Diamond in the dirt

Fearing the worst, Shaney Hudson is instead won over by Naples, via naughty relics, soccer shrines and the world's best pizza.

IT WAS once said that the devil would not walk down the streets of the Spaccanapoli without a bodyguard, so bad was the reputation of one of Naples's toughest neighbourhoods. Today, not much better is said about Naples - dirty, dangerous Naples, where roadside rubbish is supposedly piled high, the Camorra runs the show and the people are unfriendly.

But is the city really all that bad? For me, Naples's rough reputation was part of its appeal, a traveller's mystery waiting to be solved. How, in a country so well loved, could a city be so despised?

Within five minutes of arriving at Naples Central Station, I understood why Naples gives such a bad first impression. A mass of taxis and hustlers, beggars and fenced-off construction zones, rubbish, noise, smog and traffic swirled around me as I walked into the Piazza Garibaldi. I was tempted to get straight back on a train to Rome.

But I stayed and I was glad I did:

I discovered a city that offers so much if you just give it a chance.

For all its initial shock and ugliness, once you're out of the train station you quickly discover that Naples is a beautiful city. The city slopes down towards the sea, overlooking the blue basin of the Bay of Naples. Fourteenth-century fortifications sit on its highest hills and abandoned citadels crumble by its seaside. Sailboats move in the harbour, ferries leave brimming with visitors to Capri and the Amalfi Coast, while cruise ships stand like temporary skyscrapers against the tiny docks.

Seething in the background is Mount Vesuvius, the city's Achilles heel. In just a few decades the volcano is predicted to erupt and take Naples with the same biblical force with which it took Pompeii 2000 years ago.

The archaeological ruins are best accessed from Naples. While visiting the archaeological site is mind-blowing, a little-known fact is that the cream of Pompeii's relics are preserved in Naples's Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Museum of Archaeology). Although disorganised, the museum's brightly coloured collection of painted walls, frescoes, art, sculpture and statues, along with exquisite mosaics, greatly enhances the Pompeii experience. While visiting Pompeii gives you the scale and the structure of the destroyed city, the collection at the museum gives the visitor an idea of its flavour and colour.

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The most interesting room at the museum is the Gabinetto Segreto or the Secret Room. It contains some of the best-preserved ruins from Pompeii, which coincidently happens to be all the naughty stuff from its brothels and taverns. While its phallic lamps, wicked pictures and headless Roman statue with a banana under its robes are just risque enough to induce a little giggle, back in the 1850s a visiting dignitary was so offended he had the room bricked up. Today, it's still kept under lock and key and you have to register to visit.

While Mount Vesuvius showed little mercy to Pompeii, its eruption in AD79 left a legacy for the countryside. Fed by the volcanic soil and mineral-rich water, the area around the Bay of Naples yields three times more produce than anywhere else in Europe.

Eating in Italy is good: eating the food grown around Naples is amazing. The regional culinary specialties are flawless, from the sweet ricotta-filled sfogliatelle pastries to the bite-size arancini with melted mozzarella to that most sacred of all Neapolitan food: the humble pizza.

I had read about the popular Pizzeria da Michele, a traditional pizzeria operating for more than 100 years, but I didn't expect to find a group of 40 people outside waiting for a table. After 10 minutes of waiting, three Italian ladies half-motioned and half-pushed me inside to make up their table of four.

Inside, a hot gust of aromatic sweet air hit my face, a swirling mix of tomato sauce, fresh melted cheese and basil. It stopped me in my tracks and I breathed in deeply. Although I speak no Italian, as soon as I sat down, the matriarch was emphatically telling me to get a pizza with cheese. I'm not sure I had any choice in the matter; in fact, I didn't: there was only one other choice on the menu. There was tomato - or tomato with cheese.

Within minutes we were served big, car tyre-sized slabs of pizza that overlapped each other on the table. The crust was thin, a little blackened on the sides, brown on the bottom but not burnt. I grabbed my knife and fork and it hit my mouth like a slice of heaven. I clapped my hands in delight and the Italian ladies laughed. It was the best pizza I have ever tasted.

Afterwards, I wandered towards the Spaccanapoli, a tough, working-class neighbourhood in the centre of town. When I mentioned to an Italian-Australian friend who had grown up in Naples that I wanted to explore this neighbourhood, he laughed and scribbled down a list of recommendations.

