Naples … seeing beyond the graffiti and (literally) looking beneath the surface for hidden Roman beauty

Naples has a bad reputation for being, to say the least, a bit grubby. In the past this has been primarily due to the tonnes of domestic rubbish dumped and uncollected on its streets. Thankfully this problem seems to have been addressed and when I visited the city back in September (2012), the streets did seem reasonably litter-free. It’s such a shame that Naples’ problem with graffiti can not be resolved as successfully.

Graffiti is rife in Naples. Some examples clearly have something to say

Graffiti is rife in Naples. Some examples clearly have something to say

Other examples are rather beautiful

Other examples are rather beautiful

Some are crude yet comical

Some are crude yet comical

 Others are just simply odd

Others are just simply odd

... but the most prolific form of graffiti found in Naples is 'tagging'. It is absolutely everywhere

… but the most prolific form of graffiti found in Naples is ‘tagging’. It is absolutely everywhere

Some may argue it’s rather apt that Naples showcases street art so prolifically being so close to the apparent birthplace of ‘graffiato’: Pompeii. Tradition and self-expression aside, I’m sure I am not alone in finding tags rather vulgar and on this scale it certainly doesn’t help to endear this otherwise delightful city to visitors. Locals seem resigned and unfazed by it all, or maybe they just think it’s best not to stop and dwell on it should someone come up behind them and spray an illiterate squiggle on their back.

It’s true though that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and certainly in Naples there are hidden gems to be found if one looks beneath the surface, literally. The Napoli Sotterranea is a network of underground tunnels and aqueducts below the Neapolitan streets. First excavated by the Ancient Greeks and Romans for its stone to build the city’s walls and temples, the tunnels were used more recently as an air raid shelter during the Second World War. Excursions around these fascinating tunnels and passageways take place daily in English (five per day), and as long as you are not claustrophobic nor wide around the waist (as will be explained below), then this is definitely worth a visit.

The entrance to the Napoli Sotterranea, hidden away down a side street next to the Chiesa di San Paolo Maggiore on Piazza San Gaetano (nearest metro station: Cavour), where the city's Roman Forum once stood

The entrance to the Napoli Sotterranea, hidden away down a side street next to the Chiesa di San Paolo Maggiore on Piazza San Gaetano (nearest metro station: Cavour), where the city’s Roman Forum once stood

One of the many narrow passageways in the Sotterranea. The deeper one went the narrower the passageways got

One of the many narrow passageways in the Sotterranea. The deeper one went the narrower the passageways got

Narrower ...

Narrower …

... and narrower

… and narrower

The passageways are well lit both by electrical means and more traditional methods

The passageways are well lit both by electrical means and more traditional methods

The Roman Cistern - water was once drawn from here using clay vases lowered down on a pulley into the pools below and slowly drawn forty metres back up to street level

The Roman Cistern – water was once drawn from here using clay vases lowered down on a pulley into the pools below and slowly drawn forty metres back up to street level

The passageways are dry, not at all spooky and the Guide reassured us all that there were no rats nor creepy crawlies to be found down there. The highlight of the trip (for me anyway) was walking through the narrowest tunnel of the network. Well, I say ‘walk’ through, but at barely 20cm wide at its narrowest point most of us had to shuffle and squeeze our way along it.

Squeezing our way through the 20 cm wide tunnel (for those who didn't fancy this one, they were welcome to wait at the entrance of the tunnel until the rest of us returned)

Squeezing our way through the 20 cm wide tunnel (for those who didn’t fancy this one, they were welcome to wait at the entrance of the tunnel until the rest of us returned)

Wee Willy Winkie: everyone was armed with a candle (of their choice) to light their passage through the tunnels. Health & Safety would never allow this in Britain

Wee Willy Winkie: everyone was armed with a candle (of their choice) to light their passage through the tunnels. Health & Safety would never allow this in Britain

The whole tour lasted just under an hour and on returning to street level I was just about to go on my way content with my visit, when the Guide announced that the tour wasn’t actually over. As my eyes were getting used to daylight once again, the Guide explained to the party that we were standing where the city’s Roman Forum was believed to have once stood. To prove this she took us around the corner to see a Roman arch.

