The Underground City of Osimo

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.

osimo underground Tunnel
Underground tunnels below the city

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.

cross grotte osimo
A cross in the Grotte del Cantinone

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.

underground black cat shadow
Our cat guide, named ‘Iat’ after the tourist office.

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.

underground city of osimo cross
A decorated cross

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.

osimo underground st francis carving
St Francis receiving stigmata

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.

osimo underground wine barrels
The wine barrels

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.

osimo freemason underground
A freemason symbol carved in the city below

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.

bahal underground osimo
The mysterious Bahal carving (see the ‘1888’ between the horns?)

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.

mysterious grotte osimo
Another carving, meaning unknown.

We were guests of the Marche Tourism Board as part of the #ILikeMarche blog trip. As always, all opinions are our own. 

12 thoughts on “The Underground City of Osimo”

  1. I had no idea….that’s what I think. I have yet to even start exploring Le Marche, and you have just floored me with this mystic dual city. I love the idea of an above ground and underground city character. There are still so many secrets to discover, thank you for sharing this.

    btw : Are you still hosting the We Roam linkup on wednesdays?

    • Osimo is great, you should visit it! I’m sure Zeno would love it too! We’re having a little break from the #WeRoam linkup because of the holiday season, as soon as we start again I’ll send you a tweet! I’m also going to host another linkup soon, I’ll send you the details as soon as it’s up and running.

      ps. I couldn’t find a nice postcard for you in Iran… they were all bleached by the sun and horrible. I’m still here so will try to find one, but in case I can’t, I’ll send you one from Finland instead!

  2. This is so cool! I think my favorite part is the wine barrels.

    I love any historical site, but I think I might start to creep myself out if I spent too long in underground tunnels like this. I got to see some partially-underground ruins in Austria once, but they weren’t nearly this elaborate.

    • Hi Jess! I LOVE underground cities, and here in Italy there are so many… but you’re right, they can be creepy. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never heard of Osimo before and that is pretty bad considering I’m Italian. I must take care of that and pay a visit to this nice place next time I’ll have the chance to, but only if I get Lat as guide too 😉

    • Iat was the best! I want to go back to Osimo just to see him again. Plus, there’s plenty more caves to explore!

  4. Wow, an underground town in Italy – who ever knew! I’m in Australia and recently visited the town of Coober Pedy in Outback South Australia, which is also famed for being underground. Like Osimo it helps habitants navigate the hot temperatures of the climate there, but there’s certainly no religious connotation! We camped underground while we were in Coober which was great fun! I feel an article about the underground towns of the world coming on! ….

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