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(In the first of a three-part series, the author sets out on an expansive walking tour of Naples. And along the way, all misguided rumors of this city’s heavy crime and trash-laden streets evaporate in the kind and robust spirit of Naples’ inhabitants and magnificent monuments marking the indefatigable drive of humankind.)

Our greatest fear as we flew past signs pointing toward Pompeii’s "Scavi," the smog-shrouded Mount Vesuvius, and flapping laundry strung across an overpass along the Autostrada was the inevitable exit into Naples’ traffic-snarled city center. My husband Joe and I had been sufficiently warned of the Neapolitans’ proud refusal to obey traffic lights and their belief that sidewalks should accommodate cars, too.

So before we headed for this sprawling metropolis, we asked an Italian friend who drove to Naples frequently for detailed directions to Hotel Excelsior located on the Riviera-esque promenade along the sea. He told us to follow signs for "Lungomare" and to make sure as we approached the baronial-style hotel that the Castel dell’Ovo (associated with its egg shape and other egg-related legends) was on our right. Of course, the clusters of cars on this main drag whirred past us like the Indy 500 – and, after idling cautiously on the side, Joe floored the gas pedal and joined the high-speed blur.

We quickly lost sight of the "Lungomare" signs but located the Castel dell’Ovo on our left. After about five laps around this elliptical track, Joe suddenly spun around with laser-focused determination and, within minutes, the medieval egg structure seemed to jump to the other side. To our left stood Hotel Excelsior. We pulled up and two heavily embroidered bellhops opened our doors, started unloading our bags and whisked our car into an unseen garage.

Early on, Joe and I agreed to treat ourselves to a four-star hotel in Naples. The Baroque palace dripped with marble-and-gold excess, and we gladly drank it in – especially after driving through monsoons and blizzards during one of Italy’s most brutal weather spells. The manager Mario Sambiase (a Martin Landau double), clad in pin-striped tails, greeted us by name at the door. He bowed and notified us that an oceanfront suite with a balcony was available. In no time, Joe and I flung open the shutters to reveal a lushly gradated blue Bay of Naples, a gently puffing Vesuvius and the 12th century ovarian fortress. It was mid-afternoon, and the sun warmed us despite a crisp breeze.

From our sixth-floor vantage point, we gazed down at two cats hopping across the jagged rocks and following a fisherman pulling nets entangled with crustaceans into his rickety wooden boat. We clanged our glasses filled with chilled champagne on a white-painted wrought-iron balcony that also gave us a bird’s eye view of the early 17th century triple-arched Immacolata Fountain, heavily ornamented with classical statues and caryatids.

We took a few moments to soak in the regal details of our luxurious suite, with a marbleized bathroom larger than most studio apartments. Then Joe and I grabbed a map and anxiously bolted out Hotel Excelsior’s gilt-scrolled doors toward Castel Nuovo (not to be confused with Castel dell’Ovo) – an intriguing charcoal black and shiny alabaster fortress visible from the port. It was early December, so dusk descended rapidly. Amid a shadowy gray light, we followed a zig-zagging street toward the port. Then we descended a steep flight of stone steps, near the magnificent Palazzo Reale (a rococo city within another rococo city), and hit an intersection more deadly than the busiest U.S. expressways.

What to do? After watching a woman with her baby in a stroller aggressively step into the street and get to the other side without a scratch, we did the same. Miraculously, every car came to a smooth stop to let us cross before assuming race-car mode within nanoseconds. Joe and I cut through a park, where tacky children’s rides bumped up against moss-covered Roman columns.

We approached another death-defying crosswalk, which we flung ourselves across, landing on a wide ramp that led directly up to Castel Nuovo. At the time, carabinieri swarmed the widely turreted rook. But we continued to enter under a towering Roman portal, while the casually smoking police brigade smilingly waved us on – even as puffed-up dignitaries and their bejeweled wives swept past us.

