topics: pizza margherita (food), Napoli by bike, subterranean Napoli, Certosa di San Martino and San Martino Museum; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: May 14-15, 1998

Food of the Day: pizza margherita

Pizza margherita, one of the more humble foods of Italian cuisine, occupies our center stage today. Composed of a pizza crust covered in a delicate layer of tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella, a dash of oregano, and just enough parmesan cheese to add the proper flavor, pizza margherita is properly cooked in a wood fired oven and served piping hot. In Italy - and especially in Napoli, where pizza is king - pizza margherita has moved people to poetry with its simple unassuming elegance and delicate taste. (For the proper pronunciation of this culinary marvel, check out today's Word of the Day..)

Person of the Day: Giuseppe Sambriclick to view a photograph

We were introduced to Giuseppe Sambri, or Peppe (as he insisted we call him), by Rossana Rossana thought that Peppe, as a computer science teacher at a local secondary school, would be particularly interested in our project. He has been laboring (together with his students) over the creation of a CD-ROM about Napoli. Peppe was kind enough to invite us to visit his school and talk to his students (check out the Rider's Notes for more info).

Place of the Day: subterranean Napoli

Napoli was built on ancient lava flows deposited by the neighboring Mount Vesuvius (a volcano). While the decision actually to build on a lava flow perhaps lacked much foresight (check out the Pompeii dispatch to find out what happens if you get in a volcano's way), it did provide for a very solid base upon which to build. The problem was: where to get building materials for the great houses and palaces that were being built throughout Napoli? The Neapolitans finally looked to their feet, literally.

Tunneling straight down, the Neapolitans were able to quarry the tufa (porous rock) that was beneath them. In the process, they excavated hundreds and hundreds of huge caverns under the city. Eventually (and ingeniously), these caverns were linked to the incoming aqueducts, and the entire system was used as a giant cistern for the city. This continued to be the case well into this millennium.

During the Second World War, Napoli was the site of intense Allied bombing (being an important port) and once again the caverns, which had basically been forgotten, became extremely useful. In more than 100 bombing raids, much of the city was destroyed (some damage is still visible) while its citizens sought shelter in the hundreds of "natural" bomb shelters under the city.

For us, subterranean was a fun stroll through history. A friend of Gino's leads tours through the site but Gino has visited the bowels of Napoli so many times that he offered to give us a personalized tour himself. Our bikes secure in a storage area, we descended down, down, down almost 100 meters (328 ft) beneath Napoli. Gino explained how the hundreds of caverns below Napoli had been created as the city's residents quarried building material for their houses. Under Roman rule these hundreds of different caverns were linked via aqueducts and filled with water, creating a huge cistern for the city's inhabitants who had access to it through hundreds of wells.

Gino told us how monks were often hired to maintain the cistern. This is not a job for tall or plump monks as the linking passages between caverns are often very narrow. (In fact, parts of the caves are so narrow that electric lighting has not been installed. We visited these parts carrying candles!) For this reason these monks were called monacinos (little monks). Walking through the cistern it was occasionally possible to see holes in the ceiling. These were the bottoms of the wells used by households. Legend has it that, on occasion, hungry "monacinos" would climb up the well shafts and into the houses and grab a snack from the kitchen. Apparently a visit from a monacino was widely considered to be good luck. Ethan and Padraic perked up at this mention of free food but try as they might they could not persuade Anthony to boost them up to the base of one of the wells.

On our way out, we stopped to examine some of the exhibits. In one area, plants were being grown by artificial light. Apparently the natural moisture in the caves keeps the soil wet. Another small display showed how the caverns were used during the Allied bombardments in the Second World War. During the air attacks, hundreds of the city's residents would take cover in the city's former cisterns (which had been mostly forgotten up until that point). There were even several pieces of pro- and anti-Mussolini graffiti left over from the war.

