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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The Pyramid in Rome: Restored, Clean and Now Open

The pyramid of Rome, also called Pyramid of Cestius

Did you know there’s a pyramid in Rome? Neither do most people. And not only is there a pyramid, but it’s a pretty legit — and ancient — pyramid: dating back to 12BC, it was the over-the-top burial tomb of Caius Cestius, a Roman praetor with a thing for Egyptian style.

At 120ft (36m) tall, with a base of 97ft (29.5m) on each side, the Pyramid of Cestius is pretty hard to miss. It’s been largely overlooked for years, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s located in Testaccio — a neighborhood that, while very much in the center of Rome, is just off the beaten tourist track. That’s changing, thanks to recent trends like the gamut of food tours that now run through the area. But the quarter remains less trodden than, say, the streets around Piazza Navona.

Not to mention that Rome’s pyramid was in bad shape. Once gleaming, white marble, it had become so dirty that, by the time I first laid eyes on it in 2009, it was a sooty, dark brown-gray. It was so bad that, having just scoured five years of photographs to see if I could find proof for you, it turns out I don’t have a single one — probably because, in all the dozens of times I walked past, it was so grimy I hadn’t felt moved to take a picture.

And finally, except for the occasional “extraordinary opening”, the pyramid was closed to visitors.

That’s all changed.

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A New Way to See the Imperial Forum: A Light Show

Imperial Forum at night
Last year, Rome launched a nighttime light show in the Imperial Forum (Fori Imperiali) at the Forum of Augustus. This year, it’s not only bringing the Forum of Augustus show back — it’s also starting a second one, at the Forum of Caesar.

I did the Forum of Augustus tour last year. It was excellent. I’m sure the Forum of Caesar tour will be the same.

(Note: This post was updated with current information in April 2017).

What makes these light shows/tours so cool? For one thing, both lead visitors through a usually-inaccessible archaeological site: the Imperial Forum, which was built by Caesar and the emperors who followed him and which, unlike the Republican Forum on the other side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, you can’t buy a ticket to wander through. Instead, usually, all you can do is peer down at the Imperial Forum from the road. (Or from the museum at Trajan’s Market).

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Can Rome’s Ancient World Be Saved? My Video with BBC Travel

IMG_1783

In July, I filmed my first video for BBC Travel: It’s about how Rome’s ruins are at risk — and what’s being done (or not) to save them. The video is part of what we hope will be a series called Dissolving History, about cultural heritage under threat around the world. You can watch Dissolving History: Rome here.

Cultural heritage (a decidedly unexciting term for what I think is one of the most exciting things around — the one way we can really get up close and personal with our own history!) is a topic close to my heart. I first covered how Italy’s heritage was underfunded five years ago. Since then, I’ve written about UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage for National Geographic Traveler and Italy’s stolen works of art for the BBC.

But even when I’m not writing about cultural heritage directly, I’m writing about it somehow. It’s rare that I write a travel story — or take a trip at all — without somehow touching on the destination’s monuments and museums, its artifacts and archaeology. And I have a feeling it’s the same for most of you.

So it’s an important topic. And a surprisingly fun one. Check out the video for more.

And here are some behind-the-scenes shots, if you’d like to see…

Biblioteca Casatense, Dissolving Heritage Rome

I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Italy’s Minister of Cultural Heritage Dario Franceschini. Here, I’m debriefing with his aides after the interview.

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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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Rome’s Underground, Beyond the Catacombs

San Nicola underground

Anywhere you go in Rome, you're walking on a buried, ancient world. Beneath your feet lie the remnants of the city that ruled an empire: temples and streets, villas and churches, monuments and tombs. And while we've all heard of the catacombs, there are many, many other underground sights in the city that are every bit as fascinating. If not more so.

I wrote about seven of my favorite hidden, yet accessible places for an underground Rome fix for the Globe and Mail, online here.

(Update,December 2014: After I wrote that piece, one of the coolest, and longest-awaited, underground sites in Rome opened: the Domus Aurea, or Nero's Golden House. Find out more about the Domus Aurea, and how to get there, here!).

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For the Globe and Mail, the Ancient Town of Taormina, Sicily

Taormina Sicily
"The ancient Greek theatre of Taormina, Sicily, was designed with serious drama in mind – and not just the costumed kind. Perched 250 metres above the Ionian Sea, the amphitheatre’s 360-degree view encompasses the still-active Mount Etna, the sparkling Mediterranean, the medieval village of Castelmola and, of course, Taormina itself.

From here, the town’s pastel palazzi and pretty cathedrals spread across the lush hillside like icing on a cassata siciliana, a traditional Sicilian cake.

It’s hard to look away—or say goodbye. Which is why I’ve come back to the town for a second time."

Read the rest of my story on the ancient seaside town—out in today's issue of the Globe and Mail newspaper—online here.

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Rome in Summer: Is Rome Hot? (And How to Deal)

Rome in summer
No matter how hot it gets in Rome, please don’t jump into the Trevi Fountain. Okay?

When it comes to Rome in summer, let’s get back to basics: what the weather in Rome in June, July, August, and September is really like… and how to deal.

In this first installment of the Rome summer guide, you’ll find out about some surprising ways to beat the heat, why Rome’s water fountains are freakin’ awesome, which of Rome’s sights have nada shade, why dressing skimpily isn’t always the answer, and—of course—what that heat is a great excuse for (hint: it comes in a cup or a cone…).

Want to survive enjoy Rome in summer, at the height of its temperatures? Read on!

What to know about summer weather in Rome (caution: heat ahead)

Rome in summer? Hot? Um, yes (at least for this New England girl). Rome’s average temperature in both June and September reaches a high of 81° F. The heat peaks in July, with a high of 88° F. And August isn’t much cooler, at 87°.

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