If you ever read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by CS Lewis as a child, you know all about the land of Narnia. But there’s one thing you probably don’t know. It actually exists! Well, at least the town that it’s named after does. And just like it’s literary namesake the ancient Roman town Narnia, now known as Narni, has lots of secrets one of which lay hidden for centuries until 6 students rediscovered it in 1979. So are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll tell you a tale of adventure, murder and intrigue! This is the true story of Narni Sotterranea, underground Narni.
Our story starts with a group of six young Italian friends who shared a love of speleology or scientific potholing to explore and map the underground world.
They used every spare minute to practice their climbing and caving skills clambering all over and under the lush, green countryside around their hilltop hometown of Narni in Umbria.
Until one quiet Sunday morning in 1979, whilst practicing their abseiling off a ledge on the outskirts of the city, as you do(!), one of the group, the eldest, landed in a vegetable patch clinging to the craggy hillside. It changed their lives forever.
That lad was Roberto Nini, an engaging, energetic, friendly chap.
He got dog’s abuse from the old bloke tending the patch for ruining his cabbages. But undeterred, Roberto struck up a conversation, explaining what they were doing and that they loved exploring new caves where no humans had set foot.
“Well, if you want to go searching for all that stuff, why don’t you go and see what’s down that hole?” suggested the old man, Ernani, pointing to an overgrown corner of his allotment. Intrigued, Roberto and his friends scrabbled through the vines and thorns to discover a brick framed opening in the wall. They had to go in!
A lad called Mauro was first to crawl through the hole. He landed in a large room, piled high with rubble and debris, water streaming down its walls. And as he shone his torch around the walls, he got the shock of his life as two eyes appeared staring back at him!!
“Oh my god! It’s a fresco, an angel!”
As they explored further, the students discovered a passageway, an underground well-head and bricked-up doorways suggesting more rooms.
“But have you discovered any treasure yet?” the old man asked when the group emerged. blinking into the bright sunlight? Not yet, but there is something worth exploring thought Roberto. And boy oh boy, was he right!
It’s taken decades for the group to clear and conserve the rooms together with the several burials found there but perhaps the most fascinating story lies in Roberto’s 35 year mission to research the chapel’s story that would prove much harder to uncover. His studies took him to Napoleon’s France, Ireland, Scotland and finally to the heart of the Catholic Church as he gained access to the almost impenetrable Vatican Library archives.
What he finally revealed was a tale of torture, murder and the Papal Inquisition.
Today, if you join Roberto for a tour of Narni Sotterranea, Narni Underground, you won’t need hardhats, ropes or caving experience, just a desire to explore history. What you’ll discover behind an unassuming little door is an amazing underground 12th century chapel covered in some of the oldest frescos in Narni, secret tunnels leading under the large monastery complex of San Domenico, a Papal inquisition torture chamber and a prison cell covered in cryptic graffiti.
Roberto’s persistent pursuit of the story revealed that Narni had been home to the dreaded Papal inquisition for over 200 years – a secret concealed for centuries. He even uncovered details of some of the inquisition’s tribunal cases including a bigamist who managed to escape in 1796 by strangling his jailor before finally being sentenced to 25 years of hard labour on the Papal galley ships.
But perhaps the most intriguing and mysterious rooms in the complex is the prison cell. Its walls are covered in coded writing, drawings and cryptic masonic symbols. I’ll leave Roberto to tell you the full tale of the graffiti left by Giuseppe Andrea Lombardini, an inquisition guard imprisoned for heresy in 1759 but just remember nothing is what it seems and much of it has still to be deciphered!
The tour ends up above ground in the old cathedral of San Domenico where yet more underground secrets have recently been revealed. And undoubtedly there are more discoveries to come as Narni slowly gives up her stories.
So the question is – do you dare open the door to underground Narnia? To explore the dark, mysterious chapel now called the Church of St Angelo, although no-one yet knows what its original name was? To follow Roberto to the Vatican archives and back? To stand in the room where the Pope’s inquisitors tortured locals for heresy, witchcraft and adultery? Roberto and members of the original group have dedicated over 35 years to Narni’s subterranean secrets and their passion for and pride in the story is palpable. What’s your favourite Italian mystery or story from history? Leave me a comment and let me know and in the meantime make sure you add Narni to your Italian travel wish list – you’ll be charmed and enchanted by the story of Narni Sottoterranea!
For more information on the chapel complex and tours etc click here
Opening hours vary from season to season so make sure to book via email at least 15 days in advance. Hours are as below –
1st April to 14th June – tours are available on Saturdays at 12pm, 3pm, 4,15pm & 5.30pm and Sundays or holidays at 10am, 11.15am, 12.30am, 3pm, 4.15pm & 5.30pm.
15th June to 15th September – tours are available Monday to Friday at 12pm and 4pm and Saturdays and Sundays as above.
1st November to 31st March – tours are available on Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 11am, 12.15pm, 3pm & 4.14pm.
You should receive an email confirmation of your booking but if, for any reason, you don’t make sure to ring to confirm before your visit!
Access – Most of the complex is easily accessible on foot as long as you have appropriate footwear and are reasonably fit although there are a number of steps and its probably not suitable for claustrophobics.
Getting to Narni by Train – Narni is on the Rome to Ancona train line or you can use the Rome to Florence line alighting in Orte to pick up the connection for Narni. The station itself if slightly out of town but a local bus service runs into town on a regular basis.
Getting to Narni by Car – The A1 Autostrada del Sole is the fast but pricy toll road to Narni from Rome. Take the exit at Orte for the Orte-Terni road. Alternatively you can take the E45 from Terni to Cresena for free!
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