So, what did you think of Le Marche region? This region on the Adriatic coast is fast becoming one of our favourite places in Italy – have a look at our post on Mount Conero to see why! Today, we’ll share with you a mysterious and otherworldly sight; the underground city of Osimo.
“No city is more inclined than Eusapia to enjoy life and flee care. And to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground”.
As I made my way through the tunnels and passageways of the underground city of Osimo, the words of Italo Calvino in The Invisible Cities (one of my 10 favourite books of all times) resonated in my mind. Eusapia had an exact underground copy. The city above reflected the city below. Where there were churches, there were underground churches. Palaces had an exact copy below, and so did shops, workshops and ateliers.
Above, the city of Osimo is a pretty hilltop village, with views over the surrounding countryside and the Apennines, just visible in the distance, sun setting behind them. When we visited on a late summer weekend, young couples kissed on park benches, families walked their dogs and pushed their children’s prams, people sipped aperitivo outdoors, while the city was turned pink by the setting sun. A lovely village, sure, but one like many others, in this corner of Italy.
When you enter underground Osimo, everything changes. You enter a world of magic, mystery and legend. The tunnels are as old as time. Osimo was built on a sandstone hill; tunnels were first excavated by the Picentes, a local pre-roman tribe, and were expanded several times throughout history; nowadays there are over 9km of tunnels, alleyways and passageways, a subterranean labyrinth twisting, corkscrewing, convoluting around itself on different levels, reaching so far below that the life above is nothing but a memory.
Throughout history, the underground city was used for many purposes; preserving food (thanks to its constant temperature), as a refuge in case of attack, to channel water and to excavate building material. But subterranean Osimo was far, far more than that.
The city below copies the city above. First, we visited the Grotte del Cantinone, that can be accessed from the local tourist office. We descend a staircase following a black cat, his shadow long and dark on the brittle sandstone walls. The tunnels lie just below the church of Saint Francis of Assisi. The light underground is dim, yellow and trembling. The eyes need getting used to.
After a little while, we started seeing them. Crosses, some plain, others decorated with flowers and haloes, etched on the back of niches. Elaborate carvings, of saints and angels. Everything was done by hand; the tunnels still bear marks on their walls, as old as time. The carvings are crude, imperfect, yet mesmerising in their simplicity.
The most spectacular of them is perhaps a carving representing Saint Francis receiving stigmata. His arm is outstretched, looking as if he is about to take flight. The carvings were made by local Franciscan monks, looking for a place to pray and meditate away from the hustle and bustle of the city above.
The black cat returned to the staircase and ran up. We followed him, and walked across the city above. By then, it was night. We walked across piazzas and along alleyways, then through a covered market, eerily deserted on that Sunday night. The street lights were yellow, dim and trembling.
Then, we walked into an unassuming doorway and down some steps, towards the Grotte di Via Dante. There was no cat to guide us this time. The first subterranean level contained some copper wine barrels, dating back to the early twentieth century. The air had a faint smell of sour grapes and vinegar. In a dusty corner there was another staircase, reaching down into the darkness of the city below. Tentatively, we walked down.
This tunnel system was directly below some former noblemen’s palaces, and they concealed a deep, old mystery. On the vaulted walls and niches were other carvings, some known, some unknown, related back to the century-old tradition of secret societies. Some symbols had clear Freemason iconography, like human figures carrying building tools.
Others were more mysterious, their meaning still being debated by esotericism scholars. A cow-like horned figure has been interpreted as Bahal, the Phoenician god of the sun. The number ‘1888’ carved between its horns is not the date, but a symbol of infinity and the trinity of God.
The caves of the city below had been used for centuries by secret societies. Another tunnel section, called Grotte di Palazzo Campana, reveals the most mysterious carvings in the whole of the underground city. From Templar to Malta crosses, from Rosicrucian to ancient Pagan symbols, believed to be sculpted by Celtic Druids, the tunnels below Palazzo Campana are said to be one of the most mystical places in the whole of Italy.
The whole idea of an underground maze conjures images of challenges, of metamorphosis; a battle with the obscure dark forces, to emerge new, cleansed and transformed into the light of the city above. Osimo noblemen – members of secret societies – used the tunnels for their initiation rites. There were no yellow lights, then. Initiates had to carry burning torches, and inch their way through the twisting tunnels, looking for the way out. I wondered if any of them are still wandering the city below, forever lost in darkness, after their torch burned out.
Meanwhile, above, life went on. The noblemen organised balls and received visitors in their palaces; the monks prayed below, while the citizens prayed above. For the city below is the city above.
We were guests of the Marche Tourism Board as part of the #ILikeMarche blog trip. As always, all opinions are our own.