‘Mafia-state’ and ‘Triangle of death’ are probably the worst words you can read a few hours before you are due to board a flight for your ‘relaxing’ family holiday in Italy.
Of course, you’d expect the ancient city of Napoli, the home of pizza and the Camorra crime syndicate, to have a slightly rough and ready feel to it. But from reading the headlines and listening to a few middle-class tales you’d be forgiven for thinking you were going to be an extra in ultra-violent TV series, Gomorrah. As I discovered on my recent trip there, a holiday in Naples is really nothing to be afraid of.
We might have a chuckle at their economy, but the truth is the Italians can’t build a bad city. Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Bologna, Sienna, Milan, Genoa, Turin and fair Verona. The list goes on and makes England look like the grand colony of Croydon.
Set against the might of Vesuvius, Naples is no different. The city oozes history, charm and adventure as much as it does mozzarella. The mafia are still very much a going concern, but things have improved a great deal on that front, at least according to our host – the wonderful Vincenzo.
You can lose yourself for hours wandering through the winding cobbled roads. Around almost every corner they’ll be something new; a stunningly indulgent baroque church, a wonderful piazza lined with busy espresso bars or a group of aging nuns quietly wandering home. If there were any mafia gangsters out doing a spot of menacing, I didn’t spy them (Vincenzo tells me most of them now work in civic administration).
Yes, some of the buildings are dilapidated and the streets’ ubiquitous graffiti could do with a serious clean. But you’ll quickly forgive any sordidness as you walk out of the tight streets and see the brilliant blue of the bay of Naples. Cracks and all, there is a timeless class and romance to the city.
I mean, who doesn’t secretly have ambitions of one day being an old Italian man in tailored suit, puffing a cigarette in the warm sea breeze while flicking through the Corriere dello Sport?
Inevitably, there’s a downside. If you jump in a cab, you can expect to be conned for the northern European you are. Our taxi driver from the airport, a charming, bumbling man, did every single Italian gesticulation possible as he tried to convince us that the price for the journey was twice what it said on the metre.
The Italians will lay the foundations of the western world for you. They’ll give you Michelangelo, Pavarotti and the Dolce Vita, but they will not on any accounts stoop to clear up their chihuahua mess. No, that’ll be yours to slip on as you narrowly avoid being run over by a tipsy teenager on a battered Lambretta.
In all seriousness, Kolkata is the only place in the world where I’ve found it more stressful to cross a road. The narrow, winding streets and high buildings make even the most pathetic motorised specimen sound like a Ferrari roaring within inches of your family.
The traffic can be dodgy, but then there’s nothing more entertaining than watching your father ticking off a young Italian man for not learning the English highway code, turning to you afterwards and yelling, ‘They’re all bloody mad!’ Maybe the Neapolitans are, but they sure as hell know how to live.