With Halloween approaching, I’ve been reflecting on some of the spookier places we’ve visited in our travels. There have been a few that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up or given a chill down my spine. The country where we had the most eerie experiences was definitely Italy. There are a few stand outs, but the one thing about them all is while kind of creepy all were strangely beautiful and peaceful with some being staggering in scope and size. One of those places that encompassed all three of these characteristics is Saint Sebastian’s catacomb in Rome.
The catacombs are underground cemeteries, labyrinths snaking deep underground lined with thousands of tombs. We visited Saint Sebastian’s which is one of the smallest Christian catacombs in Rome. That being said it is 4 levels deep with 6 miles of tunnel-like corridors. Tours run throughout the day except Sunday when it is closed.
The building which is the entrance to the catacomb is small in comparison to what lies beneath it. It reminded me of an iceberg, being so small up top giving you no idea how enormous the subterranean cemetery is below. We crammed in to the small entry and joined a group for a guided tour. After a lengthy introduction outlining safety and behavior expectations we, were led by our guide to a very skinny and steep staircase. She was a very small soft-spoken woman with a soothing cadence to her speech, this definitely added to the experience for me as I am a tad claustrophobic. Focusing on her speech helped me make it through without freaking out.
We descended into the first corridor single file and were hit with a stagnant type of coolness, kind of what you would expect in an ancient underground crypt. The walls of the tunnels at the beginning were in a word, tight, and with a group of 15 people all shapes and sizes we couldn’t have turned back if we wanted to, there was absolutely no room to get by anyone. Robs shoulders touched both sides of the tunnel and he had to crouch at some points to avoid bumping his head. The tunnels were not all this cramped, thankfully, having been constructed over hundreds of years there is no uniformity in height and width of the tunnels.
It is like and underground city with different neighborhoods, if you will, based on belief, social status and family name. Obviously no bodies remaining now but I definitely felt a spiritual presence as we listened to our guide explain certain mosaics and paintings on the walls and describe the process of how bodies were laid to rest there. Thousands of graves, some stately, some simple, some, very sadly, tiny and then there is Saint Sebastian’s catacomb. With rounded white walls and ceiling is felt like the heart of the cemetery. It was almost spacious with more ornate wall art and decoration. Like a chapel miles under the earth.
When the tour ended we arrived at Saint Sebastian’s Basilica. It was modest but still regal, almost stoic. The most beautiful piece of art in the Basilica being a sculpture by Bernini of Saint Sebastian himself. Like the catacombs, the sculpture was huge and intricately detailed. So much drama and emotion carved into smooth white stone. You could see and imagine his pain from the details of his face and the sadness chiseled into his eyes. Both the sculpture and the catacomb left me with feelings of awe and appreciation for the magnitude of work to create each of them.
It took us all day to visit Saint Sebastian’s catacomb. We got lost on the way, walking for hours only then to wait what seemed like an eternity for a bus to take us to the catacombs. Despite the arduous travel to get there we really enjoyed exploring Saint Sebastian’s catacomb. Where I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, spending time in cemeteries has become a real passion of mine while traveling and on a side note also helped me work through some of my claustrophobic tendencies.