There are two types of traffic light in Naples. Those for decoration and those offering guidelines. But Geoff Hill found charm in the shadow of Vesuvius
"I'll never forget the halibut I had in Kiev," said Gerbert.

He was silent for a moment, becoming as misty-eyed as a Frenchman would about his first mistress, an Englishman would about his Morris Minor and... well, a Dutchman would about a halibut.

We were at breakfast, discussing our trip later in that day to Naples, a city so close to social meltdown that only a few years ago hospital patients having a seizure would pick up their mobile phones and dial the emergency number rather than waiting for a nurse. Margaret Thatcher, who lionised the cult of self-reliance, would have loved it.

Even before then, the city was once so decadent that for a couple of centuries it was the sex capital of Europe, giving rise to syphilis to such an extent that the expression "See Naples and die" took on a grimmer meaning than intended.

Today, Naples is returning to normality, although even this is chaotic. Neapolitan drivers say there are two types of traffic lights in the city - those for decoration and those which are merely supplying a suggestion. Locals will shrug with proud helplessness as they relate how street urchins will unscrew your car number plate at one set of traffic lights and sell it back to you at the next. It happened to a friend of a friend of theirs.

We arrived on a bus and decamped at Garibaldi Square, where it is said that one in three of the occupants are major criminals; the other two just haven't been caught yet.

And, indeed, as we got off the bus, two youths on a Piaggio were being frisked by a member of the carabinieri while his colleague and a sniffer dog checked their scooter for illicit halibut.

Standing nearby with an expression which suggested that he had seen this all before was Antonio the guide, who with his shaven head, luminescent green eyes and slightly pointed ears, looked like the result of a night of passion between Sinead O'Connor and Mr Spock. Indeed, so otherworldly was he that he established an immediate telepathic link with my preconceptions about his city, and began to apologise for them before I had said a word.

"Its a bit unfair," he said. "No matter what the city's social and political problems are, it had a very cultured and civilised reputation until after the Second World War.''

Sadly, my concentration on his subsequent eulogy about the city's moral worth was disturbed at this stage by the sight of a passing pigeon so devoid of self-worth that it had given up flying and was hitching a lift on a bus.

"Of course, you must be careful with your belongings when walking around," Antonio added. "It's understandable - we have a large number of unemployed people and they can't eat air. And another thing..."

Tragically, what he was just about to say - that we were standing in the middle of the Galleria Umberto I, an astonishing fin de siecle plaza in marble and mosaic now occupied by an eclectic mixture of shops and businesses, including one intriguingly advertising Intercontinental Investigazioni Private - was drowned out by the piercing whistles of a passing march of policemen protesting about low pay.

"Since Antonio Bassolino was elected as mayor in 1993 things have become much better in the city," Antonio was saying after the din died down. "For example..."

Tragically, what he was about to say - that Bassolino had attracted the G7 summit in 1994, cleaned up the city centre, dealt effectively with its traffic problem and was tackling the stranglehold of organised crime - was drowned out by a group of well-dressed businessmen nearby shouting at each other at the top of their voices while waving their arms around so extravagantly that it could only be a matter of time before one of them took off and rammed one of the few pigeons which still bothered flying in Naples.

"What are they arguing about?" I asked Antonio.

"They are not arguing. They are discussing last night's football match," he said. "Did you know that..."

Tragically, what he was about to say - that Napoli had won the Italian football championships in 1987 and been celebrating ever since - was drowned out by a thunder of paperwork as a traffic policeman booked a passing motorist for stopping at a red light, thus causing such a cacophony of horns that we had to step into the Church of Gesu Nuovo for a bit of peace and quiet, only to find a wedding taking place in the midst of a riot of baroque which was the visual equivalent of the noise outside.

Indeed, as we stepped out through the streets again, the only respites from the constant racket that is Naples were to be found in the appearance of the occasional nun, flitting about with a patiently baffled expression, and in the narrow and deeply shadowed side alleys, draped with washing, in which many Neapolitans still live in windowless one-room bassi.

Paradoxically, though, the most silent object in Naples is also its most menacing - the brooding hulk which slumbers under a blanket of cloud to the east: Vesuvius.

The volcano has erupted with clockwork regularity since it buried Pompeii in AD79 and is due to pop again, as a result of which a team of scientists monitors it 24 hours a day.

Although 20,000 people lived in Pompeii in AD79, most of them had scarpered after several days of ominous rumblings, and it was only the city's 2,000 optimists, who were in any case reluctant to leave a town containing 25 brothels, who remained and died. What the eruption did leave behind, apart from 18,000 smug pessimists, was the world's most perfectly preserved Roman town, buried under 27ft of soft ash which, like an early neutron bomb, killed the people and saved the buildings.

Happily, though, the optimists did not die in vain, because even their most gloomy counterparts today are bound to be astonished by Pompeii, with its almost complete forum, basilica, baths with detailed stucco and frescos, its streets of shops which were staffed by Greek slaves, its amphitheatre, gymnasium and stadium where Gladia- tors II v Barbarian Thirds would draw capacity crowds every week.

You cannot help but be astonished - by its scale, by its beauty, by the spooky feeling as you round every corner that you will come chest to face with a fully armed centurion, looking just as surprised as you do.

But there are no living people in Pompeii today, apart from the tides of tourists who ebb and flow. There are just the plaster casts of the bodies caught as they swam or napped, or curled up to escape the fatal rain of ash.

Strangely, many of them have a peaceful expression which can only be gained from the sort of optimism which takes the rumbling of a volcano as an indication of a spot of indigestion. And which believes that you can find a decent halibut anywhere outside Kiev.

naples and pompeii fact file

Getting there

Geoff Hill flew as a guest of Italiatour!, whose breaks to the Riviera of Ulysses start at pounds 489 for seven nights full board in March from Heathrow, staying at the Hotel Bajamar.

Where to stay

Geoff stayed at the Bajamar, a cheap and cheerful symphony in Sixties concrete, but if you can afford it try the Villa Irlanda, a former Irish monastery and Russian ambassador's residence lovingly restored by its new owner, architect Angelo Spinosa. Seven days there starts at pounds 746 from Gatwick. For details call Italiatour! on 0171 602 6440.

Eating out

In Gaeta, the Restaurant Salute is civilised and elegant, with a pianist, fine wines and gorgeous seafood. As you eat you can watch the lights coming on one by one across the bay. Budget pounds 20-30 a head for dinner, including wine.

On the island of Ponza, La Risacca is not only recommended and inexpensive (pounds 8-15 for lunch, pounds 10-20 for dinner), but just beside where the hydrofoil from Formia pulls in. This costs about pounds 23 return, and takes 75 minutes. Both travel twice daily.

In Naples, try limoncella, a Neopolitan digestif which is delicious pastry dusted with cinnamon and folded around cream cheese.

What to buy

If you're bringing home wine, cheese or ham, get them in supermarkets - it's cheaper than duty-free.


The Xenophobe's Guide to the Italians is informative and funny. The Cadogan Guide is better than the usually reliable Rough Guide or APA Insight Guide.