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Going Underground

In junior high, some friends and I discovered a way into our town's rain sewers. With cigarette lighters to guide us, we crawled through dark concrete tubes to emerge in a chamber just high enough to stand in. Fifty feet below street level, we'd found the perfect adolescent hideaway. Tom Sawyer had a river; I had a sewer.

A growth spurt put an end to my crouched-over tunnel-crawling days, but, for me, the allure of the subterranean remained. Fortunately, history has obliged with hundreds of mysterious underground gems. So put away your sunscreen. That pesky hole in the ozone layer won't be a problem where we're going.

Cabinet War Rooms, London
A 21-room time capsule beneath the former Office of Works building in Westminster, the Cabinet War Rooms are a far better memorial to World War II than Europe's deserted battlefields. From here Churchill directed the British campaign. You can almost hear his shoe leather slapping against the linoleum floor. Wherever you look in this bunker-turned-museum-- at the thousands of pinholes on a world map marking torpedo strikes, at the BBC microphone that the prime minister used to address the nation -- the place simply resonates with the past.
Clive Steps, King Charles St.; 44-171/930-6961, fax 44-171/839-5897; open daily; $7.75.

De Beers Diamond Mines, Kimberley, South Africa
A lust for diamonds has led to some of the world's deepest holes, and no mines burrow deeper than in Kimberley. When you arrive at the complex, you're greeted by the Big Hole, a vast crater dug entirely with picks and shovels that yielded three tons of diamonds before it closed in 1914. After donning coveralls, boots, a hard hat, and ear protectors, you step into a cage elevator and plummet 3,000 feet into the black earth, listening to miners from the nearby DuToitspan Mine blast away with hydraulic drills and earthmovers. The largest stone ever found there, a colossal 616-carat gem, resides in the aboveground museum.
Tucker St., Kimberley; 27-531/839-4270, fax 27-531/839-4210; open Monday-Friday; reservations required; free.

San Clemente Basilica, Rome
No place better illustrates the eternal city's vertical time line than the stone steps of San Clemente. From the 12th-century Chapel of Santa Catarina, a staircase leads down one floor and 800 years to the barren lower basilica. Faded frescoes and some of the first known inscriptions in modern Italian depict the life of Saint Clement, the fourth Pope. A maze of passages leads to a temple with an altar to the Persian sun-god Mithras, worshiped by an all-male fertility cult. In the second century, Mithraism became popular among Roman aristocrats. The sound of rushing water from a hidden aqueduct makes you feel as if you're in Fellini's Satyricon.
Via San Giovanni, Laterano; 39-70/451-018; $1.

Mayakovskaya Metro Station, Moscow
Palaces for the people, Moscow's metro stations (which also served as World War II bomb shelters) are the Soviet era's greatest gift to the capital. Each is unique in design, from ornate Beaux-Arts grandeur to bold Constructivist utopia. Every visitor will have his or her favorite. Mine is Mayakovskaya, completed in 1938. Architect Alexei Dushkin won the Grand Prix at the Paris World's Fair for his stainless-steel columns supporting colorful ceiling mosaics, one of which depicts a plane dropping blue and yellow parachutists.
The Moscow subway system operates daily 5:30 a.m.-1 a.m.

Tomb of Seti I, Luxor, Egypt
Most visitors to the Valley of the Kings flock to Tutankhamen's grave, but I prefer the tomb of Seti I (1318-1304 b.c.). Its well-preserved bas-reliefs illustrate a passage from the Book of the Dead in which the god Ra navigates the evil underworld. Apep, a 52-foot snake symbolizing primeval chaos, slithers on several walls. The burial chamber's vaulted ceiling holds a dazzling map of the constellations, which makes it the only underground spot I know of where you can gaze at the stars.
Luxor Tourism 209-5/373-294; open daily; $6 for any three tombs, except for King Tutankhamen's and Queen Nefertari's.

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