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Napoli Sotterranea

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.

Napoli Sotterranea in Downtown Naples 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.

Underground Kitsch 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.

Underground Botanical Garden 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.

Getting There: The address is Piazza San Gaetano 68, Naples.

Santa Maria Della Pietrasanta

With a passionate heart for history and a little knowledge of the Italian language, this is how easy it can be to find underground gems of the city. I write here of my personal experience:

Santa Maria Maggiore Della Pietrasanta Church was named after a holy stone (pietrasanta) and built by Cosimo Fanzago over the ruins of an early Christian basilica. When I entered this church, I spotted a young spelunker going inside and asked if I could speak with the custodian about the history of the Church. Instead, she briskly told me to follow and suddenly I was walking down steep steps into the underground belly of the edifice.

There, stones lay scattered everywhere and researchers bustled through an airy space. Excited, I forgot about the Church history entirely and asked about the history of this space. An enthusiastic researcher introduced himself as Raffaele Iovine and immediately gave me a tour.

Roman Cistern in Naples ChurchHe explained that the church is the most ancient in Naples, commissioned in 566 A.D. by Bishop Pomponio. It was constructed over a Roman villa, which in turn was constructed over the Greek foundations of Neapolis. Raffaele took me over to an enclosed area where he showed me the slanted Roman bricks and the Greek walls underneath. Most amazing of all, this space had a massive Greco-Roman aqueduct dating back to 500 B.C. The aqueduct was three kilometers long and began with an four hundred meter deep water tank (cistern) that could be accessed by spelunking down into it.

This underground area has never been officially open to the public. Raffaele, however, did say that anyone interested in Naples’ Parallel City can go to La Macchina Del Tempo for current information as well as upcoming events and lectures regarding the underground world.

Getting There: Santa Maria Maggiore Della Pietrasanta is on Via Tribunali next to Piazza Miraglia.

The Catacombs of San Gennaro

This old underground is so-named because it once housed the remains of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro. A tour of the catacombs begins with a walk down many stairs and into a hollow cavern made of tuff stone that dates back to paleo-Christian times. Archeologists think the structure, about the size of a large church, is actually the remains of several cemeteries and basilicas built on top of one another throughout the ages.

The first area is a fifth century cemetery. Here, poor people paid for their loved ones to rest inside rectangular bunks on the outside walls. The wealthy paid for their families to be buried within alcoves where lavish frescoes decorated their tombs.

San Gennaro Underground

The frescoes, although faded, still have a sort of majesty. One depicts a young princess girl who died before her parents, the faces of both parents shown beside her in grief. A crown over the girl’s head signifies her ascent into heaven. In an adjacent alcove, a fresco depicts San Gennaro and St. Peter at the gates of paradise.

Walking further into the belly of the catacombs, the guide stops at what used to be a large basilica, called maggiore. Thereafter, the guide passes a hollow half-dome that displays a cross and Greek lettering that says: “Christ has won.” This probably was the baptismal font of the basilica.

Yet another basilica, called the Bishop’s Church, banks toward the left of the catacomb. This area is so named because frescoes – now gone – used to depict a series of Bishops. Here also, a cavernous hole two stories below once held the tomb of San Gennaro. In the 800′s, his body was taken to Benevento and then was returned to Il Duomo in downtown Naples where you can still visit his crypt.

Beyond the Bishop’s Church, yet another basilica dates back to the second century. Here, ceiling frescoes have Greek and late Roman motifs of cats and other symbols alongside Christian symbols, such as three women holding rocks to symbolize the foundation of the Church. Most impressive of all is a massive ceiling fresco of a Christ in Byzantine style.

Throughout the ages these catacombs were used as a place of study, then as a hospital by the Benedictines during the time of the cholera epidemic of the 16th century, and finally as an bomb shelter during World War II.

Getting There: Along the slope leading up to Capodimonte, you know you have arrived when you see Madre del Buon Consiglio, the Church that is often in panoramic pictures of Naples. The Catacombs are located directly behind it. If you buy a ticket to see the San Gennaro Catacombs, you can use the ticket to visit the San Gaudioso Catacombs as well.

The Macabre Dominicans

Puozza scula (literally: “May you drain away”) is a Neapolitan expression that wishes death upon one’s enemies. The saying derives from the macabre burial practices of the seventeenth century Dominicans who painted brightly colored frescoes beside the crypts of wealthy patrons and used their skulls for decoration.

The Church of Santa Maria della Sanità doesn’t seem to be much on the map of tourist attractions. Taking a walk down Via Capodimonte, the top of the basilica peeks out from a traffic-frenzied bridge. An elevator along the sidewalk takes you down to the road below, but from there, you walk less than a block and into a church filled with modern architecture and art, including by Riccardo Dalisi. The front altar, for example, has translucent sculpted angels that look as if they are ready to fly away.

