It was only after I had booked a four-day stint in Naples and bought the guide book that a friend forewarned me it was a city infamous for its filth and notoriously dangerous. Told that it was alive with rats, stagnant garbage and organised crime I was quickly made aware that, though the city is a World Heritage Site, I wouldn´t be sight-seeing my way around a series of polished and picturesque monuments. As such, I arrived with mild curiosity about what a Mafia stronghold looked like and fairly low expectations about the city´s urban facade. To be honest, I couldn´t think much beyond a Peroni and a plate of pasta.
Fortunately, my food and drink cravings were satisfied almost immediately - within an hour of landing from Madrid I found myself in a local trattoria that was brimming with rowdy rabbles of local Italians. In fact, though I had booked a full four days in Italy´s third city, the lure of spending a few days beach-side on an island meant that my Napolese experience was squashed into this one evening - a jam-packed night kicked off with generous servings of Peroni and red wine sloshed into plastic cups, a succession of antipasto and spaghetti and a family of big-bellied, broad-smiling waitors who sporadically cranked up the volume of the music and plucked girls from their table for a two minute salsa-style spin. It was the perfect introduction to the other half of Latino Europe (which also confirmed that shouting to the person next to you is a trait shared by Italians and Spaniards alike).
Perhaps fittingly, the bubbling trattoria where I ate was in the Spanish quarter of the city. A vast, chaotic jumble of criss-crossing streets that, unsurpisingly, echoed the old quarter of Madrid. However, compared to the sleepiness of Madrid´s narrow lanes, where cars are an infrequent occurrence, the ongoing assault of Vespas zipping along the streets of Naples was overwhelming. Luckily, the general rule seemed to be that if you walked, motorists waited – or at least swerved easily around you. Notably,when exploring this labyrinth of narrow lanes, it was actually quite difficult to find a bar. Instead of the array of small locals that are scattered across Madrid, the doors and windows of downstairs flats were simply thrown open, revealing families lounging in the kitchen, sipping bottles of beer or preparing the food, occasionally shouting across the street to their neighbours. Though probably the result of an over-active imagination fuelled by mafia stories, it was all too easy to imagine that the whole district was linked in some kind of Godfather-esque extended family.
Walking home that night provided a taster of the different districts in Naples, revealing just how big and sprawling the city is. On route, we stopped for a coffee (in a classy, late-night cafeteria) and a cocktail (on a bustling street overflowing with drinkers), passed through an enormously grand, indoor market and along streets awaft with the mouldy, sweet stench that emanates from decaying garbage. On the way to the bay, we passed several small mountains of said garbage. Apparently a hangover from a 15-year-old problem with the binmen, such mounds, which are slowly but surely devouring the pavements, are commonplace in the city. Interestingly, in some areas it seems to be randomly categorized – the bus station looked like a recycling depot for old shoes. The sheer size of the city became even more evident when, after following the distinctive curve of the Napolese coastlines for over half an hour, we still had to hitch a lift to the station to catch the once-hourly bus (albeit it was a 50 minute wait until an antique model rattled into the station).
As much as I´d like to contradict the fairly negative press about Naples, from first appearances, the city certainly fitted the briefing I´d been given- un undeniably dirty, sprawling mess. However, though a far cry from the picture-perfect elegance of Rome or Paris, Naples had an appealing charm. It was raw and gritty, and free from touristy pomp and pretension. It wasn´t necessary to visit one of the 448 historical and cultural monuments to appreciate Naples as a historical centre - it was so steeped in its past that it was literally crumbling into memory as I walked around it. Completely unsanitised by even the slightest efforts at conservation, it was a dilapidated muddle of crumbling buildings and rubbish-strewn passages.
As such, it was fertile ground for the imagination: throughout the evening I spent there I found myself repeatedly envisaging a shadowy, smokey underworld more reminiscent of Gotham City than one of Italy´s Big 3. Indeed, far from feeling disappointed that I hadn´t spent a weekend perusing the Southern equivalent of Florence, I left hungry for more.