Go to any city and there will be groups meeting. Usually the difficulty is finding your way into them, especially if you’re a newcomer and you don’t speak the language. Not so in Naples, Italy.
I arrived here two years ago, and luckily it wasn’t long before I was introduced to the Commonwealth Ladies.
Peggy Somers-Cocks started the group in 1962 when she was the wife of Her Majesty’s Consul General in Naples. The position of Consul General, and Peggy Somers-Cocks herself, have left the city long since but the Commonwealth Ladies have not.
The group’s name may sound a little old-fashioned and delicate but the same does not apply to the women who belong to it. Many have spent years in and around Napoli growing their families or careers, sometimes both, and honing their humour and inner steel.
Their root systems may, at their deepest, trace back to Australia, Wales, Ireland, and all over England, but nearer the surface it’s clear where they belong – their languages switch easily between Italian and English; they know the best dishes and the local restaurants; and they have mastered la bella figura … they know how to ‘be’ in Naples.
They also know a lot about the area and, thanks to them, I’ve seen places I never knew even existed, and I’ve witnessed some of the skills needed to find them.
My first day with the group is a good example of this.
It was in November 2014 and, to be honest, it wasn’t a heart-stirring start – it was wet, the cobbles were soaked and Napoli looked dejected. Our meeting point was in one corner of the Piazza del Plebiscito and all I knew was that our little straggle of umbrellas was off to visit a library.
Images of all the libraries I’d visited from Zimbabwe to Canada, from Spain to Scotland dripped across my mind … at least it would be dry.
It was dry … and it taught me lesson number one: never think you have got the measure of Naples.
This library is extraordinary. It’s hidden within a royal palace and just finding it was a masterclass in local knowledge and diplomacy. We did get there but only after telephone calls had been made; forms filled; stairs climbed; lifts used; and we’d been escorted through grand rooms and down long corridors.
There were books, lots of them, but it slowly printed itself into my brain that they weren’t what the trip was about. A ten minute talk with slides told me the rest – we had come to pay our respects to the papyrus scrolls of Herculaneum.
In brief – each scroll we saw is around 2,000 years old, and, thanks to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, has spent most of that time as a charred flaky lump, buried under centuries of volcanic side-effects.
Some have since been unravelled and read, and others are still being studied.
That was my first visit with the Commonwealth Ladies … my most recent has been to a lunch in a small restaurant at the foot of Castel dell’Ovo on the seafront in Naples where we celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday.
In between these two visits there been many others. Amongst them have been guided tours to churches in Naples, to a palace in Portici …
to a charterhouse on one of the high ridges above Naples …
to art exhibitions in the city …
to Salerno …
to the Amalfi Coast …
to a historic house and its carriage museum on the Naples seafront …
to another strange and wonderful family collection housed in an old palazzo close to the city’s cathedral …
and to visit the San Carlo, the oldest theatre in Europe that is still in use.
The visits usually end with lunch in a nearby restaurant – a proper three hour lunch of antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, with or without contorno, vino della casa, dolce and, of course, caffè. We’ve eaten in Naples, in Portici, on the Amalfi Coast and in Salerno.
And … we’ve been hosted in a beautiful apartment in Chiaia with views along the seafront in Naples.
I’m not sure there can be a better way to learn about an area – its sights, its foods, its manners – nor can there be more welcoming company. These belle signore of the Commonwealth Ladies Group have been at the beginning of their own new chapters, and they know how much a friendly hand can help.
Now, of course, I love Naples … but I’m not sure I would dare to be so bold if it had not been for this group.
The Commonwealth Ladies usually meet once a month on a Wednesday except for three months over the summer. Often there’s a guided visit followed by a lunch in a nearby restaurant. The day is organised in advance, and members just have to find their way to the meeting point and, at around three in the afternoon, find their way home again. The cost, including the guided tour and the lunch, is around €30. New members are always welcome.
Two points of contact are: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2016
If you’re interested here is a YouTube clip which gives some information on the British Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Ladies are not part of this official organisation but it gives an idea of where the name stemmed from.