The entrance to Napoli sotterranea, a giant maze of caves, dungeons, catacombs, narrow passageways and underground aqueducts, is on the Piazza San Gaetano, right in the middle of the infamous Old Town Quarter, La Sanità.
There are police cars parked everywhere, their windows covered with safety bars. Most of the officers are in groups of three, providing backup for the backup, just in case. It’s best to leave your own car in a guarded parking lot. At least this is what our friend Paolo Rossi thinks. Our car’s extra heavy door locks, the bulky steering wheel clamp and the shrill alarm do not impress him much. “This is still as easy as pie for a professional,” he says.
And Paolo must know. He is not only our friend, but also a veteran hotel receptionist in downtown Naples. Napoli, or Naples, is located on the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, in the region of Campania. When the weather is good—and it usually is—you can see the nearby romantic islands of Capri and Ischia across the gorgeous Bay of Naples. Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano, is not far away, as is the famous archaeological site of Pompeii.
About one million friendly people call Naples home, making it Italy’s third largest city. And Paolo is a native. He can hardly count the times he has had to accompany guests who were robbed of their vehicles or other belongings to the police station to help translate. In Naples, the local police have even established a special emergency phone number just to report car theft (081-794-1436).
Paolo quickly convinces us to leave the car behind, and we climb down to Naples’ rattling metro—our first subterranean impression of the city—headed for La Sanità.
As we emerge from the subway, we find ourselves right in the middle of charming, chaotic Sanità with its street musicians and colorful outdoor markets, selling everything from fresh fish and vegetables to shoe polish and safety pins. The narrow streets are clogged with traffic. The houses, though once beautiful, could use a good scrubbing. Laundry flutters high above. The clothes lines span the distance between the houses.
Vespa scooters with up to three passengers piled on the flimsy seats race in breathtaking speed around the waiting cars. Horns honk, dogs bark, people laugh. The walkways are just as crowded, and the cars parked every which way on the walkways make it even more difficult to get through.
La Sanità is one of the more impoverished quarters of Naples. Petty crime is a problem all over town, but especially here. If you’re not silly enough to wear your jewelry like a Christmas tree or act nervous, which makes you looks like you have something in your pockets worth worrying about, you’ll most likely have no problem. However, the expensive camera dangling in front of my chest is regarded as an outright provocation here in the Via dei Tribunali. It magically attracts attention.
The local Carabinieri (policemen) lower their windows in disgust to yell at us: “Are you crazy? Put that away. Pronto. Quickly!” And ordinary people warn us every few steps to be more careful and not to display our valuables so carelessly. But we are not being careless, for we are lucky enough to be accompanied by Enzo Giordano, Paolo’s friend and colleague.
Enzo and his family have lived in this neighborhood for 12 years now, next door to pickpocket Maria and right across from car burglar Michele. Enzo knows everyone: “Michele, how’s business?” he says to the man with a very bushy moustache—and everyone knows Enzo.
He himself has decided to go for an honest job and works nights, ironically as a security guard at the hotel. Privately, however, he tolerates his neighbors who often stand on the other side of the law. Live and let live, he seems to think.
No one in Naples has mastered the misery of a chronic economic crisis with sentimentalities or moral standards alone.
A little improvising and imagination are needed in demanding times here. But the rules are fixed. The winner is whoever hides his purse well or whoever manages nevertheless to clandestinely pluck the wallet from your inside pocket.
This seems to be the athletic spirit à la Naples. Your own team—made up of family, friends, relatives and acquaintance—is of course not to be touched. It is the region’s code of honor.
We are safely chaperoned by “home boy” Enzo. If a passerby looks too longingly at our camera, Enzo gestures a stern “No” with his index finger. His son and two friends on their respective Vespa mopeds—our vanguard—race ahead to each street corner, announcing that the tourists following in his father’s tow are not to be harmed.
