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Naples: A city of culture, charm and vitality

This Italian gem is home to awe-inspiring cultural heritage and historical sites. (Shutterstock)
Walking through the streets of Pompeii is an eerie experience.
The glamorous Hotel Vesuvio in Naples.
Colorful market stalls line the streets.
The streets of Naples are lively and full of hustle and bustle.
NAPLES: Sitting on the roof terrace of the Hotel Excelsior in Naples at sunset overlooking the island of Capri and the brooding outline of Mount Vesuvius, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting. Far below stands the magnificent Castel dell’Ovo and overhead seagulls’ wings turn ruby red as they catch in the floodlights illuminating its massive ramparts.
We are in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Naples — Chiaia — with its sweeping seafront lined with outdoor cafes and bathers making the most of the sun-drenched bay. Next door to the Excelsior is the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, which transports you back to an era of refined style and elegance. Here you will enjoy a five-star experience handled by staff who know what top-class service means. Grace Kelly, Clark Gable and Sophia Loren are just some of the famous names to have stayed at the hotel, so it is easy to understand why a room there is so sought after.
But Chiaia, though beautiful, is the elegant sister to the noisy, high-spirited sibling that seizes you and demands your attention as you step into the bustling heart of the city. Here you have narrow streets packed with people of all ages nonchalantly dodging kamikaze mopeds and market stalls stacked with luscious fruit or souvenirs. Old crumbling apartment blocks with little balconies that look like they could fall down at any moment stand alongside cavernous mansions with sweeping staircases. The whole place has a theatrical air and once you have got used to being almost run over every time you step outside, it is a tonic for the senses.
One negative, however, is the ugly graffiti that covers so many buildings. This offends the eye and is an insult to a great city.
Of course you cannot visit Naples and not recognize that this is home to some of the greatest art and culture in the world.
High on the agenda of many tourists is a visit to Pompeii, the Roman city buried under meters of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
When visiting Pompeii, I would advise that taking the train from Naples Central Train Station can be an uncomfortable experience. That was certainly the case for my party and I. First, we waited on an alarmingly-overcrowded platform and as the train drew in, there was a crush because there were so many people, locals and tourists alike, trying to board. Having struggled onto the train, the problems continued due to the stifling heat. It is an environment that thieves thrive in and sadly one of our group had his wallet stolen on the train.
Considering Pompeii is one of the most wonderful sights on the planet and on the wish list of people from every corner of the globe, it seems incredible that more effort is not put into transporting visitors in comfort.
So, if you want to have a more relaxed journey it might be a good idea to take an air-conditioned coach with one of the many companies offering guided tours of the site.
Though the train journey was unpleasant, once you step into Pompeii all the upset is forgotten and sheer delight takes over. I was not prepared for the huge scale of the site, which shows so clearly the highly-sophisticated lifestyle enjoyed by the citizens all those centuries ago before the catastrophe.
It is shocking when you come across the casts of the people who died when the volcano erupted and there is a sense of horror at the scale of the tragedy that overwhelmed the city.
Herculaneum, also devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, is on a smaller scale to Pompeii as it was largely residential rather than a major commercial city. It is exceptional for the objects that survived the eruption as, unlike Pompeii, the deep pyroclastic material that covered it preserved wooden and other organic-based objects, such as roofs, beds, doors and even food.
One bit of advice concerning both Pompeii and Herculaneum is that if you visit in the summer months, you should remember to wear a hat and consider carrying an umbrella to protect yourself from the sun as there is very little shade or cover on either site.
A visit to the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli) offers the opportunity to see the wonderful collections connected with Charles III of Bourbon. The museum hosts extensive collections of Greek and Roman antiquities. Their core is from the Farnese Collection, which includes a collection of engraved gems and the Farnese Marbles. Among these are magnificent busts of Homer and Julius Caesar.
You can also see the Herculaneum papyri, carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, found after 1752 in the Villa of the Papyri.
To see exceptional Italian Renaissance paintings, a visit to the Capodimonte Museum is a must. Capodimonte is a royal palace, which served as a residence for successive rulers of Naples. The dynasties of the Bourbons, the French kings Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat and the House of Savoy each left their mark on Capodimonte. Inside you will find regal ballrooms and reception rooms with elegantly-frescoed walls and a salon entirely crafted out of delicate Capodimonte porcelain.
Also well worth a visit is the 13th century Castel Nuovo which has spectacular views over the Bay of Naples. Highly-atmospheric theater and musical events are staged within its ancient courtyard and the museum has sculptures, paintings and frescoes dating from the 14th to the 19th centuries.
It goes without saying that the food in Naples is fantastic and you can sit down and enjoy wonderful pasta and seafood dishes all over the city. A great place to relax over lunch is Ristorante Ciro, situated near the Castel dell’Ovo, overlooking the harbor.
Moving out of the city, you can take a ferry to the island of Capri, which, though over-crowded with visitors, still has a bewitching beauty. Do not forget to take a boat trip out to the Grotto Azzurra, a cave filled with spectacularly-blue water. You can also take a ferry to the popular seaside resort of Sorrento.
All in all, Naples is a city that has great charm and vitality alongside its awe-inspiring cultural heritage.