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Naples is that exciting friend who you don’t know whether to party with or call the police on. It’s easy to take fright at its chaotic, moped-clogged streets, or turn away from its disintegrating, locked up churches that would be treasures in any other city.
But southern Italy’s biggest conurbation is an exhilarating too: it’s a palace in the shadow of Vesuvius, with Pompeii down the road and Capri a mere boat trip away.
It’s an ancient Mediterranean outpost that existed long before the Italian state, pre-dating the Roman Republic by centuries. That’s why it has a world-beating collection of ancient Greek and Roman artefacts in the National Museum of Archaeology – every time a new building goes up, some wonder of the city’s immense past is discovered.
To get to grips with Naples, head to the legendary Spaccanapoli, the street that runs through the historic centre. Wander its narrow, cobbled lanes where women in open doorways lament at the news and old men play cards in medieval piazzas. Explore its little cafés and shops, hidden beneath porticoes of crumbling stone.
This might not be the Naples you’ve heard of, but Mayor Luigi de Magistris has done much to clean up the city’s image in recent years. He resolved the long-running rubbish collection crisis and pedestrianised the seafront; the city’s dingy subway has been revamped with jaw-dropping art.
It’s time to scale the ramparts at Castel Nuovo again, to watch the waves roll in. Perhaps stroll along a dusk-lit waterfront to select a seafood restaurant. Spend time staring at frescoes by Carvaggio or take pleasure in preserved Pompeii. You could even row into the breathtaking Blue Grotto at nearby Capri.
Naples still has its share of problems, not helped by the financial crisis which led the city to the brink of bankruptcy. But volatility is part of its character – it blends classical sophistication with contemporary bedlam. That’s why it’s Italy’s most heady and intoxicating city.