HAPPILYNAPOLI!

The city which in­vented pizza has emerged from its shad­owy past. What a feast, says CLAIRE GER­VAT

Daily Mail - - Freeview Primetime Planner -

SAVOUR­ING a black cof­fee and ri­cotta-filled pas­try, sfogli­atella ric­cia, I sur­veyed my fel­low cus­tomers. All around me, peo­ple were greet­ing friends, yack­ing to the cashier, gulp­ing down restora­tive shots of sweet espresso and munch­ing scrump­tious cakes.

In the friendly hub­bub of the morn­ing rush at Scatur­chio’s, I’d found a tiny corner on which to rest my cup.

In the midst of such cheery chaos, it was hard to re­mem­ber why I’d been ner­vous about com­ing to south­ern Italy’s main city. Walk­ing around the his­toric cen­tre, I saw noth­ing to jus­tify its dodgy rep­u­ta­tion.

A de­ter­mined ef­fort to chase away the bag-snatch­ers seems to have worked.

My re­ward for see­ing past the bad name was the chance to en­joy a vi­brant, of­ten beau­ti­ful city with a balmy cli­mate, glo­ri­ous art, ar­chae­ol­ogy and Unesco-listed ar­chi­tec­ture.

This year, Naples is cel­e­brat­ing the 400th an­niver­sary of the death of Car­avag­gio, and some of the artist’s finest works can be viewed on a hap­haz­ard itin­er­ary around the city.

Of Naples’s many cul­tural trea­sures, the one to top my bill was the Na­tional Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum, the largest of its kind in Italy. Housed in a vast, dusty pink palazzo at the top end of the his­toric cen­tre or Cen­tro Storico, it’s packed with mainly Ro­man finds un­earthed from all around the Bay of Naples, in­clud­ing Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum.

I spent my first af­ter­noon there, strolling round its echo­ing rooms ad­mir­ing the thou­sands of ob­jects on dis­play, from hum­ble bak­ing tins and bronze oil lamps shaped like snails to del­i­cate mo­saics and wall paint­ings.

Even the hap­haz­ard la­belling — of­ten only in Ital­ian — couldn’t spoil my en­joy­ment at see­ing so many beau­ti­ful things, all the more re­mark­able f or hav­ing sur­vived so long un­der­ground.

How­ever, some of Naples’s most in­trigu­ing sights are buried be­low street level. Ever since the Greeks founded their walled New City (or Neapo­lis) here more than 2,500 years ago, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion of Neapoli­tans has sim­ply built on top of what was there be­fore.

There are sev­eral re­cently ex­ca­vated sites in the Cen­tro Storico, the old­est part of Naples, where you can clam­ber down through lay­ers of his­tory. My first stop was the street of Ro­man shops tucked away be­low the me­dieval church of San Lorenzo Mag­giore. You can still recog­nise what some of them must have been: the bak­ery with its oven, the dye-shop with stained stone basins.

I could al­most hear the voices of long-gone shop­pers and shop­keep­ers go­ing about their daily busi­ness.

DI AG­O­NALLY across from San Lorenzo Mag­giore is the en­trance to ‘Naples Un­der­ground’, a guided tour — in English — of an­other part of the buried city. This time, there were two things to catch the eye. First there was a typ­i­cal-look­ing Neapoli­tan house, in which our guide raised a trap­door to re­veal stairs down to a small sec­tion of the old the­atre, parts of which are more than 2,000 years old. It’s too risky to the build­ings above to ex­ca­vate more.

Then came a climb down a longer flight of stairs to a sec­tion of the an­cient wa­ter sys­tem, in use un­til 1884. Walk­ing through nar­row pas­sages and echo­ing cis­terns, all carved out of the vol­canic rock and learn­ing of their more re­cent his­tory as air-raid shel­ters dur­ing World War II was ex­tra­or­di­nary.

But it was a re­lief to get back to the bus­tle of Cen­tro Storico’s street level.

The district is packed with sights, in­clud­ing glo­ri­ous churches and chapels, and it’s easy to be side­tracked by the sheer joy of wan­der­ing the lively streets.

I loved the quirky se­lec­tion of shops along t he t wo main laun­dry-fes­tooned streets, Spac­canapoli and Via dei Tri­bunali, which sell ev­ery­thing from old vi­o­lins to plas­ter saints.

One of the lanes be­tween the two had noth­ing but shops trad­ing in Na­tiv­ity scenes and fig­ures — and in spring, too. Best of all, on Via del Tri­bunali, you’ll find Car­avag­gio’s The Seven Acts Of Mercy in the chapel Pio Monte della Mis­eri­cor­dia.

How­ever, there’s more to Naples than the com­pact, some­times claus­tro­pho­bic old cen­tre.

Look­ing for some­where to have a re­lax­ing lunch, I stum­bled on the tiny is­land of Megaride barely off the city’s south shore and joined to it by a bridge.

This was the site of the very first Greek colony, and these days there’s a small cas­tle, Cas­tel dell’Ovo, and a small ma­rina fringed by seafood restau­rants.

At the tiny water­front Trat­to­ria Cas­tel dell’Ovo I was served an open sandwich so gen­er­ously heaped with oc­to­pus, olives and salad that I could barely fin­ish it. Not bad for around £5, es­pe­cially at a ta­ble bask­ing in the sun and sea air.

To ap­pre­ci­ate truly the city in i ts i ncred­i­ble Bay of Naples set­ting, I took one of the cel­e­brated fu­nic­u­lars.

The Mon­te­santo line whisks you from the heav­ing food-and­tat mar­ket in Via Pig­nasecco up to the tree-l i ned av­enues of Vomero, a pros­per­ous 19th­cen­tury sub­urb that’s al­most like a dif­fer­ent city.

FROM the sta­tion, it was a short walk to the Cer­tosa di San Martino, an old char­ter­house now open to the pub­lic (staff short­ages per­mit­ting). I loved the Baroque ex­trav­a­gance of the church, all coloured mar­ble i nlay, paint­ing and cherubs, as well as the equally lav­ish Prior’s quar­ters, sac­risty and phar­macy.

The best bit was the view from the gar­den ter­race at the back: Naples’s ter­ra­cotta roofs in­ter­spersed with palm trees, the sparkling blue of the sea and the brood­ing mass of Ve­su­vius ris­ing above it all.

Of course, you can’t ex­ist on art and views alone.The Neapoli­tans are pas­sion­ate about f ood, whether it’s just like mamma’s or fine din­ing. Ev­ery­one has an opin­ion on who makes the best pizza, which the Neapoli­tans claim they in­vented.

Sev­eral res­tau­rant names crop up again and again, in­clud­ing the fam­ily-run Da Dora, a few streets away from the Cas­tel dell’Ovo in Chi­aia. From the out­side, it looked un­re­mark­able and the in­side was sim­ple, too: blue, turquoise and white tiles, with model ships and bells hang­ing from the ceil­ing.

The food, how­ever, was some­thing else. My gen­er­ous plate of lin­guine alla Dora, heaped with tomato-scented seafood such as squid, prawns and clams, was su­perb, if messy to eat (they don’t pro­vide you with a bib for noth­ing).

The chef used the very best in­gre­di­ents, nat­u­rally, and the same could be said of Naples it­self — a per­fect con­coc­tion of cul­ture, cui­sine and char­ac­ter.

The city left me hap­pily sat­is­fied, but with just enough room for more.

Panorama: The city of Naples and, across the fa­mous bay, the glow­er­ing sil­hou­ette of Mount Ve­su­vius

Pic­ture: 4CORNERS/ALAMY

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