Way back in 2012, only a few months after we first started the Italy Roundtable, we chose the theme of “elements” – earth, fire, air, and water – and I used “fire” for my piece. This month, the theme is once again ELEMENTS, and this time I’m using “earth” as the inspiration – or, more specifically, what’s deep in the earth.
Italy is a layer cake. Centuries of varying types of debris pile up on old, forgotten, or conquered cultures, clearing the landscape for a new culture. Of course, in many cases, the old culture is still there, waiting to be rediscovered.
Excavation sites like Pompeii are famous examples of this, but some sites are still underground, beneath modern structures and city streets. In Naples, where there are a few places you can descend below today’s street level to learn about what life was like years ago, one such underground attraction caught me off-guard in more ways than one.
Here’s the thing about underground attractions – you can’t just happen upon them, think, “Oh, that looks interesting,” and wander inside.
There’s nothing to see at ground level. You have to know they’re there.
While I had heard of “Napoli Sotterranea,” the popular underground tours, I had no idea there were other underground sights in Naples. So when my tour guide for the day, Marina, led me into the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore during my first trip to Naples, I had no idea what was in store.
She spoke briefly to the woman at the desk when she bought our tickets, but my Italian was still shaky at best – if she said where we were going, I hadn’t heard it. Marina walked swiftly through the church to a stairway and went down. I followed, and stood a little dumbfounded when I landed in an ancient Roman market.
San Lorenzo Maggiore was built in the late 13th century, and that staircase in the cloister is a real-life time-travel portal. The church was built over the remains of Neapolis, a city founded by the Greeks in the 5th century BCE. Eventually, the Roman Empire took over, so Neapolis remains are a mix of ancient Greek and ancient Roman bits and pieces.
As it happens, the site of the agora in Greek Neapolis – which would later become the forum in Roman Neapolis – is where the Gothic church of San Lorenzo Maggiore would eventually rise in the late 1200s. So what you see when you climb down those stairs is what’s left of one of the most important parts of an ancient city. The existence of the historic site was known for years, but it’s only been open to the public since 1992, after more than two decades of work to uncover the ancient ruins.
Marina and I were the only visitors at the time, and would have been down there alone but for two men doing what looked like more archaeological work in one corner.
After visiting the vast city of Pompeii with all its piles of rubble, that small stretch of Neapolis street felt surprisingly intimate.
Walk along the old cobblestones, past mostly-intact walls and storefronts, and peek inside what were once busy market shops. (…is that a bakery? I swear that’s a bread oven. Oh, and that’s a laundry!) If you can forget for a moment that you’re underground, you can almost imagine a shopkeeper popping out to help customers – the street and buildings are remarkably reminiscent of the streets and shops located above in a city that can feel a bit like a living museum.
With the underground nature of the site, however, I couldn’t escape the feeling I was visiting a grave.
And in some ways, I suppose that’s precisely what we’re doing when we climb down those weird little staircases to explore what remains of the people who lived in these cities hundreds or thousands of years before. In a place like Pompeii, the analogy is literal, but no matter whether an excavated site is an actual graveyard I always feel reverent in those spaces. It’s the same surreal feeling I have of being a time traveler when I walk into the Pantheon in Rome.
There are few experiences more moving to me as a traveler than walking the footsteps of the people who came before me, and that’s especially true when I can do so almost literally.
A ticket to the excavations includes a visit to the church museum, where you can see both historic church artifacts and objects recovered from the Neapolis excavations. Entry to the church itself is free.
It’s a self-guided tour, so you’re free to wander at will (it’s the only self-guided underground tour in Naples). As with any ruins, San Lorenzo Maggiore’s excavations make more sense if you’ve got a guide who can help explain what you’re seeing, but I’d encourage you to go whether or not you have a guide.
Marina is a passionate and knowledgeable guide to her native Naples, and I can’t recommend her highly enough. Learn more about her private Naples tours, and tell her I said hello.
There are affiliate links below, which means I get a little something if you book one of these tours – but it won’t cost you anything extra. Thanks.
Check out what my cohorts are talking about this month! Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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