Tell a Napolitana you've visited Naples and she'll say, "Yes, but did you go underground?"
There's a deep love here in Naples, love of the city. Part of living in this chaotic, haphazard and seemingly surreptitious place is fueled by a connection so strong that it always pulls a Napolitana back. There's no traffic, litter, grime, crime or graffiti in their eyes, that's all superficial, what really matters here is tradition, family and faith.
To see Naples is not necessarily to love it, but to understand it, is.
And a shortcut to understanding the rituals that make this city tick, is to go underground.
Italy is built in layers - Rome is a visible example. Walking along Via dei Fori Imperiali towards the Colosseum, you'll notice how the ruins of the Forum are lower than the street, the Trajan Market is lower and come to think of it, every ancient structure is. That's because over the ages construction made use of the materials at hand which were often dilapidated buildings. Much of the 'rubble' of Italy is a collection of precious, historical artifacts buried below our feet.
Napoli Sotteranea brings a quiet, sombre side to this city you'll struggle to notice overground. These people speak in thick, lyrical dialect with a sharp wit to their creative expression and dialogue. One of my favourite passages about Naples and the people of Pompei was written in 1904 by Napolitano politician and journalist Giovanni Artieri in his book Pompeiani e Napoletani, pp. 335-336
Here's a small snippet I translated from my post on Pompei:
"The Pompeians adored the adjective "azzeccòso" , the satirical verse, irony, the jibe. Their mastering of language, the dry wit of certain graffitied epigraphs, may sometimes seem miraculous to those non-Napolitan, who don't understand how among today's people, these ingrained poetic and artistic virtues are alive and splendid and verified at every crossroad."
'I pompeiani adoravano l'aggettivo «azzeccòso», il verso satirico, l'ironia, la battuta. Il maneggio della lingua, la secchezza pungente di alcune epigrafi graffite, appaiono talune volte miracolosi a chi, non napoletano, non sappia come nel popolo odierno queste naturali virtù poetiche e artistiche sono vive e splendide e comprovabili ad ogni quadrivio.'
There's graffiti on every corner, chaos in the cracks and a madness to Naples but this is a city built on history and legend, which keeps it grounded.
Five thousand years ago, the Ancient Greeks began to dig up blocks of the local stone tufo to build the walls and temples of their modern necropolis. Digging tunnels meant they could lay their dead to rest in a series of underground burial chambers as a labyrinth slowly began to form beneath the city. These days, parts of the tunnels can be visited after years of restoration has shed light on the many uses they served.
A committee for Underground Naples, Napoli Sotteranea, has plotted walking routes to discover what lies beneath the city, here are a few worth visiting:
Right in the heart of town, the ancient area of Decumani where three Greek Roads crossed, is where you can enter a door into the underbelly. This is an area known by the locals for mythological creatures who cross different realms. Here, cisterns of water and narrow tunnels run underfoot in a mesmerising display of shadows and rippling light. We loved this atmospheric tour where at one point you're given a candle and asked if you'd like to proceed through the narrowest part. Not for the claustrophobic, try not to end up last in the line, like Francesco was, where if you're left behind and your your candle blows out, you're stuck in the twists and turns of a 50cm wide tunnel, in pitch darkness.
The tunnels widen into spacious carved-out caverns that provided useful refuge during the bombings of the Second World War. A mass of 40 000 Napolitani lived underground between 1940 and 1943, you can visit the spaces they occupied as a museum. It harbours a few eery remnants of machinery and tools when the coast was once again clear and the tunnels were abandoned to rebuild a city destroyed by war. While the city was rebuilt the underground spaces where filled once again with rubble and debris which took years to clear in a massive unblocking and restoration effort by the committee in 1970.
