Sink into Crypts and Underground Tombs in Italy
Descending into catacombs is always a bit creepy. It is a graveyard after all. Even the beautiful setting of Sicily—with all the stone buildings in Syracuse lining the sea—can’t detract from the eeriness of going underground. But when in Italy, one simply must admire all the ruins, the touchable history, and the dead who made it all happen. Which is how I found myself in the Catacombs of San Giovanni, a 6th century burial ground that’s home to over 10,000 graves.
As the bilingual tour guide gave me a hard hat to wear, I felt the cool air from the miles and miles of underground passages swirl up around my ankles. It’s always a steady 70°F inside the Byzantine resting place, a welcome retreat from Sicily’s typical heat or occasional rain.
A low ceilinged and slightly damp corridor leads down to chapels, murals, and the cavernous tombs. Compared to other catacombs in Italy, these seem neatly ordered; our guide explains that they were built after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, and so were created in a leisurely manner, as opposed to being cobbled together under persecution and duress, like those beneath the Church of Santa Lucia, on the other side of town.
This isn’t the only underground attraction in Syracuse. The oldest Jewish Mikvah baths in Europe are also here, dating back to the 6th century, almost perfectly preserved to the day they were sealed up and hidden in 1493, when the Jewish community of 3,500 people were exiled from the city by the Spanish Inquisition.
The serene pools are 55 feet below the street, at such a depth in order to access a spring. Water in Mikvah baths mustn’t have been touched by human hands, as they are used for purification rituals. There’s something about these historical underground places that have a palpable ambiance.
Syracuse is just one of Italy’s myriad cities with subterranean cultural sights to visit. Whether it’s sun, rain, or even snow you’re dodging or supernatural company you’re seeking, here are some other underground lairs across Italy where you can witness the decaying effects of time.
Admire skeletons in the Capuchins’ Crypt in Rome
If you like your vacations seasoned with a smattering of the macabre, head to the Cripta dei Cappuccini in Rome. Below the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (which is pretty unremarkable in itself) lies a crypt fitted head to toe (sorry) with skeletons and bones.
It’s not the only Capuchin crypt in Europe to be decked out in such decor, but it certainly was the first. Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars to be dug up from the other side of Rome and brought here. Their remains were used to create the scenes you can see today: skulls, femurs, tibia, and fibula, all arranged in an ornate display.
Explore the underground city of Ancient Neapolis in Naples
There’s a whole city beneath the city of Naples. Ancient Neapolis (meaning new city) was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC, and today you can visit those foundations, 118 feet underground. Head to the ticket office entrance to meet their guide who steers you around arches, domes, cisterns, and viaducts, while telling stories of resilience and rebellion.
Tunnels built by Greek slaves 2,400 years ago wind around the underworld features, which were repurposed as wine cellars, bomb shelters, and heating systems over the centuries. There are a number of these sites in Naples’ old town center, but head to the door in the corner of Piazza San Gaetano for excellent tours in English.
Wade through the Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria in Venice
Whether or not Venice is sinking, the crypt of San Zaccaria Church definitely is flooded. There’s been a chapel just around the corner from St. Mark’s Square (and yet markedly less busy) since the 9th century. However, the current Renaissance building—that looks as scrumptious as a wedding cake—was built in 1458.
Take a turn around the lavish interiors (and don’t miss the Bellini painting) before locating the stairs down to the crypt. There you can mosey along a raised walkway through the waterlogged basement, full of memorials and altars. It’s a sight well worth the 3 euro entrance fee.
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