The capital of the Italian South, Naples is a city that comes laden with preconceptions, and most have some truth in them. It’s huge, filthy, crime-ridden and falling apart; it’s edgy and atmospheric, with a faint air of menace; and it is definitely like nowhere else in Italy. Yet Naples has bags of charm, making the noise and disorder easily endurable, even enjoyable, for most first-timers. It doesn’t attract many visitors, and is refreshingly lacking in tourist gloss, but it’s also a grand and beautiful place, with monumental squares, world-class museums, down-at-heel churches crammed with Baroque masterpieces and all manner of historic nooks and corners – plus innumerable places to enjoy arguably Italy’s best and most delicious food.
There was a settlement here, Parthenope, as early as the ninth century BC; this was superseded by a Greek colony in 750 BC, which they gave the name Neapolis. It prospered during Greek and later Roman times, and remained independent until the Normans took the city in 1139, after which it was passed from one dynasty to the next until Alfonso I of Aragon arrived in 1422, establishing a Spanish connection for the city for the next three hundred years.
Following the War of the Spanish Succession, Naples was briefly ceded to the Austrians, before being taken, to general rejoicing, by Charles of Bourbon in 1734. Charles was a cultivated and judicious monarch, but his dissolute son Ferdinand presided over a shambolic period in the city’s history, abandoning it to the republican French. Their “Parthenopean Republic” here was short-lived, and the British re-installed the Bourbon monarch, carrying out vicious reprisals against the rebels. The instigator of these reprisals was Admiral Nelson – fresh from his victory at the Battle of the Nile. Under continuing Bourbon rule, the city became the second largest in Europe, and a requisite stop on the Grand Tour, a position it enjoyed not so much for its proximity to the major classical sites as for the ready availability of sex, giving new meaning (in the days when syphilis was rife) to the phrase “See Naples and die”.
More recently, Naples and its surrounding area have received much of the government and EU money that has poured into the Italian South. But many argue that a substantial amount of regional power remains in the hands of organized crime or the Camorra, with the result that there’s been little real improvement in the living standards of the average Neapolitan: a very high percentage remain unemployed, and a large number still inhabit the typically Neapolitan one-room bassi, letting in no light and housing many in overcrowded conditions.
Antonio Bassolino, mayor of the city from 1993 until 2000 and president of Campania from 2000–2010, did much to promote Naples and its attractions, restoring scores of neglected churches, museums and palaces. Likewise, current Campania president Vincenzo de Luca, in office since May 2015 and credited with having cleaned up Salerno during his time as its mayor, has pledged a massive amount to promote tourism and clean up the region's entangled bureaucracy – though both presidents have also been mired in accusations of fraud. The past decade or so has witnessed a burst of creative activity from local filmmakers, songwriters and artists, with a thriving contemporary art scene manifest in two new, large galleries. However, the Camorra still cast a long shadow, as highlighted by Roberto Saviano’s bestselling book and 2008 film, Gomorrah.
Naples is a large, sprawling city, with a centre that has many different focuses. The area between Piazza Garibaldi and Via Toledo, roughly corresponding to the old Roman Neapolis (much of which is still unexcavated below the ground), makes up the old part of the city – the centro storico – the main streets of Via dei Tribunali and Via San Biagio dei Librai (the latter also known as “Spaccanapoli”) still following the path of the old Roman roads. This is much the liveliest and most teeming part of town, an open-air kasbah of hawking, yelling humanity that makes up in energy what it lacks in grace. Buildings rise high on either side of the narrow, crowded streets, cobwebbed with washing; there’s little light, not even much sense of the rest of the city outside – certainly not of the proximity of the sea. But it’s the city’s most intriguing quarter, and a must-see on any visit to the city.
Naples’ Museo Archeologico Nazionale is home to the Farnese collection of antiquities from Lazio and Campania and the best of the finds from the nearby Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It seems to be under almost constant reorganization, and to be honest the displays are tired and old-fashioned for the most part. But you’d be mad to miss it – it’s truly one of the highlights of the city.
