A Slice Of Italy: Exploring Maradona's Naples

If you are searching for a place that breathes with frenzy, is bathed in murals, and has an unmatched love for life, try Naples.
Places to visit in Naples
Naples has an interesting connection with Diego MaradonaIllustration: Nitin Chaudhary

The first thing you notice in Naples is Diego Maradona. His face appears as graffiti on the walls under bridges, as murals covering the side of buildings, painted on café chairs, imprinted on bedroom sheets, and even marketed on energy drinks. Where his face is not watching over, his jersey number—number 10—is present. Souvenir stands are covered in scarves, jerseys, and posters of Maradona with trinkets of red chillies which are considered to be a symbol of luck across the region. Why is Maradona so prevalent everywhere? I wondered aloud while waiting in a queue to grab a slice of pizza.

"Well, he was our saviour," answered a local man standing next to me. "Here we believe we have been robbed for centuries but Diego was a saviour for us."

Neapolitans' deep-seated sense of injustice stems from the Risorgimento era—a feeling that Naples got the short end of the stick during the unification between the North and the South. They saw the North as the beneficiary of power and prosperity, while other regions, including their own, were marginalised. In this context Maradona's shortcomings were overlooked as long as he managed to beat the northern teams.

In 1987 Maradona was immortalised in this city when Napoli clinched the elusive double in soccer, a triumph unmatched by any mainland southern team in history. The city erupted into a vibrant mosaic of sky-blue hues as streets were washed with the team's colours in a celebration that spanned weeks. The victory resonated deeply with the people of Naples, underscoring their unwavering devotion to their team, and elevating Maradona to an iconic status—their God. Since then, the identities of Naples and Maradona have been inseparable.

I came to Naples to eat fresh mozzarella, drink espresso, and soak in the sun. Tourism in Naples has rapidly climbed in recent years. Once feared for violence by visitors, the criminal gangs have been clamped down on by the city authorities, who have done well to invest in the city and restore peace and order. As a result, tourists who once passed through the city and considered it a stepping stone to the pretty islands of Ischia, Amalfi, and Capri, are spending time in the city itself.

Naples, watched over by the Vesuvius volcano, is still a glorious city despite the violence that once, and to an extent still, marks it. The best way to appreciate the city is to go to the old parts, marked with narrow lanes that slither through this part of the city. This area of Naples is sprinkled with street food shops, called "friggitoria," and cheap bars that double up as cafés in the mornings.

If you drop in to one of these cafés in the morning the barista will strike a conversation and would soon be doling out tips on what to do in the city. One such recommendation pointed me to Sorbillo, a local favourite pizza shop that serves deep-fried pizza bread stuffed with potato, polenta, and eggplant and served in a paper cone. Food is this city's other love besides Maradona. Here, everything, including pizzas, can be deep-fried. The greasiness and accompanying lethargy melted away with quick sips of thick espresso that's a must after every meal.

"Soccer and coffee are the two religions in Naples," a Neapolitan friend had warned me before I headed to the city, "you can't escape them. If you don't want to be killed then don't wear a soccer jersey from another team, and when offered an espresso, never say no."

That's what I did for the three days I spent in Naples. I headed to bars for a morning jolt of coffee, followed by slices of deep-fried pizza and of mozzarella bathed with olive oil and decorated with slices of tomatoes for lunch and dinner, before washing away the lethargy with caffeine. And then I stepped out to mingle with the sound of Italian chatter and the melodies of street musicians. So, if you are searching for a place that breathes with frenzy, is bathed in murals, and has an unmatched love for life, try Naples.

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