After decades of blight, crime, and neglect, Italy's third-largest metropolis radiates a new self-confidence. Dan Hofstadter interprets the modern charm of this ancient city of pizzas and dreams.

For almost as long as I have been going to Naples I have been told not to go there. The city was badly bombed during the war, then stupidly and rapaciously reconstructed. Until recently the local mafia, called the Camorra, virtually owned certain neighborhoods, endangering both locals and visitors. The situation began to change in 1993, though, when Antonio Bassolino, the leader of a popular center-left reformist coalition, was elected mayor. Bassolino's key insight was that he could use aesthetics to battle corruption and urban blight. He knew that Naples, Italy's third-largest city, produced little in the way of goods and services and that its infrastructure was decrepit; but he also knew that it was packed with architectural and artistic treasures to which nobody in city hall had been paying any serious attention.

During Bassolino's nearly seven years in office as mayor (he is now regional governor of Campania), his administration cleaned up the historic center, created large pedestrian zones, opened scores of previously boarded-up churches and palazzi, and transformed Piazza del Plebiscito, the grand space in front of the Palazzo Reale, from a parking lot into a noble public square. Neapolitans began to take pride in theircity, and so many tourists flocked in that local hoteliers soon lamented the fact that they could now fill twice as many rooms as they had.

Though not without its problems—namely, too few jobs—the new Naples has a functioning city council, a gleaming metro line, the most advanced genetic research laboratories in Italy, a huge modern business district, good restaurants everywhere, and, if not great hotels, more than a handful of attractive bed-and-breakfasts to compensate for the lack of pensioni. Its rich array of churches, monasteries, and museums can be visited on most days, and part of its extensive subterranean network of tunnels and catacombs, decorated with charming early-Christian folk paintings and mosaics, has finally been opened to the public. The city is, as they say, "hot."

If you find yourself longing for an Italy that scarcely exists anymore in the north—an Italy of intact traditions, warm welcomes, dialect humor, laundry lines flapping overhead, and superb seasonal cooking—Naples, however wounded, may serve as your gateway to this not-so-lost world. But it's a world that you must discover for yourself, since there are almost no tourist services here; and unlike cities like Florence, being a distinctly Renaissance creation, Naples has no particular period flavor, no signature syntax to its layout or design. No Pope ever put his stamp on these meandering streets, and no merchant prince ever redeveloped a neighborhood, Medici-wise, in his trademark style. The city is a magnificent hodgepodge.

Since 1504, Naples was ruled in turn by Spaniards, Austrians, Bourbons, French Bonapartists, and again by Bourbons before being incorporated into the Italian state in 1860-61. Many of these rulers built beautifully (the 18th-century princes favoring a distinctive chord of earth-red walls and gray stone moldings), yet the city remains a congeries of dissimilar tastes and visions. Walking down almost any given street today, you may come across first a French-Gothic cathedral, then a bustling Baroque one, and then a piazza shadowed by severe Neoclassical domes. So art history cannot be your cicerone in this municipal labyrinth—you must follow your own poetic instincts, your own metaphorical nose.

Whenever I return to Naples, I find myself looking forward to bedtime, to the first few moments of falling asleep. I always stay in one of the city's more populous quarters, in a little room overlooking a long, narrow, ascending street, and as I throw open my window an enormous wave of sound floods the room. Settled in bed, I'm disconcerted at first by the sheer volume, by my feeling of floating helplessly in an enormous tide of half-drowned voices—people calling and laughing, snatches of jokes, radio commercials, ghosts of song twisted by the wind. Yet soon, strangely, the noises begin to soothe me. Suspended halfway between consciousness and sleep, I enjoy a peculiar sensation of homecoming, of rejoining a crowd of kindred spirits, of faces I have always known. Footfalls mingle with the honking of horns and the snarl of mopeds, and some sounds nestle within other, larger sounds—a baby's cry inside a TV melodrama, a dog's bark inside a domestic quarrel. After a while the sounds become so clear that I can almost see the bassi, or street-level apartments, with their open windows and monumental, tomblike beds and pictures of the Madonna; the old ladies gossiping in chairs on the sidewalk, and the kids revving up their bikes at the street corner; the circolo sociale, with grizzled gents playing cards under a bare lightbulb, smoking, coughing, trading affectionate insults.

