"The goods on offer range from the sublime to the supremely kitsch, so you can buy an exquisitely hand-carved Madonna, a plastic baby Jesus with a flashing halo, or just marvel at a 25-piece biblical scene made entirely out of dried pasta"
"Away in a manger, no crib for a bed . . ."
Let me just stop you there. I know the best place to get one.
A crib, complete with baby Jesus, wise men, lowing cattle, oxen or any other biblical beast that you fancy.
We don't usually go in for a Christmas crib in our house.
You don't know what you're missing. Pagan tree-hugging and Santa worship is all good seasonal fun, but if you want to get to the heart of the matter you should really get yourself a decent Nativity scene.
Where do you recommend, then - the local garden centre in Bethlehem?
No, silly, the crib capital is Naples, where since the 18th century they have been producing Europe's finest Nativity figures. The traditional craft is thriving, and is conveniently concentrated along one long passageway, Via San Gregorio Armeno, which cuts through the heart of the old city, the Centro Storico. This street is stuffed with stalls and artisans' studios dedicated to the the manger, and every December pilgrims from all over Italy come to buy their cribs, or presepi.
Ah, Italian Christmas . . . It must all be very tasteful.
Far from it. This is Naples, and the street market presents a mini version of the mayhem and mishmash that makes the city so exciting. The goods on offer range from the sublime to the supremely kitsch, so you can buy an exquisitely hand-carved Madonna, a plastic baby Jesus with a flashing halo, or just marvel at a 25-piece biblical scene made entirely out of dried pasta.
Yes, food and Neapolitan traditions are a consistent theme in the Christmas displays. In fact some of the Nativity scenes are so full of food stalls, barrow mongers and enthusiastic drinkers that it is difficult to spot Mary and Joseph among the crowds. The crib-makers have also expanded the genre to include landmarks of Naples, local heroes and contemporary celebrities.
Sophia Loren, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and comedian Roberto Benigni all make an appearance. I also saw one scene that included Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and George W Bush (only recognisable by the atomic bomb in his left hand), all paying homage to the baby Jesus.
Certainly a talking point for Christmas morning . . . But I think I am more interested in the exquisitely hand-carved Madonna you mentioned.
The serious collectors' pieces are to be found in the established workshops along the route. Highly recommended is Marco Ferrigno's at no 10, which produces particularly fine terracotta figures; and Corcione, just off the main street at 341 Via Tribunali, which specialises in very expressive miniatures. Generally all the high-end artisans are worth visiting, but just remember to be careful as you walk round their displays.
Why is that?
The shops get very crowded and the shelves are full of unprotected pieces. While I was there my companion made an ill-judged turn and knocked over a six-inch painted cow. We watched helplessly as months of work hit the floor and the Baroque miniature shattered.
Was it a costly accident?
The beautiful bovine carried a price tag of 200 euros.
Holy cow! Are they all that expensive?
At the top of the range a simple shepherd is priced at about 250 euros, and a well made Virgin can cost you 500 euros. But to put the prices in perspective, you should take the funicular up the hill to Vomero and visit the wonderful collection of Nativity scenes housed in the Certosa-Museo di San Martino. Many of the superb pieces on show date back to the early 18th century, and look remarkably like the best examples on sale in the Via San Gregorio Armeno.
What's the difference, then?
That's the point - the techniques and materials are the same, so when you purchase a well-made piece in downtown Naples you are buying into an unbroken tradition of Baroque craftsmanship. It is why the area around the Via San Gregorio Armeno is called il museo aperto - the open museum - and why the figures can command high prices.
Well, I think I'll just start with a single-parent Madonna and a solitary wise man.
That's fine - half the fun is in gradually building up your collection. Few people have the spending power to buy a complete set - unless you're King Juan Carlos of Spain, of course.
What did he buy, then?
Following the royal tradition of the Bourbon kings, who began the craze for Neapolitan cribs, he recently commissioned a 130-piece set for his hallway.
Wow - I presume he didn't have a George W Bush or a bin Laden hidden in the crowds?
No, but I did wonder if his crib-maker was a big soccer fan, as one of the shepherds looked remarkably like David Beckham, and the innkeeper had the grin of Ronaldo. Still, it should go down well in Madrid. Now, can I interest you in a luminous Messiah and a few nodding donkeys?