Tech Fact of the Day: Italian food is really Chinese food in disguise

Spaghetti, ice cream (otherwise known as gelato), and pizza are often closely associated with Italy and Italian cuisine. However, few people realize that these foods actually originated in China! Thanks to explorers like Marco Polo (the Venetian explorer who traveled throughout Asia), new and varied foods were constantly introduced into Italian kitchens, occasionally from as far away as China! In fact, many of the foods closely associated with Italian cuisine are from other countries (tomatoes for example are from North America). Italy is a perfect example of how food can travel around the world. While the original idea for these foods came from another land, they were perfected in Italy. Throughout the world of pizza, Napoli, for example, is considered the land of perfection - see today's Food of the Day for more info.

Group Dispatch, May 14-15
photograph of Anthony

This is another adventure-packed double-day dispatch, so, as usual, hang on tight. Our high drama Napoli visit is a whirlwind of activity and it is easy to become overwhelmed and confused. So take small breaks, drink lots of water, snack, and, if need be, take a nap. Pace yourself. Remember, this is not a game. This is BikeAbout - only for the hardened, experienced Internet geek.

We started our visit of Napoli bright and early (well, it was bright at least) at a rousing breakfast with Gino (Anthony, Padraic and Ethan's host during our stay in this city). Corinne soon arrived from Clara's apartment and, yearning to hit the pavement, we started our main adventure for the day: Napoli by Bike.

The night before, Gino had offered to give us a tour of Napoli by bicycle and we were quick to accept. Long ago, we learned the wisdom of having a local guide. And we decided that this was especially important in a town like Napoli. You see, Napoli makes San Francisco look like the flatlands of Illinois. How hilly is Napoli, you ask? Well, there is not one... not two... not three... but FOUR funiculars in Napoli. FOUR! And we had the good fortune to have hosts who lived on the top of one of the main hills and very near the terminus of one of the funiculars - which, gratefully, take bikes. This then was the logical starting point of our tour.

With all four BikeAbouters lined up like ducks behind him, Gino led us off on our tour. Carefully navigating us through the maze of streets, Gino first headed down... down... down through town. And we quickly learned that... Napoli is not really a city made for bikes. Perhaps high-tech mountain bikes (powered by world class, physiologically mutant, athletes) could handle it, but loaded touring bikes or city-bound grocery cruisers no. This is one hilly place. How hilly (you might ask again)? Well, if you lived in Napoli, the front door of your apartment building could very well be at the same height as the roof of your next door neighbor downhill. Hilly.

Fortunately, Gino led us back and forth on our descent so that we were able to visit many different neighborhoods of Napoli (Mergellina, Vomero and Santa Lucia), to stop and absorb the beautiful views click to view a photograph, take photos, and listen to Gino's explanations click to view a photograph about special sights. We were also trilled that throughout the morning click to view a photograph we never once had to climb a hill click to view a photograph which, of course, we greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately the day was a little hazy so what might have been amazing views out over Napoli were only stunning as we peered through the haze towards the Bay of Napoli click to view a photograph, the port click to view a photograph, and Mount Vesuvius click to view a photograph looming ominously in the distance.

We eventually ended up at sea-level near the western edge of Napoli with views out over the rocky half-island of Nisida click to view a photograph and some of the industrial sprawl to be found in any major port town. click to view a photograph

Along the way, Gino, keenly aware of a gelato deficiency in our diet, made an emergency stop at what he claimed was the best gelato shop in Napoli. Now, while some people might argue that gelato is an after-meal treat, or at best a between-meal snack, we have conducted numerous tests and discovered that it functions equally well as a pre-meal appetite enhancer. For this reason, we applauded Gino's move to the front of the ice cream counter. (Actually, we applaud any decision that involves gelato). And, after one lick of the local product, we knew that we had latched onto the perfect guide. This gelateria (store that sells gelato) had some of the best chocolate gelato that we have ever tasted (let's not forget that we are seasoned professional tasters too). click to view a photograph We briefly considered going back for seconds and thirds and just skipping lunch, but Gino hinted heavily that the restaurant he had selected for lunch was... well, worth saving room for.

