Naples originated as a Greek colony called Nea Polis, the new city. It was a
planned city with streets that met at right angles, a fact you can still discern in
the layout of the bustling city of today. More than two thousand years of history
have of course left their mark along these streets, and you could spend days looking
at monuments from every conceivable epoch, but you may not know that there is a
mirror city underground spanning the same amount of time.
This underground Naples, or Napoli Sotterranea, as it's called in Italian, consists of tunnels, cisterns, caves, building substructures and part of ancient buildings left behind as the
ground level rose. Actually, part of the antique theatre forms part of this too;
rumor has it the emperor Nero himself performed here once. All this extends under
your feet like a gigantic cheese full of holes as you walk the streets of the historic centre, especially the Via dei Pastori, looking at the amazing miniature biblical scenes, landscapes, workshops, farms and castles that are built and sold to go into magnificent Christmas cribs on show in churches and homes. These traditional shops have existed here for centuries while the buildings have changed and shifted.
The one room shops with a large family room in back clearly worked for the Neapolitans and so they have persisted until the present day. Enjoy the carefully crafted miniature world on exhibition and remember that from some of these shops the underground is still accessible through trap doors, but this is a secret well hidden in the back rooms, and you won't be invited to step down.
Natural caves were used from prehistoric times, but it all really got going with the ancient Greeks quarrying tufa stone to build their new city. All the houses, temples, public buildings and of course the city walls (remains of which, by the way, can be seen in the square Piazza Bellini and on Via Foria street) needed lots of stones. Huge caverns were left, with connecting tunnels in between.
Both the Greeks and the Romans that came after them also used to bury their dead in underground chambers, either in single graves or in large tunnels filled with niches along the walls , dove cotes, they were sometimes called. When they evolved into really large systems they were called catacombs, which you might know is the place where Christians took refuge from the Roman persecutions and where they of course eventually buried their own dead. The Romans, great engineers that they were, added to the underground warren by building water supply channels and tanks on a massive scale - a water system used up into the 19th century. Plus, the Romans also built tunnels that were simply used to create a level road connection instead of having to climb up and down steep inclines.
In later times this underground city was predictably used as a dumping ground for
various debris, but from the 15th century and onwards there was also a rather spooky
local custom. People went down to the ancient graves and chose a scull of some
unfortunate unknown. They cleaned it, polished it, placed it in a beautiful box and
wept over its owner passing away from this world. It had an honored place in the
family home, candles were lit in front of it and the purpose of the whole
prayers and petitions were offered to it. It was thought that the now so well cared
for departed would intercede in the heavens for what its caretaker might need.
Eventually this custom was forbidden, and some of the skulls returned to be
exhibited in underground chambers in their boxes and accompanied by rosaries,
artificial flowers and other decorations.
You can't walk this underground maze on your own, you have to follow a tour
arranged by the association responsible for it, called Napoli Sotteranea just like
the hidden city itself. You'll find them on Piazza San Gaetano 68 where you can
sign up for the next excursion. Before you go, make sure you carry a sweater, since
it's much cooler down here than in the world above, and put on sturdy shoes. Then
step down into a hidden Naples few have seen. Image Credit: (WikiPedia)