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Naples guide: The scruffy city in Vesuvius’s shadow

Crucifixes that talk, shop assistants with the faces of Botticelli angels, cathedrals where miracles are commonplace.

You could believe anything might happen in Naples, never more than a Hail Mary away from being buried by the fractious Mount Vesuvius.

I’m in the city to buy a mandolin. This fine instrument has its origins right here in old Napoli.

Smoke on the water: Naples, infamously, sits in the metaphorical shadow of Mount Vesuvius

Mandolins have fascinated me since I bought my first many decades ago in Belfast; now it’s time for the genuine article. The city’s steep, narrow streets allow for just two feasible modes of transport: moped or foot.

I opt for a Vespa scooter tour – which is dangerous but exhilarating.

Antonio Mosca, of tour firm VespAround, speeds along rutted streets and alleyways. Equal measures of squalor and sheer beauty whizz by.

In the shadow of some of Christendom’s most glorious art, people gesticulate dramatically, but I’ve no idea what they are gesticulating about.

We stop at music shops, junk shops, bakeries and ancient bars where locals bid us to join them.

This dodgy 3,000-year-old city has a well-earned reputation for organised crime, notably the notorious Camorra syndicate, a Mafia-type organisation, which has had 500 years to perfect its racketeering.

Domes and decorum: San Francesco di Paola is one of Naples's many fine churches

Domes and decorum: San Francesco di Paola is one of Naples’s many fine churches

No wonder the stylish police officers who comb the city centre all carry Beretta handguns.

Napoli is not so much La Dolce Vita as La Gritty Vita.

Yet everyone is so friendly – as long as your scooter doesn’t block their way, that is.

A roundabout, overlooked by the Sant’ Agnello Maggiore church, is the scene of an encounter with a Lambretta.

A beautiful woman sits on its pillion, facing backwards, chatting on a smartphone.

Meanwhile, her boyfriend weaves through the traffic.

He avoids our scooter by inches, only to fall foul of a taxi driver. They trade operatic insults, while the pillion woman draws on a ciggie and continues her conversation. Obstruction cleared, and we are now closing in on the Spanish Quarter and the Via Sebastiano: music shops a speciality.

We settle on Miletti Strumenti Musicali, a byword among keen mandolin players. The assistant is endlessly helpful. I am allowed to play a model from the 19th century, picking out a few notes of Santa Lucia, naturally. The tremolo sounds lovely, the strings as responsive as a touch screen.

Alas, I don’t have £4,000. I am shown a more modestly priced Umberto Gechinni, with a briar walnut pick-plate, inlaid with motherof-pearl. My right hand glides over the fingerboard.

It’s heavenly. Antonio tells the assistant we are undecided – which is a lie. Bargaining is the Neapolitan way.

We stroll down Via Sebastiano, past traders selling the most extraordinary bling. We visit the hedonistic Spanish Quarter and the outrageously free-wheeling Spaccanapoli – the old Roman road (complete with decaying aqueduct) that bisects the city.

Both sum up Naples at its best: history, chaos, charm and excitement in abundance.

Most of the city’s cathedral was built in the 13th century, but has been devastated by serial earthquakes. Meanwhile, the Duomo is the venue for the miraculous, and regular, liquefying of St Genarro’s blood.

He’s the city’s patron saint. On high days and holidays, when brought out and held aloft, the blood miraculously liquefies, to cries from the faithful.

Mandolin matters curtail further wandering, and we return to Miletti’s. A price is negotiated. It’s mine for £325 – and we return to our base at the delightful Hilton Sorrento Palace, an hour’s drive away.

Stay a few days in Naples and you’ll soon have your own favourite square, favourite cafe and favourite waitress. The cats will be dozing in the shade, the oleanders fluttering gently.

You’ll sip your Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ) – a wine produced locally by monks. You’ll look contentedly round this compelling place and, I promise, want to come back. 

TRAVEL FACTS 

EasyJet flies to Naples from £44 return, easyJet.com. Rooms at the Hilton, Sorrento, from £176 a night, based on double occupancy, hilton.com.

VespAround specialise in tailormade tours around Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi coast. Half-day tours start at £130pp, vesparound.com. 

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