A centre of trade, commerce and culture for three millennia, Naples is one of the oldest urban centres in the world. Sprawled across the northern shore of one of the Mediterranean’s most perfect bays and overlooked to the east by the brooding presence and smoking summit of Mount Vesuvius, this Italian port city and its environs have also been a playground for at least 2,000 years – prior to their destruction in the eruption of 79 CE, the settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum (the latter site now built over by the Neapolitan suburb of Ercolano) were both popular resorts for wealthy Roman tourists.
But if this inspirationally beautiful region still draws visitors in their droves – they flock to nearby Sorrento, the Amalfi coast and the island of Capri, all justly famous for their intense light, blue skies, shimmering sea, multicoloured villages that cling to coastal cliffs, and the heady scents of flowers and ubiquitous lemon blossom – Naples itself suffers from what might politely be called an image problem. True, its historic centre, which was added to the Unesco World Heritage list in the 1990s, remains a fabulous living repository of churches and catacombs, palazzi, piazze and parks, and theatres and galleries. Granted, too, it’s currently in the throes of a renaissance and is emerging as a focal point of artistic creativity; it’s also the cradle of a strain of dandified masculine style. But this pullulating entity does suffer from a reputation as a hotbed of poverty and crime, which lends a certain frisson to the old town’s narrow, shaded alleyways and hardly serves as an encouragement to visit.
Whether justifiable or not – and I’d venture the city is no more dangerous than many popular destinations in southeast Asia that we fly into without a second thought – negative perceptions of Naples are hardly recent. Since the late 19th century, its grandest hotels have mostly been located at a safe distance from the grittier neighbourhoods, in affluent quarters such as Santa Lucia and Chiaia, which lie a kilometre or so to the west of the Castel Nuovo fortress and port area. Indeed, until very recently that long stretch of working waterfront – busy but down-at-heel like so many docklands around the world – would feature only on tourists’ itineraries if they were disembarking from a cruise liner, or boarding ferries bound for Capri, Ischia or Procida.
That, however, changed markedly when, some 10 years ago and in what some might have said was an act of extreme bravery, the Hotel Romeo opened on Via Cristoforo Colombo, right across the street from the port. It’s housed in what was originally a severe and functionalist edifice that served as the headquarters for the shipping magnate and politician Achille Lauro. For this radically different incarnation, however, the building was transformed by Tange Associates of Tokyo into a boldly imaginative, glass-clad, 10-storey palace of contemporary style and luxury – a boutique property that’s quite unlike any other place to stay in the city.
Stepping into the lobby, the assemblage of colourful art works and objets d’art, gleaming surfaces, water features, a bonsai tree and an overall air of eclectic extravagance are in stark contrast to the scruffy surrounds – though that only adds to the Romeo’s exotic appeal. Although the hotel comprises just 82 guestrooms and suites, its owner has found room for a ground-floor games area just behind reception, where in addition to a black lacquer pool table he’s seen fit to install a vintage slot machine and juke box (there’s also a spa housed in an adjacent 15th-century palazzo and reached by an underground passageway, where the amenities include a salt room – of course). If it’s all a little bit mad, it’s equally rather wonderful.
Much the same goes for the guestrooms, with their gallimaufry of highly polished zebrawood floors and fittings, wooden window blinds, Poltrona Frau rocking chair, glass bathrooms and a mind-boggling array of high-tech amenities including lights that brightly illuminate whenever you step into the loo – something I never quite got used to at three o’clock in the morning. My only real gripe, however, concerned the view, which from my fourth-floor perch was partly obscured by an ugly warehouse – the moral being that if you wish to savour what is otherwise a sensational panorama of the harbour, the bay and Vesuvius, you must book a room on the highest floor possible.
Viewpoints that are totally unobstructed in the Romeo include window seats in the evenings-only top-floor Il Comandante restaurant (another reason for visiting being superb Mediterranean cuisine that currently holds a Michelin star) and the small ninth-floor swimming pool. Or you can splash out on the hotel’s Skyline Suite, where they even throw in a mini-spa for good measure.
You’ve probably guessed that I loved my stay at the Hotel Romeo and revelled in its easygoing eccentricities. Its staff could not have been more charming or helpful, and its waterfront position – an easy walk from both ferry piers and the historic centre – only heightened my enjoyment of this engaging bolthole. In fact, you could hardly imagine a more perfect refuge from the vibrant, chaotic streets outside.
As for Naples itself, if you haven’t already added it to the bucket list, it really is time to reach for that pen.