An Italian Adventure to Reach a City Underground in Naples

by Shirley Brogan

Shirley in the narrow passageways while touring an underground city in Naples
Shirley in the narrow passageways while touring an underground city in Naples

High on my husband’s “Bucket List” was Venice and our Grand Princess cruise itinerary in 2009 included not only the city of his dreams but fabulous Greek island ports, Croatia and what turned out to be the frosting on the cake, Naples.  

Naples is the gateway to fabulous sights such as the Amalfi coast, Pompeii and the magic Isle of Capri. We had visited each of these on previous trips and I was happily anticipating a return to any one of them. Most of our shipmates probably enjoyed shore excursions to these wonderful places … but not us.

My husband, Andre, an avid reader of “Modern Archaeology,” had heard about the amazing underground of Naples – an ancient network of roads, passages and cisterns that Greeks and Romans had built. During World War II, this underground served as a bunker to shelter the citizens of Naples. My husband simply had to see them so we arranged online for a guide from Napoli Sotterranea to give us a tour.

We took a cab to Piazza Cavour, our rendezvous point. Five minutes in the cab and I was worried. Our driver talked the entire time looking at us in his mirror and gesturing animatedly with one or both hands. He never traveled less than 80 kph on roads barely wide enough to accommodate two Austin Minis. He detoured the wrong way down one-way streets, hung out his window and yelled at other drivers leaning on the horn for emphasis.

We arrived at Piazza Cavour a bit shaken, but ready for our tour. One problem. Our appointed meeting time, 10 am, came and went and no Luca, our guide. When I called his cell he sounded groggy – definitely NOT on his way to meet us. “Oh no! I donna work for the underground no more.”

Luca gave me the number of someone named Fulvio who I assumed was his replacement at the Sotterranea. Next problem. “Speak no eengliss”! I repeated our story to another voice on the phone, who spoke limited English. Two minutes later Fulvio appeared in the Piazza with his buddy. They didn’t work for the Sotterranea at all – they just worked near Piazza Cavour so Luca threw them to the crazy tourists.

But both men got on their cells and in loud conversations and wild gesturing it was settled – a tour was arranged for us at 4pm.

Great – except Grand Princess was leaving at 4:30pm.  Glum faces all around.

And then – Eureka! New plan! Three blocks away was a rival tour company with access to the underground. Fulvio and friend gave us directions and we set off.

Somehow we stumbled onto the place in Duomo Street a little after 11 am where we found locked gates and no sign of life. The sign listed tours at noon. While we debated whether to wait, a young man walked up and introduced himself as Alex, the tour guide.

Alex told us that despite the sign, in fact tours started at 11 am but the boss had not yet arrived to open the gates. That all made perfect sense. While we were waiting, I read a framed letter on the wall from former President Clinton thanking the staff for the great tour. If it was good enough for Bill – we were going to wait!

Finally the boss arrived at 11:30 and unlocked the gates. Off we went on our tour – just my husband and I because, of course, no one else knew the tour start time.

We went 30 meters down stairs….for an eerie trek through 1.2 kms of a 120 km network of caves, cisterns and passageways. Though there was electric lighting along most of the paths we followed, it was dim and didn’t penetrate the shadows completely. We were careful to follow Alex closely. Sometimes he needed his flashlight to light the way and at one point, we had to crab-walk through a long very narrow passageway with candles in hand. Definitely not for the chubby, claustrophobic or faint of heart!

We saw the cisterns where rainwater was collected to provide the city’s water supply years ago. Several sites were strewn with people’s personal effects, including a child’s dust covered toys, a sewing machine and even military equipment – scenes frozen in time, from the war years when frightened families had taken refuge during bombing raids.

There were surprises at every turn and rounding one corner we were amazed to find a small modern-day experimental greenhouse with thriving plants.  At an exhibit showing how workers had excavated the cisterns, Alex amazed us by hoisting a large boulder over his head. He laughed to see our expressions, then tossed it to us. It wasn’t hard to catch since it was a light-weight fake!

Alex was full of tales, jokes and information and we enjoyed him as much as the Sotterranea itself. Those two hours just flew by.

After our tour, Alex sent us to De Matteo’s for real Napolitano pizza.

The pizzeria was packed with locals so I used my best Italian to order: “Pizza and Vino Rosso, signore!”

Napolitano pizza lived up to its reputation – we agreed it was the best we’d ever had and the more vino we drank, the better we liked Naples.

It was a great finale to a great cruise to Europe – an adventure that turned into the “Grand comedy” and the highlight of our trip.

Oh, by the way? We WALKED back to the port enjoying the scenery and people all along the way.