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Loving Naples, flaws and all

By turns difficult and delightful, a port city boasting artistic treasures and a classic cuisine.

March 04, 2001|By Susan Spano

NAPLES, Italy -- Maybe I fell in love with this messy, intemperate city by the bay because I first saw it after spending a week in well-ordered Germany. Maybe I feel close to my family's southern Italian roots here. Or maybe I'm just drawn to underdogs.

Naples, a city of about a million people, is definitely that; it was all but off the map for travelers in recent decades because of crime, poverty, decay and disasters like a 7.2-magnitude earthquake of 1980 that killed nearly 5,000 people and damaged many of the city's historic facades. Even adventurous travelers who knew of Naples' extraordinary churches and museums ventured here warily and came away with tales of pickpockets and purse-snatchers.

But the city's fortunes have been changing. Recognizing a need to save its many treasures-including its glass-roofed Galleria Umberto and vast Capodimonte museum-local power brokers about 15 years ago embarked on a campaign to save Naples. Museums, palaces, piazzas, churches and cloisters were renovated, and car traffic was banned in certain neighborhoods. Police were posted in tourist areas, like Spaccanapoli, the city's dense, dark historic center whose secretive splendors partly inspired the old maxim, "See Naples and die."

Meant to express the sublime effect of the city on tourists, the saying has another, more literal meaning I wanted to avoid. When I visited Naples last September, I found it still noisy, dirty and discombobulating. But I had prepared for the trip as if I were going to a Third World country, girdling my middle in a money belt and hiding my camera in an over-the-shoulder bag. I prepared mentally as well. While there, I went out alone at night, but I always watched my back, and I stayed away from the poor, crime-ridden Spanish Quarter, a fugue of alleys on the flank of the Vomero, one of the hills that dumps the city into the sea.

And I never once felt ill at ease.

"Violent crime against Americans in Naples is very rare," says Gloria Berbena, who is with the U.S. Consulate in Naples. "While there certainly is petty crime, it is not anything different than what American tourists would find in other major European cities."

Those willing to take the kind of precautions I did are amply rewarded by the city's art and architecture, nearby archeological showplaces like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and a feast of irresistible food. Others who prefer to see the city while staying elsewhere can station themselves on the Amalfi coast, an easy day trip by train. But it would be a great pity to avoid La Bella Napoli altogether, if only because its National Archeological Museum provides such an excellent introduction to the wonders of nearby Herculaneum and Pompeii, covered in ashes and rubble and thus preserved for posterity by a massive eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

Italians say that Naples is real, edgy and unvarnished in the way that tourist-choked Rome and Florence are not. At almost every turn, Naples made me think of the old courtesan Madame Hortense in "Zorba the Greek," at once so charming and so pathetic that she constricts the heart.

Throughout most of the city's long history, the port of Naples sang a siren song to visitors, beginning with the Greeks and Romans, who built vacation villas in the lush, sunny countryside around it. Now many of these are archeological digs, but Naples endures in its unmatched setting, with perfectly proportioned Vesuvius, Europe's only active volcano, on the horizon, the Sorrento peninsula to the south and the fabled island of Capri out in the Tyrrhenian Sea. And then there's that mesmerizing azure bay, which kept me looking seaward.

Whenever you manage to wrest your gaze from the view, there are the gratifications of art. But you don't come to Naples principally to see masterworks of the Renaissance, as in Florence, or antique splendors like those in Rome. Because Naples was ruled by a long train of foreign suzerains, from the Greeks and Romans to the Goths, Normans, Spanish and French, it is an artistic mishmash, demonstrating almost every style that hit the Italian boot but especially the Baroque and Neoclassic, which may be acquired tastes.

Still, those who turn up their noses at those styles might reconsider if they could see Giuseppe Sammartino's uncanny, haunting sculpture of the "Veiled Christ" in Spaccanapoli's Sansevero chapel and the grand, cantaloupe-colored Palazzo Reale, occupied in the 18th century by one of the first resident kings of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, and later by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat.

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