In Italy, a series of burial grounds and tombs are getting a second life as a new restaurant, bar, or hotel.
Sigmund Freud believed the most uncanny things are those closest to us, including death or near-death experiences. The appeal of burial sites is the perverse fascination of being buried alive and placed back inside the metaphorical womb. These windowless and viewless sepulchral spots are proving alluring, and in Italy, a new underground fad is kicking off inspired by burial spots.
These days, people are paying for a “buried-alive thrill” such as sleeping, eating, and relaxing inside ancient grotto suites, prehistoric caves, and crypts transformed into boutique hotels. With their thick rugged stone walls reminiscent of graves, the following restaurants, cocktail bars, and spas are breathing new life into former burial sites.
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Case Degli Avi
WHERE: Modica, Italy
In Modica, located in deep Sicily, people can sleep in former primitive man burial holes and caves where families once lived and slept with their animals. The cave apartments of Case Degli Avi (meaning “Ancestors Homes”) are below street level and feature several adjacent smaller grotto rooms. Even toilets and showers are housed inside tiny cavities within cavities where you creep in like a worm.
The thick bedroom walls are rough with visible shards of rock that keep you cool in the summer but, if you’re not careful, can scratch you as you walk past. There are no doors separating the connected caverns, just arches, vaults, and high ceilings. It’s a prehistoric open-space retreat. Niches formerly used for votive paintings, sacred statuettes, and incense now hold lit candles and modern spotlights.
WHERE: Torrimpietra, Italy
Located near Rome, Osteria dell’Elefante is no ordinary tavern; rather, it’s a labyrinth of damp underground tunnels with ancient tombs and ice age skeletons. Enjoy a blood-dripping T-bone steak while admiring the huge mammoth femur exposed at the wine bar alongside other fossils sticking out of the walls next to ruins of Etruscan sarcophagi (a peaceful tribe who the Romans slaughtered).
Forget windows; in this tavern, darkness rules, and skeleton dust fills the air. Candles are lit non-stop, while tables run along the maze of tunnels that unwind through this patch of Lazio near the Etruscan town of Cerveteri, renowned for its stunning painted necropolis.
Tenuta di Pietra Porzia
WHERE: Frascati, Italy
Cocktails, wine tastings, exclusive dinners, and sojourns are held inside ancient aqueducts and epic battle locations in the Roman countryside. At wine resort Tenuta di Pietra Porzia, you’ll sip refreshing glasses of locally-grown wine while sitting on the stone pillars of sacked temples; and you’ll sleep surrounded by Roman sarcophagi.
The scenery and decor of this resort are flabbergasting. The subterranean canteen, built by monks, unwinds along an ancient aqueduct while the vineyard grows above a necropolis where hundreds of Roman soldiers were buried after a bloodbath. It’s a chic graveyard hotspot where the flavor of death enhances the gourmet dishes of fried artichokes and Carbonara pasta.
Anche Gli Angeli
WHERE: Noto, Italy
Italy is packed with churches and chapels deconsecrated over time, only to be recovered ages later as cool eateries and pubs. In the Sicilian town of Noto—a UNESCO world heritage site—Anche Gli Angeli (a.k.a. “Also the Angels”) is a chic underground bistro serving Sicilian specialties.
Notably, the cocktail lounge is built inside an old spooky crypt where monks and noble families were buried during medieval times. The vaulted stone walls blend in well with the modern decor and pastel-color tables. From being a place of prayer and weeping, this historic crypt is now getting a second life as a happy hour hot spot.
Borgo di Carpiano
WHERE: Gubbio, Italy
Umbria is dubbed Italy’s “Little Tibet” for its spirituality. Birthplace of St. Frances and dotted with monasteries and holy pilgrimage routes, there are niche mystical resorts in this historic region. At Borgo di Carpiano, a former medieval parish hamlet turned into a boutique hotel, sacrilegious evening drinks are held inside the old chapel.
Right under the lavishly painted altar where solemn mass was held, you get to experience the joy of sipping the cheekily named “Martini on The Tombs” rather than on the rocks. Drinks are served right above stone slabs, indicating the presence of buried corpses below. There are no windows, just an entrance door, and the death vibe is sweetened by the soft purple-green velvet lounge sofas and deluxe decor.
Terme Stufe di Nerone
WHERE: Bacoli, Italy
Near Naples, Emperor Nero’s so-called “Stoves” are actually underground thermal baths offering the sensation of burning in hell. The ancient Romans believed these caves to be the nostrils of Hades, but nonetheless loved to kill time inside them. The 50-degree centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheint) temperature of the vapors oozing into these white stone grottos from the bowels of the Underworld, will help you sweat out body toxins.
At Terme Stufe de Nerone, these natural saunas are like sitting inside a microwave covered in mineral-rich droplets that get inside your lungs, which is said to be great for curing rheumatisms, asthma, and cellulite. From these inferno chambers, a labyrinth of tunnels connects to a greenish bubbly pool surrounded by crumbly Roman ruins.
WHERE: Atina, Italy
Usually, we go to a restaurant to enjoy good food and a nice panorama, be it city sights, green meadows, or cozy beaches. But at Le Cannardizie (meaning “Gourmet Delicacies”), in the picturesque town of Atina in central Italy, thick rugged grayish rock walls with vaulted ceilings are all you get to admire while savoring delicious farmer recipes made with succulent beans and premium hams.
The wine list is a killer, and the grotto restaurant is a wide underground sanctuary-like lair with a short staircase that descends from the main street to the entrance. Eating here, you’ll feel like a privileged gourmand mole. On the walls, look for old objects harking to the days and wine harvests when shepherds and peasants tended to the fields in the Comino.
Palazzo Valenti Gonzaga
WHERE: Mantua, Italy
Imagine sleeping in a former ice storage room where political conspirators—dubbed “carbonari”—met in secrecy to scheme against authorities. At the lavishly frescoed Palazzo Valenti Gonzaga in Mantua—dating back to the Renaissance—you get to stay in a deluxe 220-square-meter suite with a king-sized bed, red brick walls, marble floors, an ancient stone drinking fountain, high vaulted ceilings, and old furniture. While you can expect all the modern amenities, including air conditioning and heating, you won’t find windows in this historic room. The ‘freezer suite’ comes with led lights, a satellite TV, a kitchenette, and two bathrooms.