As we weaved through the trash-littered alleyways and gritty piazzas, the car radio was bringing in the local station, a playlist heavy in Top 40 hits stippled with the usual animated Italian-language commercials and host breaks. But I didn't hear any of it.

Our taxi, hailed by the hotel's receptionist just minutes before, was speeding full-force down the train tracks heading toward an oncoming rail car. "Va bene signora," our driver said nonchalantly, waving his hand as if he was physically trying to push my family's doubts away. "It's no problem."

This was a phrase we began to hear over and over again during our journey: as our cab jumped a curb and started passing cars from atop the sidewalk, as it sped the wrong way down a one-way road, when it bolted through a busy intersection where we had a red light. (But when we nearly crashed head-on into another car, the phrase was quickly replaced by some choice words and obscene hand gestures...)

Through it all, I sat white-knuckled clutching to the back of the passenger's seat since I didn't have a working seatbelt. My mother and sister, also in the back, sat rigidly, looks of terror on their faces as they prayed for the ride to end. I imagined my father, who sat in the passenger's seat, looking wild-eyed, his face drained of color, watching what was happening knowing all that separated him from the chaos was a thin pane of glass. 

It's said that northern Italians vacation here to remind themselves of a time when Italy was molto Italiana - really Italian. Here, while wandering the narrow, grid-like streets it's not uncommon to see laundry waving from balconies or men who break out in impromptu arias at sidewalk cafes. Everywhere there's evidence of Naples' contradictions: from the doll-faced transvestites who roam the sidewalk in front of ancient Roman ruins, to the rust and decay slowly devouring the once gilded city where everything seems to be a backdrop for an opera not yet composed. 

"Walking through Naples is like walking through a museum," our tour guide Claudio later tells us. "Here, the buildings block the sky so residents run to their windows and balconies to see life."

And that's the thing about Naples: it forces you to become a native very quickly. So far removed from the water-logged streets of Venice or the sun-ripened vineyards of Tuscany, what the city lacks in tourist infrastructure is what arguably makes it so alluring to those who visit. Pulsing with a sort of raw wildness, this Italian city so many are cautioned to avoid somehow, like our taxi ride, makes you feel so inextricably and utterly happy to be alive.


How we did it:

Where We Stayed:

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Naples. Though this four-star hotel is located in the heart of the city's financial district, don't anticipate that there's much within walking distance. The main piazzas and tourist attractions (including Pompeii and Herculaneum) are relatively short cab rides away, and the abundance of restaurants and cultural sites nearby is staggering.

What We Ate:

Think of Neapolitan food and we'll bet your brain instantly conjures up images of pizza. Though Naples is the undisputed homeland of pizza (try a pizza margherita when you're visiting), this stereotype only scratches the surface of what's available to eat in the city. Grab a ball of melt-in-your-mouth mozzarella di bufala, a citrus-scented sfogliatelle, a plate of gnocchi alla Sorrentina, some cannolis and, of course, lots of gelato.

Places You Can't Miss:

Museo Archeologico Nazionale: A nucleus of world-renowned archaeological finds that puts most other museums to shame; includes all the good stuff from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Piazza Garibaldi: Before Julia Roberts made it famous in Eat, Pray, Love, this famous area was already a culinary reference point in Naples.

Scaturchio: Known by the locals as "the best pastry shop in Italy." Enough said.

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