Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Napoli on Tour

“Indiana Jones!!! Da-Da-Da-Daaaah!!!.” The short, elderly, and extremely energetic guide was shouting this non stop while nimbly racing through the 2-foot wide ancient Greek aqueduct tunnels 100 feet underneath the city. We were the only two participants on this particular Napoli Sotterranea tour - offered Saturday mornings only, from an obscure address in the Spanish Quarter.

The Spanish Quarter itself is one of the more interesting neighborhoods in Naples. Geographically, it lies directly west of the City Center on a gently sloping hill. Its narrow and compact streets from a grid, the only part of Naples that strictly follows this pattern. Socially, it’s a densely populated working-class, yet somewhat eccentric, neighborhood. This is the neighborhood where you’re most likely to run into a 6-year old riding backward a Vespa motor scooter being driven by his 9-year-old sister, or one the femignelli, as members of Naples’ venerable Transsexual community are called.

Below the Spanish quarter is even more interesting - it’s home to an extensive network of underground aqueducts and cisterns, many of which were turned into air-raid shelters during the war, including the one we were currently touring. Tours were only in Italian - other than “Look, Look!,” and “Ooh, La, La!” two phrases our guide used every couple of minutes. Steve mostly took pictures, but I tried my best to combine the various things that were pointed out with a basic knowledge of Romance languages and the copious use of hand gestures from our guide to get a sense of the stories he was trying to tell us.

From what I gathered, the house above where we entered had been the house our guide and his brother had grown up in. During World War II, when they were children, they had hidden in the old cistern below that had been turned into an air-raid shelter. After the war, illegal dumping from construction had filled in much of the old air-raid shelters and underground network. Later on, when they were adults, they had re-entered and excavated this old air-raid shelter and the surrounding network and started giving tours.

“Illegal” dumping is actually a strong, word - again, “extralegal” is probably the best term. In a city like Naples, bureaucracy, building codes, and paperwork are basically taken as, well, one of the many different ways of doing things. And post-war building almost never followed this official way. We encountered an interesting example in our journey through one of the underground tunnels we found. From what we could tell, it was designed and meant for use exclusively as a storm drain. However, we saw small sewer pipes every once in a while flowing into the drain. During the post-war building boom, if it were easier and cheaper to just connect nearby buildings’ sewage systems to this storm drain instead of an actual sewer, no doubt a way was found to make it happen.

Among the other stories I managed to semi-understand were that of a pregnant woman giving birth on the stairs down to the air-raid shelter (who later on got in touch with him through a reporter), the damp air being used for the development of penicillin, and how the toilets were right next to the bottom of the stairs. Why? Well, if you’re in imminent danger of having a bomb level your house, what’s the first way your body might react?

All in all, it was a great tour. We emerged out of a nondescript door in a nondescript alley, with a nondescript middle-aged Italian woman staring at us. Those are the entrances to the fascinating underground world of Naples. Not manholes, not anything really even publicly accessible. They’re in people’s houses, or hidden in plain sight. In Naples, not just for the underground but really for anything, knowledge and access are gained through people, relationships, not through internet research or random poking around. While developing those relationships in one conversation is certainly not unheard of (Steve managed to talk his way into a Greek and Roman excavation site beneath a Church, for instance) they can often take lifetimes to develop, if not generations.

Luckily for us, there were a few organizations, institutions, and just quirky individuals (such as our aforementioned Indians Jones impersonator) who gave tours, or at least provided varying degrees of public access, to a good amount of the fascinating underground infrastructure of the cities. We got to see old air-raid shelters, catacombs, crypts, aqueducts, and archeological sites legally - a great deal more (and better) stuff than we got to see during our extralegal excursions. We could have seen even more if we hadn’t come during the winter, including the fascinating Fontanelle Cemetery, closed until April.

And of course we made time to take a day trip to climb Mt. Vesuvius (my first time seeing an active volcano) and explore the ruins of Pompeii as well. While there, I of course could help but engage in a tiny bit of just slightly extralegal underground exploration. One of the ancient houses had a grate in front of it. Removing this revealed a staircase that led to a small basement below. I could a quick look and headed back up - only realizing afterward that this was probably the oldest underground space I had ever been in.

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