If ever there was a one-club city, it’s Naples. Everywhere you look there’s a light-blue shirt or a badge with a big ‘N’ on it. No, Maradona hasn’t returned – well, only to answer to the tax authorities – but SSC Napoli are enjoying their best spell since Diego in his pomp memorably took them to two titles almost single-handedly.
Napoli not only put in a serious challenge for the Serie A title in 2017-18. Gli Azzurri have revived the Italian domestic game, bouncing back from bankruptcy and Serie C1 football to take on Europe’s best in regular Champions League campaigns and become worthy potential successors to the recent Juventus hegemony.
Diego might have flown into Napoli’s San Paolo Stadium by helicopter in 1984, but football came to Naples by way of the sea. Cunard sailor William Poths helped set up the Naples Football & Cricket Club (later Naples FC) in the early 1900s.
As happened in Milan, foreign members of Naples FC broke away to form Internazionale – Internazionale Napoli that is, using the Italian version of the city’s name. The two rival local clubs faced each other in the Campania regional league either side of World War I.
At a meeting at the D’Angelo restaurant, the two sides agreed to merge, first as Football Club Internazionale-Naples (even the abbreviated FBC Internaples sounds clunky), then as Associazone Calcio Napoli in 1926.
In their early years, Naples FC had played in via Campegna in Fuorigrotta west of town, before moving to nearby Agnano, both in the same vicinity as today’s San Paolo Stadium. Internaples were based at Bagnano, also close by. After 1926, Jewish industrialist Giorgio Ascarelli took over the newly merged club. The great operator Ascarelli both convinced the Italian football authorities to form one national league, and built the first proper football stadium in Naples, just east of the train station, close to today’s Gianturco metro station.
Opened, bizarrely, two weeks before Ascarelli’s death, the Stadio Vesuvio quickly took his name. By the time it staged two poorly attended matches in the 1934 World Cup, the stadium had been renamed Partenopeo by the Fascist authorities. Allied bombing later destroyed it.
Napoli duly moved to Vomero, and the Stadio Arturo Collana, named after a prominent local sports journalist, on piazza Quattro Giornate, named after an uprising against Nazi occupation. Temporarily converted into a concentration camp for locals before being sent to Germany, hence the uprising, the stadium had been briefly used by Napoli while the Ascarelli was being revamped for the 1934 World Cup.
Still a sports ground today, it served Napoli until the San Paolo was opened in 1959. Shipping magnate Achille Lauro, twice club president, galvanised the project and brought star names to Napoli, though none bigger than Maradona 30 years later.
The triumph and demise of Diego, bought from Barcelona by Corrado Ferlaino for L15 billion, took the city from communal ecstasy to despair, via an infamous World Cup semi-final night in 1990 when Maradona asked the people of Naples to support his Argentina side against host nation Italy, who were to lose on penalties.
As everything unspiralled and the club became bankrupt, film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis stepped in to rescue them. The rest has been the stuff of movies, last-gasp promotion and a return to European football. All the script requires is a third Serie A title.
Naples Airport is 6km (3.5 miles) north-east of town, connected by the Alibus that runs every 20-30mins to Napoli Centrale station (journey time 15min), terminating at the port. Heading straight out of the airport terminal, the bus stop is a signposted 5min walk. Tickets (€4 on board) are valid for 90mins, including an onward journey from your dropping-off point.
From town, airport-bound buses set off from port, and the Beverello-Angioino stop past the booking offices for ferry hops to Capri. From the train station, the stop is across the road from the main entrance, bordered by low concrete blocks guarding the ongoing revamp of piazza Garibaldi.
A taxi (+39 081 8888) should offer a fixed price (prezzo fisso) to town – €16 to the station/centre, €23 to Fuorigrotta in the stadium area.
Unico Campania issues TIC tickets for various types of transport: the Metropolitana, buses, funiculars and a confusing array of trains. The Metropolitana is essentially one line, M1. M2 is run by Trenitalia who provide age-old graffiti’d trains to Campi Flegrei, home of Napoli. The lines cross at Garibaldi, part of the Stazione Centrale complex. If you’re just getting a single for the trek right across the city from station to stadium, it’s a different ticket – see the Transport section for Napoli.
