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Castellammare di Stabia

We wanted to do some Christmas shopping and it didn’t take us long to realize that Vico Equense was hardly the best place for that. We decided to spend the day in Castellammare and combine shopping with sightseeing. We had passed through Castellammare so many times on the train but had never actually stopped to have a look around. We got off the train and headed for the seafront, stopping for breakfast in a bar on the way. I have never been able to stomach the idea of washing down a croissant with an espresso. For me, espresso was ideal for a caffeine hit mid-morning or mid-afternoon, not for breakfast. And so I ordered a cappuccino.
“Hot or cold?” the barman asked.
“Hot,” I told him.
“Our speciality is cold,” he replied. I wasn’t convinced. A cold cappuccino was just the ticket in August. Not early December. The barman was insistent. I was equally adamant that I wanted my cappuccino warm.

“OK. If you insist,” he shrugged, and made me a warm cappuccino. It was absolutely delicious and I told him so.
“If you think that’s good, then you should try our cold one.”
“Maybe next summer.”
“You must try it. I’ll tell you what. Ask for a cold cappuccino next time and it’s on the house. You’ll be an instant convert, I promise you.”
I promised I would try it and we set off for a brief walk along the sea.

One thing was immediately apparent about Castellammare; it could have been one of the most beautiful little cities on earth. The reason it was not was due, as it was in Naples, to the presence of graffiti on every single building and monument, and to the ubiquitous vandalism. It was such a shame, but it had to be admitted that Castellammare had an atmosphere all its own. We strolled past communal gardens, pizzerias, ice cream parlours and purveyors of oysters and other seafood. The gulls cried and the air tasted of salt. Youths with mirror shades and brill-creamed hair sat on Vespas, attempting to bite into slices of Pizza Margherita without getting oil on their clothes. Others clustered in groups and swigged from bottles of beer, although it was only mid-morning. But not once did I feel threatened – not in the way I often did in Naples.

I liked the shops here too. There seemed to be just the right mix of little specialist outlets and the big chains. And Christmas was definitely in the air here. E spent the morning wandering happily from shop to shop, choosing suitable gifts for friends and family, and then set off in search of the real Castellammare.
The city of Castellammare di Stabia is built on the site of Stabiaie, a town that was destroyed along with Pompeii and Herculaneum in A.D. 79. The modern city is often referred to as the “Gateway of the Sorrento Peninsula” and it is where the inhabitants of the peninsula come if they have to take care of any matter which cannot be sorted out to any level of satisfaction on the peninsula itself. The city is one of the biggest commercial and industrial centres of the south, and is an important ship-building town.

The first dockyards were established in 1783 by Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, to whom Castellammare has reason to be especially grateful, for it was he who also re-established the city as an important centre for hydrothermal springs, as well as spa and mud treatments, an aspect that had been somewhat neglected since Roman times. The city is famous today for its delicious, sulphuric mineral waters which can be bought by the pint glass at kiosks that line the seafront or are bottled to be sold in shops over the Sorrento Peninsula and back towards Naples.

Despite the fact that it was clearly neglected and abused, not least of all by those who lived there, I liked Castellammare. It was much bigger than I had expected – there were a good 75 000 inhabitants of the city – and it came as a pleasant surprise to me that, from now on, I wouldn’t have to go scampering back to Naples every time I needed something for which a small town like Vico Equense was clearly inadequate. Catello had told me as much, but I had never quite believed him. Until that moment, I had considered him to be something of a loveable provincial, a country bumpkin. He was, in fact, a “Stabiese” himself, or a “Castellone” as the people of Vico refer pejoratively to the population of Castellammare. Catello is the name of a great number of the city’s menfolk, for Saint Catello is the patron saint of Castellammare. It was clear to me now that Catello was actually a city boy who had come to Vico in search of the quiet life.

It was getting on for lunchtime and so we selected a pizzeria not too far from the station. We went in and sat down to a perfectly adequate Margherita with ham and mushrooms and a couple of beers. When the time came to pay, the waiter appeared with a large bag in which there were little wooden tokens with numbers engraved upon them.
“Take a token. If the token you choose corresponds to today’s number, then your meal’s on the house,” said the waiter.
“And what’s today’s number?”
I fished around in the bag and pulled out a token. It was 24.
“Oooh, Porca miseria! Rotten luck!” said the waiter. “Tell you what. We’ll shout you the limoncello.”

We had earmarked the afternoon for sightseeing. We hoped that we were still in time to visit the 16th century cathedral and, as luck would have it, we were. Very impressive it was too, especially the bronze doors, so typical of important churches in this area, sculpted by Fiorentino Berti. On this particular day, we were too late for the antiquarium with its archaeological finds from various periods and, after the pizza, the nearby sanctuaries of Madonna della Libera and Santa Maria di Pozzano were not quite nearby enough for our liking. Subsequent visits to Castellammare have confirmed, however, that all three are well worth a visit, as is Saint Biagio’s Cave, a pagan crypt that was transformed into a Christian basilea and which contains interesting 11th century frescos.
What I did want to see, however, was the castle, the Castello Angioino, erected in the 9th century and then almost entirely rebuilt in 1266 by Charles I of Anjou. I didn’t expect to be able to get into it, not at this time of day. Not enough had changed over the previous eight years in the Naples area to occasion such optimism. But I at least hoped to walk around it and admire it from without. Now, where was it? We couldn’t see it from here and the Castelloni seemed oblivious to the existence of any castle in their city.

“Excuse me,” we stopped passers-by. “How do we get to the castle?”
“The castle?” They would look at us suspiciously, as if we had asked after the opium den or knocking shop. “There’s no castle here.”
“Yes, there is,” I insisted. “The castle that gives the city its name.” “Castellammare”, or “Castle by the Sea” was, after all, a bit of a giveaway.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” they would say before shuffling off. This happened with practically everyone we asked. It was as if we had unearthed a saucy or unsavoury secret and were threatening the future well-being and peace of mind of Castellammare by hinting at the mere existence of such a castle. It was quite unnerving.

We never got to see the castle that day, and we never found out why people had been so reluctant or unable to tell us where it was, and it took several visits before we discovered its location, high above the city itself: not particularly impressive as far as castles go, but pleasant enough. Far more worthy is the overpriced but breathtaking ride from the Circumvesuviana railway station up to Monte Faito, which is actually part of the Municipality of Castellammare and where we have often enjoyed a beer while overlooking the entire Sorrento Peninsula on one side and the city of Castellammare and beyond to Naples on the other, before taking the bus back down to Vico Equense.

Since that day in Castellammare, I have often jumped off the train on a mere whim, perhaps to do a spot of shopping, enjoy an ice-cream in the communal gardens overlooking the sea, go to the cinema, or simply to wander its characteristic streets. And, by the way, the cold cappuccino is out of this world.


8 pensieri riguardo “Castellammare di Stabia

  1. Glad to hear that the cold cappuccino was indeed fabulous. The barista was really doing a hard sell on it to the point of ignoring the rule that the customer is always right. Glad it worked out. Looks like a great place. Too bad about the vandalism. Some idiots have no respect for anything. Have a great weekend Giacomo and keep the good stories coming. Allan

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