It was a sunny October morning as we prepared to depart from a friendly family-run hotel in Florence. While checking out, our host asked what the next stop on our Italian tour was to be. When we enthusiastically answered “Naples,” a look of barely concealed disapproval, coupled with a touch of genuine concern, crossed his face. “Why do you want to go there,” he asked, “when you could have a much more pleasant time here in the north?” When we replied that we had heard so much about Naples that we were too curious to bypass it, he shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of resignation, but made one last attempt to dissuade us with the warning, “It will be raining all the time you are there.”

On this last point at least, our Florentine host was proved right. The rain began as we were on the train, just south of Rome, and by the time we arrived at Naples’ fabled Stazione Centrale, it had turned into a steady, somewhat depressing downpour. The outskirts of the city, which we glimpsed from the train, did little to raise our spirits; row upon row of gray, run-down, crumbling apartments, many hung with washing despite the rain, stared at us out of the gloom.

As we approached the centre of town, our mood of apprehension, combined with a certain thrill of encountering the unexpected, steadily increased. We had heard much about Naples’ unsavoury, even dangerous reputation from Italian friends and the guidebooks we had consulted prior to the trip. For decades, the city has been synonymous with the illegal operations of the “Camorra” (the local mafia), purse-snatching, hazardous motorcycle drivers, drug- and gang-related shootings, garbage-strewn streets, and a great deal of chaotic squalor.

On the other hand, we already knew that Naples is situated on a a beautiful bay and has many stunning churches, museums, and public buildings. It is also close to the ruins of Pompeii and the beautiful Amalfi coast, and boasts a cuisine that is second to none in Italy. But the city has suffered from a kind of tourist aversion, and has not been able to compete with the country’s much more popular and better-known destinations, like Rome, Florence, and Venice. So why were we going there? As the train pulled into the station, we took a deep breath and wondered what we would discover in the next few days.

Despite the rain that did indeed fall for almost our entire stay in Naples, the levels of experience we shared there would prove to be among the fondest and most lasting memories of our entire trip. When I use the term “levels of experience,” I refer to the different levels of history and culture that can be encountered and explored in this fascinating city. But I also mean the varied personal or subjective moods that any visitor to Naples is bound to experience during his or her stay. These can shift dramatically, and without warning from alarm, frustration, and sheer disbelief to a sense of delight, pleasure, and euphoria that few other cities can provide.

Naples can evoke a powerful range of reactions in the visitor, an experience that not everyone might want to experience. But for those who are willing to give themselves over to all the wonderful features this city has to offer, these different levels of experience can be rich and fulfilling indeed. For better or worse (and possibly both) Naples is unlike any other place in Italy, as many Italians and non-Italians alike would agree. It is a city about which practically no one is neutral, and many who know it well maintain an ongoing “love-hate” relationship with it.

On leaving the station, we were confronted with our first sight of downtown Naples — the sprawling Piazza Garibaldi, a massive, confusing square crawling with cars, taxis, buses, and the ever-present Vespas (Italian motorcycles). Gathering our courage, we decided to walk to the hotel we had booked, navigating our luggage across the piazza and into one of the narrow, dark, and poorly identified streets that our map had led us to believe would take us there. After a series of wrong turns, blind alleys, and efforts to ask directions in our limited Italian (many answered in the Neapolitan dialect that is practically incomprehensible to anyone not from the city), we finally found ourselves in front of the Hotel Bellini.

The hotel was located on a small street in the heart of “Spaccanapoli,” the historic central area of Naples, and from the outside did not look too encouraging. There was no elevator, which required us to carry our bags up a set of marble stairs that looked as if they hadn’t been cleaned since the 16th century, when they were probably built. But the young man at the front desk was very welcoming, and gave us a choice of rooms. Later, I asked him whether there were any parts of the old city that might be unsafe to explore, either by day or by night. He wanted to know if we had walked from the train station, and when I said we had, he laughed and replied that we’d already been through the roughest part of town!

