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Breakfast, Egg Castle and the New Castle

I awoke with a start at about 8 o’clock. I was aware of loud noises coming from the street outside and so I hoisted the blinds to see what was going on. Down below, the Neapolitans were milling around, going about their daily business as if they had never been to bed. The dust in my joyless bedroom was making my sinuses ache: the problem of my room would have to be addressed post-haste, but first I had a city to explore and I couldn’t bear the thought of being cooped-up in that pit on a beautiful sunny day like this. I watched as a man in a Nike running vest tried to extract his car from its parking space between two smashed up Fiats. Bang. There, again, was that noise that had woken me up. The man had stuck his heap of rusting tin into reverse and had simply shunted the Fiat behind him back a few feet. Bang. Now in first, he dealt similarly with the offending vehicle in front and off he went, cursing happily as he did so. That would explain why none of the cars in this city seemed to have functioning headlights. This was great! Half an hour later, I emerged with a spring in my step onto Via Pigna and skipped off contentedly in search of breakfast. I knew exactly what I wanted. My guide book had informed me that all Neapolitans ate sfogliatelle for breakfast. This is a kind of cake made with sweet ricotta cheese and candied peel, and the only decision left for me to make was whether to go for the riccia, a version wrapped in a type of flimsy, flaky pastry that unravels and invariably ends up in glistening shards on the floor as you eat it, or the more solid frolla version, a much easier option for the novice.

The “riccia” sfogliatella

I went into the first bar I came across, a good choice as it turned out, and perused the choice of cakes on offer, desperately trying to recognize something that resembled the crappy drawing of a sfogliatella in my guide book. Almost immediately, a dapper, middle-aged man with gold-rimmed spectacles appeared behind the counter. 

The “frolla” sfogliatella

“Una sfog – lee –a – telly?” I said hopefully. He looked at me as if I had just dropped off Mars. I jabbed at the picture in my guide book and he smiled, plucked a serviette from a pile to his right, scooped up what looked like a sea-shell made of pastry and coated in icing sugar, and handed it to me. I took a tentative bite and the whole thing disintegrated in my grasp – it was evidently a riccia– leaving me slurping at my cupped hands like a ravenous dog licking out an empty crisp packet. The barman eyed me in disgust and offered me another serviette to clean up the mess. “Cappuccino?”  he ventured. I nodded, mopping at my sticky fingers and, seconds later, a cup of froth was placed in front of me and I noticed that the barman was on standby with a wad of serviettes in his fist, just in case this foreign barbarian made a similar pig’s ear of dispatching a simple cappuccino. He seemed relieved when I set the empty cup back down on the bar without swirling my tongue around inside to scoop out the remaining foam. He put the serviettes back down on the pile and I was glad that I had, at least, passed this part of the test. Whenever I went back to the bar over the subsequent weeks, he always gave me a frolla without my asking for it, and it was some time before I plucked up enough courage to ask for a riccia once more. 

But I was thoroughly satisfied with my first Italian breakfast, and set off to explore the sights of the city. First on my list was the Castel dell’Ovo – Egg Castle, a biscuit-coloured little castle that juts out into the bay on its own island. Don’t ask me why, but I have a thing about castles, and this one was the star of all Neapolitan picture postcards. I had spotted it on Jim’s fading photographs back in the Gloucestershire pub garden, and again from San Martino the previous evening.

My guide book told me that Egg Castle’s island was called Megaride, and that this part of the city was Santa Lucia, one of Naples’ richer neighbourhoods. According to legend, a pissed-off siren by the name of Parthenope had hurled herself into the sea in shame after her song had failed to bewitch Ulysses, and had been washed up on this very spot. It was also the point at which Greeks from Cumae first settled in the fifth century B.C. Clearly, this was a place steeped in mythology and history, and I was very much looking forward to visiting the castle. But when I arrived at the little island of Megaride, I was dismayed to find the castle well and truly closed. I wandered around its exterior, thinking that, perhaps, there was another way in. But to no avail. Egg Castle had no intention of giving up her secrets that day.

No matter. It was a very pleasant spot and I decided to sit in the sun at one of the many bars that encircle Egg Castle, and enjoy a mid-morning beer. I was alone at the bar and the young waiter almost tripped over in his haste to serve me. It struck me that, although it was late summer, I hadn’t yet seen a single tourist in Naples. I wondered why. The waiter was an affable chap, roughly my own age. He spoke good English and so I questioned him about the name of the castle, which had been puzzling me. “Why is it called ‘Egg Castle’? Doesn’t look much like an egg to me!” “It doesn’t refer to the shape of the castle,” he explained, before launching into a well-rehearsed account of how the castle had earned its name. He seemed most excited, as if he had been waiting a long time for someone to tell this story to. He put his tray and notepad down on the table so that he could keep his hands free for gesticulation. 

