Travel: See Naples and haggle

Extrovert and hectic, Italy's most colourful city is a melting pot of vibrant markets. Paula Hardy takes in the drama of the street theatre
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE many myths about Naples; it is violent, you'll get ripped off, every sweatshop in Italy is here. Admittedly, there is a grain of truth in all this, but it comes nowhere close to describing the place.

This lawless, petulant city lies in the heart of what the Romans dubbed campania felix (happy land) and topographically Naples has certainly been blessed by the gods. Hugging its huge curving bay, it sits in the shadow of Vesuvius, Europe's most dangerous pressure cooker - and not only geologically speaking.

Certainly, a city of two million anarchists does not make a recipe for a quiet life, and Naples definitely has its own way of doing things. However, the Neapolitans are anarchist only in that they don't follow other people's rules. Hardened by centuries of foreign domination - the Greeks, the Romans, the French, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Spanish again, and finally Italian rule in 1860 - the people of Naples have learnt to rely on their wit and cunning, and here in this city of counterfeit culture it is advisable to take nothing at face value. In Naples, deception is a creative tool.

The Neapolitans can be overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. Despite struggling to make ends meet, Maria and Marcello, Albanian Gypsies, gave us a royal welcome when we dropped by. Living in a one-room tenement in one of the city's oldest and most notorious districts, the Spanish Quarter, they entertained us handsomely, offering us cigarettes and small cups of thick, sweet coffee, more Turkish-tasting than Italian, a relic of their Macedonian roots. In Naples, it seems, any lack of hospitality is seen as downright meanness of spirit.

Like many other Neapolitans, Maria and Marcello make their living in the city's famous market-places. Similar trades cluster in the same alleyways, and what at first appears to be a motley array of goods is, in fact, a carefully ordered system. The Via del Duomo is the obvious location for bridal wear; Via dell'Annunziata is naturally for baby clothes; designer boutiques and antique shops occupy Piazza dei Martiri, and second-hand books can be bought on Via Port'Alba, near Piazza Dante.

Neatly dissected by the Via Toledo, which runs north-south, and Spaccanapoli, which runs east-west, the city is fairly easy to navigate, although even as you head purposefully for one market you are almost guaranteed to get waylaid by another. There is the Corso Malta shoe market, where you may find yourself being talked into buying the euphemistically termed scarpe scompagnete - "unaccompanied shoes"; there is the large weekend flea market, held twice monthly in the Viale Dohrn; there are numerous food markets, the most picaresque being the one in Pignasecca, north up the Via Toledo as you head towards Vomero; and then there is the mother of all markets, known to the locals as the kasbah Forcella.

Situated around the main railway station, Forcella is Naples' most famous slum. Although desperately run down, it has an atmosphere and an attitude that preclude pity. And at the kasbah you'll find Neapolitans entrepreneurial enough to try to sell you your own grandmother. This is street theatre at its best - heated, melodramatic, extrovert and hectic.

Forcella was established as a black market at the end of the Second World War, when there was nothing that could not be obtained there at a price. Today, the area is one huge open-air market, which still does a roaring trade in shady goods. If you are not in the market for these, there are still plenty of bargains to be had. At the top end of the counterfeit market are good copies of Etruscan vases and ancient bronzes; these are closely followed by excellent quality leather goods which could almost be mistaken for genuine Gucci or Louis Vuitton.

Perhaps the most bizarre of all the markets is the crib market on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Spaccanapoli. It originated in the 17th century, and more than any other market it illustrates the Neapolitan tendency for sentimentality and showmanship. At Christmas, lavishly decorated terracotta scenes from the market adorn churches and houses all over the city. Last year brought two exceptional additions to these nativity scenes; you can now buy a Princess Diana or a Mother Theresa along with your shepherds and three Wise Men. Although, obviously, more atmospheric at Christmas, the market is well worth a visit even in summer.

In Naples, religion shades into simple superstition, and lurid neon shrines in niches are dotted along the labyrinthine streets of the old town. Gambling is also a favourite pastime, and football and the local lottery are approached with a similar fervour. Even today, gamblers employ the cabbala (a Jewish system of numerology) to predict winning numbers. Alternatively, you can visit the Cimitero delle Fontanelle, in Sanita, to touch the revered capitano (a skull that can reputedly predict winning lottery numbers, as well as curing rare diseases).

Naples, utterly compelling in every way, is a city of extremes. You may find you hate it as much as you love it - but one thing is guaranteed: you won't forget it in a hurry.

British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily from Gatwick to Naples. Charters are available through Italy Sky Shuttle (0181-748 1333). Summer fares from London cost around pounds 200 including tax. Or try for a pounds 100 flight from Stansted to Rome on Go (0845 60 54321): you can save considerably by taking a train from Rome Termini station; trains to Naples take two to three hours.

Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171- 408 1254)