Underground Rome: Subterranean Secrets of the Eternal City

Photo by Freeimages.com/Tessa Hatlelid

by Jonathan Thompson, The Daily Telegraph, June 17, 2016

Beneath modern Rome is a hidden city - as cool as Rome is sweltering during the summer months; as tranquil as Rome is hectic. Down here, below the surface of the Eternal City, time stands still in cold, pristine darkness - as it has done for centuries.    

As pretty much every schoolchild knows, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Rather, the modern city has evolved over more than 2,700 years. And if you know where to look, you can see that process in full effect.

That’s our aim here in the Italian capital: to see one of Europe’s most familiar cities from a fresh perspective- its underbelly. Recently, Roma Sotteranea - the exploration of sub-terrestrial Rome - has become increasingly popular, with a number of operators now offering tours of the city’s underworld: a dusty labyrinth of long-forgotten streets, crypts, homes and temples.

One of the best places to start peeling back Rome’s onion-like skin is San Clemente, a 12th Century Basilica just east of the Colosseum. Nicknamed the ‘Lasagne Church’, it sits atop a Jenga-like stack of former structures, which we explore via a narrow staircase at the Basilica’s rear. First, we descend past the well-preserved frescoes of the original Fourth Century church, forgotten for more than a millennium. Deeper still is an outlandishly-intact Roman temple, dedicated to the cult of Mithras, while under even that is a fascinating First Century public building, part of ancient Rome’s Imperial Mint.

Our three-hour tour of Rome’s nether regions - organised by our base in the city, the pretty boutique hotel  Portrait Roma  - resembles something of a Dan Brown-esque dash between crumbling cryptograms. Our route takes in the Catacombs of San Callisto (a vast city of the dead where half a million early Christians were laid to rest in carefully coordinated stone alcoves) and then the most spectacular subterranean site of them all: the Capuchin Crypt beneath Via Veneto - an extraordinary series of underground chapels, decorated with the bones of some 3,700 Capuchin monks. The monks constructed this as a macabre medieval message that we could meet our maker at any time - a point reinforced by everything from mummified brothers gesturing from alcoves, to a bottom-heavy hour glass constructed from human remains.

At the top of the hour glass, on the other side of Rome’s stone skin, the modern city continues to thrive and fizz like no other. In this, the 70th anniversary of the Vespa, swarms of the iconic bikes still buzz about its cobbled streets, and we decide to finish the day with another tour - from the scooter saddle. As our guide Alexander points out, on a Vespa you can access the older, narrower streets of Rome that are inaccessible to cars, and we happily zoom about the city in his wake, up and down the famous hills, past the Circus Maximus and around the Coliseum in a tour de force that Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn would have been proud of.

This week our Mini Grand Tour of Europe - a road trip around every EU country in one calendar month - has had a decidedly Italian flavour to it, and for good reason. To reach outlying Malta, we’ve had to head across much of southern Italy, before driving the length of Sicily in order to get our trusty MINI Clubman onto the car ferry. En route, we stopped for a traditional “family-style” Sicilian cookery class in the hilltop town of Taormina where, predictably, fresh pasta and pizza were top of the menu.

“Pizza was born 300 years ago in Sicily,” says Stefano, owner of the  Porta Messina  restaurant, where our class takes place. “Naples took the glory, but this island is its home. It’s like Freddie Mercury - he was born in Zanzibar, but you Brits take all of the credit.” 

As we move into the final week of our continental circumnavigation - designed by London-based adventure travel specialists  The Flash Pack  - there’s an ever growing list of places labelled “must revisit”. Previously, the Finnish city of Turku and the South Moravian capital, Brno, topped that list, but we now have a major new contender: Greece’s “Queen of the North”, Thessaloniki. 

A perfect balance of youthful exuberance and rich history, bustling cafe culture and laid back beach vibes, 'Thess' seems near-perfect in its city-break credentials, and it’s a genuine wrench to leave, heading briefly across the alien, concrete bunker-peppered landscape of Albania for our  aferry.co.uk  connection to Italy. 

From the hot stone ovens of Sicily to the cool stone catacombs of Rome, our Italian odyssey has been as revealing as it has been enjoyable. Next on our route comes an overnight ferry across the Mediterranean to Barcelona, for our final push home towards Britain. But for now, we take a moment to relax over sundowners on the Portrait Roma terrace and reflect on the city beneath us - both seen and unseen. The Emperor Augustus famously said that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Both cities are still here today - and plenty more besides. 

Double rooms at Portrait Roma, a boutique townhouse hotel located in Rome’s fashion district, start from €400 per night, based on two sharing. The hotel offers a selection of bespoke city tours, including the three hour vintage Vespa ride, from €225 per person. For further information, see  lungarnocollection.com  or call +39 055 2726 4000.

This article was written by Jonathan Thompson from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.