On Friday morning I was drinking a cappuccino in the Piazza del Gesu in Naples with my friend Angus. The sky was free from clouds, the streets were free from other tourists, and no one seemed to care that I had parked my car illegally, facing the wrong way in the middle of a busy taxi rank. At 10.30 a group of men with mandolins materialised and started strumming along as a tiny, red-faced woman belted out folk songs. Within seconds they had an audience of more than 100: young women with pushchairs, grandmothers shaped like baked potatoes, men with cashmere cardigans slung carefully over their shoulders. There were at least 20 different colours of quilted jacket, including peach. For half an hour, the crowd sang along happily, clapping and holding their photo-phones above their heads. Every passer-by knew every word to every folk song. I tried to imagine ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ having the same effect in Leicester Square, and failed.
Lying on a camp bed in the Albergo Candy, I took my mind off the vole-sized lumps in the pillow by re-reading my favourite postcard by the light of the single, naked bulb. It is printed by the World Youth Alliance, and on the back, in pale-blue type, it says, ‘We affirm that the family is a school of deeper humanity, within which each member learns best what it means to be a human person. Within the family, children first come to understand their own intrinsic and inviolable human dignity. Through their complementary roles, mother and father, equal in dignity, show their children that the freedom of the human person is most fully and rightly lived in the gift of self.’
In the afternoon we drove from Hotel Candy to Hell. Lago d’Averno, as well as being a volcanic-crater lake in the suburbs of Naples, is also, according to Virgil, the entrance to Hades. ‘Such vapor poured from those black jaws to heaven’s vault, no bird could fly above unharmed (for which the Greeks have called the place “Aornos” or “The birdless”),’ he wrote. When we arrived, Hell was disappointingly full of healthy seagulls, cruising above the dark-green water through the gusts of sulphurous smoke. ‘They have learnt over the centuries not to fly too low,’ explained the guidebook.
I meant to continue exploring the underworld with a visit to a Roman aqueduct 40 metres beneath Naples. But when I arrived at the doorway to ‘Napoli Sotterranea’ and saw the stairs disappearing down into the damp black, I bottled it. The thought of being trapped in the dark under hundreds of feet of rock gave me hot flushes of terror. I haven’t even been on the Tube for eight years, and anyway, the last time I went below ground I was shat on by the French ambassador.
There’s no other way of putting it; it’s just a fact. In May this year I was invited by Thames Water to walk through a length of the London sewer system. Seven of us pulled on rubber thigh-boots, hard hats, head torches and dropped through a manhole hidden in the grass in Hyde Park. As we splashed towards Knightsbridge, ankle-deep in the river Tyburn, the mouth of a large pipe sticking into the sewer at waist height suddenly spat out a stream of murky water and disintegrating skeins of loo paper. ‘We’re directly underneath the French embassy,’ said a jolly Thames Water man as we stared in horror at our spattered overalls. ‘His excellency has just flushed.’
Even though my phone doesn’t work in Italy, even with it switched off and left behind, I am still a slave to Nokia. Every time a bird cheeped in Naples, my hand leapt into my pocket to answer the call. Every time my coat brushed along a railing, or the strap of my rucksack shifted on my arm, I imagined it to be the vibrating text-message alert.
On Saturday, after a swim, we had lunch on the balcony of a deserted restaurant on the Amalfi coast. The rock reared up above us, cats skulked down below, and a washing line of bright white knickers belly-danced in the breeze. Perfect. Then footsteps, and a loud English voice said, ‘It’s south, Roger, south.’ ‘It’s east,’ said another voice, maybe Roger. ‘I’m telling you, Barry, this part of the coast faces east. Maybe south-east — it depends which way you bisect it.’ In revenge, I jotted the conversation on my napkin. ‘You’re calibrating wrong, Roger,’ said Barry, ‘think about it rationally.’ A wife chipped in: ‘Doesn’t it depend on the height above sea level, like Samosa?’ Laughter all round. ‘You don’t mean Samosa, idiot! That’s the name of an African dictator or something,’ said Barry. ‘No, you’re wrong, Barry,’ said Roger, ‘a samosa is a piece of oriental cake.’
The weirdest thing I found in Naples was a room decorated with thousands of minuscule silver body parts, each about four inches high. Go through the door to the left of the altar in the Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, and you’ll see what I mean. There, hanging on the wall, are little legs severed at the hip, arms, ears, noses; three-inch livers pockmarked to show their spongy surface, flaming hearts, pairs of eyes and breasts. Perhaps this is normal for Catholics, but I felt as if David Lynch were suddenly directing my life. After standing boggling for a bit, I realised that they were thank-you cards to a saint called Joseph Moscati, a Neapolitan doctor who looked a lot like a pint-sized version of Dr Zhivago and who was canonised on 16 November 1975. The dates underneath the body parts suggest that St Joseph Moscati has more and more satisfied patients every year.
On the Alitalia flight home, via Milan, I discovered an important difference between the English and Italians. I was having my usual snigger over the ‘refreshing towelette’ when I saw the Italian translation ‘fazzoletto rinfrescante’ written on the other side of the packet. ‘Is this a ridiculous phrase in Italian like it is English?’ I asked a nice air steward with a precision goatee. ‘Non. It is normal,’ he said. ‘It is an everyday word. Is it not in English?’ No, I said. ‘So I should not go into a London pub and ask for a refreshing towelette?’ he said. Probably not. He looked confused. ‘But what do English people ask for if they need a small wet wipe for their hands?’ I turned to Angus for help. He was doing what British people do by instinct when confronted with a refreshing towelette or a hot flannel in a Chinese restaurant — attempting to have a bath in it. Having washed his face and scrubbed the back of his neck, I could see him contemplating an attack on his armpits. We looked at him in silence. Somehow, it seemed to answer the question.