Next off we visited the Engineering University of Napoli where we rendezvoused with Andrea Di Napoli, the gentleman from B.E.S.T. with whom Ethan and Corinne had connected last night for the chat 'n' debate. For more about this excellent and ever busy, fast moving [slightly blurry] figure click to view a photograph, check out our Person of the Day for the dispatch from May 16-17. At the university, through Andrea and B.E.S.T., we made every effort to send and receive email as quickly as possible. It was a 15-minute affair that managed to drag on for over an hour). Gino, Anthony and Padraic patiently amused themselves outside the university, mostly by chatting up coeds on their way to and from class. Well, actually, Gino and Anthony did the chatting while Padraic frowned disapprovingly from the sidelines and made sure no one "mistakenly" rode off on our bikes.

Once we were all back together, we made plans to meet Andrea for dinner, remounted our trusty steeds, and headed down to the waterfront. Gino's lunch warning/promise weighed heavily on our minds (and stomach) as we biked along the waterfront towards and passed the Borgo Marinaro island (now no longer an island) right off the coast of the Santa Lucia quarter and home to the Castel dell'Ovo (Castle of the Egg) built by the Norman king William I in the 12th century. click to view a photograph The castle seems to continue stoically keeping watch, having served its purpose in defending Campania (the region around Napoli) for centuries. Along this section of the waterfront, there is also a small beach where a few people were gathered in an attempt to escape the heat click to view a photograph and soak up a little sun. click to view a photograph

We briefly considered stopping (Anthony noticed that several of the female sunbathers were not correctly applying their sunblock and he wanted to offer his expert services), but hunger threatened to slay us and so we continued along the road towards the port area and past a beautiful arch that seemed to be the cities gateway to the sea. click to view a photograph With a confident air, Gino led us into the confines of the Port of Pleasure (actually we made up the name because we had such a wonderful time there) to one of his favorite restaurants.

We have visited a number of ports in the last 8 months and we have not always had the best of times. Remember the Hounds of Hell in Bari, and the Never Departing Ferry in Tunis? However, lunch at the Casetta Rosetta (little red house) was a true delight. Delicate gnocchi, followed by delicious prosciutto (cured ham) and wonderfully fresh mozzarella, topped with fruit for desert. We were speechless and all smiles. click to view a photograph It was a wonderful meal.

Gino, however, was not finished treating us to the culinary joys of Napoli, and so wheeling our Wheelers to another section of the port we next sampled what he claimed was the best coffee in Napoli. After knocking back a tiny cup of this dark magic, we headed back out on the road a little more jumpy than before.

Our next stop was subterranean Napoli and so we steered our steeds into the maze of streets that is downtown Napoli click to view a photograph, stopping for a moment at a college of Archeology and Geology. We learned that the university had once been a monastery. Actually we learned that there are dozens of former monasteries scattered throughout Napoli. Many of them have now found second lives as museums, universities and private residences. It was a wonderful location with a beautiful sunken courtyard. click to view a photograph

Next we were off to visit subterranean Napoli. click to view a photograph What do we mean by this? Well, for lots more information, see today's Place of the day.

Returning to the surface we rounded up our bikes and headed for the Centrale Funicolare. We gratefully rode this back up to the Vomero district where Gino and Rossana's house is.

We arrived just in time to meet our Giuseppe Sambri, our Person of the Day. For the next hour we talked with Peppe about the BikeAbout project and he showed us the project that he has been working on. Together with his students, Peppe has created an interactive CD-ROM that talks about Napoli. Using the multimedia format of the CD-ROM, the project discusses many of the things that make Napoli a wonderful place - the sea, the beautiful buildings, the history - as well as touching on the problems caused by pollution and too many cars. Peppe seemed to think that his students would be very interested in the BikeAbout project so we made arrangements to meet him at his school the next morning when we could give a presentation at his school. (For more information about the CD-ROM and ITCS School, check out the school's Web site.)

Before we knew it - time was definitely flying - we were forced to make a mad dash back down into Napoli so that we would not be late for our meeting with Andrea (and our opportunity to satisfy our hunger). Running for the funicular and jumping in as the doors closed, we swooped down into the city just in time to hop into Andrea's car (it was a tight squeeze - our thighs have become so large from biking that we barely fit...).

