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Originally published March 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 14, 2004 at 6:58 PM

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Underground tours reveal Naples' long and varied history

Below the streets of Italy's third-largest city lies an underworld that has nothing to do with Mafia bosses or organized crime. Naples is a city built upon ancient ruins, and below...

Seattle Times travel writer

NAPLES, Italy — Below the streets of Italy's third-largest city lies an underworld that has nothing to do with Mafia bosses or organized crime.

Naples is a city built upon ancient ruins, and below its churches and street markets are the remains of catacombs, Greek temples, Roman theaters, aqueducts and huge empty caverns.

The first excavations date back 5,000 years, near the end of the prehistoric era, according to Napoli Sotterranea, a cultural organization that leads guided walks of Naples' underground.

Later, the Greeks quarried large quantities of stone to build the city walls and temples, and the Romans continued, creating aqueducts and connecting tunnels that were used as streets.

A new aqueduct built in the 1600s closed in 1884, leaving miles of empty underground tunnels and cisterns. Many of the passageways were converted into air-raid shelters during World War II, then abandoned and used as a dumping ground for building debris.

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Napoli Sotterranea offers several daily 1-½-hour tours of Naples' aqueducts, cisterns, caves and the ruins of a Greek-Roman theater. Tours are given in English. Meet at the Piazza San Gaetano, 68, in Spaccanapoli. Cost is about 9 euros. For information: www.napolisotterranea.org or phone 011-39-081-296944.

One of the best ways to explore is to take a tour with one of Napoli Sotterranea's volunteer guides. Walks start at the group's headquarters on the Piazza San Gaetano in the ancient quarter of Spaccanapoli.

Teresa De Rosa, 36, a native Neapolitan with a background in classical studies, led our English-speaking group of four down a narrow stairwell 100 feet below what is now the Church of San Paolo Maggiore, built in the 16th century.

She pointed out a row of plants growing in raised beds, the result of a contest in 1990 for the best idea on finding new uses for the underground spaces. The winner suggested a giant greenhouse. Nothing came of the project, but Sotterranea members began experimenting and produced a garden that never needs watering.

"Is anyone claustrophobic?" she asked. We shook our heads "no." De Rosa lit candles with a blow torch and handed one to each of us. "Follow me," she said. We walked single-file through the black remains of an aqueduct barely wide enough for one person.

We reached a large, open cavern, an abandoned air-raid shelter with graffiti scratched into the sandstone. "Two thousand people lived here at one time or another during the war," she explained. "Some for a week, some for a month."

Strewn about were rusted bikes, old sewing machines and other remnants left here after the war ended and the shelters were closed and forgotten.

Estimates are there are more than 3 million square feet of underground tunnels, caves and caverns under modern Naples, and explorations indicate there's much more left to discover.

Back on street level, De Rosa led us into a house just off Piazza San Gaetano, next door to a parking lot for scooters and a vegetable stand that sells giant red peppers. In the basement are excavations of a Greek-Roman theater where the Emperor Nero performed.

Nearby, on Via dei Tribunali, once a major street of Greek-Roman Naples, excavations have uncovered Roman streets, markets and workshops beneath the cloister of the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. The site has been turned into a museum and is open for public tours.

Guides also lead tours through the catacombs of San Gennaro on Via Capodimonte. The underground cemetery dates to the second century. There's a depiction of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, along with frescos and mosaics.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

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