One of the sights I wanted to visit on our first afternoon in Naples was the National Archaeological Museum, located an easy walk from our hotel. With the rain still falling, it seemed practical to spend as much time as possible indoors. This museum is one of the most famous in Europe, and contains a treasure trove of Graeco-Roman antiquities, many of them taken from the ruins of nearby Pompeii for safekeeping after that ancient site was excavated in the 18th century. The building that now houses the museum was originally part of the University of Naples. But during the 18th century, the Bourbon king Charles VII of Naples decided to use it as a showcase for his family treasures. Charles died before the museum opened, but his successor, Ferdinand IV, ensured that many of the priceless relics of Pompeii and Herculaneum were put on display there. In 1860, following the unification of Italy, the new state assumed control of the museum, which it maintains to this day.

There is so much to see at this museum that it would be easy to spend at least a day or two exploring it. But some of the highlights from the Farnese royal collection, which Charles inherited from his mother, Elizabeth Farnese, include the Toro Farnese (Farnese bull), the largest single marble sculpture dating from ancient Rome, and the nearby giant statue of Hercules. The latter has a gigantic club in his hand. These pieces, among others in the collection, were excavated at ancient sites in Rome, such as the Baths of Caracalla, and shipped south to Naples at great difficulty and expense.

Another fascinating piece is the Farnese Cup, made entirely of sardonyx agate, one of the largest cameos in the world. The mosaics and frescoes taken from the walls of buildings destroyed in the volcanic eruption that engulfed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD are breathtaking in their vibrant colours and dramatic scenes. Among the most famous is a huge, 20-square-meter mosaic depicting the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great defeating the Persian king Darius in battle. Other, smaller mosaics portray scenes from everyday life, such as a cat killing a duck, and bowls of fruit, vegetables, and meat. One especially interesting mosaic portrays a number of animals from the River Nile, including crocodiles, hippopotami, and tropical birds.



Levels of Experience in Naples
by Peter Flaherty

“See Naples, then die.”
— a famous Italian saying

“See Naples, then run.”
— a modern-day parody of the above

“Naples: a paradise inhabited by devils.”
— another famous Italian saying

Photographs courtesy of


Perhaps the most notorious exhibit at this museum is known as the Gabinetto Segreto, or “Secret Cabinet.” Until 2000, this part of the museum was strictly off-limits to the general public, and one needed to obtain special permission to view it. This is because it houses what is probably the most extensive collection of ancient pornographic sculpture and paintings in Europe, or even the world. Among its over 250 pieces, most of which were taken from the ruins of Pompeii, are numerous paintings depicting various sexual acts, once believed to grace the walls of the town’s many brothels and baths. Some archaeologists believe that these paintings were intended to advertise to potential customers the different specialties of the prostitutes working there, while others think their purpose was only decorative. Whatever the case, they certainly leave little to the imagination. There are also many small statues of men with outsized phalluses, believed to serve as good luck or fertility charms in the ancient world. One of the most remarkable of them is a depiction of the satyr Pan, engaged in a highly unnatural act with a nanny goat.

The secret cabinet is certainly not for the prudish or faint-hearted, and families visiting with small children should probably avoid it. But for those interested in the social life of the ancient Romans, it offers a unique glimpse into the customs and practices of people in times past. The scenes depicted there, such as the impossibly well-endowed statues, are probably likely to arouse more laughter than lust. However, the Catholic Church, a once-powerful force in Naples and throughout southern Italy, insisted for years that the secret cabinet be restricted to serious researchers only. But in 2000, the museum’s governing body finally decided to open it to the general public, despite strong protests from the local bishop. A year later, a series of very explicit frescoes, discovered in the ruins of a Pompeii bathhouse in the 1950s, were put on display for the first time. One of them depicts what is believed to be the only lesbian sex scene from the ancient world.