Our destination was Pizzeria Michele, one of the great restaurants of Napoli. We can say this without hesitation because everyone we talked to spoke of Pizzeria Michele with the fire in his or her eyes and fervor in his or her voice that denotes greatness. (We also had to wait 45 minutes for a table... which is usually a good sign.) While we waited, we learned that the Pizzeria Michele is not your typical restaurant. All it serves is pizza, and only two kinds of pizza at that. The first is pizza marinara, which is a crust covered with just tomato sauce; the other is pizza margherita. The latter, the pizza margherita, is the main event in this restaurant (check out today's Food of the Day for details). On the wall of the restaurant there is even a long poem that praises the pizza margherita for its simplicity and lack of pretentiousness.

Stumbling out of the restaurant with a delicious, lasting impression of Neapolitan pizza firmly entrenched in out minds (and stomachs), we next headed for a local drinking establishment in the Spaccanapoli neighborhood (the old city), where we meet several of Andrea's friends and others studying in Napoli through the AGEE and the ERASMUS Student Network programs. We had a particularly pleasant conversation with Valentina De Mari, the inspired motivating force behind the ERASMUS presence in Napoli.

We honestly did not stay very long, despite the singing, dancing and good cheer. It had been a long day. After about ninety minutes of meeting people and talking about Napoli and BikeAbout, we called it a night and begged Andrea to give us a ride home. Hopping into his car (which we were pleased to see had not broken its streak of never having been stolen) we were treated to yet another fine example of driving Napoli style. Basically, this involves no rules: red lights are suggestions, green lights are not to be trusted, and lane changes or middle-of-the-road Y-turns are not only allowed but obligatory. Anthony managed to keep his eyes open the entire trip back up to Gino and Rossana's place but the three in the back seat (who will remain unmentioned) had to pry their fingers from the armrests and force their eyes open as they shakily stepped from the car and took to their own feet.

The next morning we were up bright and early. Ethan headed off into town to take care of some business and Anthony and Padraic left to give a presentation at Peppe's school. Meanwhile, Corinne decided to stay behind and work on her dispatches.

Arriving at Peppe's school (it's not really his school, he is a teacher there), Anthony and Padraic were given a quick tour of the facilities (and a cup of espresso to bolster their nerves) and then settled down to business. For the next hour we showed interested students the BikeAbout Web site and talked about some of the places we had been. Everyone was very impressed with the growing list of countries we have covered, and lots of questions were asked about countries like Albania, Bosnia and Egypt. The students were very curious about how the Web site was being used to provide information to people all around the world, and found the multimedia element most intriguing. They even decided to contribute a sound file for today's dispatch (a charming rendition of "O Sole Mio" sung slightly off-key click to hear an audio clip). We would like to take this opportunity to encourage them to all study hard as singing looks less and less like a career option.

After rounding up the entire group for a photo out in front of the school click to view a photograph, Padraic and Anthony bid everyone a fond farewell - and paid special thanks to Peppe for providing this opportunity and to Pipo Rezzoagli for his excellent translation services during the presentation - and headed towards the nearest museum.

The museum of choice for the afternoon was the Certosa di San Martino, which sits on top of the hill with the Castel Sant'Elmo (Saint Elmo Castle) and looks out over the city and the Bay of Napoli. Originally a 14th century Carthusian monastery, the building was rebuilt in the 17th century in the Baroque style. Today it is the home of the Museo Nazionale di San Martino. For the next hour we wandered through the museum. It was one of the most beautiful museums that we have ever visited. The views out over Napoli were astounding (and finally a little clearer click to view a photograph) and the several gardens and courtyards were extremely attractive.

The museum was particularly rich in "presepi." Napoli is known worldwide for its presepi, or Christmas nativity scenes, and the Certosa di San Martino had a number of exceptional exhibits. These scenes are hard to describe. Hundreds of figurines are grouped around the nativity scene (the birth of Christ) with very realistic buildings and landscapes. These displays can be room-sized and are incredibly detailed. And all of these models contain perfect scaled-down models of people and animals. In many of them there were even angels suspended above the scene with clear nylon line (to give them the appearance of flying). One presepi in particular was truly outstanding. It was huge and had hundreds of figurines from shepherds to sheep and city people and farmers to geese and little children chasing geese. Rising above the presepi was a spiral of several dozen angels of all shapes and sizes each hanging by clear thread. Amazing.

