I was sitting reading the newspaper in my bedroom the next morning when Nick burst in, carrying two bottles of cold Peroni and a bread roll. “Hey!” he said cheerfully. “How would you like to win the ‘good bloke of the year’ award? I’ll give you two bottles of Peroni and …,” he tossed the bread roll into my lap. “I’ll even throw in this bread roll.” “What do I have to do?” He gave me a piece of paper on which there was a telephone number. “Ring this number and ask for Alessia. Tell her I can’t go out tonight because I’ve got chronic diarrhoea.” “And have you?” “No. But I’ve got a better offer from Rosaria.” “But why does it have to be diarrhoea? Can’t it be flu or something?”
“No, no, no. She wouldn’t believe me. But no woman gets suspicious if you tell her you’ve got diarrhoea. They admire your brutal honesty.” Nick tapped the side of his forehead. “Female psychology. Piece of piss when you know how.” I was meeting Giovanna later. The drive through Pozzuoli the previous evening had reminded me of just how fascinating the Phlegraean Fields were. And so we had decided to spend the day exploring Baia, Bacoli and Cumae. On the way down to get the bus to the centre, we stopped off at a phone box and I dialled the number that Nick had given me. Alessia herself answered. “Hi, it’s a friend of Nick’s here. I’m afraid he won’t be able to come out tonight, as he’s got chronic diarrhoea.” “Oh, how awful!” came the reply. “Never mind, I’ll come round and see him instead.” “Er, … well … actually I think it’s best if he stays in on his own – you know – gets some rest.” “But I can bring some of my mother’s broth. It’s just the thing for diarrhoea. Whenever I …” “No, really, I think he just needs to sleep. Anyway, it could be contagious.” I hung up rapidly and grinned at the thought of Alessia turning up on our doorstep with her mother’s broth, just as Nick was splashing on the aftershave, ready for a night of passion with the lovely Rosaria. “I didn’t know Nick was ill,” said Giovanna. “He looked fine to me.” “Don’t ask!” I replied and we went off to get the bus.
Baia was well-known for its impressive Aragonese castle overlooking the gulf, and for the submerged city, various statues of which had been salvaged and were on display in the castle. There was also an archaeological park preserving a majestic Roman thermal complex, almost in its entirety. The statues sounded fascinating: Ulysses handing a cup to the Cyclops; the coronation of Dionysis; Dionysis and the panther. But I tried not to look forward too much to seeing them, as I knew that it was more than likely that the castle would be closed. So it was to be and, instead, we spent our time trying to find out about the coastal excursions and visits to the submerged city in glass-bottomed boats which was, short of diving in, the only way to get to see Portus Julius, a labyrinth of narrow streets with beautiful mosaics, and now completely underwater, thanks to the phenomenon of bradyseism that plagues the entire zone. There seemed to be no tourist office, no-one that we could even ask information of. Baia was even more desolate and deserted than Pozzuoli had been the previous year. Why oh why did the Neapolitans make it so difficult for tourists to view their region and its treasures?
And so we went to Bacoli, a little way on from Baia and, according to the Italian guide book we were consulting, “a happy little resort town” in which the tourist would be “enchanted by the specialities offered by restaurants and inns in the area.” When we arrived, everything was closed and boarded up as if they were expecting a hurricane. A happy little resort it was not. We eventually came across a small trattoria and sat down at an outside table. A middle-aged man in a filthy apron came out and gaped at us, open-mouthed, as if he had never actually expected customers to show up here. All the other tables were, in fact, empty which, really, we should have taken as a sign. Without so much as a word, he handed us two dog-eared menus. First on the list of primi piatti were Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, little balls made with potato or, sometimes, just flour and water, and served with a tomato sauce. I had never tried gnocchi before, but all Neapolitans waxed lyrical about them and so I decided to give them a try. Giovanna followed suit and we ordered a bottle of wine.
“Wine’s finished,” the man informed us, gruffly. “Oh. Do you have any beer, then?” “We have Bad.” “Oh, you mean Bud?” “No. Bad.” “DAB, then?” “No. BAD!” he shouted, clearly convinced, by now, that he was not dealing with the brightest pixie in the forest. “OK. Whatever.” I gave up and ordered two glasses of “Bad”, whatever it might be.
The beer, when it arrived, did justice to the name he had given it. It was, as the man said, bad. Very bad indeed and quite obviously watered down. And the gnocchi, which followed about three quarters of an hour later, after persistent badgering on our part were, to put it mildly, the most disgusting thing I had ever tasted. Clammy, sludgy, slimy balls of God-only-knows what in a rancid sauce that was so acidic that neither Giovanna nor I managed more than one mouthful. I have never been able to stomach gnocchi since.
“I need the bathroom,” Giovanna said suddenly, and fled inside. Mere seconds after she had left her seat, there was an almighty splash and a bowlful of water landed precisely where she had been sitting. The table, too, was waterlogged. Gnocchi floated in dirty dishwater, suds and beer oozed between the gaps in the table top and dribbled onto my trousers. I leapt to my feet, furiously and spotted Giovanna and the proprietor in the doorway, beholding the scene, aghast. The very least I expected was a grovelling apology on the part of the trattoria owner; a little creeping and crawling and toadying. Instead, he came rampaging over to the table, glared up to where the water had come from, let fly with a stream of invective and then turned on me as if the whole sorry incident had been my fault. “Happy little resort my knob!” I said to Giovanna. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. We left the proprietor wringing his hands and rueing the day he had been born, and made our way to Cumae. Experience should have warned me that it would have been wiser to give up; to go home, watch TV, read a book or just sleep. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Once things go wrong in Naples and surrounding area, they continue to go wrong for the rest of the day.
Now, I expected Cumae’s main attractions to be closed. That was pretty much par for the course in Campania on any day of the week, and especially on a Sunday. But Cumae was once one of the richest and most educated towns in the region. Cumaens had been the founders of colonies such as Pathenope and Neapolis and I had expected, at least, to be able to bask in some of its former glory and soak up a little of its historical ambience. Yet Cumae was, if not dead, then at least comatose. And it was a great pity for, like Pozzuoli, Cumae is a tourist treasure just waiting to be discovered. On subsequent visits to the town, I have come to appreciate just what a goldmine the residents of the Phlegraean Fields are sitting on. Here, there is everything that the day-tripper could ask for. An archaeological park with temples and thermal baths and the Antro della Sibilla, or Cave of the Cumean Sybil, preceded by an imposing 150 metre passage of trapezoid arches. Not to mention a particularly lovely walk to the Acropolis along lengths of wall dating back to Greco-Roman times. Wherefore were these things hid? Why was Cumae so difficult to get to? How could this wastefulness be justified in a region in which 60% of 30-year-olds were unemployed? There should have been bars there, restaurants, open-air concerts, guided tours from morning to night, historical lectures, slide shows, souvenir shops, coach parties … But, of course, I was not optimistic that it would ever happen. Because it would require action, rather than mere, pretty words.