Why These Catacombs in Naples Might Be the World’s Creepiest

Catacombs of San Gaudioso, Naples

I’m constantly telling people to visit Naples, and I’ve finally written about one of my favorite reasons why: the catacombs of San Gaudioso. While Rome has no dearth of spine-tingling sites (hello, Capuchin crypt), these catacombs — which include a gallery in which desiccated heads were attached to the walls… and portraits of the dearly departed frescoed around them — are, hands-down, the creepiest place I’ve ever visited.

The run-down: Like the spectacular catacombs of San Gennaro, the catacombs of San Gaudioso were first dug out in Greco-Roman times. They were used as an ancient necropolis and then — later — an early Christian cemetery. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because the catacombs in Rome have similar backstories, too). But after being inundated with the lave dei vergini (literally, the lava of the virgins; great name, right?) and abandoned in the 9th century, they were forgotten about. Until, that is, some enterprising Dominican friars decided to build a church here in the 17th century… and pay for it, at least in part, with their really gruesome fancy-schmancy burial practices. (So fancy, in fact, only nobles and high-level officials got the benefit of it. Really, who doesn’t want to be drained, beheaded and put on display for all eternity?!).

Read more over in my story on the catacombs of San Gaudioso for BBC Culture, and remember: You have been warned.

If you’re already sold and just need the details:

The catacombs of San Gaudioso are located in the Naples neighborhood of Rione Sanità. (If you go, don’t miss the equally creepy Cimitero delle Fontanelle). The entrance is at the Basilica Santa Maria della Sanità in Piazza Sanità. The catacombs are open from Monday to Sunday, 10am-1pm, but visitable only with a tour, which leaves every hour; the guides (who are super-enthusiastic and knowledgeable, by the way — not always the case in Italy!) speak English, so you can ask for an English-language tour. More info here. It costs €9 per adult, which also gets you entrance to the catacombs of San Gennaro (also a must-see).

Also: two facts about ancient Rome you probably didn’t know, why you should visit Rome’s only pyramid and some other reasons to visit Naples.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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Why the Domus Aurea Tour is a Must-Do (Updated for 2017!)

Domus Aurea tour

For years, you were out of luck if you wanted to take a tour of the Domus Aurea tour — i.e. the famed “Golden House” of Nero. But in 2014, it reopened to the public (on guided tours only)… and the visit just keeps getting better and better. (More in my update at the bottom of the post).

I haven’t seen this much excitement over a site’s opening since the Colosseum’s underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.

(PS: Don’t miss my article on the Domus Aurea in the Globe & Mail!).

First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he’s the “fiddled while Rome burned” guy; although that’s an urban legend, you can’t deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.

And let’s just say that the term “Golden House” doesn’t even begin to describe the property’s dazzle and opulence. “The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities,” Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). “Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.”

In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV’s Cribs.

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Crypta Balbi, a Rome Museum with an Underground Secret

Part of the underground of Rome's Crypta Balbi, a national museum of Rome

It’s probably the most-overlooked museo nazionale Romano — but for a history buff, or someone simply trying to wrap their head around Rome’s many, many years of evolution, the Crypta Balbi deserves a stop.

The museum’s big claim to fame is that it stands on remains of the Theater of Balbus (13 B.C.), and you can still go down and see the ruins, today hidden beneath the modern museum (above). While that’s cool — and, after such neat underground experiences as the columbarium of Pomponio Hylas or the Mithraic temple beneath the Circus Maximus, I’m aware I might be a bit jaded biased — it wasn’t, for me, the best part of the Crypta Balbi. Particularly as the signs for the underground section were rudimentary and confusing, making it near-impossible for anyone but an archaeologist to be able to figure out what was what.

So why go to the Crypta Balbi?

In all honesty, because it’s the first museum I’ve found that lays out what the historical center of Rome looked like in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and through to today. With accompanying artifacts.

No, it’s not with cutting-edge technology. But those maps and pictures? They’re pretty darn helpful. Now, when I walk past the Largo Argentina or by the Theater of Marcellus, I have a much, much clearer image in my mind of what not just particular buildings, but whole neighborhoods, would have looked like. (Below, the Crypta Balbi area in the late-antique and medieval periods). Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano

Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano
The artifacts in the museum, meanwhile, are actually much more extensive than I’d expected, with artifacts like the Forma Urbis Romae, a 60-by-45-foot marble map of the city that Emperor Septimius Severus mounted in the Forum to help 3rd-century visitors to the city. (Today, obviously, only fragments remain. But it’s still cool to see).Forma Urbis Romae, marble map of ancient Rome, in Crypta Balbi, Rome

Despite its treasures, the Crypta Balbi isn’t a particularly large museum. And that’s kind of nice. It means you can easily see the underground, look at all the artifacts, and wrap your mind around ancient Rome in about an hour and a half. And, after a day at the Vatican or an afternoon at the Palazzo Massimo, don’t discount the merit of not being exhausted after a museum trip.