The characteristic thin brickwork is a tell-tale sign that parts of this arch are Roman. The tell-tale sign just in front of it is evidence that the business next door is probably turn-of-the-century

The characteristic thin brickwork is a tell-tale sign that parts of this arch are Roman. The tell-tale sign just in front of it is evidence that the business next door is probably turn-of-the-century

What this arch also illustrated was that over time more modern structures were built on top of these Roman buildings with little regard for preserving them. The law in recent centuries, as our Guide explained, didn’t allow for building work and settlements to expand beyond the city walls and so residents had no choice but to build on top of the ruins of previous occupiers’ homes. With this, our Guide took us down a nearby lane and stood outside a rather ordinary looking front door.

What's behind the door? (may be the sign gives us a clue)

What’s behind the door? (may be the sign gives us a clue)

She led us through it into a traditional Neapolitan one-roomed apartment, typical of the kind of dwellings poorer residents in recent centuries lived in. It was very small with just enough room for a kitchenette, a few pieces of essential furniture and a single bed. The tour party looked baffled as to why we were here, until our Guide explained. Apparently, up until only twenty years ago, an old woman lived in the dwelling and had done so for most of her adult life. When she died, the archaeological association behind the Sotterranea asked her family could they explore the foundations of her home for signs of any Roman ruins. After explaining this detail to us, the Guide walked over to the bed and with a knowing grin across her face, gave the bed a shove. It immediately wheeled backwards and disappeared into the wall behind revealing a trap door underneath. The Guide lifted up the trap door and invited us all to take the newly revealed stairs down into the basement. What we found down there was simply remarkable; more than three times the size of the apartment above was a perfectly preserved section of a Roman Amphitheatre. The Guide explained that it was never established whether the old woman actually knew this was in her basement. Some stories suggested that most of the basement had been partitioned off and the ruins were only revealed when the archaeologists pulled the partitions down. Another story however suggested that the old woman was aware that these may have been Roman ruins but was scared to reveal them to anyone should her home be taken away from her if found to be of historical value.

The bed (top centre) disappeared into the wall behind it revealing a trap door to the basement below

The bed (top centre) disappeared into the wall behind it revealing a trap door to the basement below

So did the old woman know she was living above a perfectly preserved Roman Amphitheatre? (apologies that the photo is rather blurred)

So did the old woman know she was living above a perfectly preserved Roman Amphitheatre? (apologies that the photo is rather blurred)

The Guide expressed how frustrating it was for the archaeological association behind the Sotterranea to know that the area was undoubtedly teaming with equally preserved ruins waiting to be discovered, but because these ruins are buried away under people’s homes and businesses it was understandably difficult to procure these buildings for excavation. The association can only wait until a local building comes up for sale and then try to buy it, which is rare as property and businesses in the area are usually not put up for sale but are kept in the family and inherited by future generations. Even if the association does manage to buy a property in the area there is no guarantee that Roman ruins will be found on the premises, so it can be a costly gamble for the cash-strapped organisation. One success story for the association however, was the recent purchase of a local cobbler’s workshop a few doors down, after the owner could no longer make a substantial living from the business. The walls of his premises showed fine and beautifully preserved examples of Roman brickwork.

Inside the old cobbler's workshop showing fine examples of Roman brickwork. The windows belong to the B&B next door. No doubt the price for one night with breakfast in one of these rooms shot up on learning that it wasn't just a cobbler's workshop guests could peer into

Inside the old cobbler’s workshop showing fine examples of Roman brickwork. The windows belong to the B&B next door. No doubt the price for one night with breakfast in one of these rooms shot up on learning that it wasn’t just a cobbler’s workshop guests could peer into

Directly opposite from the Sotterranea in the corner of the Piazza San Gaetano is a small, Gothic church called the Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore. The church itself and the courtyard within it are of some interest (I’m not a particular fan of Gothic architecture) and the exhibits upstairs of Papal gowns and Eucharist chalices pass the time. But it’s what lies in the church’s basement that is of great interest. If you are not suffering from Roman-ruins fatigue after the Sotterranea, then pop in to this church and walk through a well-preserved ancient Roman marketplace. As so few tourists seem to know about this church and what lies beneath it (this is not part of the Sotterranea and is preserved by the church itself) I had the place virtually to myself.

A Roman marketplace, part of the Roman Forum in Naples underneath the Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore

A Roman marketplace, part of the Roman Forum in Naples underneath the Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore

Although neither the Napoli Sotterranea nor the church are part of the city’s Artecard scheme that would otherwise allow free/discounted entry into both establishments, entry into both isn’t very expensive: around €8 per person (2012).

TLT x


Familiar faces and stunning sculptures at the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Eros with probably the most evil looking dolphin ever sculpted


The baby Jesus is hidden in there somewhere

Buying an Usain Bolt fairy in Naples for the top of Christmas Tree


 

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