The surprises of the secret cabinet certainly added another level of experience to what we had imagined would be a fairly serious visit to this world-renowned archaeological museum and its many priceless treasures. But after exhausting ourselves trying to take in the museum's many delights, we needed something to revive us. In Naples, that kind of pick-me-up can only mean one thing — coffee. For those who love espresso, cappuccino, and café latte, Italy is almost a pilgrimage destination. But anyone who really appreciates fine coffee knows that the country’s very best is to be sampled in Naples. It is practically impossible to be served an inferior cup in the whole city, and even the smallest, most unprepossessing local cafés can turn out a truly outstanding brew. Very close to our hotel was one of these neighbourhood spots, where we frequently attracted a great deal of curious but friendly attention on our daily visits there for a coffee and a “cornetto,” the delicious Italian version of the French croissant. I am fairly sure that we were among the very few tourists who took their “prima collazione,” or breakfast, at this local café, where the locals conversed in dialect and all seemed to know each other very well.

One day, when I asked the man behind the counter whether it was true that Naples produced the best cups of coffee in Italy, he looked at me as if my question hardly even needed an answer. And when I continued to ask why this was the case, he explained that it was a combination of three things: materia, macchina, and mano. By this he meant the coffee itself, the quality of the espresso machine, and, most importantly, the manual pressure that the operator exerted on the handles that release the steam. In Naples, hardly any self-respecting café owner would purchase the new kind of espresso machines one can frequently see in the neighbourhood Starbucks, operated with buttons. The ancient 50s-era Gaggias and Faemas that are becoming rare in North American coffeehouses continue to serve up the best Naples has to offer. Sipping a cup of espresso or cappuccino in a small coffee bar, in the company of Neapolitan connoisseurs is a memorable, and rich experience, and a good break during an energetic day of sightseeing.

The historic centre of Naples, known to the locals as “Spaccanapoli,” is situated on the site of the earliest Greek part of the town, originally known as “Neapolis,” or “new city” after settlers from mainland Greece colonized it in the fifth century BC. It has been officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there is nothing contrived or reconstructed about it; it is a crowded, bustling neighbourhood with its own character. Entire families perched precariously on Vespas roar through the narrow streets, oblivious to the shopkeepers who have set up their stalls right next to them. There are no sidewalks to speak of, and the street life spills out from the small stores right into the main thoroughfares, making walking about a real adventure. Especially in the rainy weather we encountered in Naples, it was necessary to keep a firm footing on the slippery slabs made of dark volcanic stone that are used to pave these narrow streets.

The nearest main street to our hotel was the Via dei Tribunali, originally the Roman decumanus maior, or main road. Along it are to be found many of Naples’ breathtaking churches, dating from different historical periods. Admission to all of them is free, which is frequently not the case northern Italy. On Piazza Gaetano, where the Roman forum once stood, is the imposing Chiesa di San Paolo Maggiore (Church of St. Paul the Great), a masterpiece of Baroque architecture with an impressive double staircase at its entrance and many important paintings by 17th-century Italian masters inside. This church stands on the site of an ancient pagan temple, of which two columns are still visible. It dates originally from the ninthcentury, but was completely rebuilt in the 1500s, making it a jewel of the Baroque style. On one side of the church is the entrance to “Napoli Sotterranea” (Subterranean Naples), one of the city’s most fascinating places to visit. Here it is possible to descend literally into the underground of the city, to discover and experience the deepest, most hidden ancient levels of the city’s earliest settlement.

The trip underground takes the visitor through many different periods of Naples’ colourful and dramatic history, from ancient Greek times to the Second World War. Originally a stone quarry, from which the Greeks extracted volcanic tufa stone blocks to build their walls and temples, the underground tunnels and passageways also served through the centuries as a cemetery, water cistern, sewer, and bomb shelter. With the aid of candles, one can see ancient graffiti scrawled on the walls, many dripping with moisture. In Roman times, an ambitious underground aqueduct was excavated, linking the city to fresh water sources in the hills hundreds of kilometers away. This was to serve as Naples’ main water source until 1884, when it was closed following an outbreak of cholera. Neapolitans had also used the underground caverns as a convenient, but seriously unsanitary place for disposing of their garbage and sewage.

