Every visit to Naples should include a tour led by Napoli Sotterranea. Located along a side-street in the Centro Storico, don’t confuse this comprehensive tour given in many languages, including English, with the tour given at Caffè Gambrinus by the same name. Also don’t confuse this underground with the similarly advertised tour one block down at the San Lorenzo Maggiore Underground.
The tour begins with a walk to an apartment building. Some years back, archeologists noticed a recycled Roman marble slab used in the construction of the edifice’s top corner. They guessed that Roman ruins lay underneath the building and knocked at the door of an apartment on the bottom floor. The owner told them his apartment included an underground cellar as well as a parking garage for motorini (scooters). Archeologists climbed down to take a look, then asked if they could start digging. Sure enough, they hit upon a Roman odeon built during Emperor Nero’s reign.
The tour guide brings you inside the apartment decorated with 1950’s furniture. He lifts up a bed, reveals a trap door, and leads you down stairs into the cellar/parking garage. Diagonal lattices (opus reticulata) against some of the walls show 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 leads you back to the ticket entrance and takes you down a long stairwell. At the very bottom, you come to a vast underground of hollow 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 it down because of a 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 graffiti 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 show how the ancient Greeks and Romans once used these cavities to cut tuff 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 plants that never need to be watered because the underground atmosphere boasts eighty percent humidity. The guide explains that when you exhale, you can see your breath.
Next, the guide hands out candles and takes visitors through thin passageways. This part is not for the claustrophobic; you follow the guide through hallway circuits until you reach 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 holes leading into their homes.
The tour ends in a cavity that sits below the San Gregorio Armeno Church. Here, the Saint Patricia Order of Nuns store their homemade wine. The tour, terribly enough, does not include a taste of the wine and their cellar remains closed to the public.