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We are sitting with concierge Franco Milano on an evening in the beautiful, classic lounge of Naples' grand, waterfront Hotel Excelsior (Via Partenope 48). Cream-colored Roman shades have been lowered over the French doors and windows that line the room of this historic property. Soft light from antique Murano chandeliers spills over tall glass vases filled with white and fuchsia orchids. We're drinking Prosecco, the slightly effervescent white wine, while the elegant Franco, dressed in a dark suit with silver vest and matching tie, is telling us about the changes he has witnessed as concierge over the past 25 years. Then, almost parenthetically, he mentions how he commutes to work each day from his home in Sorrento. And in that instant, a flood of melody courses through memory, a mandolin repeating the refrain, a jump to the passionate coda, and the concluding cry: “Come back to Sorrento/Or I shall die.”
No matter that we're in Naples, not Sorrento, that it's the Bay of Naples and not the Amalfi coast that spreads out before us. The sentiment is the same. After a few days at the Hotel Excelsior, a Starwood Luxury Collection member, and its Leading Hotels of the World sister property, the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, a couple of blocks down on the waterfront Via Partenope, the thought of leaving Naples, never to return, already is a pang to the heart.
Hardly an atypical reaction, we would come to see when we met Enzo Talallo at the Grand Hotel Vesuvio the next day. The scholarly-looking assistant front desk manager had just resolved some scheduling problems for us, and when we thanked him, he demurred telling us it was just part of a job he loved. He began his career, he added, at the Excelsior in 1985. Subsequently, he moved on to properties in other parts of Italy, until recently he received the proverbial “offer he couldn’t refuse” and returned to Naples, this time at the Vesuvio.
“I had been away for more than 20 years,” Enzo says, “and all that time, my heart was here in Naples. Coming back, it is a dream for me. Look out at the bay, watch how it changes colors in the different kinds of light, and you will understand why it is so easy to write love songs to Naples, why Neapolitans are such romantics.”
A similar response came from Rita Caputo, the Vesuvio’s concierge, when she escorted us on a tour of the hotel. We began with the predictably opulent presidential suite, exceptional even as far as presidential suites go, for its glass-enclosed greenhouse and a great circular hot tub in the vast master bedroom. But it was not until we stepped out onto the terrace that the three of us became transfixed, silent before the sight of the Santa Lucia harbor and the deep blue bay beyond. To the east, the humpbacked Mount Vesuvio, the only still-active volcano in continental Europe, whose eruption destroyed Pompei in 79 A.D., was clearly visible. Directly ahead on Mageride, the imposing “Castel dell’Ovo” (Castle of the Egg) gleamed brilliantly in the morning sun.
When founded by Greeks in the 6th century BC, Mageride was an island; today it is a peninsula that juts out from the Via Partentope. During the 1st century BC, it housed the magnificent villa of a Roman patrician; in the 5th century AD it became the place of exile for the last western Roman emperor. And in the 12th century, the Normans built the military fortress that stands there today.
Medieval legend has it that Virgil deposited a cage containing a magical egg in the building’s foundation, linking forever the fate of Naples to that of the egg. Were the egg to break, all of Naples would be destroyed. Apparently the egg was still whole this morning as we looked out to the bay, absorbing the connections between antiquity and modernity that permeate the ethos of one of the oldest cities on earth.It took Rita to finally break our shared spell. “I worked in Germany for a while,” she said with a sigh, “but all the while, I couldn’t wait to come back to Naples. It is my home.”
Exiting the presidential suite, we followed Rita to Echia Club, Vesuvio’s full service spa, an up-to-date facility with all manner of state-of-the-art equipment, offerings and regimens. At the same time, as we walked down the corridors and glanced into the treatment rooms, the past seemed to be tugging at our sleeves, making certain we were taking note of the actual waterfall, Roman tiles, artful mosaics, multicolored crystals, grotto-like rocks, and a room-sized pool down a swirling stairway, its pale turquoise water running right up to the walls, Roman-style.
There is a hilly slope close behind the hotel and just above the Piazza del Plebiscito that once was called Mount Echia. According to legend, the body of Partenope, the siren who killed herself after failing to seduce Odysseus, is buried there. Other mythological themes link Mount Echia with Venus and Hercules, the ideal manifestations of beauty and strength. Between the Via Partenope and Club Echia, the ancient world is well remembered at the Grand Hotel Vesuvio as it is throughout Naples in an abundance of museums, churches, chapels, tombs, and monuments. The National Archeological Museum, in particular, considered the most important archaeological museum in Europe, is repository of some of the greatest treasures of the ancient world.
With such thoughts, we descended to the main floor of the Vesuvio, bustling this morning with photographers and journalists. The attraction was a manifestation of beauty in the modern world: Monica Bellucci. Celebrity sighting is hardly an anomaly at a hotel whose decades-old guest list includes such luminaries as Grace Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Woody Allen, Rita Hayworth, Luciano Pavorotti, and Giorgio Armani. But the Italian movie star was in attendance for a press party prior to the release of her newest film, Manuella d’la Amore 3.
“Events like this are typical here,” said the equally lovely Simona Pinzarrone, who works at the front desk and had shown us to our room the night before. Simona has an identical twin sister, we were told, one of the ways in which beauty is blossoming in contemporary Naples.
