Searching for happiness on the amalfi coast

Naples is a double-shot espresso. Caught in the shadow of a snoozing Mt Vesuvius, it fronts each day with fatalistic intensity.

Teeming streets explode with high theatrics: lovers fight passionately, drivers dodge skilfully and counterfeit-Prada salesmen keep an eye out for police. From the hissing craters of the Campi Flegrei to the graphic ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, drama defines the details.

But Italy's hyperactive underdog is more than just mayhem and thin-crust margherita pizzas. This former regal diva boasts three royal palaces, a superlative archaeological museum, art collections spanning from the classics to Jeff Koons, and an ancient centro storico (historic centre) bursting with secret frescoed chapels and citrus-filled cloisters. Not bad for a city more renowned for bling-clad mafiosi.

Ironically, it is Naples' unfashionableness that has made it so cool. While other cities march to a globalised beat, Naples is keeping it real. Here, restaurants are family heirlooms and vintage tailors sew bratpack suits. The cutting edge exists but it lives side by side with the Naples of neorealist film director Vittorio de Sica's imagination - one of gesticulating crowds and Sophia Loren lookalikes.

A film star in its own right, the fabled Amalfi Coast rolls out to the south. Lush cliffs plunge into creamy-blue seas and chichi coastal towns read like a celebrity roll call. American heiresses prefer pastel Positano, day-trippers flock to Amalfi, and Gore Vidal once lived in elegant hillside Ravello. Across the Bay of Naples sits bewitching Capri, home to a neon-blue grotto and holidaying superstars. The island has always seduced the cream of the crop, from kinky Roman emperors to Jackie Onassis and Brigitte Bar-dot. Further west, steamy Ischia soothes the muscles with its thermal springs, while tiny Procida soothes the soul with its windswept villages and weathered, old fishermen.

Legendary coastiines, infamous ruins and a madcap metropolis to boot: welcome to Italy at its red-blooded best.

©Lonely Planet Publications

sun, sea & the silver screen

| NAME Antonietta de Lillo

; AGE 47

OCCUPATION Film-maker

RESIDENCE Naples & Rome

What makes Naples queen of the Italian screen?

'Naples is an endless source of inspiration for me as a film-maker. There's an energy here that seems drawn from Mt Vesuvius itself. Like Caravaggio's chiaroscuro paintings, it's a place of extreme light and shadow. On one level there are the grand, sun-drenched castles of Sanf Elmo, Castel Nuovo and Castel dell'Ovo, and the sweeping views from Posillipo. But then there's a hidden Naples, the Naples of the Quartieri Spagnoli and La Sanita, where poverty and chaos sit side by side with grand baroque staircases, secret courtyards and forgotten palazzi. One of my favourite buildings in Naples is Luigi Vanvitelli's Palazzo Doria D'Angri on Piazza VII Settembre. It's considered one of Naples' finest 18th-century creations, and I used it as a location in Resto di Niente, a film set during the days of the Parthenopean Republic.

'Like any intriguing protagonist, Naples is complex and multilayered. Beneath its frantic streets sits an otherworld of catacombs, ancient cults and ruins. A fascinating way to explore it all is on a NapoliSotterraneatour, which takes you underground into an eerie landscape of ancient passageways and caves. The sense of mystery continues at street level, where haunting little shrines and altars pay homage to various saints...and footballers. Naples is home to many cults, and our love of ritual and performance helps explain our rich

Mt Vesuvius looms behind Castel dell'Ovo (pS3)

THE LOCALS

dramatic and musical legacy. Commedia dell'arte was born on these streets, and the Teatro San Carlo is one of the world's great opera houses.

'Once again, Naples shows a completely different side at MADRE, the city's new contemporary art gallery. I adore coming here for the contrast between the cutting-edge work on display and the weathered old city on the other side of the windows. It's a sharp paradox and what I love best about my home town. This, and the pastries at Moccia, of course. I have travelled the globe and am yet to find a pasticceria (pastry shop) as equally sublime. You can't sit down but it's a small price to pay for the world's best caprese (chocolate and almond cake).

'COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE WAS BORN ON THESE STREETS, AND THE TEATRO SAN CARLO IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREAT OPERA HOUSES'

'When I need inspiration (or just a break), I try to get away to Procida. This tiny island has inspired some great work, including Elsa Morante's bitter-sweet novel L'lsola diArturo (Arthur's Island) and the wonderful film HPostino (The Postman). My own film Non e'Giusto (It's Not Right) was shot here. With its fishermen and pastel-hued Arabesque houses, the island feels wilder and more authentic than neighbouring Ischia and Capri. A wonderful annual spectacle is Ischia's Festa di SanfAnna, when the sea fills with boats and fireworks are set off at midnight in honour of the island's martyred protector. It's very beautiful to watch from Procida.'

INTERVIEW 2:

THEATRE, CURSES & FALLING CHURCHES

If walls could talk, what would they say about Naples?

'To understand a city, you need only to look at its buildings. Each stone and each square offers a revealing insight into not just its history but also the soul of its people. In LaPerle et le Croissant, the French writer Dominique Fernandez observes: 'Naples is resistant to bourgeois order, yet all the city is baroque.. .there is also baroque in the psychological fragility of the inhabitants, the very theatricality of each moment of existence.' Some of the most evocative examples of this dramatic sensibility are the city's old staircases. Particularly famous are the double-flighted creations of the 18th-century architect Ferdinando Sanfelice, which look fit for an opera. The best examples are in the Palazzo Sanfelice and the Palazzo dello Spagnolo. A recently restored baroque highlight is the SanGregorioArmeno in the centra storico (historic centre), with its lavish gilded interior and sumptuous marble sculptures and art.

NAME Francesco Sivo

AGE 32 OCCUPATION Architect

RESIDENCE Naples

Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo (p69) Iri Naples' centra storlco

'Naples is also famous for its history of alchemy. An intriguing example of this is the diamond-stoned exterior of the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo. The façade itself predates the church and was originally part of the 15th-century Palazzo dei Principi di San Severo di Sarno. Few people know that each stone is engraved with a mysterious esoteric symbol. Professors in ancient alchemy believe that these symbols were meant to bring good luck but for some unknown reason were engraved inversely on the stones, consequently cursing the building. According to legend, each one of its inhabitants was destined to be driven out. The first owner, Antonello Sanseverino, was forced to leave the palace by the Aragon ambassador. The second, Ferrante Sanseverino, was driven out in 1580 by Spanish king Philip II who sold the palace to the Jesuits. In 1767, they were thrown out and Franciscan monks moved in, only to be thrown out themselves in 1821 to allow the Jesuits back in. We're still waiting for the next ousting.

'Today, most of the bad luck that hits the city's buildings comes from a lack of funding for restoration works. Naples is packed with hundreds of lesser-known but sublimely beautiful buildings left run down and forgotten. One particularly sad example is the Chiesa di Santa Maria Delle Grazie a Caponapoli (Largo Santa Maria delle Grazie a Capo Napoli), next to the Ospedale dei Incurabili. Designed by Giovan Francesco di Palma, this Tuscan-inspired Renaissance church is exquisite. Decorated with hand-carved stones, it features a beautiful front door by Giovanni Donadio and is one of the most famous Neapolitan sculptures of the 16th century. Today, it's boarded up and decaying. Thankfully, the beautiful frescoed courtyard has been spared; it's now used as a laundry for the hospital next door.'

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