Naples is one of Italy's main cities, widely famous for its history, culture and for its breath-taking panorama over the eponymous bay, framed in an unforgettable image by the islands of Ischia and Capri and the unmistakable shape of the Vesuvius volcano. The city's streets, always bustling with people's voices and enticing street-food smells, are packed with historical buildings, churches and museums.
But there is a quieter side of Naples to be discovered: its incredible underground. Being one of the oldest, continuously inhabited, metropolis in the world since the VIII century B.C., Naples is made up by several layers testifying to the different civilizations which settled here one after the other throughout the centuries. While any new infrastructure works reveals new findings dating back to the Greek, Roman or Medieval age, some recently discovered areas of the underground city have been restored and are open to the public.
Amongst the different sites of underground Naples, the Bourbon Tunnel – around 800 meters of winding large tunnels, huge caves and narrow culverts – definitely is the most fascinating.
In 2007, geologist Gianluca Minin, who describes himself as a “cave hunter”, found evidence of the existing tunnel while completing an inspection in the town center. He and his colleagues decided to examine the findings in depth, starting to excavate the site by themselves. What they found was an incredible layering of remains dating back to different ages, from the 17th century to the post-war period. They founded a non –profit association to preserve the place and make it accessible. Thanks to a team of volunteers, excavations are still ongoing, unearthing more sections of the ancient path and reconstructing its complex history.
The main underground route was built in 1853 by order of Ferdinand II of Bourbon, wishing to provide himself with an escape from the Royal Palace to the barracks in Via della Pace (now Via Morelli) in fear of turmoil following the revolution of 1848. The excavation started out of the tuff rock from the barracks; the Royal Gallery – which intersected the aqueducts and required complicated engineering work – was supposed to be wide enough for horses and soldiers, but after around 150 meters the different composition of the soil made the widening impossible. The excavation of narrower routes went on for a few hundred meters, and was then abandoned.
The caves were not, though. Besides continuing to be used as water tanks for the city's supply, throughout the centuries they were also utilized as landfills, warehouses, judicial storage, air-raid shelters and smugglers’ hideaways.
Today the Bourbon Tunnel offers an emotional journey that takes visitors through the belly of the city, with two different entrances and guided tours depending on one's own interests and ability. Visitors can access the Tunnel from Vico del Grottone, near Plebiscito Square, or from the Morelli car park (in itself, an amazing structure). The Standard Tour goes down into the old cisterns of the aqueducts; the Adventure Tour also includes the visit of a full cistern and a short sailing on a raft over the waterlogged unfinished metro gallery built in the 1990s; in the Speleo Tour, donning lighted helmets, overalls and gloves, visitors crawl through the aqueduct tunnels to reach the most beautiful cisterns still full of water and even zip-line across one of them.
In any case, during a visit, it is possible to admire the signs of clever, or illicit, exploitation of the subsoil: the tracks of the ancient "pozzari" (the men who kept the water tanks clean), the graffiti and remains of the Second World War's shelters, including electrical and sanitary systems; the stunning collection of vehicles and motorcycles of the 40s, 50s and 60s, confiscated from the mob.
But the Tunnel – recently awarded with the PAM prize, appointed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean for creating touristic and cultural development in the Mediterranean region – is not only intended to celebrate the past. Its fascinating spaces host art exhibitions, cultural events and fashion shows, mixing ancient and contemporary. «We strived to open this place to visitors – Minin says – and to bring it back to the city. We wanted to also attract those who think that “underground” means poky and unwelcoming, showing them the opposite is true. And we succeeded: we salvaged a part of Naples' underground making it a place of global interest. Thanks to the Tunnel, many tourists now change their planned itinerary and decide to spend more time in Naples, re-establishing its prominent role in tourism and culture».