"Napoli is like a lasagne. It's full of layers and every time we dig down, we find another slice," says Brunella Uva, our Neapolitan guide, nodding to the building site near the cruise terminal. She reveals that work to extend the city's Metro system led to the discovery of an earlier port, established by Greek sailors almost 3000 years ago. A glass-floored viewing window overlooking the relics is being planned, adding to the cornucopia of cultural treasures that wow visitors to Napoli (or Naples) and its volcano-riddled surrounds.
Brunella is in buoyant spirits now that overseas tourists are finally trickling back. We see and hear them amid the stew of activity on Spaccanapoli, the narrow, pulsating street that means "Naples Splitter" and divides the city's ancient Greco-Roman core. Hemmed in by five and six-storey gelato-hued buildings, many with peeling stucco, caked in graffiti and occupied by residents and (seemingly-thriving) businesses, this two-kilometre-long east-west thoroughfare is claustrophobic. But in a good way.
After the pandemic-enforced travel bans, being somewhere so noisy and atmospheric, where your eyes dart this way and that, capturing the vignettes of Neapolitan life in all its espresso-downing, pizza-munching, frenetic-talking, gesticulation-spliced vibrance, is a treat. "For me, Napoli is life," says Brunella. "Last year, especially during the three-month lockdown, it was very strange. Everything was closed down and so quiet. Just not the real Napoli."
We brush shoulders with Neapolitans across the age and social spectrums, from sneaker-clad students and well-heeled, immaculately-groomed brunettes to cap-carrying beggars and besuited octogenarians (some sporting face masks, others with them sagging under their chins). Spaccanapoli comprises several inter-connecting streets and in the ones that aren't pedestrianised, taxis honk and scooters drone, crawling and itching to circumvent the melee.
Music - from opera to Aerosmith - sounds from pot planted-balconied apartments and hole-in-the-wall stores. Poking my head in as we walk, I see butchers hacking meat, watches being polished, dresses being hung, hand-bags being primped, books piled on shelves, vinyl records being leafed through. There are juice bars and "burger stores", pharmacies and delis where vendors stack pasta, wine and limoncello outside doorways.
Funnelling off Spaccanapoli are even narrower, shadowy alleys and elaborately-carved archways and courtyards that'll tempt the adventurous wanderer. On one street corner, an elderly, flat-capped, cigarette-smoking man is hunched on a chair, beside a stall loaded with vintage dial telephones. A younger man hawks cornicellos - chilli-pepper-shaped red horns said to bring good luck, fertility and virility.
You'll hear baristas clattering away, drumming up Naples' famously bitter, blow-your-head-off espresso. We stop for a jolt at Bar 7Bello - a neon-laced joint opposite Gay-Odin, a chocolatier founded in 1894 and renowned for its brioches stuffed with chocolate, pistachio and strawberry ice cream. Other timeless Neapolitan snacks are sfogliatella - a shell-shaped puff pastry - and pizza portafoglio, literally "wallet pizza", typically margarita flavoured and smaller than your classic sourdough one. "You fold it and eat it as you walk," explains Brunella, as she orders for me. "It's popular in the historic centre because it's super-frantic here and people are always on the move.'
Not everyone is. Biting into my portafoglio, I see characters chatting, flirting and dosing up on nicotine, caffeine and other palate-pleasers at tables and chairs strewn across the squares, large and small, that punctuate Spaccanapoli. Off Piazzetta Nilo is Bar Nilo, a shrine to Napoli Football Club and its late, legendary star, Diego Maradona. It has an altar with a "miraculous" lock of the Argentine's hair.
Despite a controversial 2019 HBO documentary depicting Maradona as being in the clutches of cocaine and the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) when he played for Napoli from 1984 to 1991, he's still worshipped here for inspiring the underdog club to glory. And he lives on: portrayed as "Dios" (God) on socks, scarves, statuettes, tattoos, religious iconography, wall murals and other gift shop souvenirs. "Napoli has over 50 patron saints - and Maradona," says Brunella.
Walking back towards sun-drenched Piazza del Gesu Nuovo, there's a loud pop of confetti. A bride and groom emerge, arm-in-arm, from a Baroque church. They pose for snaps - initially for the wedding photographer, then for the Israeli tourists who've gathered round pointing their cameras. The newly-weds look happy. Soon everyone does. A strange, sudden, impromptu gust of joy sweeps across the square. There are grins and laughter, and a good mood that is - dare I say it - infectious.
Norwegian Epic visits Naples on seven-night Mediterranean cruises departing Rome or Barcelona. For April 2022 sailings, balcony staterooms are priced from $US1567 ($A2115) a person and . interior rooms from $US1014. Current Italian government regulations stipulate cruise passengers wishing to alight in Italy's ports must do a ship-organised excursion (these regulations are subject to change). Norwegian's Spacca Napoli and Folded Pizza tour is $US139. See ncl.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line.