San Gaudioso Catacombs

Beyond the altar, an immense gate leads to the spooky remnants of an old basilica. A barely noticeable passage with no door leads to the catacombs. San Gaudioso’s niche comes into view first, then the blue tiles from the original basilica erected in the 5th century.

San Gaudioso was a bishop from Abitina, a village near Carthage. He fled North Africa during the Christian persecutions and arrived in Naples on a leaky boat. Among other things, he preserved the relics of several saints, notably Saint Restituta.

Adjacent to San Gaudioso’s niche, a stunning fresco of Saint Catherine of Siena still remains on a wall in the Nostriano niche, so called because it’s believed to be the burial place of Bishop Nostriano who welcomed San Gaudioso and his other African exiles.

San Gaudioso CatacombsThe basilica eventually flooded and mud covered it entirely for many hundreds of years. In the 1600′s Dominican monks dug up the church and turned it into a burial place. To respect their patrons, they created frescoes of the deceased, embedding their skulls into the walls as well as their bones and spines. Today, the faded images along the walls still show the deceased as they might have looked during their lifetime, wearing skirts and capes. There are also explanatory notes indicating the social status of the person.

Beyond the wealthy crypts, an array of dirt-floor rooms contain carved niches against the walls. In one room, a rectangular hole at the top of the ceiling indicates that the bodies were brought down by pulley. The bones were then broken so the corpse could be put into a tight fetal position, which was believed to help bring the dead back to the Father. The body was put inside the niche and, often, three holes were punctured into the stomach, particularly if a family wanted this space for more than one of their loved ones. The stomach acids and other liquids in the body ran down and into the shelled out bottom of the niche, helping it decompose more quickly. Hence, they would “drain away.”

Burial Niches in San Gaudioso CatacombsAt the far end of the catacombs, the Dominicans created a cemetery in what had once been an ancient Roman cistern. Interestingly, throughout the church and also within the catacombs and the cistern, contemporary art pieces are on display, fusing together the ancient, Byzantine, Renaissance, and modern.

Getting There: The address is Basilica di S. Maria della Sanità, Piazza della Sanità 124, Naples.

Le Fontanella Cemetery

In the seedy Sanità district, the O Campusanto de Funtanelle for many years acted as a bridge to the afterlife where the living tenderly cared for the skulls of the departed. The cavernous space retains an atmosphere shot through with Gothic imagery as fetishistic bric-a-brac is draped upon thousands of bones.

The Sanità district once lay outside the Greco-Roman city and provided a burial place for pagans before Christian interments took over. The vast cavity, which was first a tuff rock quarry, came into use as a burial ground for the excluded – the urban poor, victims of plague (at least 300,000 died in 1656), earthquake, insurrection, executions, and cholera (1836-7).

World War Two Catacombs in NaplesWhen the Bourbons razed many churches, the remains of Neapolitans came up to La Fontanelle. In the late 18th century, despite family members thinking their loved ones had secured a church interment, they might have been bundled into a sack at the dead of night and offloaded here. It’s estimated that 40,000 rest in plain sight, but at least four more meters of human remains hide under the floor level.

At some time in the late 17th century a rushing torrent of rain washed much of the contents of the cemetery out into the streets, creating a scene of apocalyptic horror. Then followed the first attempt to put some order into the charnel house, stacking together the skulls and bones. Father Gaetano Barbati continued this effort until, in 1872, the cult of devotion to the Anime Pezzetelle, or Poor Souls, became popular. The ritual included the selection of a capuzzella (skull) which was polished carefully and placed on an embroidered handkerchief with a rosary encircling it. Later, a lace trimmed cushion was substituted, small oil lamps lit, and flowers added.

The supplicant waited for the soul to be revealed to him or her in a dream. It was thought the soul needed some kind of refreshment: ‘A refrische ‘e ll’anime d’o priatorio‘. If the skull seemed to sweat, that meant some success. The grace or favor sought might be the finding of a son missing in war, winning lottery numbers, or a much-longed for pregnancy. If this was not forthcoming, Neapolitans made no bones about putting the pampered skull back in the general mass of remains and beginning the process anew.

Many stories grew up about particular skulls, devotees imposing names and personalities onto their favorite skulls and, if things worked out well, giving them special stone or wooden boxes in which to repose; even a biscuit tin would do. In vain Archbishop Corrado Ursi labored to eradicate this veneration in 1969; even in the late 1970′s cars waited outside the locked gates of Le Fontanelle for the bones of Don Francesco, a Spanish cabalist long departed from this world, to reveal upcoming Lotto numbers.

