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Under the city's skin

Look beyond the chaos of Naples and you'll find a passionate, creative city that is rapidly becoming a world-class destination for contemporary art, Elizabeth Warkentin writes

Naples’s Centro Storico, or city centre, is often a scene of organized chaos, with people hurrying to and from work as merchants sing and shout about their wares.

After a guided tour of the ancient Greek aqueduct system at Napoli Sotterranea, I emerged from the bowels of Naples into the blinding afternoon sunlight of the bustling Piazza San Gaetano. The scene was one of organized chaos as workers rushed to and fro, large trucks filled with sound, light and camera equipment blocked the cobbled streets and VIPs in black suits and Ray-Bans were led through the narrow surrounding alleys of the Centro Storico, the city's historical centre. Beside the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, an elaborate stage had been set up, draped with red velvet curtains. At the foot of it, the street was lined with red carpets, on top of which stood two or three rows of chairs, including a gilded throne upholstered in red brocade.

"That seat will be for Sophia Loren," said Enzo Albertini, founder of the Napoli Sotterranea association, and my informal guide to the area. "The guest of honour."

That Dolce and Gabbana, who hail from Milan, would host their 30th anniversary celebration and fashion show in Piazza San Gaetano, the epicentre of the ancient city of Neapolis (New City), is a testament to the fashion duo's lifelong love affair with Naples. For all its noise and traffic woes, its suffocatingly enclosed streets, its crime, garbage and rampant graffiti, Naples is passionate and artsy, with a long and distinguished past.

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The Piazza del Plebiscito is a large public square in central Naples.

Dating back to 470 BC, Naples was first a Greek city. Although it eventually became a Roman colony, Hellenic culture was held in high esteem. Aqueducts, public baths, a theatre and a temple were built, and emperors and wealthy Romans had elegant villas on the Bay of Naples. For lack of space, successive waves of invaders – the Goths, the Normans, the Spanish – often built directly on top of what had been there before, and Neapolitans over the centuries dumped their refuse in the aqueducts. The cholera epidemic of the mid-1880s forced authorities to seal off the underground city, until the Second World War, when the tunnels were reopened as bomb shelters, such as the ones at Napoli Sotterranea and Galleria Borbonica.

More recently, Naples has had difficulty shaking its reputation for crime, trash and corruption, thanks to the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of Sicily's Cosa Nostra. But all that has been changing.

Dozens of world-class contemporary art galleries and museums have opened. One of these, the Madre contemporary art gallery, which opened in 2005, is one of the best in Italy. In fact, Naples is fast gaining a reputation as one of the world's top contemporary art cities. Subterranean tunnel systems such as Galleria Borbonica's Second World War air raid shelter double as modern art galleries and concert spaces. The metro system – impressively clean and modern – has made stations into underground art galleries, or "catacombs of beauty," as Achille Bonito Oliva, the artistic co-ordinator behind the "subway art" project, described the effort to The New York Times. Ascending the escalator at Toledo, I was awed by the deep, otherworldly space evocative of a blue hole, with light filtering down from a round skylight above.

The ceiling of the Toledo metro station in Naples.

A new generation of entrepreneurs has been working to make Naples more appealing to locals and tourists alike.

Mayor Luigi de Magistris has brought some order to the chaos, while also preserving the historic and cultural treasures of Naples. Since de Magistris was first elected in 2011, traffic restrictions in the historic centre as well as along the newly pedestrianized and cycle-friendly waterfront have made it easier to get around.

Architectural treasures such as the Galleria Umberto I, a magnificent 19th-century glass-domed shopping mall that recalls Milan's Galleria Umberto II, are being restored.

The mayor's commitment to recycling has helped ease the trash problem. Perhaps more importantly, his determination to tackle corruption has created a new sense of civic pride, something that was in evidence along busy Via Toledo, a major shopping artery between Quartieri Spagnoli – a warren of canyon-like alleys reminiscent of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels – and the posh Chiaia area.

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Panorama of Naples, with a view of the port in the Gulf of Naples and Mount Vesuvius.

In spite of its reputation, I walked, on my own, all over the city – from the harbour to the Piazza del Plebiscito, through the dark alleyways and hidden corners of the Quartieri Spagnoli, and up to the curving Corso Vittorio Emanuele overlooking the bay, to the leafy, more upscale neighbourhood of Vomero, to catch the sunset. While I did see a lot of crumbling buildings and unsightly graffiti, I never felt threatened. The most disturbing thing I experienced was the sight of a rat as big as a football scampering down the Salita della Pedamentina, an old and famous series of switchbacks and stairways between the top of the Vomero hill and Chiaia. That, and the return trip to Pompeii on the ancient Circumvesuviana commuter train. The journey was so unpleasant that I vowed not to repeat it, opting instead for the boat to Sorrento and the bus back to Naples airport from there, rather than face such an impossibly cramped and malodorous experience again.