During the last years of the Second World War, as Naples was subjected to massive aerial bombardments from both German and Allied aircraft, many citizens took shelter underground. It is still possible to see political graffiti, reflecting both pro-and anti-Mussolini sentiments, written on the walls where anxious Neapolitans once sheltered from the bombs exploding overhead. Probably the high point of the underground tour, however, comes at the end, when the guide took us literally into a very humble Neapolitan “basso,” a humble home that one enters from street level, with one floor beneath. After opening a trap door, we were taken down a dark, narrow staircase and to our amazement found ourselves standing inside a Graeco-Roman theatre.

It seems that the owner of the house came across this remarkable archaeological find quite by accident, while digging out a basement-level wine storage area. For years he kept his discovery a secret, knowing that if the government found out, he and his family would be forced to move from the premises. Upon realizing that he had a potential tourist gold mine literally underneath his home, he offered private tours to interested visitors and pocketed the proceeds until finally local authorities learned of the theatre’s existence.

Now it is possible to stand on a stage where the Emperor Nero, the “Elvis” of the ancient world, once sang and danced, imagining the reactions of the audience seated in the semi-circular amphitheatre nearby. Apparently even an earthquake did not stop Nero from performing, for according to an eyewitness account from the time, “Nero made his theatrical debut in Naples and while he sang the ground began to shake. Nero continued to sing during the earthquake and, at the end of the show, thanked both the audience and the gods for their applause.”

Subterranean Naples is one of the city’s unique sites, and should definitely not be missed. As part of its promotion, it quotes an enthusiastic endorsement from a recent visitor to Naples whose presence can still be felt in many parts of the city — U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton was in Naples in 1994 for a meeting of the G7 world leaders. That summit came just as Naples was finally beginning to turn a page following decades of rampant crime, urban decay, economic distress, and governmental corruption and neglect. One year before the summit, a reforming mayor, Antonio Bassolino, had been swept into office on a platform that called for a crackdown on organized crime and massive new investments in urban infrastructure and renewal. Bassolino’s enlightened municipal administration is widely credited with restoring Naples’ image as a city of art and culture, and a potentially interesting place for tourists to visit, as well as making it far more livable for the Neapolitans themselves.

During his two terms in office, Bassolino made the city a safer, cleaner, and far more pleasant place for both residents and visitors. He turned the massive Piazza del Plebiscito, once a Camorra-run used car lot, into a magnificent pedestrian space fronting the Palazzo Reale and the Teatro San Carlo. The city’s ailing public transit system was revitalized, an ambitious summer arts and music festival was inaugurated, and the city’s spectacular churches, many of which were crumbling after years of neglect, were lovingly restored to their former glory. Hosting the G7 summit was a feather in Bassolino’s cap, and did much to improve the image of his city in Italy and the world. He and Clinton discovered that they were both political and personal soul mates, and the two politicians toured the city’s many appealing attractions with gusto. After completing two successful terms in office, Bassolino was promoted to the presidency of the Campania region of Italy, and it was left to his successor in the mayor’s chair, Rosa Russo Jervolino, the first woman to hold the office, to continue with his reform agenda.

Clinton especially loved the vera pizza napoletana (authentic Neapolitan pizza) one of the city’s major claims to culinary fame worldwide. His personal endorsement can be seen at more than one of the city’s many outlets for this traditional staple of Neapolitan cuisine. The locals proudly claim that their version of pizza is not only the original one, but that it is also clearly the best. It’s made in wood-burning ovens known as pizzaiole, and served with a thick crust, unlike the thin-crust variety found in northern Italy. Those used to the extensive variety of toppings common in North America might be surprised to find that when they order pizza in Naples the choices are far more limited. However the chewy texture and delicious taste more than compensate for the restricted choice. Legend has it that the most popular form of pizza, the margherita, made with mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, and fresh basil, was named in honour of Queen Margherita, who visited the city with her husband King Umberto I in 1889.