Step into any of the three huge trapezoidal cavities and the atmosphere will begin to work on you, whether in front of the headless but winged statue of San Vincenzo Ferreri (1330-1419) whose cloth robe moves with the breeze, or before the three crosses set in heaped skulls laced with cobwebs. For many years the cemetery was closed to the public, but now visitors can enter thanks to an overnight occupation by locals that got the municipal authorities’ attention.

Getting There: Not an easy drive by car, consider taking the train to Piazza Cavour station (Metropolitana) and then getting on C51 bus in front of Tommaso Campanella School. A twenty minute ride takes you to the Fontanelle stop. Alternatively, walk from Materdei station.

The address is Piazza Fontanelle alla Sanità 154, Naples. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Wednesdays, the entrance is free. Call at 081 544 1305 or email:

The Bourbon Tunnel

Near Piazza del Plebiscito and a little way up Via Gennaro Serra, a tiny vicoletto provides another route into the heart of the underground. You begin in a former veterinary clinic before descending tuff stone steps down into the Bourbon tunnel.

The year 1848 was tough for any European monarch; riots and revolution were the order of the day in many cities. This made King Ferdinand more than thoughtful as he sat in his new palace in Naples. What he needed most of all was a possible escape route. So in 1853 he commissioned architect Enrico Alvino to construct a tunnel from the royal palace to a spot near the barracks at Piazza Vittorio. Officially this was to be a double tunnel, the King’s and Queen’s tunnels running parallel, full of stores and with an elegant interior. But in reality, the workers not only had to dig through the tuff rock to create a new passageway, but they also had to cross the existing water system that Cesare Carmignano had devised in the 17th century. This part, at least, was accomplished by bridging cisterns and carving out new spaces where once only the pozzari had ventured with their lanterns. Work stopped after two years and soon Ferdinand and his building projects would be overtaken by political changes that swept across Europe.

Entrance to Bourbon TunnelAs with many other underground spaces, the tunnel was used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War; cisterns were filled with earth to raise them to usable levels, low voltage electricity supplies were installed along with toilets and showers. One can only imagine how difficult it was to endure months of bombing in these dank spaces. Down here, as you pass along the corridors and through echoing cisterns, you can see heart-rending messages on the walls – Noi vivi or “We are alive” – and view the remains of beds and children’s toys.

Towards the end of the tour comes a real surprise, the ghostly chassis and frames of cars, vans, and bicycles along the passageways. The tunnel was used as storage for vehicles confiscated from Neapolitans who engaged in contraband trade, chiefly that of tobacco. Just before emerging, blinking into the light of day at Via Morelli (grateful there are no stairs to climb back up) you see the broken fragments of an enormous statue that once stood in Piazza Santa Maria degli Angeli – a monument to Aurelio Padovani, the fascist leader of Campania in the 1920s.

Padovani died, along with eight other people, when he stepped out onto a balcony in Via Generale Orsini to greet enthusiastic crowds on his name’s-day and the railing gave way. Conspiracy theories abound as to whether Mussolini, jealous of Padovani’s popularity and power in the south, had orchestrated his demise. Il Duce commissioned his statue, whether in a fit of regret or cynicism, and the monument remained in the little square throughout the war. How the pieces came to be found under layers of trash and rubble in the Bourbon tunnel is yet another mystery.

It took five years for the teams of speleologists and various volunteers to clear out the accumulated lumber and refuse, but now the tunnel offers a great glimpse into the history of Naples at three key points in its history.

Getting There: The address is Vico del Grottone 4, Naples. Walk up Via Gennaro Serra from Piazza del Plebiscito. The vico and entrance are on the left. Expect to see laundry hanging to dry overhead.

The Wine Shop

Every Thursday morning at 5 a.m. trucks come from Terzigno (a vineyard near Pompei) to drop off twenty-five 54-liter jugs of wine at the family-run Il Vignaiolo.

Angelo has owned the shop for forty years. He and his son, Antonio, together sell elegant wines and provide a quaint reprieve for regulars who come and sip a cup of wine poured from spouts along the wall. Many people also bring empty plastic water bottles, which they fill for a mere 1.50 Euro.

Il VignaioloThe wine shop also has its own underground – one of the many privately owned cavities in Naples. The cellar of Il Vignaiolo during ancient times was a street of Naples. Today, a small lift transports beverages to the cellar, which consists of three large rooms. At the very back, an old Greek well is used for storing empty boxes and crates.

A visit can feel like home, with warm welcomes also from Stephanie Dardanello (the American wife of Antonio) and Carolina (the mother who often cooks for everyone in the shop’s back kitchen).

Since it’s a wine shop, I ask not about their underground, but my most burning wine question: Why are so many red wines in southern Italy fizzy? Often bottles of red wine in this region taste slightly carbonated. Antonio says it’s a kind of wine cultivated here where the process of fermentation is shorter. These fizzy red wines are best drunk cold during the summer along with a light dinner.

