Going Underground in Naples

Naples, Italy
August 29 – 31

Old Man Spaccanapoli

The sun had rolled slightly away from its zenith at three in the afternoon when we pulled into the gnarled streets surrounding Naples’ central storico (historic district).  Despite this, it’s cruel heat still radiated over the ancient paving stones at Plebecito Square, and scarcely a soul ventured outside while the city slumbered through the most severe hours of the day.  A Roman friend of our had insisted on the difference between Italy and the rest of Mediterranean civilization; “in our culture, there is no siesta, of course.  You will find Italy is open for business throughout the day!” Maybe so in the northern reaches of the country, where Italy acquired shades of its continental neighbors.  But here, in the south, it might as well have been the middle of the night.

So we did what any tourist would do at that obscene hour of the day, and sought shelter.  It was found in the labyrinthine passages of Naples old town, where four hundred year old buildings that had been built on top of Roman ruins teetered over the narrowest roads conceivable, the light of day all but unknown within endless shadowy streets and meandering alleyways.

And despite the countless warnings in every guidebook we had ever read, we attempted to maneuver our (oversized by European standards) car towards the address of the hotel we had arranged for the next few nights, and I nearly lost my breakfast in the process.  There are simply no words to describe what it is like to drive in Naples other than “madness”, where, in a given instance, a street could be scarcely wide enough to accommodate a vehicle and a passing pedestrian.  We came so close to doorways of several ground level basso apartments that we could count the number of inhabitants inside as they sat around their communal table and smiled back at us, either admiring our bravery or chuckling at our foolishness.

New Friends in the Central Storico

But we managed, and the experience would sharpen Ryan’s chauffeuring skills for the intense driving in Amalfi and Palermo that lay ahead.  After squaring away our accommodation at the delightful Decumani, whose coffered ceilings once sheltered a small boarding school, we ventured out in search of Naples’ famed pizzerias, where the “margherita con molto formaggio” had achieved legendary status.  And legendary it was.  The blistered crust at Da Michele’s (of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Via Cesare Sersale, 1) bore an essence of what could have been cinnamon, so that every mouthful of tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil bore the inscrutable and barely-there hint of a warm, exotic spice.  At Di Mateo’s (of President Clinton fame, Via dei Tribunali, 94), the salty crust was perfect counterpoint to the generous and perfectly acidic pomodoro.  Gino Sorbillo’s (Via dei Tribunali, 38) was our lucky number three, with their Nonno Luigi Sorbillo special (mozzarella, ricotta, pepper, prosciutto and basil) which is first fried and then finished in the pizza oven.

Margherita ala Di Matteo

But bread alone was not enough to keep the kids entertained for long. As we traipsed the length of the parallel thoroughfares Spaccanapoli and Tribunale from Via Toledo to San Gennaro’s Gothic duomo, we found ourselves skirting around the Roman temple cum Christian basilica at Plaza San Paolo Maggiore toward the tiny, darkened entrance to Napoli Sotterranea, the Naples Underground.   Through these passages we were led more than forty meters beneath the city into a system of aqueducts and cisterns originally constructed by the Greeks three hundred years before Christ, and later expanded upon by slaves subject to the Roman Empire.

Here, the remains of a great theater had once been the preferred venue of Nero, whose performances had delighted his patrons in Neopolis, the “new city”, despite the hatred his subjects harbored for him back in Rome.

No claustrophobia here

Oliver and Kendley took to the narrow tunnels like foxes in a warren, and showed little evidence that they might be the least bit claustrophobic given the circumstances.  All six-feet, four inches of Ryan, however, found it slightly more challenging to navigate the way through the various passages, especially at the conclusion of our tour, which was lit solely by candle-light.

Darkness Underground

After returning to the pseudo-daylight above ground, we made our way to the Capella San Severo, the tomb-chapel of the di Sangro family.  The small, yet stunningly ornate chapel is known for the 18th century marble sculptures of Giuseppe Sammartino, who imparted a truly remarkable lifelike quality to his works. In the center of the chapel, the Veiled Christ, a marble rendition of Jesus immediately following the deposition, stunned even Oliver into a reverent silence. In one single piece of marble, the artist had captured the body of Christ in repose; a thin veil of stone accentuating, rather than concealing, the extent of His suffering.  All around the chapel were other works by the same artist depicting various virtues and sins.  Disillusion consisted of a man pulling a net hewn entirely from marble away from his eyes.  “Bernini has found his match, don’t you think?” I asked Ryan.  He silently agreed.

Beneath the chapel, various experiments performed by a member of the family occupied niches in the walls.  Not dissimilar to the catacombs that we would later see in Palermo, the niches contained the Anatomical Machines, bodies that dated back to the 18th century; one of a man and one of a woman, preserved so that their entire circulatory system was visible behind the glass.  As we crept away, the luridness and mystery of the room was not lost on a single one of us.  Outside, the day was drawing to a close on the already darkened city, and a faint wind from the south had somehow managed to find its way through the alleys to us, and it ever so gently stirred the countless lines of laundry hung from balconies overhead.  It was time to press on down the coast, to the sapphire cliffs and lemon terraces of the Amalfi.

Naples Street Scene



  1. hi how are you guys? how is the traveling? … just read about your times in Naples…. brings me back to my time there, Coffee & PIzza…hope all of you are healthy and well… you guys are often in my thoughts… scott

    1. Hi Scott! We’re so glad to hear from you! The only problem with eating pizza in Naples is that it completely ruins your experience eating pizza ANYWHERE else for pretty much the rest of your life. Oh well. All are health and well here…albeit several kilos heavier after traveling in Italy for so long. Give our love to Nicole and the girls. We miss you guys!

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