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We made it back to Naples from our outing to Pompeii and Herculaneum with time to spare. This was where the tricky part in planning came in. Would we just wander away the day, or would we tick something else off the list to give us more room for our third day’s travel to the Almafi Coast? We decided on the latter and we headed to the underground.

Sotterranea Napoli

There are quite a few catacombs tours and entrances throughout the town of Naples. A few center around dead people—real, bonafide catacombs—and a few of the others center around the aqueduct system. To me, the civil engineering and city design history of the city is great interest to me, especially when it comes to how the ancients drank and pooped, so going for the latter-type sotterranea was an obvious choice.

above the entrance door

The Sotterranea Napoli is perhaps the most famous of the underground tours. There is no way to book ahead, and you have to go in with a tour guide. Which is good, because you can probably get lost and never found down there. The entrance is right in the middle of the old town, next to the Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore. When you’re there, you find the organizer and tell them you want an English tour (or Russian, Italian, Spanish, or whatever) and then they’ll call out your language after a bit. The Italian line is the longest, and the English line is quite a bit shorter, but I’m not sure if that holds true during the tourist season.

When we got there, we were lucky that there’s a free toilet for anyone waiting in line. We were glad to take advantage of that since we knew that there would be no toilet where we were going.

The tour starts off with a staircase leading down some 40 meters below the city, into the aqueduct system. The system was made by the first Greek settlers in 400 BC. They dug down into the tufa, a kind of soft volcanic rock, and mined the tufa to build the buildings up above. However, they mined it in a very specific way to match the plans of the city, and they created an intricate freshwater and sewage system to supply the town. Most houses above would have access to their own private aquifer, or water tank, that from within their house they could gather water.

slaves mining the tufa

If this sounds familiar from my Pompeii blog, it’s because it is. The same system that supplied water to Naples, also supplied water to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and many other towns throughout Campania, and went under an even more massive expansion and upkeep under the Emperor Augustus in 30 BC, making the system an insane 170 kilometers in length.

After they were done creating the system of tunnels, wells, and aquifers, they built an above and underground canal system from a nearby river, channeling it off to fill up the underground aqueduct system. The idea was that it would only fill up to a certain level, and the water would be continuously moving, so that there would be no still water. Still water is toxic water, after all. The wells were also designed in such a way that cleaners could be lowered down and be able to clean the water and the walls, making sure that gunk, rocks, or murdered bodies didn’t collect too much down there.

a Roman water bottle (amphora) being lowered down to get water

The aqueduct stopped being used in about the 19th century, when there was some sort of plague caused in part by the water supply. That caused the water supply to be upgraded to somewhat modern standards, and the water being drained out of the old aqueduct.

Bomb shelter

And it was a good thing the water was drained out. In the Second World War, Naples became the biggest Italian target of Allied bombing campaigns, receiving more than 200 carpet bombings in four years of the war, and 180 raids in 1943 alone. The aqueducts were the perfect places for people to hide away, often for three days to a week at a time. The tour takes you to this part of the history, where they’ve a couple of exhibits set up. One exhibit is of a large model tank, and another is of all sorts of random children’s toys they found down there. Also, part of the air raid tour, we got to see the public toilets, which didn’t really look so bad considering they were in tunnels 40 meters down. I can’t imagine the smell though.

children's toys found down below

they used to have doors

In Naples defense, it wasn’t really a center of festering Fascism. After the fall of Mussolini, the Germans invaded Italy and occupied it, partly as a preventative measure against the now disorganized Italian army, and partly because the Allies had landed on the boot and somebody had to fight them. There was a full rebellion going on, and the Nazis decided they couldn’t maintain the city between the rebellion and the advancing Allied army. So they did what they did best: they murdered hundreds of people somewhat pointlessly and ran away. The revolt though kept the city in tact, as Hitler’s plans were to completely obliterate the city after the German retreat.

More aqueduct action

After the bomb shelter tour, we were taken to an area where there were extremely tight water tunnels. They gave us little “candles”, the plastic kind you light up on the bottom found commonly in Catholic tourist trap churches, and we walked through them. They were a super tight fit, and occasionally opened up into huge man-made caverns that still stored water. All of the water there was pumped in just for the tour, but it gave a nice imagery of what it was like. This was probably the neatest part of the tour.

my wife lighting the way

one of the many water channels


After the underground tour, they brought us out of the aqueduct and walked down a long street. There was a bit of confusion at what the point of this was, but it was an interesting conclusion to the tour. First they brought us to a small room that looked like an apartment. The occupants were doing an expansion in their cellar when they stumbled into some old walls of very interesting design. Archaeologists came down and discovered this too was part of an ancient Greek theater, and a historical preservation society has since tried to buy the various apartments that were built in the theater so that they could deconstruct the apartments and reveal the original structure. The results have been hodge podge, with bits of theater revealed, cut across at random by huge blocks of apartment. Actually, a pretty interesting part of the tour.

inside part of the theater, outside someone's apartment

Finally, they brought us around to a woodworking shop that was actually also in a part of the ancient Greek theater. The woodwork shop now hosts an exhibition of some fifty or so various nativity scenes. Neapolitans love nativity scenes. This is because Jesus comes from Naples. True story.

a couple of nativity scenes

Final thoughts

If I were to choose again which tour without having gone, I’d still pick this tour. It’s great for everyone who wants to learn some history of Naples, and who’s interested at the amazing engineering that went on to build the aqueduct system. I imagine the catacombs tours are also great, and if I’m back in Naples I’ll do one gladly, but at this point, I had had enough of dead people stuff over at Pompei. Which I know, is hard to imagine, but still. Stay tuned next week for our trip to the incredible Almafi Coast.

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