Getting There: Il Vignaiolo is at Via Misericordiella 4-5, Naples. Go to Piazza Cavour (one block away from the National Archeological Museum) and you’ll find this small street close by.


When his slave broke a crystal cup, Publius Vedius Pollio condemned him to death, insisting that he be dropped into a pool of moray eels. Pollio’s friend, Emperor Augustus, told the self-made ga-gillionaire to spare the slave’s life. Augustus then ordered all Pollio’s expensive drinking vessels smashed and his pool filled in.

Pollio was described as a cruel Roman knight of the equestrian order. He was also so wealthy that he owned a private grotto 770 meters long. People and horses could pass through the tunnel by invitation only, which led to his villa perched on a cliff. Inside, he had his own amphitheater for gladiator fights as well as an odeon for theater spectacles. After Pollio’s death, the notorious minister of Tiberius, Sejanus, bought the villa. Hence, today the long tunnel is known as the Grotta di Seiano.

Naples Posillipo Island While walking down the grotto, three corridors provide ventilation. One corridor has a hallway of old toilets that people used during WWII when this tunnel was used as a temporary bomb shelter. The main tunnel ends at a pathway filled with vegetation that curves over to a massive villa, known as Pausilypon, which means a respite from toil or pain in Greek.

Publius Vedius Pollio’s are well-preserved. Broad steps take visitors up to what could have been a suite of bedrooms overlooking the sea. The kitchen downstairs still displays the original slabs of red marble against the walls. While the villa sits on a cliff, it can’t be seen from any angle within the city or by boat – its construction craftily tucked into the mountain.

Behind the villa, another pathway meanders to an outlook point where three small islands dot the water. On one island, an eighteenth century villa sits abandoned. Legend has it that the owners left during the twentieth century because it was haunted by ghosts. Other folklore says that a woman lived there in complete solitude for many years until her death and the villa remained uninhabited thereafter.

Getting There: The Villa di Pollione (also called Pausilypon) with its Grotta di Seiano, is at Discesa Coroglio 36, Naples. Parking is available along the sidewalk.

Pausylipon When is it open? Answer: Unclear. The men at the front say they are at the desk Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and their tours are free. You must only call this number: 081 230 1030, which after three rings goes to a fax machine. Another number to call is: 081 575 4465, which goes to someone who gives private tours for an unknown fee. In truth, someone answers both these numbers only sporadically. My advice: be persistent and get someone on the phone to find out when the gates are open. Getting someone on the phone is the trick: it may take months and when they answer and give you a date – run over as fast as you can. It’s worth the trip!

Do you know anything more about the abandoned villa on the island? Write me and let me know!

The Underground Disaster

At about 4 a.m. on September 29, 2009 three chasms opened in the historic Spaccanapoli district of downtown Naples. The largest chasm was about twenty meters deep and opened in the middle of a street considered a major nerve center for traffic. Six buildings had to be evacuated and 297 people had to leave their homes. Tensions arose among the evacuees who feared remaining homeless without any help from government institutions. Another chasm then also opened beneath a church, putting it at risk of collapse and making its entrance practically disappear. The local Neapolitan newspaper, Il Mattino, suggested that the chasms were caused by the heavy rains.

In the end, these collapses will remain forever an alarming possibility in a bustling city that does, and perhaps must, live for the present moment.

View the article and pictures here.

St. Paul’s Tour of Naples

St. PaulSt. Paul is a very important figure in Naples because on his way to Rome, he landed on the shores of Pozzuoli. Unfortunately, nobody knows the exact location where St. Paul landed because Pozzuoli is a very busy contemporary port town with boats, cars and businesses. The city where St. Paul landed is about 30 meters underground today.

The Temple of Serapis, however, is still there, which shows a snippet of the old Roman city.

Pozzuoli is also part of the Campi Flegrei (or Fields of Fire) and excavations in that area tend to be from around the period of when Jesus Christ and St. Paul lived (that is, the first century B.C. through the first century A.D.). So when you glimpse these ruins, you can get a sense of how St. Paul might have seen this area.

Upon his arrival, St. Paul is said to have preached at the church San Pietro ad Aram, which is located across the piazza from the Garibaldi train station. There is an underground there also, which you can visit if you find the church custodian and are insistent.

A few centuries later, a beautiful fresco of St. Peter and San Gennaro at the gates of paradise was created in a mammoth church that is now the San Gennaro catacombs.

Finally, the Diocesan Museum of Naples has Giovanni Lanfranco’s St. Paul’s Landing in Pozzuoli, a very famous and important painting for Neapolitans.

Pozzuoli and the surrounding area was only a brief stopping place for St. Paul before went on to Rome, but these little gems allow for a tour of the Saint whose feast day is on January 25th of every year.