Time Travel to Another Naples: The Bourbon Tunnel

In Italy, December 8 is a national holiday. Something about a feast and some reception and being really, really clean, like immaculate.

I don’t know all the details, but there was a parade with red banners and gold fringe. And a lot of offices and government buildings were closed, and everybody was out and about, shopping and eating.

Neapolitan parade

As far as I can tell, it’s the equivalent of Black Friday. The streets were mobbed with families pushing strollers and carting shopping bags.

Since I’m a good little tourist, I knew that it was a national holiday and tried to plan my visit around it.

I used it as an excuse to visit an underground escape route.

Naples has quite a vibrant little underground scene. I’m not talking “underground” as in, sketchy clubs and coffee houses frequented by emo kids looking to get buzzed while listening to My Chemical Romance (I’m not even sure that reference is accurate. What do emo kids listen to? Is anyone called emo anymore?).

I digress. What I mean is underground structures that you can visit in Naples. Like tunnels, catacombs, cisterns and bomb shelters. It’s surprising that streets don’t just collapse upon themselves since they’re seemingly built over the urban planning equivalent of Swiss cheese.

One of these underground tours was located right near my hotel. And, as luck would have it, it was only open Fri-Sunday and on Holy Days. Which included the National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day.

The Tunnel Borbonico, or Bourbon Tunnel, is down a small alley off the left hand side of a very small street off a slightly larger street off the Plaza Del Plebiscito. Basically, if you make it all the way down the street to the church, you’ve gone too far. Also, there’s a bike barrier blocking the alley, so….look for that.

Bourbon Tunnel entrance
Signage for the Bourbon Tunnel.

There’s another entrance/exit at a very posh parking garage nearby. I’m not sure if that’s easier or not, but it does provide a nice excuse to go shopping (although, you’d then have to carry all your bags through the tunnels).

The tours are at 10, noon, 1:30 and 5:30. Me, and the rest of holiday-making Naples, showed up for the 1:30 tour. The place was packed. There was a small holding area for the groups and it was brimming with people. All of them, as far as I could tell, Italian.

Sure enough, a diminutive and perky English-speaking tour guide (I think her name was Sarah?) comes in and calls for all us foreigners and I’m the only one who steps up. My 10 euros got me a private tour. (You’re not allowed to take pictures, so most of the following pictures are from the Bourbon Tunnel website and are linked)

Sarah explained the history of the tunnel as we proceed down a very narrow and cramped stone stairwell. It was conceived in 1853 by Ferdinand II of Bourbon as an escape route from the Royal Palace to the nearby naval barracks. You see, Bourbons had had a rough time of the whole king business, particularly in Italy.

In fact, turns out that trusting the Neapolitan military probably wouldn’t have been a good move for Ferdinand. In 1856, a soldier attempted to assassinate him, and it’s believed that the infection he received from the soldier’s bayonet led to his ultimate demise.

Ferdinand’s tunnel was never really finished during his shaky tenure on the throne. That’s because Ferdinand had some seriously grandiose plans for what was essentially a “get out of Dodge” tunnel. He wanted a whole underground world with shops and other distractions. He drove the poor architect, Errico Alvino, crazy with his add ons and demands.

The tunnel runs about 530 meters long, and 30 meters underground, and is full of caverns and evidence of it’s past as a aqueduct system that provided water for this area of Naples until the mid-1800s. Sarah, who was very much working on her Hollywood-style teaser hype (“You’ll never believe what happened next. Follow me to find out more!”) told me how workers tasked with cleaning and maintaining the wells would sometimes use them to sneak into the wealthy houses to steal from them during the night. And, sometimes, they would get frisky with the lady of the house and nine months later, the equivalent of the milkman’s kid. (She told me the Italian phrase for it but I can’t find it in my notes.)

During World War II, the tunnel and aqueducts were used as an air raid shelter and makeshift military hospital. All told, nearly 10,000 Neapolitans took shelter there throughout the massive German bombings. People whose homes were destroyed moved down into the tunnels permanently. There is tons of debris – handwritten messages on the walls, abandoned toys and household items. It was actually very moving.

After the war, the tunnels were used by the police as an impound lot until the 1970s. Several cars, motorcycles, and, of course, Italian scooters are still down there covered in dust. Finally, the tunnel was used as a sort of municipal dump, with people throwing piles of garbage down there (including dismantled statues), until 2005, when the Associazione Culturale Borbonica Sotteranea began a five year restoration effort and opened it to the public.

It was a lot of history for an hour-and-a-half tour. As I made my way up and out and back into the crowded streets, I thought a lot about the many lives of that tunnel, and the resourcefulness of the Neapolitan people, and how there can be a whole other world of living history right under your feet. How you can miss the whole thing, if you don’t know it’s there, or if you get lost on a tiny side street on your way to an even tinier alley. You really have to pay attention and look hard at things you might take for granted, I guess.

The only picture I was allowed to take with my camera, at the end of the tour, looking back at the tunnel.

Ultimately, I decided to the whole situation might be better considered over a pizza and some wine. It was the Italian National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day, after all.


One thought on “Time Travel to Another Naples: The Bourbon Tunnel

Leave a Reply