Only after I'd been visiting Naples regularly for some years did it occur to me that to be half-asleep here, half-exposed to the dream world, is to be perfectly in tune with the city's deepest nature. Naples is a place best grasped through metaphor, through myth and memory and half-remembered dream. I cling to this vision of Naples as a threshold city, a sort of mystic antechamber to a hidden sphere of existence, because that is in fact how Naples sees itself. Somewhere hereabouts, according to ancient mythology, was the passage leading down into Hades, where the shades of the dead were said to dwell forever. Virgil placed that tunnel to the west of Naples, by Lake Avernus, and it is there that he has Aeneas, in Book VI of the Aeneid, descend into the underworld in order to speak with his dead father. Naples is a place midway between the seen and the unseen, the material and the spiritual, the visible present and the invisible, engulfing past. Yet the sensation of living at a point where the underworld converges with the world of the living is, for most Neapolitans, no mere literary conceit. It is as much a part of their daily life as spicy chocolate, sweet coffee, and volcanic wine. Across the beautiful crescent bay, the great gray cone of Mount Vesuvius, its central vent only temporarily plugged by solidified magma, is an eternal reminder of the maze of fiery cavities beneath the Campanian soil.

Italians have an expression, "Non fare il napoletano!" ("Don't play the Neapolitan"), which means, more or less, "Cut the charm!" or "Don't try to butter me up!" Actually, Neapolitans tend to be genuinely cordial and outgoing, prepared to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, but at times they can seem rather too aware of their own coquettish appeal. Some years back, novelist Raffaele La Capria made a devastating observation: that the Neapolitans, their own vital culture long since vanished, had fallen back on hammy self-dramatization, dialect buffoonery, sentimental love songs, and a sort of provincial complacency. La Capria was a Neapolitan himself, who'd won the prestigious Strega prize while still young and later published a long series of warm-hearted but exasperated essays about his native city in leading Italian newspapers. He claimed that the construction of a colorful Neapolitan identity had papered over the unmodern, un-European quality of Naples: its inability to undertake desperately needed structural reforms and to create strong new industries. According to La Capria, this phony identity had also covered up the realities of class privilege, crime, and above all, the wildcat construction that's marred so much of the city's hillside neighborhoods.

Today La Capria is in his late seventies, genial, smiling, ever-perceptive. "You have to understand," he told me when I visited him recently at his home, in Rome, "that my generation has gone through an experience that's unique in history. Before the war, everything in our Campanian countryside, the earth, the sea, the sky, was just as it had always been. I have written of the absolute beauty of Capri. Homer and Virgil invented that [Mediterranean] landscape—it was the landscape that physically embodied our spirit, our world of metaphor. But my generation is also the only one known to have experienced the devastation of its poetic homeland. Of course mankind has always seen floods, fires, and massacres, but Earth remained the same. Now, after the ecological depredations of the past decades, the Mediterranean Sea is dying, and its civilization is dying along with it.

"You may know the film that Francesco Rosi and I made, Le Mani sulla Città [Hands over the City]," La Capria continued. "Well, in that film we tried to show how after the war the developers changed everything, so that nothing—not a thing—was recognizable anymore." He was referring mostly to Achille Lauro, the wily shipbuilder turned mayor who, with his cronies in the construction business, had been responsible for the appearance of so many monstrous buildings on the Neapolitan hillsides in the fifties and sixties.

"You know, there are certain landscapes," La Capria said, "that can't be changed without really dreadful consequences. When you destroy them, you destroy the relationships that people have with themselves."

Naples, I conceded, was a wounded city, not intact like Rome or Florence but certainly still affecting and in some parts quite beautiful. How did La Capria feel about Bassolino and the reforms of the center-left? "I haven't really followed all this," he told me, with a weary gesture, "but some of it is obviously positive. When Bassolino cleaned up Piazza del Plebiscito he also restored the pride of the Neapolitans—that little idea of his started a whole wave of improvement. I wrote about it at the time. I said to Bassolino, 'You're a poker player! The whole thing's a bluff!' Well, there are some bluffs that work."

We talked about Naples a while longer, and it seemed that La Capria gradually softened. "The beauty of the city is there," he admitted, "but it can be hard to see. You have to wander through a maze to find some of the best things. Perhaps you enter a basso and go down a passage, and there you discover something as marvelous in its way as the coliseum. It becomes an adventure—you make personal conquests."

La Capria's basso isn't just a poetic conceit. There actually is a street-level flat in the historic center, near the Church of San Lorenzo, whose obliging owner used to pull aside a chest of drawers and fling open a trap door that led visitors down to a secret Roman amphitheater. (Recently the poor fellow got tired of having people troop through his tiny lair and closed his door to strangers.) Such hidden treasures abound in Naples.