The courtyard quickly emptied out, and all that loomed before us was an over-sized green-bronzed gladiator helmet surrounded by cannon balls. We bought our tickets from a young guy who invited us to roam freely around the castle (also known as the Maschio Angioino) – built in the 13th century as the residence of Charles I of Anjou. Most of the guards dozed in corners as Joe and I swept through the Salone dei Baroni, a massive state room lined with dark, sumptuously carved chairs. We then observed the cracked frescoes and chipped sculptures of St. Michael in the Cappella Palatine (the only original part of the structure that was not damaged by wars or natural disasters.)

The castle also houses the Museo Civico – three floors of 15th-20th century art. Once again, the laidback security personnel paid us no mind as we took in the horrors of grandiose ecclesiastical paintings of disemboweled martyrs and the crucified Christ suspended over a nightmarish scene of dragons, skeletons and open graves. Incongruities abounded as a gold bust of Naples’ patron saint, San Gennaro, sported a bone fragment visible through a tiny window in his cape while a semi-nude, white-marble sculpture of the Empress Carlotta reclined nearby.

Another floor was dedicated to more busts of sour-faced nobles and heroic painted homages to Garibaldi and the Risorgimento. At one point, we followed a small staircase we thought led to another gallery and found ourselves atop the castle’s roof exposed to the twinkling carnival lights of the port.

We worked up an appetite and envisioned a meal in honor of Naples’ most famous indigenous dish: pizza. A friend had suggested "Pizzeria Da Ettore," which he recalled being located on Via Santa Lucia across from a cinema – not too far from our hotel. So Joe and I scoured the busy street, engulfed in a swirl of eclectic humanity, and got a bit confused when we literally hit what we thought was a brick wall. When we looked up, a monstrous mound of dirt and rock hung over our heads – a plaque indicating that it was a new excavation site. Once on the other side of this urban mountain, we found the cinema and about 25 pizzerie surrounding it – with the homey "Da Ettore" nearly lost in the dough-hurling shuffle.

Men in white aprons vigorously stoked exposed wood-burning ovens as a white-jacketed waiter briskly took our orders for pizza with arugula and prosciutto; and pizza with artichokes, mushrooms, black olives and prosciutto – together with spaghetti aglio e olio, and a fresh tossed salad of radicchio, carrots and finocchio.

Soon a large group of dark, wavy-haired young men settled at a long table across from us. A family celebrating a birthday gesticulated and sang at another table, while a group of well-dressed older men were engaged in a piercing political debate. In a corner, near the open doors, sat a middle-aged businessman in a green sport coat; he nibbled on bread and sipped red wine while reading Il Corriere della Sera.

Out of nowhere, the familiar scene erupted into chaos when a soccer ball soared through the window and landed on one of the ultra-serious politician’s pizza capriciosa. A group of scruffy little boys stood sheepishly at the door as our waiter released a litany of self-consciously exaggerated rage. The boys ran away giggling, but the be-suited debate team remained unfazed. They rambled on while wiping off their shirts and the errant soccer ball. The burly guys at the next table raised their glasses to toast the street urchins’ well-placed goal.

Joe and I strolled quietly back to Hotel Excelsior. Standard jazz tunes poured from a piano in the ornate lobby, where a ritzy cocktail party was in full swing. The reverential Mario, still looking crisp in his tails, urged us to enjoy breakfast on the rooftop terrace.

We rose early to watch the supernatural sunrise over the Bay of Naples as Vesuvius emerged belching and blob-like from the smog. Today we would practically walk the entire length of Naples; so a hearty breakfast was in order. Turned off by now to the unadventurous Italian continental breakfasts of espresso, sticky cornetti and dry toast, we basked in the hotel’s hedonistic spread of vegetable frittate, sausages, hot rolls, cereals, fruit salads, fresh-squeezed juices and pastries. Our attentive waiter recounted the 14th century Neapolitan legend surrounding the Castel dell’Ovo, which looked like it was sitting in the middle of the ocean from this height.

Its name allegedly dates back to the Latin poet Virgil, who was considered a sorcerer and was said to have bound the fate of the castle to a fragile egg he enclosed in a carafe. If the egg broke, the castle would collapse. In reality, the building -- originally constructed in 1128 over a former monastery -- remained unscathed until the 15th century when it was bombed by Charles VIII. Over the next four centuries, it underwent major restorations; yet the monastic cells from the 7th century San Salvatore Church are still visible underground.

