Naples is Italy turned up to 11. The intense sensuality of the place can be overwhelming. The sights: from Bourbon palaces to the heart-stopping Bay of Naples; the sounds: non-stop car horns and squawking street kids; the flavours: from pizza marinara to sfogliatella pastries; and the unselfconscious physicality of the people, all form the tapestry of life – one which Neapolitans live with a passion that suggests every day might be their last.
And indeed it might. What Mount Vesuvius did to Pompeii in AD79, it could just as easily do to Naples tomorrow. Fortunately, the next time the volcano blows its top, Neapolitans believe that they will at least have advance warning. Local tradition has it that if the blood of the patron saint San Gennaro fails to liquefy three times a year, disaster looms.
You can watch the ritual take place in the 13th-century Gothic cathedral in May, September and December – it provides an insight into the highly superstitious nature of the city's people.
Perched on the west coast, halfway between Rome and Sicily but much closer in spirit to the latter, Naples grew out of the Greek settlement Neapolis ("new city") which was expanded by the Romans and later occupied by the Normans, the Hohenstaufen dynasty from Germany, and the Angevins. All have left their traces but it is the legacy of the Aragonese and Bourbon rulers between the 15th and 18th Centuries which is most visible today.
You can get a sense of the city's early history in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, where there are finds from nearby Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. There are three imposing medieval castles (two on the waterfront and one up the hill), numerous fascinating churches covering a range of architectural styles and several grand palaces, such as the 17th-century Palazzo Reale.
If you want a proper taste of authentic (a euphemism for 'poor') Naples, wander around the backstreets of the Spanish quarter. Here you'll find run-down apartment blocks crammed so tightly there's barely space for a Vespa to tear up the alleyway between them, hear fierce exchanges in the impenetrable local dialect, and see elderly faces that express a lifetime of everyday sacrifice.
True to their out-there nature, the Neapolitans are crazier about football than any other fans in Italy. And they've had their bad times as well as good. SS Calcio Napoli went bust in 2003 and a new club, Napoli Soccer, began life in Serie C. They still got the gates in the third tier – 51,000 at one game – and after two successive promotions even qualified for Europe.
Even in the bad times, though, fans keep the fire alive with memories of Diego Maradona, the genius who led the club to league titles in 1987 and 1990. When Maradona led Argentina to victory over Italy in the 1990 World Cup final in Napoli's San Paolo stadium, the Neapolitans cheered. It showed their depth of gratitude to the player – but also demonstrated their estrangement from the idea of Italy.
Capodichino airport is north of the city centre. Bus number 3S leaves for Piazza Garibaldi every 15 minutes. Tickets cost 1 Euro.
At Stazione Centrale, telephone: 081 268 779.
The only way to get around Naples and remain sane is to walk - the traffic is intense. For longer journeys there are metros and trams.
The old part of the city is the best area for bars, particularly the central squares where the local ragazzi hang out. Note that entrance to clubs can be difficult – you may have to obtain a membership card to gain entry. For the best of the clubs head around the bay.
Internet Bar c/Piazza Bellini 44. A central and stylish little bar where you can also surf the web. Try FourFourTwo.com
Intra Moenia c/Piazza Bellini 70. A beautiful place to sit and read under the wisteria on a sunny day.
Notting Hill c/Piazza Dante 88a. Britpop plus garage and drum 'n' bass to remind you of home.
Virgilio Club c/Via Lucrezio Caro 6. A fun and leafy outdoor disco that gets packed on summer nights.
SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT
To satisfy your appetite for more high-brow culture why not buy tickets for the Teatro San Carlo? The opera season runs from December to May, but be sure to book well in advance!
Essential for any visitor to Naples: a journey to the world-famous Pompeii, one of the two Roman towns destroyed – but at the same time preserved – by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.
See Naples and sigh with our interactive map. Click the club badge for a club guide.
For regular updates on the crazy world of Italian football, see our blog Serie Aaaaargh!
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