October's the perfect month to visit Rome, perhaps the spookiest city on the continent.
Italians may never fully embrace the American custom of trick or treating on Halloween, but who needs it anyway? The city of Rome is rife with enough creepy traditions and eerie venues for a delightfully ominous three-day spook fest starting with the neo-pagan Sabbath on Oct 31 and ending with the Day of the Dead on Nov 2.
Perhaps the best way to gear up for a frightful Halloween is a stroll down the via Appia Antica which is closed to traffic each Sunday. The ancient cobbled street is lined with tombs and monuments honoring the dead. From here you can access the Catacombs of San Callisto, (Via Appia Antica, 110, catacombe.roma.it), part of a massive 375 mile multi-tiered network of dark, tomb-lined tunnels, sometimes five levels below ground. The eerie ambiance--not to mention the human remains in some wall tombs--are scary any time of the year, but on Halloween the tour guides often play up the fear factor.
In the afternoon, join the local dead poet's society at the Protestant Cemetery (via Caio Cestio just left of the giant pyramid near the Piramade metro stop). The entrance is free, but the grounds keeper will appreciate a donation and will likely be standing by the box as you enter. Wander the non-Catholic cemetery for foreigners to see the famous graves of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. But look at the other headstones, too, to see the mix of foreigners whose lives ended in Rome. Beside John Keats' grave in the far corner, local poets will gather for red wine and an afternoon Halloween poetry reading.
Spend the evening on nearby Monte Testaccio, a 115-foot hill made of broken terracotta urns which is home to a series of hot spots for the party crowd. Here you'll find the city's best adult Halloween parties at any one of the many supper clubs and all-night discos. Don't forget to come in costume, but be warned that Italians don't dress as popular culture icons, they stick to witches, ghosts, goblins and ghouls.
Tours: If you'll be in Rome on the Saturday before Halloween, check out the Angels and Demons: Secrets and Symbolism tour which meets at 9:30 on October 30 in the middle of Piazza del Popolo. +39 06 700 9336 througheternity.com
All Soul's Day
Heading across the Tiber River just after the Ponte Sisto, check out the church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte (Our Lady of Eulogies and of the Dead, via Giulia at the via del Mascerone). The facade of this church built in 1576 is decorated with skulls and a winged skeleton. The interior is decorated with similar images of death. The church once housed the tombs of over 8,000 bodies until they were destroyed in a construction project in the 1800s. You can still see one remaining tomb decorated with the bones of its inhabitant including an intricate candelabra made from the vertebrae and hand and toe bones. Check out the water clock of death above the entrance door.
From here it is an easy walk to Piazza Navona to visit the church of St. Agnes in Agony (via di Santa Maria dell'Anima, 30 on Piazza Navona) just behind Bernini's Fountain of Rivers. Inside, behind a hidden door marked "Sacra Testa di Sant'Agnese" you'll find the sacred head of Saint Agnes who was decapitated on the grounds. The head is now a religious relic that thousands of believers pray to each year and is a special draw on all Soul's Day.
It is a long shot, but definitely worth it if you can get a sneak tour of the Crypt of the Cappuccini Monks (via Veneto, 27 tel) +39-06-487-1185), in Santa Maria della Concezione near Piazza Barberini. Closed for cleaning for over a year now, this is by far Rome's creepiest crypt. Sneak around the back to see if the attendant will let you in for a peak. The bones of over 4,000 monks have been used to carefully decorate the crypt ceiling and walls. Intricate designs that at first look like carvings are really leg bones and rib cages. Stacks of skulls line the narrow hallways and vases decorated with finger bones and knuckles are scattered throughout the crypt.
Day of the Dead
November 2 is the Day of the Dead and many Romans will be tending the final resting places of their dearly departed. Why not do the tourist version and check out Hadrian's Mausoleum at Castel Sant' Angelo (Ponte Sant' Angelo near Vatican City tel) +39-06-3996-7600) where Roman emperors were buried for nearly a century ending in 217 A.D. The giant round structure then became a prison and a fortress for popes. Take a light lunch or at least a coffee on the terrace overlooking St. Peter's.
The Day of the Dead is also a perfect day to visit the Basilica of San Clemente (via di San Giovanni in Laterano tel)+39- 06-7045-1018) near San Giovanni in Laterano. The modern church (built in 1100) sits on top of two levels of ancient Roman history. Go down a level to see the remains of the 4th century church that marks the transition from pagan to Christian Rome. The sound of an underground stream and the dank smell of this deep cavern add to the eerie feel. Here you'll see a tombstone inscribed with pagan graffiti on one side and Christian propaganda on the other. This ultra-creepy crypt was once the secret worship place for clandestine Christians (who also practiced the rites of paganism by day). Go down yet another level to the Temple of Mithras to see a 2nd century spot where cults met to worship this pagan God. Look for carvings of scorpions and spiders all vying to defeat Mithras. Explore this area fully and you'll see ancient Corinthian columns behind a protective metal gate.