Beneath the bustling Italian port of Naples, an underground city lurks in the darkness. In the eerie calm, a strange and forgotten treasure trove silently decays over the decades, waiting to be rediscovered.
In 2005 geologists were testing the integrity of ancient subterranean quarries in the Monte di Dio area of the city when they stumbled into this abandoned world. And as they explored the 11,000 square-foot network of expansive tunnels, they made some strange discoveries.
Many major cities sit on top of a hidden subterranean world – networks of tunnels, catacombs and caves that hide all manner of secrets and histories. Paris in France has its ossuaries, full of bones; Edinburgh in Scotland has its bricked-up and built-upon plague-ridden streets; Seattle in Washington has its fire-ravaged underground city.
And with a history stretching back more than 3,000 years, Naples also has its fair share of buried treasure. Indeed, its denizens are well used to stumbling across Roman artifacts and ancient infrastructure.
But this was different. This underground structure – known as the Bourbon Tunnel, or Galleria Borbonica – wasn’t, in fact, Roman. And the stunning treasures it contains are from a much more recent period.
The tunnels had been built in the 19th century, near Piazza del Plebiscito and the Royal Palace in central Naples. But in the 20th century, as the city expanded and space ran out, they were used as a dumping ground by locals.
But that doesn’t quite explain the staggering haul of treasures hidden within the extraordinary Bourbon Tunnel. So, the sight that confronted the geologists, who inadvertently rediscovered this subterranean stash 100 feet beneath the city, must have seemed as strange as it was haunting.
Lined up in the dark were rows of vintage cars, motorbikes and scooters. Silently decaying in the dank air of the tunnel system, it seemed like they were stuck in an eternal traffic jam. But who did they belong to, and what on Earth were they doing here?
The story begins in the mid-19th century, when the tunnel network was conceived. Political upheaval raged across Europe during the age of Napoleon. Indeed, a series of failed revolutions erupted in what is now France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy.
And in 1853 the ruler of much of what is now Italy, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, had recently regained his throne after an uprising. However, he was fearful of another one.
So the ruler of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies commissioned architect Errico Alvino to build him a subterranean escape route from his Royal Palace. Not only that, but he wanted the tunnels to allow troops – including horses – to reach the palace from the barracks at nearby Via Morelli.
However, within six years Ferdinand II was dead, and the 1,740-foot network of grand passageways and caverns was abandoned. It was several decades later, then, during a new period of upheaval in Europe, that the tunnels would serve a new purpose for a new ruler.
In Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, which extended from 1921 to 1943, law and order was a key concern. As such, the assets of criminals – which sometimes included vehicles – were confiscated.
But in crowded 1930s Naples, space was at a premium. So the government began using the passageways to store the cars, vans and bikes we see today.
The story of the tunnels doesn’t end there, though. During the Second World War, the subterranean network was used by locals as an air-raid shelter and infirmary. Some, whose homes had been destroyed, were forced to live in the tunnels full-time.
Leftover remnants from their lives, such as crockery, furniture and children’s toys, have since been excavated. Meanwhile, their graffiti still adorns the walls; “Noi vivi,” which translates as “We are alive,” is one particularly defiant message.
Following the end of the war in 1945, the tunnels were used to dump debris from the bombing, detritus of the fascist regime and general household junk. Old TVs, damaged vehicles and fascist statues all found their way into this underground vault.
Then, in the 1950s, the tunnels were sealed off and, over time, forgotten about. Half a century passed. The city above grew, and its people went about their daily lives, blissfully unaware of the poignant, chaotic time capsule that lay beneath their feet.
That’s all changed now, however. Since the rediscovery of the tunnel network, parts of it have been excavated and cleared so that locals and tourists can visit the Bourbon Tunnel and learn about its stories – from its various guises as an escape tunnel, a rubbish tip and an impound yard to its spell as a home for desperate Neapolitans in war-ravaged Europe.
For some, the vintage cars and motorcycles will certainly be the most eye-catching treasures to be found amid this remarkable trove. But for many, it is perhaps the reawakened memories of the ordinary people who were forced to live here during Europe’s darkest hour that will prove to be most valuable and enduring treasure.