As does superior cuisine in the hotel’s two dining rooms. Verdi, which takes up the entire first floor, is an appealing affair in lemon yellow especially at breakfast when sunlight streams through the great windows. Caruso, the hotel’s signature restaurant on the ninth floor — a relatively recent addition to the nineteenth century building – is an expansive space lined with large windows and glass doors leading to a roof garden that looks out to a glorious view of the Gulf of Naples, all the way across the bay to the isle of Capri.
If the outdoor scenery conjures up the ancient world, the interior speaks to the future. Color is limited to the pure and neutral: stark white walls, table linens and chairs, the occasional pedestal table, flowing floor-to-ceiling drapes. Floors are large slabs of gray polished stone. Several skirted chairs in charcoal-brown and a print of white blossoms on an ecru background mark a small conversation area dominated by black and white portraits of classical figures as viewed through a modern lens. Huge potted plants, some with blossoms, punctuate the room. Illumination comes from candles in little hurricane lamps and glowing lights in long glass pillars like bas-relief pillars against the walls.
The mood is modern, but the cuisine harkens back to traditional Italian favorites the world loves. Our dinner included shredded radicchio with goat cheese wrapped up like a little package; local clams in olive oil, with parsley and plenty of garlic; pasta made especially for the hotel, cooked al dente in a sauce of fresh tomatoes and basil; squares of salted cod, flakey and moist atop wedges of sautéed potato; and sublime desserts: sacher torte and orange cream cake.
The 160-room Grand Hotel Vesuvio, built in 1882, and the 120-room Hotel Excelsior, built in 1872, are neighbors along Via Partenope, at the bottom of the hill that is Naples. They complement each other in luxurious ambience, sand-colored façades, and the ever beguiling Neapolitan perspective. Both properties suffered significant damage from United States air attacks during the Nazi occupation of Naples (the most heavily bombed city in Italy). Subsequently the Vesuvio’s exterior was rebuilt in a more contemporary style, but the Excelsior retains its original Beaux Arts edifice, as well as its commanding presence which wraps around the corner onto Via Nazario Sauro and has a direct view of the imposing Fontana dell Immacolata. The magnificent Baroque monument of three arches set into a semi-circular waterfront walkway is a popular site for wedding photographs.
Like the Vesuvio, the Excelsior has a top-floor dining room and roof garden, additions to the original structure. When we were there in early March, pots of coleus were everywhere — pink, purple, white harbingers of spring. Even in the cold darkness of the evening, people were going out onto the wraparound terrace, walking around, taking in the panoramic view of the bay and little islands in the distance.
La Terrazza is a Mediterranean dining room, with such bread specialties as tiny bagels, with an even tinier nut inserted into the dough, and taralle, a crispy bread filled with almonds and peppers. Mullet with spinach, fried spaghetti, and monkfish were among the dishes that we enjoyed that evening. Waiters offered a choice of salts, which, we were told, were to be mixed with a little olive oil and added as seasoning.
“If the food is simple, you can enhance it,” they said as black salt from Hawaii, smoked salt from Norway, and pink salt from the Himalayas were proffered. White salt was reserved for lamp chops.
Beyond the cuisine and the view, La Terrazza is renowned for one hundred years of famous chefs as well as diners, many of whom are hotel guests. Sophia Loren, who comes from a little city outside Naples, is a regular. “The last time she was here was a year ago,” Franco told us. “They were advertising a new cruise ship, and she was here to publicize it. I’ve met her many times; I think she would remember me. Marcello Mastroianni also came here. He was appearing in a play and stayed at the hotel for a couple of months.
“Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Fiat and a very popular figure in Italy, was another frequent guest. He would ask for the paper, then sit on the steps in front of the hotel and look at the view. He was very rich, very powerful, but at heart a simple man.
“When this hotel was built,” Franco continued, “the owners bought all the rooftops on the opposite side of the Via Partenope because they were afraid someone would put up buildings there and block the view of the bay. That is why you see plantings on the rooftops across the way. This was a century ago when most people did not think of such things.”
Apparently the original owners were blessed with foresight which, it seemed to us, continues to play some role in the hotel’s timelessness. At the same time, according to Franco, things have changed. “Before, guests used to stop at the desk for a long time,” he said. “Now it’s so fast. They don’t always realize that the things they want to see like the Archaeological Museum, Capo do Monte – they take time. Everything you do now is by computer. We used to have a separate desk for the concierge. Now there’s only one desk. Our clients used to stay five, six nights; now it’s one or two.
“On the other hand, I must admit, the Excelsior (which is Latin for “excellent,” by the way) has never changed. It is refreshed from time to time, but the décor remains the same. We are a classical, historical property in one of the oldest cities in the world.”
The Frommers are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. They are the authors of five six critically-acclaimed oral histories (It Happened in the Catskills; It Happened in Brooklyn; Growing Up Jewish in America; It Happened on Broadway; It Happened in Manhattan; It Happened in Miami and It Happened in Israel, 2018). They are professors at Dartmouth College going into their third decade where they teach oral history. Their many articles have appeared in such outlets as The New York Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, Redbook, Golf Digest, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, Washington Post, Haaretz, Caribbean Travel and Life and many Internet sites. Harvey Frommer is also a noted sports journalist and oral historian, the author of forty one books on sports including the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman. His The Ultimate Yankee Book will be published fall 2017.