In addition to being a respected and experienced urban speleologist, computer savvy webmaster, and overall adventurer and great guy, Fulvio Salvi is also a fine writer, capturing nuance and painting great word pictures as he recounts his experiences beneath the city of Naples, Italy, down in the labyrinth of centuries old tunnels, corridors, quarried cavities, aqueducts and other wonders of the "Sottosuolo." This is a particularly charming and fascinating account of his very first foray as a teenager, into the world of the dark and unknown. Playing hooky with some of his pals, they found their way to an ancient Roman tunnel along the edge of the fashionable Posillipo cape which commands a breathtaking view of the bay below. I hope I have done his tale justice in my translation.
What could be down there? Stories of Myth and Legend . . . "My First Time"
by Fulvio Salvi, November 11, 2005
OBJECT: This time I want to tell you about my first time now obviously, we are talking about my first experience with speleology!
Many years have passed since this school boy adventure, but the memories are still crystal clear. It was a bright, hot Spring day, and we had little or no desire to go to school. There were four of us, Renato, Giorgio, Mimmo and I. After a very brief discussion it was decided that it was just too fine and wonderful a day not to be spent out in the sun down on the beach.
For those of you who are not Neapolitan, I must point out that finding a shoreline along the water under the sun offers many, many choices, for Mother Nature has blessed our city. So, we opted for the Bay of Trentaremi. The place we chose is striking and inviting, tranquil and one where we most surely would not run into our parents or teachers. So, with our school books and note pads thrown over our shoulders, we took off. I mention the books and note pads because, though we had no idea at the time, they would play an important role in our forthcoming adventure!
The shoreline beneath Cape Posillipo - The tunnel runs through the cliff face above
We departed from the Vomero hill overlooking the city and headed for the Posillipo peninsula that juts out into the bay and is considered to be the most beautiful part of the Gulf. We hopped on the number 183 bus, the one we usually took to go to the beach. In about a half hour we had arrived up on the lush green Cape Posillipo, but we still had about another three kilometers to hike. We decided to go through the first part of the walk along via Tito Lucrezio Caro, a wide main thoroughfare shaded by towering ancient Pine trees. It snakes through the area and arrives at the wonderful Parco delle Rimembranze, or Memorial Park, which today is called the Virgilian Park. From there we took the downhill roadway which leads to the tiny island of Gaiola just a few hundred meters off the Posillipo shoreline. Unlike the boulevard, this was a very narrow street that ran through cultivated fields, farmhouses and the original mansions of the very wealthy and then finally down to the shore.
Today, alas, the cultivated fields have disappeared along with the farm houses and large walls and gates block the view of the villas of the new modern day Patricians who have build there. It is too bad because this area was and always had been the favorite getaway for Naples' city kids.
But getting back to our gang that day. After about a kilometer of so, there was a fork in the road. One led to a set of stone steps down to the shoreline and Gaiola island, which was said to be haunted. The other road to the right went to the entrance of the ancient Seiano Grotta.
At this point a bit of historic background is in order. This whole area, in addition to being a favorite of the kids of Naples, also used to be a favorite of Imperial Rome whose notables erected splendid villas, developed ports here and built their elaborate temples and theaters. As a convenience, they also dug an 800 meter tunnel lined with huge arches, to connect the cliff-top estate of Vedius Pollio through the Posillipo hill over to the western edge of Bagnoli.
We took the fork to the right down to the old entrance to the Seiano Grotta. The entrance had been blocked up with a partial cement wall, but that wasn't going to prevent four street-wise kids from getting in! There had long been a running battle between the authorities and the kids. We would knock out access foot holds or drive in long metal spikes to scale over the wall. Then they would increase the height of the wall, but in the end the kids always won.
The old Seiano Tunel entrance . . . Kids 100 - Authorities - 0
The tunnel is majestic. In the first section, running straight back, it was about fifteen meters high and about ten meters wide with a gentle slope and a nice fresh breeze that blew through. This was certainly not the first time we had come here, we knew it well, or at least that's what we thought . . .
The magnificent Roman architecture is a true marvel
About 100 meters from the entrance, to the left, there was a side passageway on the left about 40 meters long that ended at a window opening at the edge of the cliff that offered a spectacular view from up on high over the bay. The water was a crystal clear blue. To the left you could see the ruins of an abandoned house hanging our over the sea. To the right the rock promontory of of the Cavallo di Mare, or Sea Horse, and in the center, down below, submerged beneath the water, the remains of a lava dome called la Chiana. This was the place we brought kids from other cities when we really wanted to amaze them and it always worked. They would just stand there with their jaws hanging open. They were stunned and the whole experience with the tunnel, the darkness, the wind blowing through it was, in short, simply "paradise found."