“About 1000 years ago, the poet Virgil hid an egg in the castle and they say that the castle itself and the city of Naples will share the same fate as the egg. If the egg remains intact, the city will be safe. But if the egg breaks, well … .” He granted me a second or two to imagine the dire consequences and then added, unnecessarily, “And that is why it’s called ‘Egg Castle’”. I drained my beer and polished off my salted peanuts. They were no doubt intended to give me a raging thirst so that I would order another beer, but there was no way I was going to fall for that old chestnut. I got up, left the storyteller-cum-waiter what I thought was a generous tip – he looked underwhelmed and then I remembered that this was the rich part of town – and headed off along the seafront towards the next destination on my list, Castel Nuovo, “New Castle”, so called as to distinguish it from Egg Castle and built in the late 13thcentury on the orders of Charles I, King of Naples, as a royal residence for the House of Anjou.

For someone who had spent many a happy hour cruising up and down the Rhine, it didn’t look particularly impressive from a distance, with its foreboding round battle towers and stolid façade. But the chiaroscuro effect of its triumphal arch, designed by Francesco Laurana to commemorate the 1442 expulsion of the Angevins by the forces of Alphonso I, and added to the castle, is utterly splendid when viewed close up with the full-on effect of the sun. It is a true Renaissance masterpiece and I gazed at it, spellbound, for some time.

I had read a great deal about the delights within the castle: the 14thcentury Palatine Chapel; the Baron’s Hall; the frescoes and sculptures. But again, I came face to face with unyielding, solid wood. All of my attempts to discover Naples’ hidden treasures were thus thwarted over my first weeks in the city. It was the same, sorry story again and again: bolted doors; shuttered windows; gratuitously obstructive curators. Anything that was open tended to close at midday, or shortly afterwards, and the city’s traffic-choked streets and catastrophic public transport system meant that, unless you were prepared to get up at 5 a.m. and stand, practically hammering on the door at opening time, you were unlikely to be able to visit more than one Neapolitan museum on any given day. And, even then, you were likely to find it closed for no apparent reason. I was beginning to get a taste of what a frustrating place Naples could be. Dejectedly, I slouched off back the way I had come, past the hulk of Egg Castle, in the direction of Mergellina, once a quaint fishing village to the west of the city centre.

Here I found Neapolitans with tacky stalls and electric generators selling cheap knick-knacks, snacks and cold drinks, to whom I wasn’t sure. The view over the bay was stupendous and so I sat on the sea wall, breathed in the salt air and watched a group of young people on the rocks, eating pizza straight from the box, and taking it in turns to swig beer from the bottle. One of them had a guitar which he strummed at, idly, every now and again, and I began to feel drowsy. When I opened my eyes again, they had gone, but the empty pizza cartons and beer bottles were still there, littering the wave-breaker. Somehow, during the afternoon, I found myself in the Villa Comunale, the communal gardens, that were created in 1788 because King Ferdinand IV, not unreasonably, wanted a natural park, on the seafront, that the royal family could stroll around in.

It houses the Anton Dohrn aquarium, of which starving Neapolitans famously ate the entire stock during the dying days of World War II. I wasn’t surprised to find it closed. At every turn were glittering white busts and statues, sadly vandalised and covered in graffiti. I couldn’t decide whether to revel in the fading opulence of the art works that surrounded me, or to be depressed at their decaying condition. There was litter everywhere, but entire families were swarming around, children on tricycles, holding helium balloons in the form of dolphins and Japanese cartoon characters; young mothers pushing pushchairs and prams, and leathery old men in linen suits smoking contentedly on half-smashed benches. They seemed oblivious to the neglect around them, and so I decided to emulate them, to see only beauty and ignore the more unsavoury side of Naples that was fast becoming apparent. 

After an hour or two, my thoughts turned, once more, to that room of mine back in the flat, and so I trudged off back up the hill to Vomero, having decided that the time had come to start making an impression. 

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5 pensieri riguardo “Breakfast, Egg Castle and the New Castle

  1. You conjure up such a vivid picture of Naples. I loved the city when we spent a week there some years ago – not enough to see even a fraction of it, but enough to discover that I loved its chaos and its lack of self-consciousness. Neapolitans seemed to me to be too busy getting on with their own lives to worry what others, including visiting tourists, think of them, and I liked that about them 🙂

    "Mi piace"

    1. Yes, me too! In Naples you always feel that you are experiencing the “real” Italy. It can delight you and it can drive you insane, often on the same day, but it is real. The Covid crisis was a real shame as they finally seemed to be getting the balance right between not giving a hoot and realizing that tourism could revitalize the city. Let’s hope it can pick up where it left off. Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate it!

      "Mi piace"

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