See Naples and die? Not if you avoid the dodgy areas. For this ravishing city of saints and sinners, pizza and prima donnas is truly larger than life, says Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:38

Africans. Anarchists. The Irish of Italy. Neapolitans and Naples are clearly hard to categorise, and of all the major European cities it is true that you will either love it or hate it. I love it, especially in December or January when the temperature rarely drops below 50F, the light is ethereal and the ravishing Bay of Naples refuses to turn wintry grey.

Do, however, remember the old maxim "see Naples and die": once you have been exposed to such beauty (the city's location is almost unrivalled), you will swoon, satiated, into the welcoming embrace of death. Equally, it may mean keeping your Prada handbag and Rolex watch at home. Not only does Naples have one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe (around 30 per cent), but it is largely run by the nuova Camorra organizzata (Mafia), whose junior branch, in the guise of the scugnizzi (street kids), trains some of the world's most accomplished pickpockets.

There are certain parts of town - the area bounded by Afragola, Fratta and Acera is known as the "triangle of death" - that are really very dodgy. And if you are not a streetwise sort of person (don't lie to yourself), then even some of the tourist areas such as the Forcella slum ("kasbah Forcella") by the central station, or the quartieri spagnoli (where thousands of impoverished people toil in windowless basement slums making smart leather shoes for Sloane Street shoppers) are definitely no-go areas by night. So is Corso Umberto, unless you have a proclivity for transvestites, who thrive here as nowhere else.

Neapolitans are certainly catholic when it comes to sexual preference, but then, as the old joke goes, Christ was clearly a Neapolitan because he lived at home until he was 30, thought his mother was a virgin and knew he was God.

The Neapolitan god has appeared in the guise of singers (Enrico Caruso) and footballers (Diego Maradona) as well as local heroes, saints and saviours. But Naples is one of those cities where everyone feels the

need to demonstrate their presence in the most religious and operatic manner. At the opera itself (the stunning Teatro di San Carlo), 3,000- strong crowds talk incessantly during performances (as they do at mass in the city's churches) and singalonga Verdi in competition with prima donnas. It is great fun.

This is a city in love with everything theatrical. And with food - nothing smart, but food just like mamma used to make. Naples invented spaghetti and pizza. This means that eating out in the crowded old city centre is a cheap, youthful and unpretentious experience. The city's favourite pizza is Margherita (mozzarella, tomatoes and basil). Street markets stock buffalo mozzarella direct from local farms; in Britain this is expensive, so make the most of this delicious food (fried between two slices of bread it is known as mozzarella in carrozza, popular in winter).

Spaghetti is eaten in frill-free dining rooms: eat vongole (clams), with or without tomatoes, or aglio e olio (with garlic and oil) if you want to do as the Neapolitans do. That there is a popular dish called spaghetti puttanesca (whores' spaghetti) speaks mouthfuls about Neapolitan taste.

Gorgeous, sulky teenagers hanging around piazzas on mopeds and scooters will eat McDonald's, but you know that they are losing out simply because teenagers can't be seen out eating the food mamma makes.

The markets are superb, none more so than the one that straddles Via Toledo on the way up to the hills of Vomero - try the fresh octopus and squid snacks.

I don't know much about shopping, sadly, but Via Chiaia is the chic shopping street; what I do know is that spivs at either end sell cheap and convincing fakes of the super-expensive stuff (frocks, shoes, bags) in between. Fakery and trickery abound in Naples and not least in its art and architecture. The city's greatest legacy is the Baroque, visual gamesmanship at its best. There is far too much of this to see, but kill two exotic birds with one stone by visiting the chapel of San Gennaro (1609-37, by Francesco Grimaldi, architect and priest) on 16 December to see the blood of the patron saint of Naples liquefy. It does this three times a year, and when it fails nameless dreads terrorise the city (honest).

Naples is studded with saints and relics. You can buy any number of delightful angels, Virgins, Wise Men, asses, oxen and Baby Jesuses in the weeks leading up to Christmas by the church of San Gregorio Armeno: Neapolitan crib-makers are world famous, and children adore their Virgins and babies: they are well worth bringing home.

For a more robust religious experience, find the Caravaggios at the Filanferi Museum (a Renaissance palazzo opposite San Girofui Maggiore), pay homage to the daunting Neo-Classical church of San Francesco di Paolo (based on the Pantheon in Rome) facing Piazza del Plebiscito, and take a trip (uphill all the way) to the Baroque monastery Certosa di San Martino, justly famous for its views, tombs, paintings (by Jose Ribero amongst other masters) and sculpture (Bernini was here).

Further uphill and away from the city broods Vesuvius (with Pompeii and Herculaneum in its shadow); the infamous volcano last erupted in 1944. If you are in a hurry, you can view many of the treasures of these two petrified Roman towns in the magnificent National Museum (Parco di Capodimonte); the Gallery of Pornography requires a note (if not from your mamma).

Beyond Pompeii lies the peerless Amalfi coast, the jewel-like towns of Ravello, Positano and Amalfi itself, and a little further the Greek temples at Paestum. Here stray yellow dogs lounge against Doric columns, lizards dart in and out and the view to the mountains is one the Greeks would have known. Not a bad spot to die - having, of course, seen Naples firstn

Getting there: the scheduled airlines operating between London Gatwick and Naples are British Airways (0345 222111) and Alitalia (0171-602 7111). Lowest official fares are around the pounds 200 mark, but you could reduce this to around pounds 160 through discount agents such as Italy Sky Shuttle (0181- 748 1333) or Lupus Travel (0171-306 3000).

Getting around: the bus from the airport takes about 20 minutes and costs pounds 1. It will drop you off at the central railway and bus station. This is the hub of the entire urban transport system, but even fluent Italian speakers have problems comprehending Naples' bus network. Unless you are hyperconfident, you may do better to rely on a combination of suburban trains, taxis and walking.

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