Simon Wilcox - writer and editor

Under the volcano

Naples is a city of surprises, as Simon found out on a recent trip

“You see, layers of our city’s history lie literally underneath our feet,” our young tour guide said as he hoisted open a hidden trap door in the floorboards of the dingy Italian apartment block. Peering wide-eyed through the opening, we could all just make out the ashen stonework of a Greek amphitheatre.

“Old Naples was so tightly packed inside its defensive walls that each succeeding age had to build upon the structures of the previous age,” Roberto from the city’s popular tourist site, Subterranean Naples, explained, running his fingers through his hair with a flourish.

“So the Romans built on the ruins of Greek buildings, and the Normans and the Spanish Bourbons hatched their magnificent churches on the stonework of the Romans; and then the Kingdom of Italy built these tenement blocks on top of the lot.”

He was right. As soon as I’d stepped outside the Hotel Caravaggio in the heart of Naples’ historical centre that morning I had felt the ancestral currents pulsing through this city nestling beneath the brooding Mount Vesuvius, one of the world’s most infamous volcanoes. Every church, every edifice, or so it seemed in my carefree hours wandering around the narrow alleyways of this Unesco World Heritage site, seemed to throw up more ancient remains. On the Via dei Tribulani, one of the main streets, I found the excavations of the original Graeco-Roman city; and in the Chiesa di San Domenico Maggiore, a church tucked into a corner of a grandiose piazza of the same name, I stumbled upon the sleeping coffins of the Aragon princes who ruled over Naples in the fifteenth century.

Finally, in a crypt underneath the lavishly baroque Chapel of Sansevero, I discovered the ghoulish skeletons of a man and a woman – their veins and arteries still mysteriously intact – who some say were far from dead when they were embalmed nearly three centuries ago by a shadowy scientist called Raimondo de Sangro.

It was late afternoon when I finally emerged from the underground vaults of de Sangro’s dark alchemy and into the golden Mediterranean sunshine. Onto the Via dei Tribulani again, I slowly made my way back to the Hotel Caravaggio.

As I turned into the hotel doorway, I noticed a pair of wrought iron gates next door, firmly locked. Behind them a granite staircase led up to a sombre-looking tower.

“That’s the most important building in Naples,” smiled a cheerful man at the Caravaggio reception desk when I asked. “It’s the chapel of San Gennaro, our patron saint who was martyred by the Romans. His bones are in a crypt below the altar.

“They say his remains have magical powers and protect Naples from misfortune.”

There was something magical too about Naples itself, I decided as I joined the crowds on the streets that night. I battled through a throng of noisy partygoers gathered around a newly-opened delicatessen, and dodged a Vespa whose rider had mounted the pavement to beat the traffic lights at the Via Duomo – modern Neapolitans going about their business above ground while layers of the city’s colourful past lies just beneath their feet.

Simon Wilcox 2013.

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