The Walks of Italy ‘Crypts, Bones & Catacombs’ Tour of Underground Rome

This didn’t seem a likely tour for a photographer to take on first glance as no photography is allowed inside any of the three main sites that the tour visits. But we’d been taking photographs all day, every day, since we’d arrived in Rome earlier in the week and I thought it might be nice to put the camera down for an afternoon and just focus on looking, listening and learning instead of capturing images. Also, Lamia has long held an interest in seeing the catacombs of Europe and was convinced that we’d enjoy the tour having read the online description…

“The sites you see while walking Rome are merely the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the streets of the Eternal City lie ancient ruins, cult temples, secret burial sites and a rare and eerie experience you’ll never forget. Discover the best underground sites in Rome, exploring one of the least-visited Rome Catacombs; descending through several layers of history at Basilica San Clemente; and witnessing Rome’s most chilling sight at the Capuchin Crypt.”

It certainly sounded interesting so we signed up for it and joined our small group at the Triton Fountain (a map had been sent via email a few days earlier to let us know where to meet, and the statue is very easy to find).

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Andrea was our guide, he proved to be a knowledgeable, charming and easy going host…

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Our first stop, less than five minutes across the road, was the Cappuchin Crypt beneath the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

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The photos above were the last I took for a while; there is strictly no photography allowed inside. We first passed slowly through a small museum where there’s a Caravaggio painting of St Francis of Assisi among other treasures before heading down into the crypt where the skeletal remains of around 4,000 friars are on show. Far from being a morbid sight, the bones are arranged in decorative, beautiful patterns, although a sign stating ‘“What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will be” did instill some hard reality into the display.

There were stories behind all of the five crypts, fascinating accounts of individuals and also how the bodies were dealt with after death and interred, and then we emerged once more in daylight and got into a minibus for a short ride to the Catacomb of Santa Priscilla.

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We walked through a small cloister and descended a spiral staircase into one of Rome’s first underground Christian cemeteries (dating back to 150 years before Christianity was legalized). The site has extraordinary ancient frescoes, eerie tunnels and the world’s oldest depiction of the Virgin Mary, an image dating from the second century.

“It’s the oldest image of the Virgin Mary in existence,’ explained Andrea. “The Vatican has mentioned that it wants to attain it for themselves, to keep it in their museum, but the response to that idea from the current Mother Superior is ‘over my dead body!’.”

It was cool down there in the maze of tunnels, a stark contrast to the 28 degree heat of the surface. It was also very quiet. There was just our own group of eight plus another Walks Of Italy group of ten – this isn’t a very well visited catacomb at all (which made for a better, more exclusive and intimate viewing experience, in my opinion).

The tunnels were lined with layers of tombs cut into the soft rock. It had originally been a family tomb under a large house but as word spread that the family were Christians and didn’t mind other Christians being buried here (since Christianity was illegal at the time, Christians had to be buried in secret outside the city, so this made for a better, safer option) more and more families began to bury their own here. Some tombs were for a single baby, others were much larger and would have held entire families.

“There aren’t any bones on show in these main tombs,” said Andrea. “There are, if you take a torch and go off on your own into the unlit tunnels, but I wouldn’t advise you do that if you don’t know your way around.” We didn’t mind, we’d seen plenty of bones at the Cappuchin crypt and just being down there in the catacombs was enough for us, plus there were several lovely frescos to admire as we moved from the tombs to an enlarged room where the nuns still hold service every week.

Our final stop of the tour was the Basilica of San Clemente. Beneath the current 12th-century basilica lies a 4th-century basilica and beneath that a 1st-century Mithraic secret temple, apartments, and long-lost stream!

The difference between the ground level of modern Rome and 12th century Rome can be seen in this photo of us about to enter the Basilica. Modern Rome is on the left, 12th Century Rome is down the steps on the right.

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The drop is about a metre, I guess, and the Mithra Temple, ancient apartments, streets and the stream that we were soon to visit were about 3 metres further down! It’s amazing how much dirt, rubble and whatnot sweeps through a city and covers it when that city is as old as Rome!

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When we got to the ground floor and had wandered past the Mithra temple through the narrow ancient street and found the stream, I asked if the water was drinkable.

“I’m not sure,” replied Andrea, “I’ve never tasted it.” Not being one to miss out on a chance of new experiences, I cupped my hands, bent down over the low ancient wall and took a long drink. It tasted cool and very fresh, not a hint of unpleasantness about it. Wow, drinking from the same stream as the Romans did over 2,000 years ago, that was a moment I’ll remember.

And no, I never got sick from it either!

This final visit visit took an hour or more – Andrea was full of stories and information during this time – and we ended our tour outside the Basilica, just a five minute walk from the Colosseum.

We’d really enjoyed our afternoon. I didn’t personally have much of an interest in the catacombs before our tour (Lamia did though and she was entranced and very emotionally moved by it all) but it was good to visit them all the same and it was also great to have the various layers of Rome pointed out so graphically as we descended from 12th century church to 4th century church and then down again to 1st century temple and street.

It was difficult not taking photos at times as there were so many fascinating sights to be seen but we understood the reasons for acting in a respectful manner in such surroundings and anyway, it didn’t do us any harm to put our cameras down for a few hours. If anything, the break made us more eager than ever to continue trying to capture this amazing city, and we didn’t have long at all to wait after our tour until we saw sights worthy of our attention!

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To discover more about this tour, please visit www.walksofitaly.com/tour_bookings

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