Why you should care
Because there’s no thrill like shacking up with death.
As I gulp down my last morsel of T-bone steak, I can’t help looking at the mammoth femur and other fossils sticking out of the damp walls, or peering down the maze of tunnels lined with the ruins of Etruscan tombs. Osteria dell’Elefante is no ordinary tavern: I’m lunching underground in the bowels of Lazio near the town of Cerveteri, about 35 miles northwest of Rome. I have mixed feelings about dining by candlelight in the company of skeleton dust, but others are not so ambivalent. The osteria is strictly reservations only.
Hundreds of similar subterranean sites all across Italy are becoming quite crowded, and not just with the souls of the dead. A new, bizarre trend is taking hold on the boot: so-called “death retreats,” where cocktail parties, wine tastings, exclusive dinners and overnight sojourns are held in ancient aqueducts, catacombs, grottoes and prehistoric caves. It sounds macabre to Italians, too — they’ve long associated the subterranean with death — but the strategy is bringing in revenue.
All that is underground is unknown, obscure and scary, but at the same time fascinating and irresistible.
Roberto Nini, speleologist
Italy’s economy already depends heavily on the revenue generated by its incredible trove of historic sites. The sector contributes $69 billion euros annually ($74 billion), or 4.3 percent of the gross domestic product — way more than any other European country. And now, in hard economic times, Italy is turning to its lesser-known underground treasures to generate additional business. According to national statistics, subterranean tourism lured some 2 million visitors in 2016, generating roughly 25 million euros ($26 million) in revenues. That’s a gain of 20 percent in the past two years.
The trend flies in the face of a strong Italian superstition. As a popular saying goes, “I’ll descend underground only once dead.” So most Italians tend to stay away from what’s below their feet. In Italy, as elsewhere, the subterranean has always been a synonym of death and evil — Satan’s realm — but now this new necrophilia is turning out to be a sexy asset to boost tourism.
Grave lust affects other European countries, too. Airbnb has offered a one-night Halloween overnight visit to Paris’ catacombs, where guests can snooze with the bones of 6,000 souls. In Croatia and Slovenia, home to 12,000 caves and underground sites, wine and food fairs are held in palace dungeons and old burial grounds covered in the graffiti of early humans.
A recently published book by Italy’s Touring Club lists some 200 underground sites open to the public, including bed-and-breakfasts in ancient icehouses where conspirators and criminals hid, and boutique resorts featuring salt pools and rock spas in former monastery crypts where monks were buried seated. At the Tenuta di Pietra Porzia resort, southwest of Rome, guests sip white wine while perched on the stumps of columns from sacked Roman temples and sleep surrounded by sarcophagi. The vineyard grows atop a necropolis where hundreds of Roman soldiers were buried after a bloodbath. “Guests are spellbound,” says manager Michele Russo. “We take them on a tour of the estate and then inside a grotto for wine aperitifs and Pecorino cheese tastings.”
And more freaky locations are opening fast as local authorities rush to sign deals with tour operators to clean city undergrounds for public pleasure. Most ancient towns in central Italy are layered with history, especially pre-Roman Etruscan and Falisci settlements along the Tiber River. Orvieto, Orte, Tarquinia, Pitignano and Cerveteri — just to name a few — rise on heaps of tombs and stratified burial sites where locals organize private dinners and evening drinks at the end of guided tours. In Orvieto’s labyrinth-like bowels, you can even get married.
Why the sudden warm embrace of the wormy, cold underworld? “It talks to man’s deeper, most intimate impulses and horrors, seducing and drawing him in,” theorizes speleologist Roberto Nini. “The underground has a special vibe, a primitive magnetism.” Nini capitalizes on it by taking guests on tours of haunted underground Renaissance prisons and torture chambers where heretics were burned at the stake. “All that is underground is unknown, obscure and scary, but at the same time fascinating and irresistible,” he adds.
In Das Unheimliche, Freud’s controversial book about the uncanny, history’s greatest shrink suggests that we are subconsciously attracted to the underworld because it’s familiar. Turin-based psychiatrist Angelo Rossi explains: It’s the perverse fascination of being buried alive back inside the womb. “Death, the eternal footman waiting for us,” Rossi says, “can be more attractive than a shining guardian angel come to save us.”
Maybe that’s why most people — from pensioners to hyperactive kids who hate sightseeing — would rather choose the thrill of damp, skull-decorated rooms over the sunny piazzas and frescoed churches in the myriads of towns that dot Italy.
Open-air monuments, out in the sunshine and fresh air, can get boring after a while. But a secret tunnel with an unsettling past will always hold mystery, explains architect-historian Gregory Paolucci, who leads tourists through the bunker that Mussolini had built inside Mount Soratte, a hill north of Rome that was sacred to the ancient Romans. Hundreds of German soldiers found death in this labyrinth of galleries after it was bombed by the Allies. Their desperate drawings can be seen on walls. These days the bunker frequently is booked for corporate cocktails and new car launches.
Communing with the dead in disquieting locations clearly is not for those who aspire to spiritual elevation. But the silence, even though it echoes that of death, gives many holidayers a sense of isolation and a break from daily stress. And probably a momentary hiatus from life itself.