08 April, 2016
Visitors to the every surprising and – for many – chaotic Naples have a huge array of things to see and do. Interesting sights include its magnificent churches, like those of San Francesco da Paola and Gesù Nuovo, castles like the Castel dell’Ovo and such amazing archaeological jewels as those on display in the National Archaeological Museum, including exhibits from the ancient sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum. You could also just stroll through the streets of its Centro Storico, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. And, of course, all such sightseeing requires timely stopovers to indulge in their excellent pizzas, which is why we have come to the place where this popular dish first saw the light.
As if all the things we can enjoy on the city’s ground level were not enough, in its bowels lurks a whole world of tunnels, galleries, catacombs, cisterns and countless spaces where the earliest traces unearthed belong to the founders of Naples – the Greeks. The latest of them endure into our own times, as the Camorra is said to have used the network for their drug running and their undercover meetings. Nowadays, particularly in recent years, this hidden face of the city, known as the Naples Underground or Napoli Sotterranea, has been attracting ever greater attention and has now become yet another tourist attraction. And, understandably so, as many a story lies buried in that subsoil.
As mentioned in passing, it was the Greeks who first started building that “invisible” underground city for the purpose of defence and as a place of worship. The Romans continued where the Greeks left off, although they took things a step further – they created a network of underground channels and aqueducts for water conveyance. Much of that original system of water channelling continued to be used in the city until the early-20th century. Also from those ancient times are the remains of a Greco-Roman theatre which visitors can see on a tour of subterranean Naples. Legend has it that Nero himself sung in the theatre during an earthquake set off by the nearby volcano, Vesuvius.
Persecuted for their faith, the early Christians used those catacombs to gather for prayer and to bury their dead. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the Naples Underground is precisely the Catacombs of San Gennaro, tunnelled out of a large chunk of the Capodimonte hillside. They are the largest catacombs in southern Italy. With passageways arranged on two unstratified levels, they feature some fresco remains from the late-2nd-century AD. Interestingly, San Gennaro is the city’s patron saint, while the catacombs were the burial site of Neapolitan bishops and a place of pilgrimage up until the 11th century. There are two other catacombs in the city –San Severo, of which only a small cubicle remains, and San Gaudioso, reached via the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità.
Apart from acting as hideouts, means of conveyance and access routes to the city, these passageways were also turned to belligerent purposes, as on more than one occasion they were used to mount surprise attacks on the city. That was true of operations conducted by Belisarius in the year 536, and Alfonso of Aragon in 1442, or at least that is how the story goes. Closer to our times, the underground was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Objects surviving from that horrific period can still be seen there.
Entrance to the Naples underground is via the Piazza San Gaetano, 68 and guided tours are available in Italian or English. Scheduled times are given on their website.
Embark on an adventure of discovery in the Naples Underground and unearth the stories hidden there. Check out your flight here.
Text by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS
08 April, 2016