The first flight of the year took me to the astonishing maelstrom that is the city of Naples. I have been coming here since I was a teenager. Coming out of the railway station bleary eyed after a sleepless night travelling in a carriage with noisy fragrant fellow travellers. Stepping out across a sleepy but busy Piazza Garribaldi, finding a newsagent and simultaneously noticing a small oven in the middle of his shop. He rushes out, opens the door and produces a tray of fluffy brown doughy balls. He presses one into my hand and it is scalding and astonishing. A heavy bread, white and crusty but with an intense bitter sweet orange goo inside. I walked out into the city with a small paper bag full of these treasures pressed to my breast as I trod up to the Museo Nazionale waiting for it to open. I have loved the city ever since.
I am with Andrew. He is my agent for Naples. He is English but totally international. He lives in France and has an Indian boyfriend in London. Andrew is a taste guru. His style is sort of scruffy chic. Tousled hair and crumbling carrier bags, he gathers treasures in France and comes to London to flog. He has a devoted following who buy all he has to offer. Often you might think you don't want what he is purveying. But you buy it anyway. Tomorrow it will be what you want.
We have a ritual. Lunch in La Bersagliera in Santa Lucia and supper at Ciro in Mergellina. The first is light and airy and you look across at the sea. The second has the worst lighting in the world, brutal hospital style. The food is delicate at lunch, a glass of Falanghina white (in continuous production since Roman times ) with a plate of seafood pasta. Basta cosi. Perhaps a little coffee. Supper is all deep fried and steaks and the bold black volcanic wine Aglianico, which tastes of the sulphurous soil of Vesuvious. Today I divert from tradition for a plate of Arancini. They are those wonderful savoury balls of fried rice that are covered in bread crumbs and filled with delight. I am in love with the fictional detective from Sicily, Montalbano. I eat them in homage to him.
Then the fun begins. Between meals you shop. Naples is one of the last cities in the world that loves antiques. The steep hills and higgeldy piggeldy streets seem to have generated a divine labyrinth of chaos. Along the often narrow streets cars, motorbikes and pedestrians jostle for priority. Amid this energy the taste for slic modern chrome and plastic struggles to create the supremacy it enjoys elsewhere. Mayhem rules. And the love of the old and the second hand still has glamour and style. There is one shop we go to where a young couple hold sway. Maybe in their early 30's they are always in situ. The walls are not straight, the paint is beyond peeling. Everything either is against the wall or leans against the wall and everything is broken, and I mean everything. If you see something that looks sound then look hard, for it will be broken. In another there is a jovial, round, grey haired man of stocky diminutive scale, a Naples paradigm. He has a shop crammed with things. You cannot walk around the shop you can only gingerly rotate. Given enough time he will tell you how marvellous, rare and possibly royal every item in his shop is. Amid the bedlam there are a few elegant shops and ones where you will see truly great pieces. And I have found several items every trip, unearthed from often unlikely sources and sometimes from predictable ones. Naples is always a joy.
Back in London. The Masterpiece exhibitors are back at work. Stands get allocated. Contracts wing their way. The rush is now on to get the world going and everyone seems very keen.
Masterpiece is producing an exciting new short magazine to both review and preview the fair and I was cycling around visiting exhibitors in Kensington Church Street when the cover page was emailed through. I stopped, downloaded it and did not quite love it. Florence at Apollo said she would send me through a variant. I had a few minutes to kill so I looked around for what to do. Should I see one of our exhibitors Butchoff Antiques who was over the road? Or our new exhibitor this coming year Rolleston? Or a new potential? Just as I was deciding, who should pop out of his wine shop but Tuggy. He used to have a wine stand (Huntsworth wines) at Masterpiece. He is one of life's good guys; tall, fair haired, cheerful and always positive, despite having often good reasons to not be. We shoot the breeze and discuss old fair times. I say I am off to NY and he says I should remember to put tea tree oil under my nose before flying to avoid winter plane bugs. He then offers me advise on a cold remedy he has found. Then we discuss wine and he has one we serve at Masterpiece 'Picpoul de Pinet'. It is on offer. Then I spot an Art Deco mirror lying on the floor. How much? Within 10 minutes I have bought two cases of wine and a mirror. I look at my phone. The email is in, the cover is fine. I tell Florence I am going to send Oscar the bill for my wine. Waiting for the correction cost me a fortune.
So it goes.
Follow Thomas Woodham Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/twoodhamsmith