Rome is the magnet of Italian travel which I think is why much of its surroundings can get forgotten. But there is so much to see in the region of Lazio that shouldn’t be missed. Since this is Halloween week, I’m focusing on four Lazio locations that were all abandoned at some point in their history (some for centuries). These rediscovered places preserve a feeling that is both haunting and eerie, beautiful and fascinating.
The Monster Garden of Bomarzo
This has to be one of the most surreal places I have ever visited in Italy. The “Sacred Grove” (now more commonly called the Monster Garden) is located just below the town of Bomarzo. Built in the 17th century, it was completely overgrown in the 19th and 20th century until a series of visitors (including Salvador Dali) brought attention back to this Mannerist style sculpture garden.
Many papal and royal gardens in the area offer grand mythological stories to their viewers, quiet corners to relax or imposing fountains to show off. But the Sacred Grove is different. It enchants, it confuses, it twists into your consciousness with its magical figures and images, at once strange and familiar like a half forgotten dream.
As you walk down curving shaded lanes, the faces of mystical creatures and elemental forces emerge from the foliage in surprising ways. It’s a garden that asks you to go exploring or you might miss something. The figures were often carved from gigantic local boulders which only adds to the feeling that they have always been there, an elemental part of the landscape.
You’ll find pagan gods and historical figures, elephants, titans crushing the bones of their foes, sphinxes, and women with serpent tails like mermaids, a pegasus, and a gigantic tortoise. There is the tilted house that makes you dizzy as soon as you enter, your center of balance thrown off by its slanting floor..
There’s the Orc’s head with gaping mouth inscribed with “Ogni Pensiero Vola” (All thoughts fly) in which visitors could enter and seat themselves around a table for the unsettling experience of eating while being eaten themselves by the great stone head.
The tale has it that Pier Francesco Orsini commissioned the garden to cope with the death of his wife Giulia Farnese (granddaughter of the famous Giulia Farnese who became mistress to Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia).
A miniature temple serves as her memorial and you get the feeling that her bereft husband wanted to leave reality and lose himself in a supernatural place, where anything was possible and where dreams (and perhaps the dead) could come to life.
Celleno: Ghost town
The town of Celleno (a name possibly derived from Etruscan caves found in the area) was built as a medieval outpost but it was abandoned in 1951 due to unstable erosion after numerous earthquakes and landslides. It perches atop a tufa stone crag of rock over a sweeping valley and now is inhabited only by clinging vines, sheep, their solitary bells clanking, and the wind rustling through the grass.
The town’s castle was long owned by the Gatti family (Gatti would literally translate as “cats”) but the final heir was killed by none other than Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, one of the most dastardly pope’s in history. The castle was eventually taken over by the Orsini (the same family from which Pier Francesco constructed his “sacred forest” outside Bomarzo).
Today Celleno has started to be advertised as a “borgo fantasma” or ghost town and in many of the rooms you can find a collection of tools and equipment from the last century which serve as a sort of time capsule.
The effect adds a level of creepiness to the abandoned stones as you search in the rooms for those that contain traces of people long gone.
Celleno was also a film location for the Netflix show “Luna Nera” (Black Moon) by Paolo Sorrentino (famous for “The Great Beauty” and “The Young Pope” among others). The story, set in the 17th century, is about a teenage girl, being pursued for witchcraft who must choose between love and destiny. No doubt Celleno served as the perfect spooky, medieval backdrop and will hopefully draw more visitors to this part of Italy.
Monterano Vecchia: Ghost castle
Monterano Vecchia might be the only Ghost Town that can boast some designs by the famous architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a testament to the fact that even the famous can fade from memory. Monterano was a town that struggled for centuries to maintain economic success, experiencing a short explosion of attention in the late 1700s when Pope Clement X Altieri bought the Borgo and had Bernini design the Church of San Bonaventura and a new facade for Palazzo Baronale, which had once been a medieval castle. Some even say Bernini’s design for the fountain served as inspiration for the Trevi Fountain itself. All that remains of this facade is a rock face on top of which a lion would have looked down over the roaring waters at viewers.
The town was destroyed by French soldiers just before 1800 when the peasants, already decimated by a recent bout of Malaria, refused to grind grain for the invaders. Monterano’s destruction was the price of their insurrection.
The grand castle is now overgrown but has incredible views around the surrounding forested countryside.
Etruscan tombs were turned into storerooms at the base of the castle and there is even an ancient Roman aqueduct running past the castle, making the site a true collection of architecture from across the centuries..
Down in a field, the church designed by Bernini now has a large fig tree growing in the center and if you’re there at the right time of day, by the octagonal fountain in the front, the suns rays cascade through the gaping oculus.
The site is beautiful and (at least when I was there a few years ago) was really undiscovered by tourists so you can experience it more or less on your own – a reminder that all eras pass, eventually, into ruin.
Civita di Bagnoregio: The Dying Town
Civita di Bagnoregio is a teeny tiny town east of Lake Bolsena perched on a rock in the middle of what looks like a dried up ocean valley. It is accessible only by a footbridge over the valley.
In fact, this area was the bottom of the sea nearly 2 million years ago and eventually a layer of tufa stone from volcanic eruptions 100,000 yeas ago filled up the clay valley. Thousands of years of erosion left these peaks where the Etruscans built towns all over Northern Lazio and southern Umbria to command views of the surrounding valleys.
It is known as “La Citta che Muore,” The Dying Town. They say there are actually more cats living there now than people.
It’s one of those places that feels like part beautiful fairy tale and part unreal Disneyland since you find yourself surrounded almost exclusively by foreign visitors coming to take Instagram pictures and to experience the nostalgia of a fading dream.
How to Visit
Canale Monterano is just west of Lake Bracciano, a lovely town where you can do tours of the local castle and grab a lunch on the lakeside. Bomarzo, Celleno and Bagnoregio are all between the town of Viterbo and Orvieto to the east of Lake Bolsena (another beautiful lake to visit!). As all of these sites are fairly off the beaten track, the easiest way to visit would be by rental car or with a hired driver for the day.