Even in the more touristy and high-end areas such as Vomero, Castel Nuovo or Piazza Trieste e Trento, Naples is not a meticulously maintained outdoor gallery in the way of northern Italian towns and cities such as Verona, Venice or Siena. Unlike those cities, Naples is not eminently Instragram-able. In fact, as I learned on my failed trek up to Castel Sant'Elmo, determined to get a decent scenic photo of the city in the evening, it's a downright challenge.

No one could accuse Naples of being a beauty queen. However, the city's geographical position overlooking the volcanic spectacle of Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, stretching out to glamorous Capri and the Amalfi Coast, might allow it to be a contender in the global pageant of cities. This beauty, combined with its difficult past as an oft-conquered colony, its near decimation in the Second World War (Naples was the most-bombed city in Italy) and its suffering under the Camorra, lend the city an air of operatic drama.

People ride a scooter through a Naples alleyway.

In the assault on the senses that is Naples, it often feels like someone suddenly turned the bass way up. Neapolitans live life passionately and they live it out on the street – for all to see. Women of a certain age sit on their balconies or on cheap chairs directly outside their buildings to enjoy the theatre of life. Merchants sing and shout as they peddle their wares. Children set up makeshift soccer pitches. Street artists paint striking murals. The devout build shrines to the Madonna. On and around congested Via Toledo, scooters transporting two or three helmet-less teens rat-a-tat-tat down tight back alleys laden with colourful laundry and pockmarked with satellite dishes; the aromatic scents of lemon granita and wood-fired pizza linger in the air; new dog owners walk their large furry friends, even as the stray and abandoned dog issue in the city remains a problem; and artists show off their watercolours on the road outside the lavish Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano. Everywhere there are contrasting elements of splendour and squalor, opulence and decay.

Naples is not for the faint of heart. At first, the relentless disorder is overwhelming. But, by my fourth day, the vibrant, gritty city began to grow on me. From archeological ruins and ancient catacombs to the planet's best pizza and world-class art, Naples has something for even the most discerning traveller.

After all, if it's good enough for Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana and Sophia Loren, it's good enough for all of us.

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Air Canada flies to Naples via Rome. Lufthansa has flights via Frankfurt or Munich. Trains leave from Roma Termini station to Napoli Centrale and take between one to three hours, depending on the time and price.

Where to stay

Attico Partenopeo: Located next to the Galleria Umberto I and around the corner from Via Toledo and Piazza Plebiscito, this stylish B&B boasts a lovely rooftop terrace with partial views of Castel Sant'Elmo on one side and the Bay of Naples on the other; an eclectic mix of contemporary art work and design furniture; patient, knowledgeable staff; and one of the best buffet breakfast spreads in all Italy. Doubles start at $125;

Costantinopoli 104: Steps from the Centro Storico, the Art Nouveau style Costantinopoli is housed in an elegant villa with a magnificent stained glass portal, bespoke art, a tranquil garden and a small swimming pool – a rarity in Naples. Doubles start at $230;

Romeo Hotel: Overlooking the Naples harbour, the Romeo is a luxury steel-and-glass design hotel featuring the eponymous owner's impressive art collection, Michelin-rated cuisine and even a cigar room. Doubles start at $328;

A terrace overlooks the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. Although Naples may not be the prettiest of cities, it is geographically positioned lends it a certain glamour.

Where to eat

50 Kalo di Ciro Salvo: New kid on the block Ciro Salvo's light, flavourful pizzas using well-hydrated, low-protein flours and only the best local ingredients from the surrounding Campania region are fierce competition for long-established, no-frills Neapolitan pizzerias who were using mediocre ingredients and low-quality vegetable oils.

L'antica pizzeria da Michele: Known as "the Sacred Temple of Pizza" among foodies, Da Michele is the famous pizzeria from Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts – so of course it's packed with tourists and there are lineups. Pizzas here are cooked rapid fire in the brick-lined wood-burning oven in the front of the dining room. They're soft and wet and they're made with sunflower oil rather than olive oil, a sign proudly proclaiming that da Michele wants the tomatoes and cheese to stand out. Service is quick yet brusque and they will kick you out if you try to linger, but the spectacular taste makes up for the service.

Gran Caffè Gambrinus: Opened in 1860 at the time of Italy's unification, Naples's venerable Belle Epoque café on the Piazza Trieste e Trento has played host to Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Empress Sissi of Austria and Benito Mussolini. Prices are steep and sit-down service may be slow (cheaper and faster if you stand at the bar, like the locals), but the pastries, coffees and hot chocolate are worth savouring.

Elizabeth Warkentin

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