If, on your way uphill to the great Capodimonte museum, with its masterpieces by Caravaggio and Ribera and Giordano, you decide not to cross the Sanità bridge but instead descend into the depths of the Sanità district, you will discover a warren of wonderfully evocative streets. On one corner there's a great old-time pasticceria, on another, a tiny door leading into a cavernous chocolate factory. Nearby is a tarallificcio that makes irresistible tarallini, circular breadsticks fortified with lard and nuts. At the heart of the district stand two centuries-old, near-crumbling apartment blocks that, when you enter their inner courtyards, reveal themselves to be masterpieces of Neapolitan Baroque architecture, with fanciful staircases winding up through open, arched facades. Best of all is the great early-17th-century Church of Santa Maria della Sanità, underneath whose altar a large brass gate opens on the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, with their frescoes and mosaics and macabre ossuary.

Whereas your typical modern metropolis teems with transplants from just about everywhere, Naples is populated almost exclusively by Neapolitans, and many of their customs are ancient and undiluted. Among the more deeply rooted are the many superstitious practices that shade by imperceptible degrees into downright sorcery. The most hallowed is the cult of Saint Januarius, whose clotted blood, preserved in a vial in the cathedral, must liquefy three times a year to ensure the city's good fortune. Most Neapolitan superstition, though, is hitched to the local passion for gambling, understandable in a society where so many people are on the dole.

Card games, the football pools, private numbers games, the racing form—gambling in Naples is protean and ubiquitous. Yet the ruling desire of almost everyone is simply to guess the winning estrazione, or string of numbers, in the twice-weekly state-lottery drawing. And this cannot be achieved, many older people believe, without the assistance of the dead.

Traditionally, Neapolitans have been convinced of the existence of a sort of spirit realm that more or less orchestrates what happens here on earth. They also believe that their nightly dreams provide a link to this secret hierarchy of dead souls. Virtually every family owns a copy of a 17th-century compilation called the Smorfia (more properly, the Antico Libro della Smorfia, or "Ancient Book of Morpheus," the god of dreams), which, by means of the occult numerological science called cabala, assigns a number to any dream you might have. (A dream of macaroni with tomato sauce, for example, yields 37, and macaroni with oil and garlic, 25). Given the capriciousness of the dead, however, further help may well be required from your local dream-teller (santone or onirico) or, if it should come to that, from a reputable specialist in the art of communion with the hereafter (assistito). Neapolitans willingly concede that the whole thing is a chancy business, but then, as they gaily point out, so is life itself in this volcanic city. For here you never stand on truly solid ground. Just as the underworld of crypts, cisterns, and catacombs is always winding somewhere beneath your feet, so the souls of the dead, by turns playful and petulant, benign and impish, hover invisibly about your dreams.

Keep your eye on that old woman sitting by the side of the street," Elio says. "You will see, she won't move a muscle."

We're out walking in the Quartieri Spagnuoli, Elio and Eugenio and I. Elio Scribani is a reporter for the Neapolitan daily Il Mattino, and I called him up out of the blue a while back because I was impressed by his work. Elio frequently writes about the working classes and the poor of Naples, just the sort of people who live in the Quartieri, and he does it with heart and as much fire as is suitable for the city page of a daily newspaper. Eugenio Blasio, a tall, strongly built photojournalist friend of Elio's, was brought up in the quarters and knows them intimately.

Ahead of us, as a van lurches toward her, the old lady in a straw-bottomed chair remains absolutely motionless. "Watch now," says Elio, "you'll swear she's taken her measurements." In a moment the van pulls alongside the lady, miraculously clears her knees by an inch, then continues on its way. She flashes us a confident smile.

The Quartieri Spagnuoli derived their name from the Spanish troops who were lodged there in the 17th century, when Spain ruled Naples. The streets are narrow, flanked by tiny, mangerlike shops, and often they are filled with people sitting outdoors to escape the heat of the airless bassi. From the upper stories buckets come down on ropes, receive food and wine from the designated family shopper, then scoot back up again. Overhead, laundry lines billow like the sails of a clipper ship.

Wandering about the Quartieri, we see a piazzetta where trees have been newly planted, and another where children play soccer and a squad car lurks discreetly around the corner. We stop now and then as Eugenio takes photographs, and we eventually find ourselves in a lane called Tre Re a Toledo (Three Kings in Toledo), in front of a modest house with a sign bearing the legend CASA DI SANTA MARIA FRANCESCA. Even Eugenio only dimly remembers this house, but the door is open, and the sight of a pair of nuns sailing briskly about inside is enough to assure us that a Franciscan order has custodianship of the place.