Having made it safely with Enzo’s protective aura through the city’s underworld, we head to the entrance of the Naples tunnel system, the city’s physical underworld.
The steps down into this ancient system of tunnels and passageways feel old and worn, and the air is damp and thick. There is not a lot of light down here, and the faint yellow lamps and flickering candles cast almost more shadows than light on traces of more than 2,500 years of settlement history.
The citizens of Naples have always dug into the earth. The Greek city founders stirred the deep in 460 B.C. looking for tuff. This soft yellow volcanic rock is an outstanding building material. That which was extracted below ground was then used above ground as the building material for temples, bathhouses and mansions.
The material was easy to cut into neat squares, and the building materials were scooped right out at the construction site. This being the case, the clever Greeks did not need to schlep stones over long distances. The underground quarries were located right underneath the new buildings.
As a result, wherever a new structure rose, a hole ended up beneath it. This explains the numerous cavities under the city, which form a negative for what is found above.
The Romans took Naples under their wing in 340 B.C., and they were enchanted by the charm of this city. According to legends, the entire beauty of the world accidentally fell on Naples. How did this happen? When God wanted to distribute these evenly after being done with creation of the world, he suddenly had to sneeze, and all the beauty fell from his hands onto just one spot: Bella Napoli.
So, it is not surprising that the Romans liked to spend their vacations from the crowded capital here, building a magnificent amphitheater, splendid holiday houses and public swimming pools.
Long water channels led from river sources to the thermal baths and house cisterns. This precious water was led underground through a smart system of aqueducts with downward gradient and hydraulics, mind you. It would still function today, which the Napoli Sotterranea Society is happy to prove on its guided tours. But for hygienic reasons this old system was finally closed in 1895 after a cholera epidemic.
Today we can walk with dry feet through the ancient Roman aqueducts, in which the first Christians got soaking wet. They hid from persecution in these deep caverns, up to 130 feet (40 m) deep in the earth. They buried their dead and martyrs in the area’s closed pits.
Faded wall paintings and fragmented mosaics are proof of early Christian art in the catacombs. For centuries these underground water ditches also served as cemeteries. The Cimitero delle Fontanelle, Sanità’s underground cemetery, was established around 1860 so that the deceased could be accommodated here in one spot, rather than all over the city, in order to prevent the outbreak of epidemics.
This place of bones gradually became a bizarre place of pilgrimage: Every devout Neapolitan selected a relic of an unknown dead person, for which he would then pray for miracles and grace. Holy masses were celebrated in the darkness here, as well as pagan rites, black magic and even initiation ceremonies for the Camorra, Naples’ own Mafia.
In the Middle Ages, the city’s roots were plundered even further. Palaces, churches and monasteries were industriously built from local yellow tuff. The Bourbons (a noble French family who ruled Naples from 1735 to 1805) tried in vain to prohibit the expansion of the underground cave network, but the Neapolitans paid them no mind.
They didn’t pay attention, either, when the Spanish King, their ruler at the end of the 16th century, attempted to reduce uncontrolled growth of the city by placing high duty taxes on imported building materials. His disloyal subjects simply continued to scoop out of the ground.
Then in the 18th century, the Naples Metro and Traffic Department joined in on the general digging, and long traffic tunnels now perforate the ground. At times, it seems that Naples is built entirely on Swiss cheese. More than 700 grottos alone have been counted. The porous underground represents a serious danger for the stability of the city. But at times the many caves were also refuge for its inhabitants.
During World War II many were used as air raid shelters. And like their ancestors, the Neapolitans of the 20th century have left their marks at the walls of this historical underground labyrinth for future generations to come. This time, however, their legacy is not in stucco or mosaic, but in modern graffiti.
If You Go
Napoli Sotterranea,081-296-944 and LAES (Libera associazone escursionisti sottosuolo; 081- 400-256, offer guided tours on the weekend. It is best to call ahead.
Italian Government Tourist Board