Besides the War Museum, an interesting horticultural experiment can be witnessed where the growth of plants is recorded without the exterior effects of wind and air pollution. Have a look at their website for all that is included in the fascinating tour finishing amongst the foundations of an ancient Greek Amphitheater which we encounter underground before appearing in the living room of someone's house! The exit of the tour is through their back door into a side street off busy Spaccanapoli in an awe-inspiring glimpse into Napolitana life where the normal, the ancient, the mythological and the eclectic mould together in chaotic harmony.
The entrance is next to the Basilica del Buon Consiglio,
Via Capodimonte, 13
San Gennaro was patron saint of Naples in 472 AD and when his beloved remains were moved to the catacombs during the 5th century, they instantly became a pilgrimage site. The already popular chambers were most likely carved from the 'tufo' rock originally to house the dead of a noble family but were expanded over hundreds of years to serve as a holy area holding the remains of St. Agrippinus, first patron saint of Naples, along with an array of religious bishops and figures. They're still used for mass to this day.
Enormous spaces dug out over 2 levels take you into an atmospheric, sombre series of tombs. This has been respected holy ground for millennia. Moving silently in a cleverly-lit void beneath the bustling network of streets, noise and mayhem above brings a side to this city perhaps her people really want you to see. Truly worth a visit, you'll find a wealth of beautiful mosaics and affreschi in this fascinating visit.
Tickets can be purchased online or at the entrance near the Basilica.
Cimitero delle Fontanelle
Via delle Fontanelle 80, in the district of Sanità
The Fontanelle Cemetery is a free space open every day to the public where a collection of remains is held in a cave away from Naples City Centre. Worth a visit if you're in town for a few days, this cave holds not only the physical remains of thousands of souls but their stories too. Since the 17th Century and during the great plague of 1656, the cemetery has been used for a haphazard collection of corpses but only in 1872 did local priest Father Gaetano Barbati decide to give the remains a 'proper' burial, dedicating himself to the recording of every skeletal remnant. The cemetery suddenly became a popular cult - The Cult of the Pezzentelle Souls, where devotees would 'adopt' certain remains giving them names revealed in dreams, giving them history and legend, wives and family. The dedicated caretakers continue to bring their souls gifts and flowers, praying to them, keeping them clean and asking for fortune and favours. The Cult of the Pezzentelle Souls brings thousands of visitors to a simple structure but with a legend of folklore so strong that the best way to understand The Fontanelle Cemetery is to visit with a local friend or a guide. See their website for tours which can be arranged.
Via del Grottone 4, Piazza Plebiscito
One of the most suggestive of underground experiences in Naples are the Borbonico tunnels at 40m deep. The name 'galleria' (meaning tunnel in Italian) derives affectionately from King Ferdinando II of Borbone who had an escape tunnel built to connect Piazza Vittoria and The Royal Palace in 1853. The handy tunnel was hardly ever used except for water cisterns and refuge sites for nobility fleeing the Second World War bombings, it also oddly served as a reserve for confiscated cars. These intriguing spaces have been jazzed up to provide some of the most spectacular underground galleries of the city. Excavations continue to uncover history beneath the city streets but in the mean time, the Galleria Borbonica hosts events such as jazz evenings and candle-lit concerts as well as well-planned, guided tours, have a look at their website to see what's on. One of the best options is a 'speleo light' tour where torches (not candles this time) are supplied to explore the dingiest and darkest of ancient water tunnels leading to reservoirs marked in mysterious symbols, wearing suitable equipment just in case. These are only offered to adults and strictly non-claustrophobes (specified on their website) and can be experienced twice a day at 11 and 4 o'clock from the entrance in Via Domenico Morelli. Our advice is to book through their website to avoid disappointment. Now that our children are older, perhaps we can level up to this next time!
If you're visiting Naples, have a read of our favoloso post Naples for a Day with far too much choice to cram into one day but with lots of insider tips for you to go discover the deep, beating heart of this beautiful city. And make a point of going underground, that way perhaps you'll end up loving it too, almost as much as a Napolitana.
Buon viaggio amici.