Travel

Sink into Crypts and Underground Tombs in Italy

So many ancient bones to preserve.

Museo e Cripta dei Cappuccini
Museo e Cripta dei Cappuccini
Museo e Cripta dei Cappuccini

Descending into catacombs is always a bit creepy. It is a graveyard after all. Even the beautiful setting of Sicily-with all the stone buildings in Syracuse lining the sea-can’t detract from the eeriness of going underground. But when in Italy, one simply must admire all the ruins, the touchable history, and the dead who made it all happen. Which is how I found myself in the Catacombs of San Giovanni, a 6th century burial ground that’s home to over 10,000 graves.

As the bilingual tour guide gave me a hard hat to wear, I felt the cool air from the miles and miles of underground passages swirl up around my ankles. It’s always a steady 70掳F inside the Byzantine resting place, a welcome retreat from Sicily’s typical heat or occasional rain.

Kair贸s Turismo Cultura Eventi Siracusa
Kair贸s Turismo Cultura Eventi Siracusa
Kair贸s Turismo Cultura Eventi Siracusa

A low ceilinged and slightly damp corridor leads down to chapels, murals, and the cavernous tombs. Compared to other catacombs in Italy, these seem neatly ordered; our guide explains that they were built after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, and so were created in a leisurely manner, as opposed to being cobbled together under persecution and duress, like those beneath the Church of Santa Lucia, on the other side of town.

Kair贸s Turismo Cultura Eventi Siracusa
Kair贸s Turismo Cultura Eventi Siracusa
Kair贸s Turismo Cultura Eventi Siracusa

This isn’t the only underground attraction in Syracuse. The oldest Jewish Mikvah baths in Europe are also here, dating back to the 6th century, almost perfectly preserved to the day they were sealed up and hidden in 1493, when the Jewish community of 3,500 people were exiled from the city by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hotel Residence Alla Giudecca
Hotel Residence Alla Giudecca
Hotel Residence Alla Giudecca

The serene pools are 55 feet below the street, at such a depth in order to access a spring. Water in Mikvah baths mustn’t have been touched by human hands, as they are used for purification rituals. There’s something about these historical underground places that have a palpable ambiance.

Syracuse is just one of Italy’s myriad cities with subterranean cultural sights to visit. Whether it’s sun, rain, or even snow you’re dodging or supernatural company you’re seeking, here are some other underground lairs across Italy where you can witness the decaying effects of time.

Museo e Cripta dei Cappuccini
Museo e Cripta dei Cappuccini
Museo e Cripta dei Cappuccini

Admire skeletons in the Capuchins’ Crypt in Rome

If you like your vacations seasoned with a smattering of the macabre, head to the Cripta dei Cappuccini in Rome. Below the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (which is pretty unremarkable in itself) lies a crypt fitted head to toe (sorry) with skeletons and bones.

It’s not the only Capuchin crypt in Europe to be decked out in such decor, but it certainly was the first. Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars to be dug up from the other side of Rome and brought here. Their remains were used to create the scenes you can see today: skulls, femurs, tibia, and fibula, all arranged in an ornate display.

Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock
Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock
Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock

Explore the underground city of Ancient Neapolis in Naples

There’s a whole city beneath the city of Naples. Ancient Neapolis (meaning new city) was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC, and today you can visit those foundations, 118 feet underground. Head to the ticket office entrance to meet their guide who steers you around arches, domes, cisterns, and viaducts, while telling stories of resilience and rebellion.

Tunnels built by Greek slaves 2,400 years ago wind around the underworld features, which were repurposed as wine cellars, bomb shelters, and heating systems over the centuries. There are a number of these sites in Naples’ old town center, but head to the door in the corner of Piazza San Gaetano for excellent tours in English.

Davide Bianco Photo/Shutterstock
Davide Bianco Photo/Shutterstock
Davide Bianco Photo/Shutterstock

Wade through the Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria in Venice

Whether or not Venice is sinking, the crypt of San Zaccaria Church definitely is flooded. There’s been a chapel just around the corner from St. Mark’s Square (and yet markedly less busy) since the 9th century. However, the current Renaissance building-that looks as scrumptious as a wedding cake-was built in 1458.

Take a turn around the lavish interiors (and don’t miss the Bellini painting) before locating the stairs down to the crypt. There you can mosey along a raised walkway through the waterlogged basement, full of memorials and altars. It’s a sight well worth the 3 euro entrance fee.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Lucie Grace is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for 鈥楧ome Life鈥 in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie聽

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of 鈥榖ig city life鈥 has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays 鈥榦ff-grid鈥.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time鈥攕oft or adventurous鈥攊s positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom鈥檚 Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours鈥 drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly 鈥榦ff-grid鈥. In the figurative 鈥榳ellness travel鈥 sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply鈥攂olstered by solar鈥攁nd rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom鈥檚 Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into 鈥楽OS ONLY鈥. Apple Maps gives up, and you鈥檙e pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It鈥檚 great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it鈥檚 not far off that 鈥Welcome鈥o Jurassic Park鈥 jaw-dropping moment鈥攜our futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You鈥檙e almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree鈥nstead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a 鈥榝uture-proof鈥 form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they鈥檙e also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they鈥檙e an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom鈥檚 Creek Nature Domes鈥 owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It鈥檚 also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer鈥攅xperienced in renewable energy鈥攁nd that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire鈥攜our campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You鈥檒l need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you鈥檙e at it). There鈥檚 a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S鈥橫ore packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet鈥攏one of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there鈥檚 no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there鈥檚 plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It鈥檚 these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom鈥檚 Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region 鈥攁 new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They鈥檝e already got one couple鈥攚ho honeymooned at the Domes鈥攔eady and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom鈥檚 Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the 鈥楳ountain Top picnic鈥 is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you鈥檙e encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I鈥檒l leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don鈥檛 actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom鈥檚 Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom鈥檚 鈥攍acking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll鈥擨 finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

鈥業 am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I鈥檓 grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.鈥 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom鈥檚 Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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