Friday, January 19, 2018

Viva Italia: Naples, Herculaneum & Milano

My travels in recent years seem to thematically occur in threes - from Stockholm, Seattle & Snowdonia in 2015 to the Iberian trio of Lisbon, Andalusia & Cuba the year after.

Following that triplicate theme my latest round-up comprises three separate trips over the last 18 months to the European nation I've visited the most throughout my life and will never tire of doing so. From its unrivalled vino and food that no British restaurant can truly replicate, to those atmospheric old towns clinging to hills and mountainsides, the attraction of Italy never wanes.

My first return to the country after a hiatus of several years was to visit Naples and Campania for the first time, as a lucky member of a press trip organised by the city's tourist board in late 2016 to promote its regional cuisine.

After meeting government ministers and local food and wine suppliers at the Italian Food XP event in Mostra D’Oltremare I enjoyed a detailed tour of the historical city centre and its architectural highlights. While Naples is aesthetically a bit rough around the edges, it makes the contrasting pockets of Baroque beauty stand out even more, and is accordingly a great city for photography. Some of mine:

Naples street people (c) Kris Griffiths

I remember eating a lot of octopus and (as it was my birthday) drinking a lot of grappa throughout my few days there, so was badly hungover for my group’s final-day visit to the World Heritage site of Herculaneum (Ercolano): the ancient Roman town destroyed by the same 79AD volcanic eruption which devastated Pompeii.

My most memorable meal of the weekend took place fittingly on the lower inclines of Vesuvius later that afternoon: pasta served with tomatoes grown on the fertile volcanic slopes, washed down with Lacryma Christi (‘Tears of Christ’) - a local speciality wine made from grapes grown on the same slopes.

The only disappointment of the trip for me was that we didn't visit any purveyors of the world-famous Neapolitan pizza, so I had to steal away solo for a couple of hours before the return flight to seek out and scoff one with a final Tears of Christ wine 'for the road'.

And then there were two separate trips to Milan, a year apart - the first a standard sightseeing city break, taking in Il Duomo and various art galleries, and the second last September for the nuptials of an English friend and fellow journalist who had serendipitously met and wooed an Italian woman on a press trip he had himself been on a couple of years previously. 

It was probably the most memorable al-fresco wedding reception I've ever attended, in balmy late-summer temperatures at a rustic venue away from the city which looked like something out of The Godfather. It also happened to be my birthday again, what's becoming an inadvertent annual tradition.

Finally, it was during the previous Milan trip that I revisited with my then partner an old Cuneo town in the northern Piedmont region, 100km south of Turin, called Garessio: where my family used to holiday at a campsite when I was a boy. My parents had randomly stumbled upon the town while touring northern Italy with their caravan, and after they befriended some local shop-owners and fell in love with the place we would return several summers to this quaint old settlement surrounded by mountains, where you'd never encounter another British tourist. 

For most of those holidays I would be bored out of my skull, especially during afternoon siestas when everything shuts down, so it's only now as an adult I could fully appreciate visiting somewhere so off the beaten track.

Garessio's most beguiling hidden gem though is the ruins of a multi-storeyed grand old hotel destroyed by fire fifty years ago, still perched precariously on a hill overlooking the town. Now completely fenced off and left to crumble, the Hotel Miramonti - once you've managed to breach the fence - certainly makes for an engrossing afternoon wandering around its empty shell, with plenty of atmospheric photo opportunities you're not going to find many places elsewhere.

Hotel Miramonti Garessio

Hotel Miramonti Garessio staircase

Hotel Miramonti Garessio Kris Griffiths

And so concludes my Italian adventures for the time being, with the tourist-tastic Venice next on my list, which I've still not visited. As a fan though of the '70s horror movie Don't Look Now - the Daphne Du Maurier adaptation starring Donald Sutherland as a working holidaymaker in Venice - I have designs on visiting off-season in the colder months to beat those crowds and revisit Daphne's former haunts (pun intended)

Postscript. Apparently they're remaking the movie, to Sutherland's dismay, so the release date could be a timely peg on which to hang a new location pilgrimage article, in the same vein as my Twin Peaks travel feature for Rough Guides. It's reported that the sinister dwarf woman won't be making the new cut though, sadly.

All photos (c) Kris Griffiths. Further shots of Milan & Naples at Flickr gallery.

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