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