BOLD BUT BEAUTIFUL: The Naples streetscape is dense and frenetic. Drivers ignore red lights; motor scooters weave in and out, mounting footpaths to detour at any delay. Narrow alleys with washing lines strung above them lace through the Old Town. On the streets, it’s everyone for themselves. If this sounds like being under siege, it’s worth every second. Walking in an isolated street at night, my fellow explorer and I encounter some women exiting a darkened building; they have been to choir practice, they tell us. They promptly link arms in a semicircle, deliver a few soaring, operatic bars, warn us to secure our shoulder bags and bid us goodnight. Such moments, plus sublime art, architecture and good food, are as vibrant as the traffic. Note that businesses close from 12.30pm to 3.30pm daily, but stay open late. More: visitaly.com.au; visitnaples.eu/en.
FAST FEASTS: Naples is the capital of luscious quick food, especially the three Ps — prosciutto, pastries, pizza — but there’s also mozzarelline. Hotfoot it to Il Cuoppo (via San Biagio dei Librai, 23) for deep-fried mozzarella balls, prepared to order and sold in a brown-paper cornet ($4.50) through an alley window. Long queues are a clue at l’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (via Cesare Sersale, 1, off Corso Umberto 1) and, if in the neighbourhood, visit Salumeria Ruocco (Corso Umberto 1, 257). Since 1922, this welcoming little shop sells salumi, formaggi et vini (Lacryma Christi wines, tears of Christ, are produced from the volcanic soils of nearby Mount Vesuvius). Do not miss Giovanni Scaturchio (Piazza San Domenico Maggiore 19), the city’s oldest pasticceria (1905), for luscious baba (small rum and syrup-soaked yeast cake) and sfogliatelle (puff pastry clam shell filled with candied citrus-studded ricotta custard), and caprese (flourless almond and chocolate cake from Capri). Try coffee and cakes at elegant, chandeliered Caffe Gambrinus on Piazza Trieste e Trento.
THET DARK ARTS: No other murderer on the lam could have left such an art-changing legacy as Caravaggio. Disaster stalking his path, having killed a man in Rome, he sought refuge in Naples, where three of his most extraordinary paintings remain. The Seven Works of Mercy was commissioned for the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a small octagonal church near the Duomo (Naples Cathedral); it hangs above the altar. The Flagellation of Christ was commissioned for another Naples church, and now hangs in the city’s Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte. The third painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, was Caravaggio’s last, painted in the months before his death in 1610. It hangs in the Galleria d’Italia Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano. These dark, brooding paintings pierced with gleams of light reflect the artist’s own sufferings. Among the acts of mercy he depicts are sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned and feeding the hungry. More: piomontedellamisericordia.it; museocapodimonte.beniculturali.it; gallerieditalia.com/ it/napoli.
S SPIRITUAL CALLINGS: You might hear sacred singing or see a wedding in progress, but Naples churches shelter more surprising finds. A Greek agora, and a later Roman forum, nestle among the foundations of Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore. A forest of blue and yellow majolica columns and benches adorns Santa Chiara Cloister. A bizarre Museo del Purgatorio ad Arco, “dedicated to the cult of the Souls in Purgatory”, can be visited at the church of the same name. Certosa (monastery) e Museo di San Martino, apart from its marble-inlaid, gold and painted walls and ceilings, showcases the elaborate Neapolitan art of the nativity crib (presepes). Said to have originated in the 13th century, these carved polychrome figures came into full glory in the 18th century. Extraordinarily detailed settings with archangels ascending to heaven nevertheless reflect early Neapolitan life. After the monastery, stop at Friggitorio Vomero (via Cimarosa, 44), where the Acunzo family fries bite-sized arancini, doughnuts, and battered vegetables; all sizzlingly good and cheap as chips.
HOT SPOTS: Pompeii, that unique window on the daily lives of people in 79AD when volcanic flowsf from Vesuvius entombed the city, is 24km southeast of Naples. From Naples Central, the Circumvesuviana train on the Sorrento line delivers you to Pompei scavi-Villa dei Misteri, the station nearest the entrance. Herculaneum is on the same line, and seaside Sorrento at the end. Two, at least, are achievable in a day. The islands of Ischia and Capri are also easily accessible, by ferry from Naples, but the little isle of Procida is also recommended as the most beautiful and least visited.
DIG DEEP: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli possesses the staggering Farnese collection of Roman antiquities. Many of the treasures, artefacts, mosaics and sculptures excavated in Pompeii are here. The Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet), opened in 2005, houses famous erotic paintings, frescoes and artefacts found at Herculaneum and Pompeii, a collection not exhibited publicly until 2000. More: museoarcheologiconapoli.it/en/.
CASTLES IN THE AIR: Step into the feudal Norman world beneath Castel dell’Ovo’s impenetrable walls and towers. Arched stone passages and sweeping shallow-stepped curves lead the way. Illustrated signs describe 12th to 15th-century armour, weapons and buildings. From the top, gaze across the Port of Naples. Castel Nuovo, “New Castle” (also called Maschio Angioino), was built in 1279, updating the then antiquated Castel dell’Ovo inhabited by Charles I of Anjou. Castel Nuovo’s exquisitely decorated Palatine Chapel survives from the original 13th-century building, and is a stunning highlight. The castle itself underwent 15th, 16th and 17th-century changes. There are remnants of ancient frescoes, historic Neapolitan museum collections and the sumptuously carved 15th-century Arch of Triumph of Alfonso the Magnificent, which slots in like a slice of iced cake between the dark sombre towers.
REAL MEALS: The harbourside tables of Zi Teresa (Aunt Teresa) fit right into the buzz of the worki ing port (via Borgo Marinari 1). Small colourful boats jostle in the water at your elbow beside plates laden with misto mare, fritto or griglia — whole, crusty fish, fried or grilled, with brown-paper cornets of prawns and other seafood, served here since 1890. In the centre of the city, the outdoor tables at Moenia Caffe Litter (Piazza Bellini, 70) are set amid cascading greenery. In the port of Corricella on the island of Procida, La Lampara (Marina di Corricella, 88) and La Locanda del Postino (43) serve pasta with seafood including sea urchins, lemon salad, Falanghina wines and waterside ambience.
STROLLS AND SHOP: Spaccanapoli (“Naples splitter”) starts at via Benedetto Croce, eventually becoming via San Biagio dei Librai. Slicing through the original Roman city, it offers a feast of people-watching and shop-browsing. Boho-chic Kasba (via San Biagio dei Librai, 6A) stocks heavy jewellery, asymmetric linen tunics and more. Bottega21 (vico San Domenico Maggiore, 21) has leather satchels, bags and wallets, handcrafted in nearby Sorrento. OPULENCE WITH A VIEW: Eurostars Hotel Excelsior is a refurbished belle-epoque grande dame, opposite Castel dell’Ovo on the waterfront, with Vesuvius and islands views. Grande Hotel Vesuvio, with Murano chandeliers and wall brackets, potted palms and oriental rugs, is almost next door, with slightly faded grandeur but full of character, and the same views; royalty and divas of every kind have stayed. For upto-the-minute glamour and extras in a historic palazzo in the centre of town, try Sofitel’s MGallery Palazzo Caracciolo Napoli (pictured). More: eurostarshotels.co.uk; vesuvio.it; sofitel.com.