Naples: Palaces and pizzas

Edgy and intoxicating, Naples offers a rich slice of Italian culture, from Roman remains to fabulous food, says James Hill


WHERE?

Italy's third-largest city (after Rome and Milan), Naples colonises an enormous bay two-thirds of the way down the western coastline of Italy looking out to Capri and across the Tyrrhenian sea.

The city centre is essentially divided into three bay-hugging districts. Spaccanapoli is the mostly pedestrianised historical centre running along the Greco-Roman grid pattern of tightly packed streets and piazzas teeming with eye-popping churches, addictive gelaterias and the renowned energetic tension of Naples itself.

Unlike other Italian cities, the city's cathedral does not dominate a central piazza, which offers you a clue to the lack of any real central planning after the Romans packed up and left. The Chaia area sweeps around the bay with grand hotels and grander villas whilst "Royal Naples" is dominated by the salon-like Piazza del Plebliscito - the grandest piazza in town and the home of most public outpourings of Neapolitan emotion, be it of a political or footballing type.

Large palaces and the dark grey, foreboding castles Castel dell'Ovo and Castel Nuovo dominate. Standing confidently opposite each other are Europe's oldest working theatre, the 1737 Teatro San Carlo, and the monumental 19th-century Galleria Umberto - a glass-covered arcade resplendent with enough coffee stops to pause for thought and much-needed rest.

Naples once had plenty of grand hotels at one end of the scale and plenty of mosquito-bitten dives at the other with nothing much in between. These days, however, there is much more choice and comfort. The Grand Hotel Santa Lucia (00 39 081 764 0666; www.santalucia.thi.it) is one of the more opulent grand hotels in the Chaia district and stands directly opposite the Castel dell'Ovo on the waterfront with plenty of bay-view rooms as well as a superb location. Handy, too, for hoping onto ferries and hydrofoils bound for Capri, Ischia and Sorrento. Weekend rates from €220 (£157), double including breakfast.

Further up the hill and offering jaw-dropping views of the bay of Naples is the Pinto Storey (00 39 081 681 260; www.pintostorey.it), a charming three-star art nouveau hotel opened by an enterprising English couple 140 years ago. Doubles with sea views cost as little as €64 (£45) a night including breakfast, if you stay for a minimum of three nights.

More of a cosy bed and breakfast than a hotel, the waterfront Parteno (00 39 081 245 2095; www.parteno.it) has a few stylish and individually named double rooms from €144 (£103) including breakfast, with Capri-facing views and 42-inch flatscreen televisions. The latter are handy for watching Napoli, the city's adored football club, who are poised for a long-awaited promotion to Serie A next year. (Many still call for Diego Maradona's beatification or at least his election into parliament.)

WHY?

Because just about everybody else has been here. The Greeks made it their "new city", or Neapolis, nearly three millenia ago. Then the Romans made the region in and around Naples the campania felix or happy land, transforming it into their place in the sun. The chariot set made their two-day trek south along the Appian Way from Rome to holiday on Capri, around the bay and in their sumptuous imperial villas.

It was only many centuries later that Naples and the Grand Tour became perfect 18th-century bed partners. In that balmy and oft-confusing period of European power-politics the Spanish Bourbons rose to the top, wore their wigs and made Naples the capital of their Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

Charles III, followed by his son Ferdinand, covered the city architecture in baroque icing, hid the crowded slums from view and created the best place in Europe for partying. Indeed, to "see Naples and die" was the only real end to consider for the budding and spendthrift British grand traveller interested in a good time and collecting antiquities. The outstanding beauty, the outstanding Neapolitan beauties and the lure of the greatest archaeological digs of all time made Naples the ultimate destination. Even Vesuvius would regularly pop, thunder and spew forth lighting up the bay with an improvised firework display.

The best parties always have to come to an end and soon enough the baroque icing of enlightenment sense and intellect crumbled away to reveal the usual culprits of over-taxation, poverty and overcrowding which had always afflicted Naples. Yet the essential civic pride and fearlessness can still be seen around the city in its baroque architecture, sculpture and painting. You'll also see it in the Neapolitan character where like most port cities humour is a constant companion and social elixir.

Naples has produced some of Italy's best comics despite the glib clichés of pizza-tossing, sweating, singing and moustached Pavarotti look-a-likes often (and wrongly) associated with the city.

