Descending into catacombs is always a bit spooky. It’s a graveyard, after all. Even the beautiful surroundings of Sicily – with all the stone buildings in Syracuse lining the sea – cannot detract from the eeriness of going underground. But when you’re in Italy you just have to admire all the ruins, the tangible history and the dead that made it all possible. That’s how I found myself in the Catacombs of San Giovannia 6th-century burial ground with over 10,000 graves.
When the bilingual tour guide gave me a hard hat to wear, I felt the cool air from the miles of underground passages swirling around my ankles. The Byzantine resting place maintains a constant temperature of 70°F, a welcome retreat from Sicily’s typical heat or occasional rain.
A slightly damp, low-ceilinged corridor leads down to chapels, murals and the cavernous tombs. Compared to other catacombs in Italy, these appear neatly arranged; Our guide explains that they were built after the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity and were therefore created leisurely, rather than 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 here too, from the 6th century, almost perfectly preserved until the day they were sealed and hidden in 1493, when the Jewish community of 3,500 inhabitants was banished from the city by the Spanish Inquisition.
The tranquil pools are 55 feet below street level, deep enough to access a spring. The water in mikvah baths must not have been touched by human hands as it is used for purification rituals. There’s something about these historic underground locations that have a palpable ambience.
Syracuse is just one of Italy’s many cities with underground cultural attractions. Whether you’re dodging sun, rain, or even snow, or seeking supernatural company, here are some other subterranean caves across Italy where you can witness the decaying effects of time.
Admire skeletons in the Capuchin Crypt in Rome
If you like your holiday spiced up with a touch of the macabre then visit this Cripta dei Cappuccini in Rome. Below the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (which itself is fairly unremarkable) lies a crypt covered head to toe (sorry) with skeletons and bones.
It is not the only Capuchin tomb in Europe to be adorned with such a decoration, but it was certainly the first. Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars on the other side of Rome to be dug up and brought here. Their remains were used to create the scenes you can see today: the skull, femur, tibia and fibula, all arranged in an elaborate display.
Explore the underground city of ancient Neapolis in Naples
There is an entire city under the city of Naples. Ancient Neapolis (meaning new city) was founded in 600 BC. Founded by the Greeks in 1000 BC, and today you can see those foundations 35 meters underground. Head to the ticket office entrance to meet your guide, who will lead you through arches, domes, cisterns, and viaducts, sharing tales of resilience and rebellion.
Tunnels built by Greek slaves 2,400 years ago meander around the underworld, which over the centuries have been repurposed as wine cellars, bomb shelters and heating systems. There are a number of these attractions in the historic center of Naples, but head to the door in the corner of Piazza San Gaetano for excellent guided tours in English.
Wade through the flooded crypt of San Zaccaria in Venice
Whether Venice sinks or not, the crypt of the Church of San Zaccaria is definitely flooded. Since the 9th century there has been a chapel just around the corner from St. Mark’s Square (yet far less frequented). However, today’s Renaissance building, which looks as delicious as a wedding cake, was built in 1458.
Take a tour of the lavish interiors (and don’t miss the Bellini painting) before finding the stairs down to the crypt. There you can stroll on an elevated walkway through the waterlogged basement full of monuments and altars. It’s an attraction worth the 3 euro entrance fee.