Midday sun over the Trentaremi Bay
Another brief digression . . . the bay is located in an ancient volcanic crater and actually is semi-circular in shape. The bay is called Trentaremi because during the time of the Roman emperor Ceasar Augustus, there was a port here for their Roman ships. ( A little culture here won't hurt anything!)
So as I mentioned, past the first branch off the main tunnel there was a second one another 120 meters further in off to the left, about 20 meters long and it was somewhat wider, but with a lot lower ceiling, and at a certain point you had to duck down to keep from hitting your head. It also went to the cliff wall, but this time it wasn't an easy walk to the overlook. It was tough going, zigzagging down a steep grade which took you right down to the beach. We were getting ready to go down this tunnel branch again when something else more interesting came up.
I don't remember whose idea it was, maybe Giorgio, because he always had wilder ideas, but whoever it was said, "Hey, I don't want to go down to the beach, what do you say we go find out where the end of the main tunnel is?"
Now, about the tunnel, I didn't mention that after the second branch off of it, there was only total darkness and none of us had ever dared go on further in because at that age it was over our heads to even try it.
We all agreed to try it this time, however, but first, there were a couple of problems to solve. The first part of the tunnel went straight ahead and its large entrance along with lateral branches with their openings brought in enough light to allow you to see where you were putting your feet, but beyond that point, there was only total darkness. So, how to tackle the problem? The school books and note pads! It just took a second for us all to agree that the sacrifice of the books was in the interest of science, we were all born to investigate and resolve the unknown, and we had to know what was down the rest of the long tunnel. Yep, this was in the interest of science, for sure. We all started to rip out pages from the books and pads and then after rolling them up tightly making elementary torches, we lit them. It was exciting, the curiosity of the human race as it evolved has allowed us to survive and now the sacrifice of a couple of books would be fully repaid from the light of understanding it would provide!
As we walked into the darkness, the wind, which started to get stronger and stronger, kept blowing out our torches leaving us to laugh and swear in the absolute darkness. But the difficulties didn't stop us, they just boosted out enthusiasm . . . ripping out more pages to burn as we continued to advance forward into the dark. Walking in single file, Indian style, we followed along for about another hundred meters. This section of the tunnel became very narrow and what seemed an infinite series of tall arches separated the walls in "Opus reticolatum" casting sinister shadows . . . and we loved it . A little shudder and spooky fright wasn't too bad.
All of a sudden, the wind whipped up strongly and blew out everyone's torches. We were left in absolute darkness. We reached out for the walls and stopped to make up some new torches.
The problem was getting them to stay lit because of the wind, but in one brief moment of torchlight, we saw where the wind was coming from. It was coming from a hole on the left wall. A hole . . . the wind . . . now this tract of the tunnel was no longer interesting because this was just too easy. But the HOLE . . . now that was interesting, there was no getting around it. This was the real adventure and we didn't even have to discuss it. We only heard one thing, "lets go." But that presented a problem . . getting in. The hole was barely large enough, so we wiggled through one at a time, but because of the stiff rush of wind blowing out the torches, we had to go in without any idea at all of what was on the other side . . . it could have been a sheer drop off. But before we could say anything, Giorgio, the butt-head of the group, was already inside first and reassured us he was still alive. One after another we started through the tunnel which was extremely tight and in some parts we had to walk bent over, but the most interesting part was that the torches remained lit. Somehow, the wind was now steady, not gusting, allowing the torches to remain lit. This passageway was extremely irregular. It would narrow down then widen out again. The floor was almost never flat or horizontal, but went up and down and never in a straight line for more than four or five meters at a time. And as if that wasn't enough, clumps of tiny gnats or flies on the walls, disturbed by our passing by, began to swarm, forming a thick cloud making it difficult to breathe. They flew into our mouths and up our noses. We covered up as best we could and pressed on into the passageway. I can't tell you how long it actually took, I just remember that it seemed to go on forever. Then, all of a sudden, a hint of light! First very dim then little by little it got brighter.
The entrance way
Today I know that the tunnel we went through is about 250 meters long. We were seeing the exit which was also very narrow and its opening faced the bay on the other side of the Trentaremi bay. We made ourselves comfortable feeling much better, sitting down in the wonderful fresh air, taking in the incredible scenery making it all worth the effort. We just sat there for about a half hour taking it all in, then decided to return back through the tunnel the way we had come. This time there were many more gnats, none were left on the walls, they were all buzzing around!
That morning on the way back home, we were missing a few books and notepads but we had had an adventure that none of us will ever forget, and for one of those kids, there was something that happened that day, that to this very day, when he finds himself in front of a dark, unknown passageway, compels him to go in and find out where it goes.
Translated by Larry Ray