"Just don't get your pockets picked," he advised as he handed me his notes. "People here are nowhere near as poor as they used to be but old habits die hard."

Life is lived on the streets in the Spaccanapoli. Washing is strewn across narrow lanes like garland, old people in mourning black sit and watch you intently as you go by and little kids kick soccer balls with fierce determination.

Embedded into the walls between the traditional ground-floor apartments are small, tidy shrines to the Madonna, lit by candles and decorated with flowers and rosary beads. Originally, the shrines were designed as the first streetlights, dedicated to the Madonna so thieves wouldn't knock them out. Today, one of the Spaccanapoli's best-known and most colourful shrines is to soccer player Maradona, the first son of Naples, who is given saintly treatment outside Bar Nilo on Via San Biagio dei Librai in the centre of town.

As tough as the neighbourhood is, it still has its demons. Underneath the Spaccanapoli is the Napoli Sotterranea, or Acquedotto Carmignano, a series of underground passageways and aqueducts built over the centuries from pre-Roman times. The kilometres-long network of tunnels contains archaeological roads that pre-date Christ.

During the past 2000 years it has been used by thieves to rob the rich, as a wine cellar and, last century, as an air-raid shelter during WW II.

Being underground is not an experience for the claustrophobic. It's cold, dark and damp and while the caverns are more than three metres high in parts, in others we have to turn on our sides to squeeze through. At one point we are handed candles and we crouch and slink through a long narrow gap to view the subterranean pools and cisterns filled with fresh water.

Heading back, our guide pauses before a wall covered in graffiti and explains that during World War II an entire community lived down here to escape the conflict above. In the cold and damp, the most vulnerable died first - the elderly and then the children. Scrawled across the walls is "Mama don' grido" - Mama don't cry.

Down here I am introduced to another story from the city. On the wall hangs a picture of a young Italian soldier from Naples, Salvo D'Acquisto. Seeking retribution for a comrade killed in an accidental explosion in 1943, Nazi soldiers detained and threatened to execute 22 locals if the "culprit" was not found. Despite arguing for reason, D'Acquisto confessed to a crime he didn't commit to save the lives of many others. He was executed and his body laid in the nearby church, the Chiesa di Santa Chiara.

I wandered over to the church to visit his tomb. The church itself was dull compared with Naples's ornate Duomo but, personally, I found the small cloister dedicated to the soldier far more impressive. An anonymous stranger had placed a posy of flowers by his marble tomb and a black-and-white photograph of the young man sat on the mantle, while through the stained-glass window come flickers of warm afternoon light. I'm not sure what kept me sitting by the cloister. Maybe it was because, in a city with so many bad stories, it was comforting to find one filled with so much honour and courage.

Naples is Italy's most misunderstood and underrated city. It's gritty, loud, boisterous and intimidating but it's also beautiful, passionate, gutsy and rewarding. You'll either love it or hate it but if you want an authentic Italian experience, you'll find it here.

The writer travelled with the assistance of the Italian government tourist office.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies to Rome via London Heathrow with flights from $1921. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au. Italy is covered by one of the world's most sophisticated rail networks. There are hourly train connections from Rome to Naples (1-3hr). A Eurail Italy pass covers travel on the Italian train network from between three and 10 days within a two-month period, from $220. raileurope.com.au.

Staying there

The writer recommends the Hostel of the Sun (Via G. Melisurgo, 15), which is centrally located near the ferry terminal and has exceptionally helpful staff, led by the manager, Luca. Newly renovated deluxe private rooms (with en suite) cost from €60 ($81) a night. +39 81 420 6393, hostelnapoli.com.

See + do

The Acquedotto Carmignano runs tours of the underground from €10, see lanapolisotterranea.it for times, prices and dates. Be sure to check whether your tour is in English.

The Museo Archeologico Nazionale is open 9am-7.30pm, closed Tuesdays. Gabinetto Segreto opens in the afternoon but can be closed. Admission €6.50. museoarcheologiconazionale.campania beniculturali.it.

Pizzeria da Michele, Via Cesare Sersale, 1/3. +39 81 553 9204, www.damichele.net.

More information

comune.napoli.it.

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