A local pizza chef, Rafaello Esposito, anxious to impress the royal couple with the loyalty of their new Neapolitan subjects, designed a pizza whose colours would imitate those of the recently adopted Italian flag — red, white, and green. Probably the best pizza on offer in Naples can be found in small pizzerias that display the vera pizza napoletana label on their store windows. One of the most famous is Da Michele, a small pizzeria not far from the Piazza Garibaldi that has been turning out its pies since 1870s. Along with margherita, the only other variety on offer is marinara, with seafood, tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. By the way, true pizza connoisseurs know that the best mozzarella to order on a pizza in Naples is mozzarella de buffala, a cheese made from the milk of Calabrian water buffalo. Accompanied by a cold beer or glass of wine, a Neapolitan pizza makes a filling and delicious meal for either lunch or dinner. One can see why Bill Clinton would have been pleased..

After devouring a Neapolitan pizza, a walk through the historic central core of the city to some of Naples’ other magnificent attractions is definitely in order. The Duomo, or cathedral, is an easy stroll from Da Michele, and is definitely the most famous and important church in the city. For inside its massive neo-Gothic façade is the 17th-century Baroque chapel named in honour of the city’s patron saint — San Gennaro. It was completed in 1637 to house the skull and bones of the saint, who was martyred at nearby Pozzuoli in 305 AD by the Romans. According to tradition, his followers gathered phials of his blood, which miraculously liquefied upon their return to Naples. Three times a year, in May, September, and December, anxious crowds descend on the cathedral to pray for another miracle, that the saint’s blood will liquefy again to preserve Naples from disaster. In 1944, shortly before the last major eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius, the failure of the miracle caused widespread panic in the city. While skeptics question the veracity of this religious custom, most Neapolitans take it very seriously, even those who may not necessarily be religiously inclined. During the short-lived Parthenopean Republic of 1799, when a radical anti-religious faction aligned with the French revolutionaries briefly held control of the city, the miracle was successfully performed, much to the relief of the officially non-believing Jacobin authorities who attended the ceremony!

Just up the Via del Duomo is a small church called the Pio Monte della Misericordia. Inside, on permanent display above the main altar, is the single most important painting to be seen in all of Naples. It is called Le sette opere di Misericordia (“the Seven Acts of Mercy”), and is one of the masterpieces of Michelangelo Mersini, better known as Caravaggio, widely considered the greatest Italian Baroque artist.

Caravaggio was truly the “bad boy” of his time, living a rough and tumultuous life from 1573 to 1610. Born in northern Italy, he spent much of his creative life in Rome, but had to flee the city after murdering a rival in a quarrel. He ended up in Naples, spending a year in the city, where he perfected the chiaroscuro style, a blending of brilliant light and shadow and the naturalistic technique that seems to bring his subjects to life on canvas. The Seven Acts of Mercy depicts two angels bending down towards a group of shadowy people clad in humble Neapolitan garments. To the right, a young woman offers her exposed breast to a wizened, starving old man with a graybeard. Caravaggio’s other famous painting from his sojourn in Naples, the Flagellazione, depicting the whipping of Christ prior to His Crucifixion, can be seen at the Palazzo Reale di Capodimone, the city’s most important art gallery, housed in a former Bourbon palace to the north of the city.

As one proceeds west through the old centre of Naples towards the magnificent Piazza del Plebiscito on foot (the only reasonably safe way to explore central Naples), there are at least two other churches that are not to be missed. In the Piazza del Gesu Nuovo are two stunning examples of different architectural styles — the Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo and the Basilica de Santa Chiara. The Gesu Nuovo is a magnificent Renaissance-era church, consecrated in the 16th century. Santa Chiara, for its part, is a Gothic construction, but the most famous feature it boasts are the outdoor cloisters, with their beautifully painted tiles.

