"I'D love to go to Italy too," a deskbound friend in Milan remarked jokingly when I told him about my recent trip to Naples. For Italians as well as Italophiles, Naples is today the must-visit city -- the place where the arts are in the fullest flower, the food is exhilarating, and life pulsates. Like Barcelona in the eighties, Naples is taken with itself in a way that makes visiting it more exciting than it has been in decades -- maybe centuries.
Until very recently, saying that Naples was your favorite city and urging friends to visit was almost foolhardy. The churches and museums were among the finest in Italy, yes, but just try to see them. Guidebooks directed you down dark, menacing alleys to marvelous churches that turned out to be bolted shut. The city's star museum of art, Capodimonte, in a vast royal palace built by the Spanish Bourbons, who made Naples a capital rivaled only by Paris, was simply closed for years. Walking around Spaccanapoli,the quarter with most of the great churches and noble palaces, was so dangerous that you were warned to leave everything of value at your hotel before setting out.
The city has transformed itself with startling speed. Its modern rebirth began in 1984, when a group of citizens calling itself Napoli '99 took the destruction caused by a 1980 earthquake (and the subsequent pilfering of government funds earmarked for rebuilding) as the impetus for collecting private support to restore monuments and museums. Sculptures, portals, and palace façades emerged, cleansed, from scaffolding; whole museums were refurbished, and churches that had been closed for years reopened. During the G7 summit of 1994 the world saw that Naples could be clean and safe, and the main arteries passable rather than clogged.