World War II Survivor Tips Off Geologists to Hidden Tunnels Beneath Naples

The forgotten tunnels were used as bomb shelters

Buonasera, via Wikimedia Commons

Naples, Italy, sits on top of a bed of soft, volcanic rock that is easy to carve out, making it a popular site for digging cisterns and subterranean passageways. But for decades, no one realized that beneath Naples' Monte di Dio neighbourhood sits a network of underground tunnels and caves. That is, until a 90-year-old survivor of World War II wrote a letter that alerted a pair of geologists to the tunnels’ existence. Now, about a decade since geologists Gianluca Minin and Enzo De Luzio first discovered the massive tunnel system, excavation work has finished, and the tunnels are finally open to the public to explore.

Minin describes the letter he received to the Times, a British daily, saying, “An elderly Neapolitan wrote to us describing incredible stairways and huge chambers that no-one remembered."

When Minin and De Luzio looked where the man told them, they discovered a multi-story underground network of tunnels and caves covering nearly 11,000 square feet, Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura

While many of the passageways had been sealed up with rubble after World War II, the tunnels remained more or less intact, the Telegraph reports.

After Minin and De Luzio uncovered the forgotten network, excavators found old bathrooms and vehicles dating back to World War II. The tunnels weren’t built during the war, however: they actually date back to at least to the 17th century, when a cistern was constructed underground to store clean water for a palace above. They have since served many purposes, including being used as bomb shelters during World War II, according to the Galleria Borbonica’s website.

“There are thousands of these cisterns in Naples, but many were filled with earth when plumbing arrived or with bomb rubble after the war,” Minin tells the Times.

What’s perhaps most surprising about the tunnels isn’t that they exist, but that they were so easily forgotten. Then again, the many people who sought shelter in the tunnels during the Allies’ bombing campaigns most likely wouldn't have had especially happy memories of that time. Now that the tunnels have been restored and opened to the public, though, many other survivors have returned to visit the shelters where they hid from the bombs, and some of their stories are starting to come to light once again, Laskow reports.

“It was so frightening down there under the bombs that many deliberately forgot about these huge spaces under their feet, but when they returned they knew their way around blindfold,” Minin recalls. “One went into a kind of trauma, knelt down on the ground and said: ‘Has the bombing stopped?’”