a sentiment echoed by many Italians throughout central and northern Italy. We’d heard rumours that the mafia in Napoli had the city under its thumb, taunting citizens by cutting off the garbage collection and letting putrid trash pile up in the streets if the local government stood on their toes. We were used to fending off pickpockets throughout Europe, but we expected that the claims of southern italy’s crime rate were a little exaggerated due to heated rivalries. We were wrong.
Our plan was to leave the chaos of Rome behind for Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri, the most popular towns in the southern region of Campania. We left in the morning and that afternoon we were stopping at La Reggia Designer Outlet, 25 minutes outside of Naples.
Wasting two hours at a designer discount outlet was not on high on my agenda, but it was one of the few activities that was difficult to opt out of on our tour – we were in the middle of nowhere. Shopping for designer brands, mostly American, that I could purchase online from my bedroom, if I wanted them that badly, seemed to me like a pretty pathetic way to spend even one precious second in Italy. Plus, Chloe & I were hardly about to throw away euros on Calvin Klein when we had two weeks of travelling through Italy, Greece and Turkey left.
Fortunately, in Italy there is always good food to be eaten. Swerving past the bland canteens we wandered into Rosso Pomodoro, a restaurant doing a roaring trade with Italian families – always a good sign.
We were seated at a small table at the back corner of a pretty, leafy courtyard. Around us, Italian extended families sat together for lunch. At the closest table, a well-dressed Nonna bounced an adorable, curly-haired toddler on her lap while talking in loud, rapid Italian to the baby’s father at the other end of the group of tables. The women at the table all had beautiful, long dark hair and seemed to talk and move at a million miles an hour, feeding children and rummaging through baby bags while engaging in what sounded like juicy gossip. The entire family could have been on an Italian lifestyle advertisement, all designer sunglasses, magnificent heads of hair, warm Mediterranean tans and wearing casual but elegant outfits.
The menu was only in Italian – yet another good sign. Our final confirmation that we’d chosen a stellar lunch spot was the Slow Food section of the menu.
Slow Food is the most popular facet of the Slow Movement, founded by Carlos Petrini in Bra, Italy, in an attempt to preserve artisan traditions and slow down the frantic pace of modern life. I’d recently read Carl Honore’s investigation of the movement, In Praise of Slow and was thrilled to be able to experience certified “Slow Food” in Italy, where it all started. There was a Slow Food restaurant in Florence that I’d wanted to visit, but ironically I had run out of time to dine there.
Never mind. Someone, somewhere was rewarding me for choosing premium pizza over designer discounts and I was getting my Slow Food meal.
We chose the Sarnese, made from an ancient Napoli tomato sauce base, DOP olive oil from the Sorrentine Peninsula, basil and two Campanian cheeses – buffalo mozzarella and pecorino bagnolese. The pizza was 7.50 Euro, but big enough to feed two of us it was a steal of a meal.
The pizza lived up to its name and took nearly thirty minutes to arrive on our table, but the piping hot, doughy pizza was well worth the wait.
Neapolitan pizza has a thin, crisp layer over the crust and the interior of the pizza base is soft, stretchy and doughy. Unlike a thin, oily pizza I had in Nice, the tasty crust is an important part of Neapolitan pizza.
Naples is recognised as the birthplace of pizza and even Italians from other parts of Italy will concede that it is the original, and probably the best. The signature Neapolitan pizza is the margherita, my personal favourite. It was created in 1889 in honour of Queen Margherita of Italy, who was visiting Naples. The basil, white mozzarella cheese and a red tomato sauce represent the Italian flag.
The two hours at La Reggia Designer Outlet had been surprisingly blissful. Never underestimate the power of good food.
When we arrived back at the bus, we found the rest of our group huddled in twos and threes, looking anxious. Some were crying. Our tour guide was having a heated, rapid-fire conversation with a security guard. Pino, our adorable bus driver, was holding his head in his hands.
A member of our group ran up to us.
“The bus has been broken into. Did you have any valuables in there?”
We froze. Chloe had an expensive camera, which she’d borrowed from her aunt for the trip. She’d already had her iPhone stolen. I had my camera and my iPad mini, which was where I was storing all of my trip photos so far. We both had our passports on the bus too.
As I climbed the bus stairs and ran to our seat, my heart was pounding. Not the photos, not the photos, not the photos I prayed, to no one in particular. I could get a new emergency passport. I couldn’t replace three weeks worth of photos.
To our relief, our stuff was all there. iPads and cameras at the top of our overnight bags, passports still tucked away at the bottom. We were sitting second from the back of the bus. The thieves had stolen from every row up until the row in front of us.
We were really lucky.
I let out a huge sigh of relief but wiped the smile off my face before I turned around and returned to the group. Others had lost expensive DLSR cameras, laptops or passports. Some had their whole bag stolen.
Our guide had told us to leave our valuables on the bus, as she always did. As every tour guide, all over the world, always did. The bus was meant to be safe. It was tall, had strong metal doors and glass that was inches thick. This was not a casual break in.
Pino forlornly broke out the remaining pieces of glass from the door’s window frame and bagged up the gaping hole. The bus was his baby and it was very broken.
The centre’s security guards were no help. They were meant to be patrolling the car park, but had conveniently ducked inside the gates when the crime took place. A witness had seen two men break into the bus and run off with armfuls of bags.
We spent the better part of our afternoon waiting at a cafe near the local police station while the victims of the robbery talked to the police. Our tour guide had her bag stolen, which included all of her trip plans, documents, laptop and iPod stolen too. She worked tirelessly for the next week to not only try and chase up the stolen stuff and help out everyone else who had been robbed, but worked around the clock to replace her stolen plans to ensure the rest of the trip went without a hitch. She was an absolute legend throughout the whole ordeal.
Most importantly however, no one was hurt. It could have been much worse. For the rest of our time in Italy, everyone took extra precautions with their stuff and fortunately, it was the last we saw of Neapolitan crooks. Most Italians may have a bit of a rivalry with southern Italians, but I found them to be just as friendly in the south as they are in the north.
As we found out over the next week, Italy has a way of making it up to you for any of it’s faults.
That night we saw fireworks over the ocean while we ate dinner in Sorrento and the next day we had sandals custom-made for us at La Conchiglia. Positano was a glittering homage to la dolce vita and soaking up the Mediterranean sunshine while we sailed around Capri massaged every tension out of my body from head to toe. Squeezing in a tiny dinghy into the famous Blue Grotto was my most awe-inspiring travel experience to date and Amalfi was a blur of good food, beautiful little buildings and a foot massage on the beach. Italy may not be perfect, but it offers a damn good apology.
If that’s not enough for you, there’s always the food.