The church of Pietrasanta, tucked between two buildings at the back of the little piazza where Dani, Luca and I sipped coffee, looked like any other Neapolitan church. A little older than other churches, perhaps, but otherwise inconspicuous, nondescript. It did not, for example, look like a portal into an ancient underground labyrinth of narrow aqueducts and vast, echoing cisterns.
When we finished our coffee, Dani and Luca led me down into the basement of the church. In the back corner of the basement was a forgotten staircase, and at the bottom of these stairs was a rectangular black hole. This would be our entrance. First we strapped on our gear – Luca and Dani in caribbeaners, ropes, helmets, harnesses and suits with reflective piping; me in jeans, an inside-out t-shirt, and a piece of rope tied like a primitive diaper around my crotch. We began our descent. Down fifteen meters of dilapidated concrete stairs, down another fifteen meters on a flimsy rusty ladder. Then a quick scramble up a tufa wall. Next, another drop down. This time it was backwards, feet-first through a rabbit-sized hole, kicking blindly into a void, fifteen meters above ground. For a speleo-veteran, this is old hat. But I was a speleo neophyte, a newbie, and for a moment, as I dangled by rope fifteen meters in the air, I wondered if Luca and Dani were trying to kill me. But they weren’t (or at least they didn’t succeed) – I touched down safely. (‘Touchdown!’ Dani told me to say). From the ground, I admired the space where I found myself standing. It was an ancient cistern, shaped like a large bottle, reaching a narrow point twenty meters up. At about the four meter point was the water-line where faded white ceramic lining met the copper-colored tufa. Before our descent, Luca had looked at me and said, “this is what I call the time machine.” Indeed, we were traveling back into time. Twenty-five centuries back. When Ancient Greeks inhabited Naples – Neapoli, they called it – this cistern was a water tank into which they would lower buckets and bring up fresh drinking water.
We spent the next five hours tromping through the dark underground of Naples. The brilliantly engineered underground water system became for Luca, Dani and I a sort of jungle gym or obstacle course. We flattened ourselves through dagger-narrow aqueducts, contorted our bodies like circus performers to squeeze through tiny foxholes. We clambered up silty tufa walls, tip-toed along narrow ledges, lowered ourselves into cavernous, echoing spaces, always retracing the path of water that rushed through these channels so many centuries before. Luca and Dani showed me the long narrow chutes leading down from the surface through which the Greeks once brought up their water buckets. And the tracks of treacherous-looking footholds – tiny holes running up the side of the tank walls – on which the Greeks who built these cisterns would climb up and down. We saw remnants – electrical wires, staircases, toilets, makeshift altars, graffiti, shards of plates and tile – from when the cisterns were used as bomb shelters during WWII. Luca and Dani introduced me to the Wave Room of ___Marina (Luca’s daughter), an oblong cistern lined with watermarks oscillating in beautiful wave patterns. We ducked into previously unexplored passageways (appropriately labeled with spray-painted question marks) and ‘discovered’ two cisterns, helping Luca fill in the blanks on his map of Naples’s hollow underworld.
Before coming to Naples, I had researched the city’s underworld. I knew there were ancient cisterns and bomb shelters. I saw a few pictures on google images. But to walk through these spaces, to see their vastness, to hear my voice reverberate in the silence were things for which nothing could have prepared me. Beneath the city of Naples is a treasure. Expanses of negative space, dark silent voids, all interconnected in a seemingly infinite network of passageways, all waiting to be discovered. When it was time to leave the underground behind, we were tired and hungry, our faces smudged with mud, but all of us grinning like kids after a satisfying adventure. During that afternoon, I was Dante; Luca and Dani were my two-headed Virgil. As I climbed back up the sagging rusty ladder, preparing to resurface in the church of Santapietra, Dani, standing at the foot of the ladder, called up to me: ‘E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stele.’ (When we came out again, we saw the stars).