Sunday, April 21, 2002
Naples, off (and under) the beaten path

By Rod Lewis, Stripes Travel reader
Stripes European Travel, Thursday, April 4, 2002

Photos courtesy of Rod and Hope Lewis
Writer Rod Lewis looks up at the seating in Neroís Amphitheater in Naples, Italy.

Hope Lewis, the writerís wife, poses in Neroís amphitheater, with the ancient cages behind her.

The writerís aunt, Delpha Ralls, squeezes through the narrow channel between cisterns in Naplesí Greek water system.

Tourist sights in the Naples area are well documented, but some are rarely visited. Pompeii, the Amalfi coast, Mount Vesuvius and Capri understandably draw the crowds, but some of my favorite sights are lesser known and somewhat hidden, which makes their discovery that much more exciting. Here are a few that I believe are worthy of seeking out and that I always take my visiting guests to see.

Neroís amphitheater

Located just southwest of Naples in the village of Pozzuoli, Neroís amphitheater is fairly easy to find. Living in the neighborhood prompted me to do some research on its namesake. Hereís my take on the guy.

Nero was a bad, bad emperor. He came to power as a teen-ager when his adopted father, Claudius I, was poisoned, likely by Neroís mother, Agrippina. She was the sister of Caligula (another emperor monster) and the niece of her own husband, Claudius I. Nero was nuts and he fancied himself a performer, playing the lyre, singing and acting, and he did these things badly. Those who laughed at Neroís performances found themselves on the following dayís entertainment menu.

Paranoia began to rule Nero, and he killed two wives, his friends, brother and eventually his mother, Agrippina. It took him two tries. The first time she escaped from a death boat Nero sent by jumping into the water. Her slave, wishing to spare her mistress, began yelling, "I am Agrippina, whatís up?" (OK, Iím paraphrasing.) The slave was beaten to death with the oars of the boat.

You canít get good help like that these days.

Agrippina swam to safety and then sent word to Nero that she was attacked, so he sent naval officers to her home to finish the job, where she was killed and cremated on a couch.

Nero was also suspected of burning Rome so that he could increase the size of his palace. No one knows for sure whether he did it, but it didnít matter; he blamed the Christians. Many of these innocent souls died unspeakable deaths; some were used as live candles. It wasnít long before Nero realized his inevitable fate and killed himself.

Neroís Amphitheater was completed after his death and is undergoing restoration, which affords you a great opportunity to see damaged marble statues, benches, pots and all kinds of things recovered from the amphitheater and staged outside the restoration room for repair.

Of all the amphitheaters in the world it has the best example of the underground system of cages used to hold the contestants and beasts for battle. Itís very impressive. Many times Iíve sat on one of the columns lying around the cage area and imagined how the system worked, how they would channel the beasts from below and up into the arena. Walking around the arena, you can sense what the victims must have felt before they became that dayís entertainment, possibly becoming cat food in front of 40,000 people. Itís surprising how free you are to roam about without guides or cameras watching your every move, and youíre likely to be the only tourists there.

Greek water system

Before the Romans came to power, the Greeks built this system of cisterns, wells and channels known as "Subterrannea."

It is fascinating to realize what a huge engineering accomplishment this was. Between the huge cisterns are narrow channels built to direct the water flow and to increase the pressure where needed.

The guided tour takes you into the cisterns and through the narrow channels as you hold candles to light the way. These channels are so narrow we sidestepped through them. My feet were angled out ducklike so they would fit. You can imagine the scrape marks my belly left on the walls. If youíre the least bit claustrophobic, skip this tour.

The Catacombs

The Catacombs at the Duomo di San Gennaro are fascinating. Here you will find the oldest known painting on earth (a ceiling fresco) of Adam and Eve. The Duomo is famous for the vials of blood from the Bishop of Benevento, San Gennaro, beheaded in 305 A.D. The blood, solid now from centuries of being out of his body, liquefies most years on Sept. 19, and crowds gather in the church to see whether this miracle will happen, which they believe will bring good luck to the people of Naples. (Nonbelievers say that body heat from the crowd warms the blood until it liquifies.)

The Duomo, or bishopís church, is awesome and surely worth the time to visit, but itís the catacombs that I go to see.

Enter through the fence to the left of the Duomo entrance and you will find a booth with the guides. They lead you down a fairly long staircase (my aunt only has one lung and she made it) and into the catacombs. You will see ancient paintings (frescos) above many of the tombs. The numerous chambers on the walls and floor allow you to imagine what bees feel like in a hive. The area is huge, yet only a portion has been excavated and opened to the public.

Il Cristo Velato

"Il Cristo Velato," or "The Veiled Christ," is the most magnificent marble sculpture Iíve ever seen. Many artists say it is second only to Michelangeloís "Pieta," but I like it better. "Pieta," housed in Saint Peterís Basilica, is a beautiful sculpture, but I think "The Veiled Christ" is more lifelike, and you can get much closer to it than the "Pieta." I kept expecting the eyes to open and tell me to quit staring.

The sculpture is housed in the Museo Cappella Sansevero (Museum Church Sansevero) in downtown Naples. A bonus to visiting this church is down in the chapel cellar, where you will find ancient skeletons of a man and a woman. The bodies have red and blue cords running through them to represent the circulatory system. Some believe that upon their deaths they were injected with some unknown liquid to preserve them this way. Others believe that they are wax- and material-built models, but the effort required to recreate the circulatory system in this detail is unlikely.

I hope you take the time to visit these sites. They will leave you with a greater appreciation of the artistic and engineering talents of Europeís early inhabitants. You will not only see incredible relics of a time long past, but you also will feel the history. Itís something Iíve felt every time Iíve visited these places and that you must experience for yourself to understand.

Contact the Naples USO or the ITT office on base for directions, times and fees. Make sure to bring a camera (although you wonít be allowed to photograph "The Veiled Christ") and a sweater or jacket for the damp and cool water system and Catacombs.

Rod Lewis is a retired civil servant who enjoys humor writing. He lives in Crete, Greece, with his wife, Hope, environmental director for NSA Souda Bay. E-mail them at:

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