Football is something of a religion in Naples, and support for the local side, Napoli, reached its pinnacle in the 1987 season when they won the scudetto with Diego Maradona as their star player. Since then the team dropped down two divisions after going bankrupt, but have recently been rescued by movie mogul Aurelio De Laurentiis and are thriving once more in the top flight. The day before winning the 2014 Coppa, the whole team made a visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican, presenting him with his own blue Napoli jersey. The club plays at the Stadio di San Paolo in Fuorigrotta; take the Ferrovia Cumana from Montesanto to Mostra and the stadium is right in front of you. You can always take Line 2 of the metro – the stadium is a five-minute walk from the Napoli Campi Flegri stop. Match tickets are available from the windows on the ground floor.
San Gennaro was martyred at Pozzuoli, just outside Naples, in 305 AD under the purges of Diocletian. Tradition has it that, when his body was transferred to Naples’ Duomo, two phials of his dried blood liquefied in the bishop’s hands, since which time the “miracle” has continued to repeat itself no fewer than three times a year – on the first Saturday in May (when a procession leads from the church of Santa Chiara to the cathedral) and on September 19 and December 16. The miraculous liquefaction takes place during a special Mass in full view of the congregation – a service it’s possible to attend, though the church authorities have yet to allow any close scientific examination of the blood or the “miraculous” process.
There is still a great deal of superstition surrounding this event: San Gennaro is seen as the saviour and protector of Naples, and if the blood refuses to liquefy – which luckily is rare – disaster is supposed to befall the city. Until recently, the last time that the blood liquefaction was witnessed by a pope was during Pope Pius’ visit to Naples in 1848. However, in March 2015, Pope Francis was present for the miracle – though the blood only half liquified (perhaps because the pope’s visit was outside the usual liquefaction dates). “We can see the saint only half loves us”, quipped the Pontiff.
Naples spreads right around its bay in an almost unbroken ribbon of docks, housing and development whose appeal is hard to discern, and only really becomes apparent the further away from the city you get. It’s one of the most geologically unstable regions in the world, a fact that becomes obvious west of the city, where volcanic craters, hot springs and fumaroles make up the area known as the Campi Flegrei, the Phlegrean Fields of classical times, a mysterious place in turn mythologized by Homer and Virgil as the entrance to Hades. These days most of the mystery is gone – like most of the bay, the presence of Naples dominates in the form of new, mostly illegal, construction – and much of the volcanic activity is extinct, or at least dormant. But parts of the area still retain some of the doomy associations that first drew the ancients here, and there are some substantial remains of their presence at Pozzuoli, Baia and Cumae. In the opposite direction, the coast east from Naples is even more built up, the Circumvesuviana train edging out through derelict industrial buildings and dense housing that squeezes ever closer to the track. Most people come here for the ancient sights of Herculaneum and Pompeii, or to scale Vesuvius – or they skip the lot for the resort town of Sorrento. All are easy day-trips, and Sorrento, though overdeveloped, is worth a little more time and makes a good springboard for seeing some of the Amalfi Coast.
For a spectacular view over the whole of the Bay of Naples, take the funivia or cable car up to the summit of 1150m-high Monte Faito. While the cable car has been closed for many years (check the latest update with Castellammare di Stabia's tourist office; t081 872 8424), when it reopens, it's only an eight-minute journey but even so definitely not for those of a delicate disposition, giving increasingly stupendous views of the bay and of the deepening gulf between you and the beech-covered hillside below. At the top, a couple of bars sell drinks and sandwiches, and if you can’t face the trip down, it’s comforting to know that several roads meet here and there’s a Circumvesuviana bus-stop nearby (linking to the Vico Equense station) – though it's debatable which is the more hair-raising ride.
Top image: Napoli (Naples) with famous Mount Vesuvius in the background © canadastock/Shutterstock