Fascinating two-hour tours of a portion of Naples's fabled underground city provide an initiation into the complex layering of history in the city center. Efforts to dramatize the experience—amphoras lowered on ropes to draw water from cisterns, candles distributed to negotiate narrow passages as in pre-electric days, objects shifted to reveal secret passages—combined with excellent guiding in English make this particularly exciting for children.
After a descent into "Naples's stomach" (food storehouses), the first stop is an amphitheater where Nero famously performed three times. During one of his performances an earthquake struck and—so Suetonius relates—the emperor forbade the 6,000 spectators to leave. The rumbling, he insisted, was only the gods applauding his performance. Across a small street above, another descent delivers you to a section of a 400-km (249-mile) system of quarries and aqueducts used from Greek times until the 1845 cholera epidemic. In 1942 a section
was reopened to provide air-raid shelter big enough to sleep 3,000 people. A further descent takes you to a Greco-Roman quarry. Finally, prepare for a highly claustrophobic 1-km (½-mile) walk with only a candle to light your way.
At the end of the aqueduct you come to first a Greek and then a much larger Roman cistern. Near the entrance is the War Museum, which displays uniforms, armed transportation vehicles, and weapons from World War II. A room at the end of the tour contains examples of that most Neapolitan of art forms, la presepe (the crib). Be prepared on the underground tour to go up and down many steps and handle a few narrow corridors. Temperatures in summer will be much lower below than at street level, so bring a wrap.