The Crypta Balbi is open daily from 9am to 7:45pm, except Mondays. The ticket (€7 full, €3.50 reduced) is valid for three days at not only the Crypta Balbi, but also the Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, and Baths of Diocletian. It’s located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31. Here’s a map of Crypta Balbi’s location.

 

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Hidden Beneath Circus Maximus, an Underground — and Secret — Mithraic Temple

Mithraeum at Circus Maximus, underground Mithraic temple, Rome

While we all continue to wait to see if the Colosseum's underground will reopen, here's another one of Rome's best-kept secrets: the subterranean mithraeum of Circus Maximus.

Hidden below ground next to the famous racetrack, the ancient mithraeum remained a secret for centuries. (It may have even been a secret when worshippers were gathering there in the 2nd or 3rd century!)  In fact, it wasn't until 1931 that the five-room building was discovered… 45 feet below ground. Today, the mithraeum lies beneath the Foundation of Rome's Teatro dell'Opera.

Let me put it this way: Rome has a lot of hidden gems. But few things are more surprising than descending down a stairwell in a nondescript building… only to find such well-preserved ancient chambers!

Thanks to different clues left within the rooms — including, most excitingly, a fantastic frieze showing Mithras slaying a bull (the original was removed for preservation; the copy is shown below) — archaeologists concluded that the chamber was nothing other than a 2nd-century center of worship for followers of the cult of Mithras.  Frieze of Mithras slaying a bull, Circo Massimo mithraeum, Rome
But that doesn't, actually, tell us as much as you might expect. Because of all the pagan cults of ancient Rome, the Mithraic sect might have been the most mysterious. 

No first-hand accounts or scriptures of the cult have survived. What we do know is that Mithraism seems to have come into existence, at least in its Roman form, in the first century. It became very popular — particularly among Roman soldiers, who probably picked some form of it up from the Persians and Greeks — and then, by the fourth and fifth centuries, faded out altogether. That might be because it was just too similar to another religion on the rise: Christianity. (For one thing, Mithras was seen as a kind of sun god who saved his people by shedding "eternal blood").

We can't be exactly sure what Mithraic followers did in sanctuaries like the one beneath Circus Maximus. But it's thought that one part of their ceremony was the sacrifice of a bull (called tauroctony), which is repeated again and again in Mithraic imagery — including in the frieze found here.

But let's be honest. Even if these underground chambers didn't make up a mithraeum, they'd still be pretty incredible. They're so well-preserved you can still walk beneath the same brick arches and tread on the same floor, with its inlaid marble pattern, as the ancient worshipers. Unlike so many other ancient ruins, you can get a real feel for what the building would have felt like.

And, unlike most ruins you find below ground in Rome today — which originally would have been at ground level — the mithraeum always would have been subterranean. That means you can experience the space almost as ancient worshipers would, perhaps sneaking in here as crowds cheered at the Circus Maximus next door.

Pretty cool.  Mithraeum at Circus Maximus, Rome

The mithraeum at Circus Maximus is open by appointment only, and you have to be with a tour — you can't just wander in on your own. (Given how precious it is, that probably makes sense!) Through May 14, Roma Segreta, the association for those who like these kinds of hidden gems, is running tours of the mithraeum. They're about an hour and cost €6. Here's the schedule of Roma Segreta mithraeum tours. Unfortunately, they're only in Italian — but even if you can't understand a word, it might just be worth it for a peek! The coop Il Sogno also offers tours of the mithraeum, and you can pick the time — they start at €80 for 1 to 4 adults.

Want to find out about Rome's other hidden gems? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!


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The Colosseum’s Hypogeum: An Update

Hypogeum of Colosseum Lots of people are still asking (and Googling) about the underground level of the Colosseum, which I blogged about when it first opened back in October (including this Q&A on how to book, and this story on what it's really like).

Here's the bad news: As they said when they first opened the hypogeum, third level, and Porta Libitina, the tours ended on Nov. 30.

Here's the good news: I'm still fairly certain that there's no way they could have undertaken a €1 million restoration to those areas without planning on opening them ever again.

So if you're planning a spring or summer 2011 trip to Rome, hang tight. As anyone who's been to Italy once knows, that a reopening date hasn't been announced yet has absolutely no bearing on whether it will happen. And my guess is that, once the tourist season kicks back up, it will.

