Thursday, January 7, 2010

Napoli Sotterranea

Nook of Naples: Every visit to Naples should include the Napoli Sotterranea.  The guides are fun and the underground offers tours daily in both Italian and English.  (You can also make reservations for French and German tours.)  Located along a side-street in the heart of Spaccanapoli, don't confuse this comprehensive tour with the smaller, but similarly advertised Napoli Sotterranea one block down at the Church of San Lorenzo.  (The Church has its own interesting underground and I'll post about it next month.)

The tour begins with a walk to an apartment building.  Some years back, archeologists noticed a Romanesque marble slab used in the construction of the edifice's top corner.  They guessed that Roman ruins lay underneath and knocked at the door of an apartment owner on the bottom floor.  The owner told them his apartment included an underground cellar as well as a parking garage for motorinos.  Archeologists climbed down to take a look, then asked if they could start digging.  Sure enough, they hit upon a Roman theater built during Emperor Nero's reign.

Our guide brought us inside the apartment, today decorated with 1950's furniture.  He lifted up a bed, revealed a trap door, and led us down stairs into the cellar/parking garage.  Diagonal lattices against some of the walls demonstrated how the Romans built their structures in such a way as to make them earthquake proof.


Leaving the underground through a side door, the tour guide led us back to the ticket entrance and took us down a long stairwell.  At the very bottom, we came to a vast underground of hallow areas and narrow passageways.

This underground was first used as an aqueduct during Greek and Roman times and dates back to the 4th century B.C.  The water system continued to be used until 1825 when officials shut down it down due to the cholera outbreak.  The aqueduct was re-opened and used as a bomb shelter during World War II. 

Napoli Sotterranea has created a kitsch-like museum in several hollow areas, including World War II displays of army tanks, military uniforms, and toys left by children.  Over 20,000 people waited out the war here and grafitti can still be seen on the walls, from the words 'Help' (Aiuto) to pictures of bombs drawn by children.

In another room, a display of fake rocks and an electric pulley showed how the ancient Greeks and Romans once used these cavities to cut tufo stones with large axes, hauling the pieces through holes in the ceiling.  The materials were then used in the construction of buildings.

Down one corridor, biologists have set up a bed of experimental plants.  Because the underground has eighty percent humidity, these plants never need to be watered.  The guide told us to notice that when we exhale within the temperate climate of the underground, we can see our breath.


Next we trekked through thin passageways with candles in hand.  Not for the claustrophobe, we followed our guide through hallway circuits until we reached a water cistern.  During Roman times, the public used the larger cisterns for drinking water, while wealthy families would buy a cistern for their private use, pulling up water through wells and into their homes.

Our tour ended in a cavity that sits below the San Gregorio Church.  Here, the Santa Patricia Order of Nuns store their homemade wine.

The tour did not include a taste of the wine (believe me, we asked) and the church remains closed to the public.  A sobering tidbit about the underground (and possibly the nuns):  its collapse is believed to be imminent.

Getting There: Piazza San Gaetano, 68 -- Napoli


Gil said...

Make sure that you can make long walks. I had quite a job getting out of there due to lung problems caused by years of smoking cigarettes! Yes I was a jerk. Other than that the trip was educational and well worth it. You have a good write up and pictures.

Barbara said...

Thanks Gil! Yes, there are some precautions to take when going to the underground here in Spaccanapoli and also at Caffe Gambrinus. One is definitely lung issues as well as weight issues and if you are claustrophobic. It can also be dark. But I did take my three year old with me and she did just fine -- even as most people recommend that kids under 6 probably shouldn't go.