The walkways dividing the central gardens are lined with over 70 ceramic-tiled columns connected by benches, painted by the Basilica de Santa Chiara in the 18th century in vibrant tones of red, blue, and yellow. The church of Santa Chiara was heavily damaged during the bombardments that occurred during the Second World War, but has been magnificently restored since then. It also houses a fascinating museum of religious life in Naples from the 14th century to the present day. Some of the Bourbon rulers of Naples, whose family held sway from 1734 to 1860, are buried in the church’s main chapel. Standing in the centre of the Piazza is a famous guglia, an ornately carved Baroque statue inspired by the Egyptian obelisks, and a feature found only in Naples. It was erected by the Jesuit order in the 18th century, and dedicated to the Madonna.

One of the principal streets of the old centre of Naples is the Via Benedetto Croce. It is named after a great Italian historian and lifelong Naples resident, who helped organize the “four glorious days” of 1943. This was when the citizens of Naples rose up against their Nazi occupiers, and helped drive them out of the city before the advancing Allied forces arrived to finally liberate it towards the end of the Second World War. At the end of it, is the Via Toledo, the city’s premier shopping and commercial street. Walking south, towards the harbour along this impressive thoroughfare one is transported from the crowded, chaotic life of the old city centre to a more spacious, orderly, and well-designed part of the town. The Piazza del Plebiscito is the largest square in Naples, and within easy reach of it are four important places to see: the Palazzo Reale, the Teatro San Carlo, the Galleria Umberto I, and the Castel Nuovo.

But before exploring these fascinating places it might be advisable to stop for another café and a delicious pastry, the Neapolitan delicacy known as the sfogliattella. This is the most famous of the many dolci (sweets) that the city produces. Filled with sweet ricotta cheese and candied fruit, and dusted with cinnamon powder, the sfogliatella is best eaten hot from the oven. And in the opinion of most Neapolitans, the very best place to eat sfogliatelle is in a small bakery at the northern end of the Piazza del Plebiscito. There, a sign outside proudly proclaims, the sfogliatelle are perfumati per il professore (perfumed by the professor). With such an elegant recommendation, it is almost impossible to resist, and stopping at one of these toothsome delicacies requires an immense effort of will.

The Palazzo Reale is just one of the many royal palaces that can be visited in Naples and the surrounding area. Originally built in 1600, when Naples was still under Spanish rule, it was not completed until 1841. In 1888, statues of eight of Naples’ most important kings were placed on the exterior façade. The palace today houses one of the most important museums in the city, including a rotating reading desk designed for Queen Maria Carolina, the sister of Marie Antoinette and wife of King Ferdinand IV, and a huge 18th-century nativity scene, known as a presepa. Another impressive room was once the private office of Joachim Murat, an officer in Napoleon’s army who served as king of Naples during the French occupation from 1806 to 1815. The day we visited, the entrance fee was waived, since it was a United Nations Culture Appreciation Day. This applied to a number of other art galleries and museums throughout the city. However, it proved difficult to take full advantage of that offer, since there was a heavier than usual police presence throughout the city, with many roadblocks and traffic diversions. For once, though, this had nothing to do with local organized criminal activity in Naples. Instead, we later discovered, it was a cautionary response to a proclamation of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden condemning the Italian government for its support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Not far from the Palazzo Reale is the Teatro San Carlo, one of the most famous theatres and opera houses in Europe. It is actually located on the nearby Piazza Trieste e Trento, and predates Milan’s renowned La Scala opera house by over four decades. It was opened in 1737 by King Charles VII, severely damaged by fire in 1816, and rebuilt a few years later by the famous architect Antonio Niccolini. The rich interior glows with red and gold, and the boxes are located on six levels, stretching from the orchestra to the highest balcony seats. A number of major operas and theatrical performances take place here throughout the year, and obtaining a ticket to an event at the San Carlo can be difficult, but certainly worth the effort. The acoustics inside are considered to be perfect. Even if one is not able to take in an actual performance, the guided tours are worth joining.

