Monday, April 11, 2011

From the ridiculous to the sublime

Buonanotte Napoli

My last morning in Naples became an illustration of the cultural gulf between me and my Neapolitan hosts.  In my role as a genuine opera tragic, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see inside the Teatro San Carlo, Naples’ famous opera house, which pre-dates La Scala in Milan and has had a recent facelift. Although there were no performances during my visit (my preferred way to see inside an opera house), I did discover that there was the possibility of guided tours of the interior. The charming concierge at the hotel made a telephone enquiry for me, and assured me that there were indeed tours running “from 10 am until 7 pm” including in English. It seemed to me that there may be more detail to this, but I turned up at the Teatro at about 10.30 am to enquire about the next English tour. The large sign at the doorway proclaimed (in Italian and English) that the tours ran “in Italian and English”. Indeed they did, but not at the same time. The only English tour of the day was at 4 pm, and I had to be off before then. I opted to take the Italian tour at 11 am. At roughly 11.20 am the 11 am tour began, 4 or 5 of us, led by one of the young ladies at the desk who had discussed the matter with me. In English. However, not one word of English did she deign to direct my way during the whole proceedings. Indeed, she avoided my eye.

Teatro San Carlo. From the outside.

See? Lots of boxes.
At least I got to see the interior of the wonderful old theatre. Inside, the lighting people were trying out the lighting design on a sparse looking set which could have been for any opera. A couple of pairs of columns with tablatures. Possibly it was the Teatro’s all purpose set. I believe they are doing ‘Cosi fan tutti’ next week. We inspected the Royal Box, a baroque confection of gilded stucco and uncomfortable-looking chairs. Somewhat unusually, except for the orchestra stalls the theatre is all boxes , ranged in a great horseshoe arc. I was intrigued to notice that each box included a large mirror on one wall, facing away from the stage. What could be the purpose of this? I could only think that it would allow others in the theatre to see who was sitting in the boxes. If this is the reason, it is endearingly old fashioned. But perhaps I’m wrong. Unfortunately my guide on this occasion was, effectively, mute. We also viewed some photographs of the restoration process, which seems to have been very pain-staking. They are very proud of the fact that the San Carlo is ‘older than La Scala’. The theatre has seen some notable premieres, including lots of Rossini and Donizetti. This site has some interesting information about the theatre.

I managed coffee, at least.

After my theatrical experience, I took myself across the piazza. It was thronged with motorbikes, a parade of people holding religious banners, and banners which seemed to be of people who had passed away (judging by some sobbing women). I have no idea what was going on. I headed in to a cafe named Gambrinus, which I had been told was an historic hang-out of celebrities. These would presumably be Neapolitan celebrities who would understand the system pertaining in an historic Napoli cafe, unlike yours truly. I did manage to order a coffee (probably the wrong kind for the time of day), but could not figure out how to get food. Figuring out how to pay was the most difficult bit of all. There was an elderly woman in a white frothy wig singing quaveringly down one end; near the front was a bar with the stand-up coffee drinking going on; and a pasticceria for take-away pastries (none of which seem to be extant in the sit-down dining room bit). Ah, well. I did spy a brass plaque on display, commemorating the occasion of the composition of ‘O sole mio’ by Giovanni Capurro and Eduardo di Capua, which apparently took place right in this very cafe.

It was time to move on. I had discussed the timetable for the ferries to Capri closely with the concierge gent at the hotel, and he assured me that the list of times he had given me was accurate, and I could simply buy a ticket at the terminal. I hefted my bags into a cab for the 5 minute ride down around the cape to the ferry terminus, a grubby and ill-run place where various companies vie for business. The ticket booths of most of these were shuttered and closed. Fetching up under a sign which said ‘Capri’ I asked for a ticket on the next boat, which according to my timetable should leave in about half an hour. For reasons which I will never know, the next boat was in fact due to leave in about two hour’s time. Encumbered as I was with bags, and having drained Naples to the lees (I felt), there was nothing to do but spend an uncomfortable two hours sitting on the steel back-less benches in the sun which were provided by the ferry companies for the comfort of their patrons.

The hydrofoil that took me to Capri. Eventually.
Eventually the hydrofoil arrived and there was a great deal of pushing and shoving, which seemed strange until I realised that the boat was going to be chock-full. The ferry companies don’t seem to bother too much about how many tickets they sell for a boat – you want one, they sell it to you. I did manage to get on, with my bags, and into a seat, squashed up against a generously proportioned Neapolitan mama for the next hour. There was no question of having the sea-breeze blow in my hair, or to romantically espy Capri on approach. I couldn’t get out of my seat past the mama, for one thing; and the window next to me was so encrusted with salt spray that there was no seeing anything out of it. I took the best option and fell asleep. Buena sera, Napoli.

The Hotel Quisiana reveals herself.
Arriving in Capri I was relieved from my mornings frustrations by the sight of Massimo. Without my even asking, he had appeared, with the words ‘Hotel Quisiana’ on his natty cap, and took immediate charge of my bags. He also handed me a ticket for the funicular, rough directions to the hotel, and waved me on my way. This was more like it. Four minutes up in the funicular, and I emerged on the top of the steep hills into the tiny and picturesque Umberto I piazza of Capri. Pausing to take in the gob-smacking views, I looked about for the Hotel Quisiana. Nowhere to be seen. However, using my tourist initiative I followed a group of well-dressed, upscale-looking people down a small alleyway (these pass for main streets on Capri) and they led me unerringly to the upscale hotel part of town. There was the Quisiana, a nice old building that was once a hospital. Ensconced in my room (an upgrade again – yay!) I relaxed at last. Massimo had delivered the bags through some magic osmosis. The room had a balcony looking over the sea, Capri town, the rocky coast, and the hotel pool and garden. It had tiled floors and a major bathroom. I relaxed. I may not be able to work out ferry timetables, but I can choose a good hotel.

Capri sunset. Nice.
A walk around town at the time of passeggio showed many divine little side streets and what looked like some excellent shopping. There were not many people about – the day-trippers had presumably gone home. The residents were reclaiming their island. It is early in the season, so the hotels are not very full – I estimate that the Quisiana is only about 20% full if that, which is a good thing if you like being upgraded. I dined en casa that night, vegetables and fish (delicious) and slept soundly. Capri was looking gooood.

Buonanotte Capri.

Image of San Carlo interior from:

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