Built in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Naples has much of its recent history on show in the streets and plazas around the city. However, a good deal of ancient Naples can only be truly appreciated by heading underground. Unlike nearby Pompeii, which was destroyed by the volcano, much of Naples’ history has survived intact, but underground. In order to access this subterranean world, visitors need to descend some 40 metres beneath the city’s modern streets to discover the wonderful world of the Naples underground.
It is worth noting that Naples is built on the foundations of a previous volcanic eruption which dates back to before Roman times. When the city was founded by the Greeks, much of the material from this eruption was hollowed out and quarried for construction purposes. Although Vesuvius later erupted once more when Naples was an established and important Roman city, it was only the direction of the wind that saved it from being totally destroyed. However, smaller eruptions from nearby covered many of the Roman buildings over the intervening centuries, with more modern constructions being built on top. Nevertheless, all you need to do is to scratch the modern surface of Naples to discover its past. Think of the layers of volcanic material which have covered over the city not as a barrier, preventing access, but more as a veil offering some tantalizing insights.
Exploring the Naples Underground
Discovering the underground world of Naples is simple enough and there are organised tours which tourists can take part in, usually run in Italian or English. With over 150 cavities that have been dug into the ground, accessing the subterranean city is child’s play. These tours will take you right back to the earliest excavations made by the first Greek settlers. They also show you the later Roman aqueducts, hewn out of the soft volcanic rock to provide subterranean water flow to the city’s populace. In addition, you can find your way to the catacombs of the early Christian era when caves were dug to bury and venerate the dead. Over the centuries, some of the Naples underground passageways were used for nothing more than a dumping ground and, following an outbreak of cholera, they were eventually shut down. It was only in the Second World War that they were reopened as air raid shelters and Neapolitans began to rediscover the majesty of their underground past.
Some of the underground highlights include the catacombs of San Gaudioso, access to which is hidden behind the altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità. These burial grounds are organised into family units, by gender, and were used to preserve the bodies of the dead. Elsewhere, the Hellenistic Necropolis is a burial ground that was used by the Greek some 2,400 years ago making it one of the oldest sites in the city. Another place not to be missed under the streets is Sybil’s Cave, which dates back to Roman times. It is thought to have been used for military purposes and you can still see the recesses used by Roman soldiers to hold their oil lamps. The ‘cave’ is more of a series of interconnecting passageways and tunnels, but legend has it that one of them leads to the mythical river Styx, gateway to the underworld.
Many of the tours on offer are led by experts in the Naples underground and they can be highly informative as well as being a novel way to discover the city’s past. However, they do vary in length, so it is always worth checking how far you will need to walk before embarking because heading back on your own – without a guide – is not recommended. Due to the lack of natural light and the confined spaces, these tours are not suitable for people who suffer from claustrophobia, but they can be insightful and fascinating nonetheless.