As ever, the food is just, well, the food. From a mighty profusion of fish dishes to flying saucer-sized pizzas that just about fit onto the table and artery-busting ice cream, the city instinctively loves children and children love Naples.

WHAT?

First of all get yourself the Campania Card (www.artecard.it) at the airport on arrival. At €25 (£18) for three days or €28 (£20) for a week, it allows free entry into all the area's ancient sites, galleries and museums. Under-18s get into all sites for free.

Walking around Naples gives you the best flavour of the city. There are many unexpected jewels to stumble across like the Cappella Sansevero (Via Francesco de Sanctis 19; 00 39 081 551 8470; closed Tuesdays), a 17th-century funerary chapel with some imaginative baroque sculptures. They have ethereal names like the Domination of Self Will and The Pleasures of Marriage. It's like being in a marble Quality Street tin with too many purple ones.

Another fine discovery awaits in the Pio Monte della Misericordia (Via dei Tribunali 253; 00 39 081 446 944). This small, dark and musty gallery is attached to a fine church and inside you'll find one of the most tortured paintings of the tormented artist Caravaggio, called the Seven Acts of Mercy.

There are also paintings galore up at the regal Bourbon hunting lodge - now the Museo Capodimonte (Via Miano 2; 00 39 081 749 9111; closed Mondays). One of Italy's largest, richest and frankly unvisited galleries it has a room full of Titians and Caravaggio's recently cleaned Flagellation.

The city's National Archaeological Museum (Piazza Museo 19; 00 39 081 440 166; closed Tuesdays) is one of the world's finest. Remember that all the great bronzes, mosaics, vases and busts excavated at Pompeii, Herculaneum and other sites have been placed here like the only Roman pane glass in any gallery in Europe or the largest marble sculpture ever found, the Farnese Bull. From household goods to stunningly decorative agate dishes there is a bewildering level of detail and luxury in all that was Ancient Rome. And the place to experience it best is Pompeii (00 39 081 536 5154; www.pompeiisites.org; open daily). Carefully treading over the uneven stones and letting your imagination run riot, you casually walk through a doorway here and there into a garden, the odd grand town house, a gymnasium, public bath or even the recently restored town brothel.

Torre Annunziata is just as rewarding a site as Pompeii but a lot smaller and mercifully crowd-free. Villa Oplontis (Via Sepolcri 1; 00 39 081 862 1755; open daily) was probably built for Nero's second wife, Poppaea, whom he allegedly kicked to death. Here, you will peer into room after room of bright and detailed frescoed walls in what was a very luxurious Imperial Roman villa.

The handy Circumvesuviana is a regular train service which leaves Naples Central every half- hour skirting Vesuvius and connecting Pompeii and Villa Oplontis at Torre Annunziata in under an hour. Both sites can be reached from the stations on foot.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

Gambrinus (Via Chaia 1; 00 39 081 417 582; www.caffegambrinus.com) is the classic Neapolitan coffee house overlooking Piazza del Plebliscito. The aroma is of the belle époque and a time when the house's décor and the decorum of those who drank here needed to be as good as the coffee itself.

Palazzo Doria D'Angri (Piazza VII Settembre; 00 39 081 790 100; www.sanseverodoria.it). Designed in 1775 by Luigi Vanvitelli - one of the busiest painters and architects in the Bourbon court - this once-decrepit neoclassical palazzo has been taken on and lovingly cleaned up and restored by a local family of chemists. The Room of Mirrors brings you right back into the gilded baroque grandeur of 18th-century Naples. Young waiters in 18th-century garb will serve you in the most sumptuous surroundings in Naples, for around €50 (£35) a head.

Brandi (Salita Sant'Anna di Palazzo 1; 00 39 081 416 928; www.brandi.it). Patriotic pizzas for princesses reign here. This is supposedly where the Pizza Margherita was invented for the the 19th-century queen. Pizza here has all the usual toppings with that authentic, typically light, high crust.

Intramoenia Caffe' Letterario (Piazza Bellini 70; 00 39 081 290 988; www.intramoenia.it)

The "Thames and Hudson" of Italy, this arts publishing house has a hush-hush, slow-sipping reverence in its trendy bar with lots of books and prints on Naples to browse.

La Cantinella (Via N Sauro 23; 00 39 081 764 8684; www.lacantinella.it)

Don't let the bamboo interior décor put you off, this is the high church of Neapolitan dining. Fabulous fish menu which lists "pasta in a lobster ragout, clams and lots of love".

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