Standard tickets and day passes are otherwise available machines at major stations and stops, and from newspaper kiosks. An Orario (€1.60) is valid for 90mins; the Giornaliero (€4.50) is a day pass. Each is also valid for the journey to the stadium – stamp at the top of metro escalators or on board buses.
The closest hotel to the stadium is the grandiose Palazzo Esedra, part of an exhibition centre, its sleek look dating back to the 1930s. Its cocktail bar is more contemporary. There are cheaper options nearby, such as the mid-range, 15-room Leopardi, a short walk from Campi Flegrei station, with a roof garden for breakfast in summer.
Around Stazione Centrale, hotels abound. They vary from cheap-and-not-too-cheerful lodgings around corso Novara to upscale four stars with rooftop restaurants. A great budget choice here is modern B&B Viva Napoli at via Bari 40, opposite a quality pizzeria, and a welcome change from tired old pensiones. There’s no 24hr reception but the owner is quick to check you in. It’s best accessed through the station via the complex containing the Hotel Stelle, a polished four-star calling itself ‘Businest’, ie a business-friendly home from home. Nice terrace restaurant.
Exiting the Stazione Centrale through the main façade, to your left, the Starhotels Terminus Naples provides four-star comfort, as does the UNA Hotel Napoli at the far end of piazza Garibaldi, along with a rooftop terrace. Either side of the square you find reliable economy chain ibis Styles Naples Garibaldi and French hostel-hotel hybrid B&B Hotel Napoli.
The seafront is lined with hotels both classic and contemporary: the Grand Hotel Vesuvio has hosted royalty and film stars since 1882; the Excelsior is similarly bracketed and located. The Royal Continental features a rooftop pool in season while the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia offers attractive rates if you book through its website. Further along the seafront, the Miramare was the American Consulate after the war, its piano bar legendary.
Nearer to Chiaia, the 24-room Partenope Relais is a boutique hotel opened in 2013. Also in boutique style, the Mareluna Suite de Charme is honeymoon material, six rooms, each with a private balcony and sea views. Tucked in from the seafront a ten-minute walk inland, the comfortable Exe Majestic is also handy for Amadeo, on metro line 2 to the stadium.
Around piazza dei Martiri, the four-star Palazzo Alabardieri offers old-school comforts and convenience, within easy reach of the bar hub.
Internet cheapie Bovio Suite by Università metro is a third-floor B&B convenient for the port.
The main pub hub is now the crisscross of streets in Vomero, a short walk from Vanvitelli metro. Closest to the station, L’Oca Nera Irish Pub is rather an Italian pub, but one that puts football first. Pick of the bunch is the Penny Black, which has moved from its previous seafront location to the pub zone, still extremely busy, still football-focused, still with Anglo iconography and still with quality draught beers.
Across the road, the Jolly Roger Pub might well be jolly but is never a pub, more a less formal restaurant with Jever, Corsendonck and Belhaven Black on tap. On the same street, the Bierkeller is a genuinely decent beer hall, Paulaner and assorted Belgian varieties poured alla spina, and matches broadcast on a big screen.
In the same vicinity on via Giovanni Merliani, you’ll find the most pub-like branch of the local Murphy’s Law family.
The main bar hub, in Chiaia around via Alabardieri and via Bisignano, is more gastro-focused these days. For a drink on the waterfront by the Castel dell’Ovo, Al Barcadero might charge a pretty penny for a main course but the view warrants a beer on the terrace.
For a real taste of Naples, the classic pizzerias of the Centro Storico include landmark Da Michele – always with queues out the door.
Don’t miss daytime-only Bar Nilo di Alcide Carmine (via San Biagio dei Librai 130), near piazza San Domenico Maggiore. Here the owner has installed a shrine to Maradona, for tourists to photograph should they purchase a coffee. The ‘Neapolitan tears from 1991’ may not be genuine but the many calcio souvenirs around the tiny interior point to true love. You’ll find more Maradona affection at the workaday Dopolavoro bar at the Stazione Centrale, near the Hotel Stelle, an honest-to-goodness, stand-up-and-drink hideaway for railway workers. Decor consists of framed football press from the Scudetto-winning Diego era.