Directly opposite the Teatro San Carlo is the imposing steel and glass structure known as the Galleria Umberto I, named in honour of the first king of united Italy. A similar arcade, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, named after his son, stands in Milan. It is worth a short visit to view its impressive floor, entirely made of marble, and its vaulting steel arches. Despite its name, the Castel Nuovo (New Castle) dates from the 13th century, and is one of the most important in the city. Locals refer to it as the Maschio Angioino, or Angevin Keep, in recognition of the fact that it was built by Charles I of Anjou, a French ruler who ruled Naples and much of southern Italy during the 13th century. It is called the New Castle to distinguish it from the two other major castles in Naples, the Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) and the Castel Capuano, or Capuan Castle, both of which were constructed earlier by the Normans.

The Castel Nuovo was once home not only to the Angevin rulers of Naples, but also to leading artists and intellectuals, such as the painter Giotto, and the writers Boccaccio and Petrarch. It is now the home of the Museo Civico (Civic Museum), containing a number of major frescoes and sculptures dating from Renaissance times. To reach it, one passes through the magnificent Sala dei Baroni, or Hall of the Barons, where meetings of the Naples city council are now held. This hall is named after the barons who were murdered there in 1486 after a failed plot against the then-ruler of Naples, King Ferdinand of Aragon, husband of Queen Isabella and patron of Christopher Columbus. During the summer, the beautiful castle courtyard is opened for outdoor concerts, some of which are performed by companies from the Teatro San Carlo.

Closer to the harbour, or Borgo Marinaro, a popular area full of bars and restaurants, is the Castel dell’Ovo, with its unusual name. Local tradition holds that the ancient Roman poet Virgil is supposed to have buried an egg on the site where the castle now stands, warning that should the egg break, the building above it would collapse. Another local tradition holds that Partenope, one of the legendary sirens who sought to tempt the Greek hero Ulysses with their irresistible songs on his return home from the Trojan Wars, is buried on the site. Partenope, whose name is sometimes used to refer to Naples, was supposed to have been so devastated by her failure to lure Ulysses from his destination that she committed suicide. But most experts today believe that it is the castle’s unique oval shape that is responsible for its name. It stands on the site of an ancient Roman villa, built by the general Lucullus, a strategic point in the conquest of the Campania region of southern Italy from local tribes who had long resisted Roman rule.

Since then, this castle has been occupied by the succession of various foreign rulers who have held sway in Naples over the centuries, including the German Swabians, the French Angevins, and the Spanish Aragonese. During the last desperate days of the Parthenopean Republic in 1799, the outnumbered pro-French radicals held out there against a Catholic royalist mob of poor Neapolitans, enflamed by the ousted Bourbon rulers, and howling for the revolutionaries’ blood. Thanks in part to the efforts of the English admiral Lord Nelson, whose ships were blockading the harbour at the time, they finally were able to exact their revenge on the republicans and their supporters. Naples was convulsed for days in an appalling orgy of violence that is still recalled in the city today as one of the most shameful episodes in its history. A small, but impressive monument to those who bravely fought and failed to implant the ideals of democracy and enlightenment in Naples’ unforgiving soil in 1799 now stands in the Piazza dei Martiri (square of the Martyrs), located in the fashionable Chiaia district.

Along with pizza and various kinds of pasta, one of Naples’ most enjoyable culinary delights is seafood. Fish and crustaceans from the Bay of Naples are caught daily and within hours are offered for sale in the small fish stalls that dot the historic centre. One of our most memorable meals in Naples was a long and relaxing lunch at a small but elegant restaurant called Lombardi a Santa Chiara, near the basilica of the same name. There we ordered the seafood platter, a combination of squid, octopus, mussels, clams, and various kinds of fish. The waiter expertly de-boned everything in front of us before serving it to us with typical old-world flourish. Accompanied by an excellent white wine, some green salad, and crusty bread, this was truly a meal to remember. And it proved to be far more reasonable than a lunch in a restaurant of similar quality in Rome or any northern Italian city.

