In the Bourbon Tunnels (Tunnel Borbonica) in Naples (the city’s No. 2 tourist attraction according to Trip Advisor), I heard tell of a man who had scribbled his name on a wall as a 10-year-old child during the War and was tracked down when the tunnels were excavated. He was one of the hundreds of people who lived underneath the city during WWII. Many, some 540, still lived there in 1946, their homes above ground destroyed in the bombings leaving them with no place else to go.
‘Don’t ever say you’re dying of hunger; you have no clue what it means.’ That little gem gave me something to think about: those throwaway comments I make without thinking, the idioms I use without thought or reflection. It would be a difficult world if I had to weigh every word I spoke against some measure of propriety. Admittedly I try, but I don’t always succeed. Thoughtlessness is a very human thing.
I climbed down the 91 steps, 25 m beneath the streets of Naples and toured the network of tunnels (the Bourbon tunnels) that served as hospitals and homes during the War. Originally a waterway, the canals were filled in with soil to allow people to live there. The walls were waterproofed. Toilets (cubicles with holes in the ground for the working-class folk and cubicles with ceramic seats for the rich – great to see that the class divide wasn’t dented by the bombs) are spread throughout and remnants of a life that spoke of hardship and necessity are on display. Bed-frames, kids toys, perfume bottles, cooking utensils, all rusted and worn, paint a picture of what life must have been like in these interconnected caverns with their 10-m high ceilings.
With an average temperature of 15 deg C, and 90% humidity, the Bourbon tunnels wasn’t the healthiest place to live, but considering the alternative, for many there was no choice. Graffiti on the walls proclaim noi vivi – we are still alive,a poignant reminder of how good we have it today and how little most of us know of hardship. Cut-off from the outside world, the only way they knew that the bombs were dropping on the city above them was when the electricity died and the lights dimmed. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like – not claustrophobic in the classic tunnel sense but more like being in a prison, all the while telling yourself that you were safe and yet unable to go outside and taste the air.
The tunnels were originally built in the 1850s at the behest of King Ferdinand II as a military passage for troops linking the Palace to Via Morelli. He feared a revolution and wanted an escape route. But just two years after the excavation began, the Bourbon dynasty fell and excavation ceased. Linked to the underground aqueducts, they came in useful during the War as air-raid shelters and semi-permanent homes for many.
Trip Advisor reviews rate this the No. 2 attraction in Naples. Was it worth a visit? Certainly. Would I rave about it? Yes, as I have a war-thing going and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was almost up there with the shelters in Malta. But No. 2? C’mon lads. What about the majolica, or the Charnel House?