I’ll be frank. I’d assumed my trip to Naples would entail a semi-joyless few days of inhaling tomato-laden stodge, running around Roman ruins and artfully dodging both Italian gangs on the look-out for unfastened handbags and disappointed tourists in large hats regretting their decisions to venture out of well-trodden Sorento.
I’d heard all about the crime and the dirt. Naples is the notorious epicentre from which the Camorra Mafia run their criminal empire and has also, for the last eighty years or so, acted as a convenient dumping ground for toxic waste. I’d expected both of these factors to shape the experience somewhat.
But, I was wrong.
There’s something charmingly abrasive about the city; it’s busy and brusque and completely bewildering.
Take my arrival for instance. I arrived into Naples Centro Railway Station at 5.30am, to a bearded man in a beanie bashing out The Godfather theme tune on the station piano. Later, when I got lost on some backstreet looking for my B&B, I was rescued/escorted half-way across Centro Storico to my destination by a moustached Nonna, who chirpily informed me that she’d just thrown her daughter and her son-in-law out of the family home because she was certain they were drinking her dry.
For this reason alone, I will love Naples eternally.
There are other reasons to love Naples too. It is the site of such culinary spectacles as the Margherita Pizza (they invented it) and the Baba al' Rum, a pastry soaked in so much syrup and rum, you practically have to drink it.
They do unspeakable things with cheese, from the ‘Mozarella en Carrazzo’ (Mozzarella in a cage), which sees a wedge of mozzarella encased in two slices of bread and deep fried, to the infamous sfogliatella, a clam-shaped flaky pastry stuffed full of ricotta. Tomatoes are revered, with good reason too, since they’ve been fostered in the fertile-friendly Vesuvius lands. Unlike the sugo served up in Rome or Puglia or even Emilia-Romagna, they cook the sauce quickly in Naples, and leave tomatoes whole, with skins on. And, whilst the Neapolitans may not have invented spaghetti, it’s synonymous with the city. Pulcinella, that tiny masked puppet from Neapolitan folklore who later achieved infamy in Britain as one-half of the Punch and Judy duo, is usually pictured with a steaming bowl of the stuff.
I’m not the first person to fall for Napoli. Notorious playboy Caravaggio fled to Naples after he murdered an Umbrian man in a brawl in Rome. It was during his exile, under the protection of the Colonnas family, that he received his most important church commissions, including the Madonna of the Rosary and Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy. Hardly surprising though, given that there are more churches in Naples than any other city in the world. Four hundred and forty-eight to be precise, most of which house art from everyone from Caravaggio to Cavallini. Soft porn for the art aficionado, as well as the ecclesiastically appreciative.
And, along with the classics, there’s a plethora of modern art to be explored. The Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina (or Madre), which is housed in a 19th- century palazzo, and Palazzo delle Arti Napoli (PAN) are both home to temporary exhibitions and permanent collections of international repute. Or, for the price of a metro ticket, you can explore the 'Art Stations of Naples Metro', which were distributed along lines 1 and 6 of the Metro and hold more than 180 pieces of art.
Given that much of Naples was destroyed during World War Two and much of the cityscape was shaped by Mussolini's fascist government, I feel duty-bound to inform you that some of Naples is ugly and, to be blunt, quite rough. Great steel structures and graffiti- strewn walls do not a postcard make.
It is also, to date, the only place I have been chased by a bloke on a Vespa demanding I delete a photo of him, for reasons I can only assume, which were much like Caravaggio’s.
But, along with the dilapidated buildings and the occasional fascist eyesore, there are Ancient Greek palaces like the Castello del'Ovo, romantic seaside strolls to be taken along the Lungomare, and Bourbon masterpieces, like the Teatro di San Carlo. And, when you tire of the pizza, the art, the opera and the company, or you’ve got lost one too many times in the cobbled hinterland of Centro Storico, or you’re too full to stumble from one more shrine to street-food stall in Spaccanapoli, you can take a quick trip to see what the frisky folk of Pompeii built thousands of years ago or for a day trip to the Amalfi.
It’s a city of juxtapositions; rough and regal, dirty and sexy at the same time. It’s all chic boutiques, dilapidated buildings, and unloved ruins.
Nothing is restrained and everybody is either kissing each other or shouting at one another.
Or observing. Which is what I was doing.