One of the sisters informs us that Maria Francesca's chair, which may be found upstairs, has the miraculous power to render barren women pregnant, and that the house is a place of pilgrimage not only for the Quartieri but for the entire province of Naples. We go up to see the saint's chair, a rather ordinary looking straight-backed wooden thing, but we're amazed by the items that are ranged along the walls: ex-voto paintings, samples of hand embroidery, dusty piles of old mattresses (but why?), racks of liturgical vestments, enormous swaths of brocade. The place is a trove of folk art, and for a moment Eugenio and I—defying the orders of the nuns, who call upstairs to tell us it's closing time—poke into a back room that is piled high with devotional bric-a-brac.

When we come back out, Elio is sitting in Maria Francesca's chair, his eyes closed, his hands clasped in supplication.

"Elio, since when have you been trying to get pregnant?" Eugenio asks, laughing.

Slowly Elio's eyes blink open. "You can rib me all you want," he says, sheepish yet defiant, "but I think there's something to all these old beliefs. If Maria Francesca's chair has helped some women to conceive, then it can probably help me with my problems, too."

And who's to say he's wrong? In Naples the respect for religion, the fascination with ancestral observances, and the delightful, life-affirming spirit of the people conspire to draw you naturally into the culture of popular mysticism. It's a matter, largely, of emulation. Such charming people believe in these things that you want to believe in them too.

The nuns soon hustle us out of Maria Francesca's house, and I regret not having had time to sit in her chair. But that evening, as I listen to the sounds of Naples wafting in through my bedroom window, I get out my copy of the Smorfia. I'm ready for a night of vivid dreams, of signs from the otherworld.


Neapolitan Style


Grand Hotel Vesuvio Built in 1882, partially destroyed during World War II, then rebuilt with two additional stories, this seafront dowager commands a sweeping view of the Bay of Naples and overlooks the Castel dell'Ovo, a massive 12th-century fortress. A historic refuge for heads of state and artistic sorts (Enrico Caruso, a frequent visitor, died here in 1921), the Vesuvio is very comfortable, and has recently added a well-designed fitness center, the Echia Club. Rooms, $300-$1,370. Via Partenope 45; 39-081-764-0044; fax 39-081-764-4483;

Hotel Excelsior The city's other grand hotel, just up the street from the Vesuvio, has similarly large, well-appointed rooms and suites. Request one with French windows opening onto a balcony overlooking the bay. Guests can use the Echia Club at the Vesuvio. Rooms, $265-$915. Via Partenope 48; 39-081-764-0111; fax 39-081-764-9743.

Caruso Roof Garden In a town where hotel food was until recently synonymous with mediocrity, the Vesuvio's restaurant is exceptional, especially for the pezzogna, a white fish found only in the cold outer waters of the Bay of Naples. Dinner, $75. Call 39-081-764-0520; fax 39-081-764-4483.

Mimì alla Ferrovia Locals prefer this classic for such regional specialties as spaghetti alle vongole and pasta e fagioli. Dinner, $40. Via Alfonso d'Aragona 21; 39-081-553-8525.

La Stanza del Gusto (The Tasting Room) Mario Avallone used to be a pastry cook and banquet caterer. His year-old restaurant had its origins in a room with one table where he and his friends tried out new cheeses, hams, and wines in often highly creative preparations. There are always a few Neapolitan-style dishes on the daily menu here, like pasta with salsa di genovese di maialino (a long-simmered meat sauce), but free invention, most of it very happy, is the rule. Dinner, $50. Reservations required. Vicoletto Sant'Arpino 21, off the Via Chiaia; 39-081-401-578.

Pizza is a Neapolitan invention, and even the humblest pizzerias have delicious offerings. Just make sure you see a woodpile and a domed brick oven; otherwise you're not getting the real thing. True pizza marinara contains only tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and olive oil; pizza Margherita adds buffalo mozzarella. Many places offer more toppings, including friarielli, a local version of broccoli rabe found nowhere else. My two favorites are Mattozzi, Piazza Carità 2, and Da Michele, Via Cesare Sersale 1-3.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale Consisting largely of donations from the aristocratic Farnese family and of pieces excavated from Pompeii in the 18th and 19th centuries, this is the only art collection in the world that contains Greco-Roman painted murals. The Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), an infamous gallery of erotic art, mostly from Pompeii, is accessible only to adults who request the key. Piazza Museo Nazionale 19; 39-081-440-166.

Museo di Capodimonte With its paintings from the 13th to 19th centuries—Filippino Lippi, Botticelli, Masaccio, Titian, Caravaggio—this palace museum boasts one of the finest collections in Europe. Via Miano 2; 39-081-744-1307.

Dan Hofstadter, a contributing editor, wrote about Edwin Lutyens in the May/June 2001 issue.