Stay tuned.

March 2011, update to the update: This theory turned out to be… true! As of Monday, March 14, the Colosseum is once again taking reservations for the arena, hypogeum and third level. Since some things have changed, make sure to check out the newest update by clicking the link above.

June 2011, update to the updated update: The Colosseum's now confirmed open through July, and you no longer need to use an official guide to get in.

October 2011, even more updates: The Colosseum underground is now open through December.

Want more tips for the very best of what to do and see in Rome? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!


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Travel Virtually to Rome’s Top Sites

School of Athens by Raphael in the Vatican museums Memories fade, and photographs don't always do justice to Rome's top attractions. Now, though, a spate of virtual tours allow travelers to explore some of Rome's most popular buildings and art, from the Sistine Chapel to the Capitoline Museums — all from the comfort of home.

Below, some of the best of the virtual lineup. Prepare to want to start planning your next trip to Rome!

St. Peter's Basilica, now visitable virtuallySt. Peter's Basilica. Gorgeous virtual tour by the Vatican itself. Highly professional and stunning.

The Sistine Chapel. Also by the Vatican.

The Vatican Museums, including the Pinacoteca (below), Raphael Rooms, Etruscan Museum and Egyptian Museum.

San Giovanni in Laterano, or St. John Lateran, the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) and the mother church of Catholics.

St. Paul Outside the Walls, founded in the 4th century on the burial place of St. Paul and one of Rome's four papal basilicas.Raphael's paintings at the Pinacoteca, Vatican museums, Rome

The Capitoline Museums. They're the oldest public museums in Rome and boast some of Italy's best ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Now, you can visit all 45 of their rooms… digitally.

The Pantheon. Rome's single best-preserved ancient building; the tour isn't as professional as the previous virtual tours, but still pretty great.

Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, a beautiful example of the blending of the Baroque and Renaissance styles of architecture. It's famous for its Caravaggio paintings — which, bummer, you can't see in the tour — but also for its Chigi Chapel designed by Raphael, which you can.

The Ara Pacis, the altar made from 13-9 B.C. to commemorate Emperor Augustus' victories and the Pax Romana. (Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Ara Pacis").

Circus Maximus, where ancient charioteers once raced (make this full-screen for a better image)

Largo Argentina, with the remains of four ancient Republican temples

And, yes… the Colosseum! Colosseum, Rome
Finally: Yes, virtual tours of what actually exists are all well and good — but virtual tours of what ancient Rome would have looked like? Maybe even better.

UCLA's Digital Roman Forum includes both modern and ancient views of the forum, including the basilicas Julia and Aemilia. Pick a time between 700 B.C. and 500 A.D., click on the map, and see what that spot looks like in 360 degrees today — and an image of what it would have looked like then rotates with you.

It's a work in progress and only shows you what the sites look like today, but this other virtual tour of the Roman forum features 360-degree views of a dozen different spots in the ancient landscape.

Now, if only you could also virtually enjoy the taste of pasta alla gricia or the feel of the warm Roman sun on your neck…

 

 

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Less than an Hour from Rome, Ostia Antica’s Ruins

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Ostia Antica, the ancient town just 20 miles from Rome, might not have the dramatic past of its Vesuvius-vanquished neighbors to the south. But if your interest is in getting a feel for the daily lives of the Romans, not the notoriety of a particular disaster, then head to Ostia Antica.

Before being abandoned in the 9th century, the ancient Roman city had 50,000 inhabitants. Today, the vast site is chock-full
of the remnants of houses, restaurants, and bars. There’s even a hotel. It’s still two stories tall — and you’re still allowed to climb the ancient stairs to the second floor.

Picture 365Like other high-quality ancient sites, if Ostia gives you one thing, it’s the sense of how little times have really changed. Not only could visitors to town stay in a hotel (with the more expensive, seaside-view rooms those on the higher floors), but they could walk across the street for a tipple at the bar and restaurant. Here’s an image of that bar, left, complete with the marble shelving for various bottles and, above it, a fresco depicting exactly what the restaurant served — an ancient predecessor to the current menus with photos you see in Rome today. (Although, avoid those).

And you can get a sense of ancient advertising. Take this shop, its floor a black-and-white mosaic of fish and seafood. What was this shop? The fish-monger, of course.

You can get to Ostia by taking the Metro, line B, to Piramide, then following the signs to the Roma-Lido station. From there, you can get the train to Ostia Antica, using the same metro ticket. For a map, click here.

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Day Trip to Herculaneum: It’s Not Pompeii, But Its Ruins Pack a (Volcanic) Punch

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I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”

Not in Herculaneum.

Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.

Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site:  It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.

To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”

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