The Italian city everyone hates

What's not to like? The Bay of Naples at Naples, Italy.
What's not to like? The Bay of Naples at Naples, Italy. Photo: AFP

'Milan?" My friend Lauren shakes her head. "I dunno. It's probably my second least favourite city in Italy."

"Really?" I ask. "Why?"

"It just seemed kind of boring."

The narrow, cobbled streets of Naples, Italy.
The narrow, cobbled streets of Naples, Italy. Photo: Getty Images

"So what's your No.1 least favourite?"

"Naples!" she laughs. "Definitely Naples."

Great. Everyone hates Naples. This wouldn't normally be a problem, except I'm on my way to Naples. Tomorrow. Call me crazy - and plenty of people, including Lauren, have - but I've always wanted to visit the southern Italian city with a reputation for crime, litter, and the Mafia.

Apparently I'm in the minority.

The next day I'm on the fast train to the south of Italy, the Frecciarossa speeding me past rolling green hills and charming mountain-top towns to the land of graffiti and crime. I'm sitting among Neapolitans, who ask where I'm going once I get to Napoli Centrale.

"Ah, nowhere," I tell them. "I'm staying in Naples."

This causes a bit of confusion, and then joy. "I hope you like it," one of them says. "Just be careful with your bags at all times. There is a lot of crime in Napoli."

Even the Neapolitans think it's dangerous. Great. Still, it's nice to have a bit of local knowledge, so I ask where to get the best pizza in town. This triggers a passionate argument in Italian; I can't understand a word.

Eventually something is settled though, and they give me one name: Da Michele. I have a mission to find Da Michele.

I'm not entirely sure why I've always wanted to go to Naples. I remember, as a kid, hearing that the Mafia was from Naples. And I remember driving past the city a few years ago on my way to Pompeii and gazing at the tatty old buildings strewn with clothes, and thinking: I want to visit Naples.

I have an almost masochistic will to go to cities that everyone else says are horrible on the off-chance I can find something good there. I'd always wanted to visit Glasgow, for example, despite the fact most people told me to go to Edinburgh. And there was great stuff there - it just wasn't immediately obvious.

That's what I'm hoping for in Naples, too, and it takes me about an hour to realise it's there.

From the central station I take the metro to my hotel in the Centro Storico. It doesn't look like Rome's historic centre, or Florence's historic centre. It's much uglier.

With its faded facades and graffiti-strewn walls, the centre of Naples looks more like Berlin or Barcelona - two cities that just happen to be my favourites in Europe.

Naples' streets are cobbled and narrow, winding alleys jostled by a bullying crowd of old buildings. Cigarette butts nestle among the cobbles; bits of garbage line the pavements. Scooters scream past; riders oblivious to the crowds.

If ever you want to be thrown into the "real" Italy, take yourself on a walk through Naples. This is a city that's truly lived in, as comfortable and tatty as an old suit.

Glance left and right in those narrow alleys and you're staring into kitchens and living rooms. Walk the streets and you're passing makeshift markets, brushing past men playing card games, ducking under nonnas hanging out endless washing on the balconies above. Groups of girls cruise by on scooters. Couples pull up in the middle of the street to chat. A woman yells into a mobile phone as she steers her Vespa between pedestrians.

What's not to love about Naples? In Rome or Milan you feel chronically under-dressed, surrounded by suited Italians. That's never an issue in Naples - here you feel like you've gone to too much trouble in anything with a collar.

It's a Monday night but the streets are full of people, some milling about talking, others sitting in piazzas drinking, still more packing the pizzerias.

I've got my mission, which is to find Da Michele, to feast on Naples' best pizza, as adjudged by genuine, arguing Napoletanos. Eventually I pick my way past a couple of skips filled with garbage bags and around a fishmonger's stall, and I've found the restaurant.

And so has everyone else. You might think you're the only tourist in Naples until you arrive at Da Michele, which tonight has about 40 singlet-and-sandalled visitors milling around waiting to get in. I'm told by one of them that this is where Elizabeth Gilbert came to feast in Eat Pray Love.

The pizza is sensational and there's more fun to be had later, joining the crowds drinking in Piazza Bellini, wandering busy streets, taking in the shabby greatness. It's only taken a few hours, but I'm pretty sure: Naples is my favourite city in Italy.

Do you think Naples is a great city? Would you travel there? What's your favourite Italian city?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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