A casual walk up Via Santa Lucia led us into a small monastic-looking church, where teams of white-haired worshippers were engaged in quiet prayer. Yet again, a peaceful scene was disrupted – this time by a wild-haired virago of a woman who started racing up and down the aisle screaming. A priest rushed over to calm her down, but she grew even more furious and shouted to the cleric: "May you burn in hell for all eternity!" She broke loose and bolted into the crowded street, never to be seen again.

Apart from that startling escapade, Joe and I enjoyed a pleasant stroll to Piazza del Plebiscito – struck by its elliptical, colonnaded resemblance to St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican – and encountered rambunctious children playing soccer, elderly men engaged in fervent conversation and good-natured matrons carrying baskets of fresh produce. Whenever we asked for directions, the locals not only obliged but also gave us mini history lessons. And for all the walking we did (including the poorer quarters), we never encountered any purse snatchers on motorini or half-shaven predators lurking in the shadows (about whom many Northern Italians warned us).

Naples – a world-class city of art and historic grandeur – is probably one of Italy’s most misunderstood and misrepresented gems. Joe and I also found it to be one of the most romantic Italian cities we’ve ever visited. We spent the morning traversing Piazza del Plebiscito, stopping first inside the majestic 19th century Basilica di San Francesco di Paola, crowned by a grand semicircular arcade supported by Doric columns. Sparse yet grand, it was modeled after Rome’s Pantheon and embodies christianity’s close ties to paganism.

Past the power-packed lion and equestrian statues stands the inimitable Palazzo Reale built at the turn of the 17th century as a residence for the Spanish viceroy Fernandez Ruiz de Castro. It stretches across the entire piazza and extends for at least three miles, including several acres of tropical gardens. We marveled – and giggled – over the giant statues depicting the rulers of Naples set in orange-painted niches on the façade: from Roger the Norman and Charles I of Anjou to Charles III of Bourbon and viceroy Joachim Murat (whose high-waisted pants are sculpted so tightly, they reveal quite a prominent bulge).

No guide book could have prepared us for this endless expanse of "Capodimonte" decorative overkill accessed by a monumental neoclassical staircase. Joe and I grew intoxicated as we wondered in and out of Palazzo Reale’s 30 rooms dripping in porcelain figurines, frescoed ceilings, gold-leaf mirrors, crystal chandeliers, allegorical tapestries and rococo furniture. Not an inch of white space is left on the doors, walls, ceilings, floors, windows and furnishings. Every centimeter visually recounts mythological and biblical stories and epic tales of conquest – from the Sala Diplomatica to the Throne Hall to the King’s Office to Hercules Hall (whose centerpiece is a bronze clock of Atlas holding the globe on his muscular back).

Palazzo Reale also houses the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli – a library open to the public since 1804. Joe and I spent a few hours poring over about 2,000 papyruses found in the Officina Villa in Herculaneum during excavations in 1752, Gospel books from the 5th through 9th centuries, and illuminated 15th century codices
We concluded our own leisurely tour at the Palatine Chapel, built in the 1640s and used for private masses and intimate music concerts. Since the Christmas season was under way, the chapel had been transformed into a "Presepio" museum – celebrating Naples’ world-famous Nativity Scene artistry.

Far from discreet miniature manger recreations, these sophisticated mechanized sculptures depicted entire villages. While the Virgin, Christ and St. Joseph are nestled high on a Middle Eastern mountain, spectators get to view a vibrant and amusing chunk of daily medieval European life. Movable peasant boys gnaw on ham bones, a tavern owner uncorks a bottle of wine, women juggle laundry baskets on their heads, a blacksmith strikes his anvil, dogs bark, and mules wobble as farmers load them down with grapes and vegetables.

We then stepped out into the vigorous streets, dodging cars, bicycles, motorini, strollers and vendors – and soon found ourselves merging seamlessly into the constant but gentle rhythm of Naples, all the way up Via Toledo/Via Roma to the National Archaeological Museum (where Pompeii has been sensuously immortalized).•

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