Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Tale of the Underground City

Naples is really a tale of two cities.  One, the narrow streets with seemingly no logic and bustling traffic.  The other, more than 3,000 years old that curves, collapses, and hollows underground, made of porous tufo stone.  Sixty percent of the population lives over more than 700 cavities of the city.  These subterranean passageways include old Roman markets, theaters, grottos, crypts, and more.  Most of these cavities remain closed or barely discovered.

Interest in this underground world surfaced in 1979 when a woodworker -- using an old well shaft in his shop to dump wood shavings, sawdust and other material -- made a paper torch to look down into the shaft.  He dropped the torch inside and the fire not only burned the refuse below, but spread throughout an entire city quarter, releasing acrid and noxious fumes. Thirty families were evacuated and firemen along with volunteers searched the extensive underground maze for more than two weeks until they were able to extinguish the fire completely.

Thereafter, stories abounded about this parallel city.  Mob clans purportedly created drug labs in underground caverns near the Naples central train station.  An older couple living in a Naples apartment went to sleep one night and suddenly their entire bedroom plunged almost thirty feet into a void beneath their home.  Some say that these unexplored cavities mean Neapolitans live with imminent danger of all kinds.

These caverns and passageways are also fun for visiting.  

In the middle of the city, the Napoli Sotterranea provides daily tours in English.  Across the street, you can visit St. Lorenzo Maggiore, an old Roman market that you can wander on your own.  On weekend mornings, Caffe Gambrinus offers tours that include air raid shelters and narrow passageways (only in Italian).  Near the Capodimonte Park, you'll find the Catacombs of San Gennaro (patron saint of the city).  If you buy a ticket to these catacombs, you automatically can visit the Catacombs of San Gaudioso where the Dominicans used the skulls and spines of people to decorate the underground cemetery.  I will be visiting these places and report on them each month.

The underground places I've already written about are:  Virgil's Tomb in the Mergellina district outside of which is the impressive Grotto Vecchia (a 700 meter tunnel closed to the public).  A little further afield, the The Grotto della Sibilla at Lago Averno is an old Roman tunnel where the sibyl purportedly gave her oracles.  And finally, in the town of Capua about 15 km north of Naples, The Sanctuary of Mithras still preserves an old fresco of Mithras slaying a bull.

Three other underground attractions I'd like to explore, but currently are closed to the public include:  The Fontanelle Underground Cemetery, an underground cave the size of a soccer field where hundreds of human skulls have been preserved.  Pausylipon and the Grotto di Seiano, near the swank Posillip district of Naples, is a long Roman tunnel with a breathtaking view that leads to the ruins of an Imperial Villa.  Piscina Mirabilis is a 96km aqueduct ending in a massive storage reservoir dating back to the Augustan period.  I will be on the look-out for how to visit these three places in hopes of getting a glimpse.

Information for this blog post was in part found at a fantastic website created by Larry Ray.

La Cucina Napoletana:  What kind of food recommendations would go well with the Naples Underground?  Contorni.  The fertile soil -- and whatever else goes on underground -- make vegetables and fruits grow here with reckless abandon.  Gardeners don't even need a green thumb.  And Naples is a paradiso for vegetarians in particular, since the Neapolitans have a bevy of contorni (side vegetable dishes) that can also function as hearty meals.  Today I add my own simple favorite:  

Pepperoni con Caperi
I see peppers sold everywhere in large sacks, usually all three colors together -- red, green, and yellow.  Using a sharp knife, cut, de-seed, and then slice as many peppers as you can eat.  Drop them in a hot frying pan along with one or two tablespoons of olive oil.  Fry them up for three to five minutes.  Next, add two teaspoons of salted capers.  Stir and serve as a snack or alongside several other vegetable dishes.

Growing Tip:  If you happen to be an underground gardener, you'll be happy to know that you never need to water your plants thanks to the year-round humidity.  (You might, however, need to provide twenty-four hour sunshine to create the photosynthesis.)


Peter at italyMONDO! said...

I just discovered this blog - and I'm glad that I did! I'm actually waiting in the Chicago airport right now - ready to be in my Neapolitan office tomorrow night (I can't wait!)

Great stuff, though - and so true! I thank you for highlighting "Naples Underground" for everyone. You actually even taught me something new, too - I had know idea that Caffe Gambrinus did those tours as well! I'll have to check it out...

Barbara Zaragoza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barbara Zaragoza said...

Yes, the underground tour begins at a Caffe! It's so unusual. The tour guide is a jovial Neapolitan (with a heavy accent) who is also a well-known speleologist.

They give tours on Sat & Sun at 10am and 12pm as well as Thursdays in the evenings. It's definitely worth a visit.

Thanks for writing, Peter.
Buon Viaggio!

Laura said...

Ciao Barbara! Fun post! I've been on that tour, and I think we had the same tour guide. :-) Yes, I agree that it is definitely worth a visit! I look forward to more of your posts on Naples Underground. Grazie!

Emily said...

Fabulous! I can't wait to hear more!