We also found the special exhibit on the Burbons in Napoli to be very interesting (but we are sort of geeks that way). In 1503, the Spanish Empire absorbed Napoli and the Kingdom of Sicily and sent the Burbons (Spanish viceroys) to rule over it as virtual dictators. Aside from a brief Napoleonic period (1806-1815), the Burbons maintained control of Napoli until the arrival of Garibaldi and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. Under Burbon rule, Napoli reached the height of its artistic development; in fact, much of the splendor of the city can be traced to this period.

Our next mission was lunch. Returning to Gino and Rossana's, we met up with Corinne and helped Rossana prepare a delightful late dinner. Stuffed to the point of bursting (and still recovering from the previous night), everyone collapsed from exhaustion and napped for several glorious hours.

Much later in the afternoon we woke to find that Ethan had returned from his quixotic and unsuccessful mission in town (to have official papers notarized). He was seated at the table finishing up the little that was left over from lunch. He told us a little about his adventure in town.

In the light rain and pleasant temperatures, he had basically made a huge circuit around Napoli, taking in most of the central part of the city. From the bottom of the funicular, he had proceeded down to the waterfront and the Piazza Plebiscito. click to view a photograph The open piazza was once an enormous parking area and bus stop; however, one of the policies of the new mayor has turned it into an impressive tourist center from which the San Francesco di Paola church, the harbor, the Burbon Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), the elegant and popular Piazza Trieste e Trento click to view a photograph and the Castel Sant'Elmo click to view a photograph can all be seen.

Behind the Palazzo Real, Ethan also discovered the Castel Nuovo. click to view a photograph Called today the Maschio Angioino, it is a hodgepodge of architectural styles, including the foundations of a Franciscan monastery, the original 13th century "New Castle," and 15th century renovations. The graceful 15th century white rock (marble?) entrance arch click to view a photograph click to view a photograph is called the Torre della Guardia and clashes with the original heavy gray stone towers and deep moat. click to view a photograph

Ethan's tour took him right back through the narrow streets of the fascinating Spaccanapoli. click to view a photograph Usually very crowded and nearly impassable, the streets at this lunch hour under the threatening skies were alarmingly empty. But the screams from overhead, clanking of utensils, the hum of activity from within the narrow street-level shops, and the general air of clutter were more than a hint of what the heat of summer and afternoon bustle must bring. He could almost appreciate the right-angle street layout that was inspired by the original Greco-Roman Neapolis (meaning "New City" to distinguish it from the Palepolis, or Old City). He almost felt like he could identify some of the Byzantine, Longobard, Norman, Swabian, Angevin, Aragonese, Spanish, Austrian, Burbon and French impact left on the city by the subsequent waves of domination to which it has been subject.

Back down the Via Toledo, a major shopping pedestrian thoroughfare click to view a photograph, Ethan found himself at the base of the funicular and headed back up to Gino and Rossana's.

Soon after, Rossana's daughter Daniela click to view a photograph arrived and we quickly showed her the BikeAbout Web site. Daniela is an inspired student of languages whose linguistic skills in English and French (and of course Italian) wow-ed us all evening. She gave Corinne's hair a trim and we arranged to meet her and some of her friends later. Then we were off for another rendezvous with Andrea... again for dinner (is there any wonder why we like this guy so much?).

After a wild assortment of ready-made Neapolitan street foods (including arancino [a slightly orangey fried rice-and-vegetable roll], croquete [a fried potato croquet], a pumpkin tempura-like finger food, and sfogliatella [a delicious Neapolitan pastry]), we succeeded in meeting up with Daniela and company and headed back down into Spaccanapoli where we hung out in a square and talked. At a relatively decent hour (we did have to bike the next morning), we headed back up the hill to our homes away from home. Surviving yet another race across town (stopping only at green lights) in Andrea's car of torture, we arrived safely at our hosts' door and bid Andrea a fond farewell before once again collapsing in bed.

It had been an amazing time in Napoli and indulgence in Gino's favorite German toast - ZUM VERLOTTERN! - but it was time to move ever forward.

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