On the very last day of our stay in Naples, we headed north of the city to visit the renowned art gallery housed in the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte (Royal Palace of Capodimonte). This palace was originally intended as a small hunting lodge for the Bourbon monarch Charles VII, but as construction continued it eventually grew to a full-size royal palace, completed in 1759. It is a striking building of gray and peach-coloured stone, located in a beautiful park. In 1957 it became the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, an art gallery that could be favourably compared to the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence, or the National Gallery in London, and is not nearly as crowded, at least on the day we were there.

To attempt to tour the entire gallery in a single afternoon, as we did, is probably foolhardy, for there is just too much to see. Along with Caravaggio, almost all the great artists of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque are represented here, including works by Raphael, Titian, Bellini, and Ribera. But paintings by more modern artists can be found here too — one of the most unusual works in the gallery is a colourful painting of Mount Vesuvius erupting by the American “pop” artist Andy Warhol.

For those planning to use Naples as a base from which to explore the other sites of interest in the Campania region, the choices are practically endless. Many of them, including the fascinating ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, are an easy day trip from the centre of town. It is also possible to arrange guided tours of Mount Vesuvius, one of three active volcanoes in Italy, which has been quiet since its last major eruption in 1944. But local authorities worry that should another major explosion take place, the task of evacuating the densely-packed population from the area might prove impossible, and the loss of life could be very serious. The Bourbon royal palace of Caserta and its magnificent grounds, built to rival Louis XIV’s Versailles, is also a very popular day trip for locals and tourists alike. A little further afield, one can explore the wonderful scenery of the Amalfi Coast, and take in the elegant atmosphere of upscale summer resorts such as Sorrento and Positano. And of course the beautiful islands of Capri and Ischia are only a short distance away from Naples harbour by on a high-speed hydrofoil. Because of the poor weather, we did not travel very far afield from the city itself, but we found that there was more than enough to see, do, and experience there during our stay.

Our trip to Naples left us exhausted and irritated at times, but exhilarated and reluctant to depart at the end. There were many moments of frustration, when we had to cope with reckless drivers, poorly functioning ticket dispensers in the subway, the brusque manner of some of the locals, slow buses, and slippery streets. But the hotel and its surrounding neighbourhood, which had seemed so menacing and forbidding upon our arrival, began to feel so much like home that we were sorry to leave it. It was fun to greet the elderly ladies looking out the windows of nearby houses with a cheerful Buongiorno as we left the hotel every morning. The dark and narrow streets of Spaccanapoli that we were so hesitant to walk down, even by day, became places we did not hesitate to stroll through on our way to restaurants and cafes, amidst the milling crowds, even after nightfall, despite the danger of out-of-control Vespas.

On our return to the train station, we decided to take a taxi, instead of trying to walk through the streets with our luggage again. Even though we might have been overcharged on the fare, the experience of driving through the city’s chaotic traffic, with someone else at the wheel, of course, was just one more level to add to our taste of la vita napolitana.

But my fondest memory of all has to be the moment on the way to Capodimonte when we were in a bad mood because the erratic Sunday bus schedule had not given us enough time to see the art gallery properly. Just when we were ready to complain about Naples once again for its many failings and dysfunctional features the city itself had the last word. As the bus rounded a curve to reveal the breathtaking panoramic view of the bay and the harbour spread around it in all its glory, the sun finally broke through the clouds, for the first and only time we were there.

Remembering that delightful moment, and all the levels of our experiences in Naples, I would have to agree with the great German poet Goethe, who after spending time in the city said that, “After seeing Naples it is impossible to be sad again.” But the next time I visit, I certainly hope that the sun is shining.