Ah, Italy “the land of the endless discoveries.” One never finishes discovering the wonders “above ground” – let alone underground! And sometimes, serendipity leads you to yet another discovery. Gray weather once dulled a visit to our favorite, Adriatic seaside town, Sirolo, in Le Marche, prompting us to head out for some exploration. What wonders we found in the nearby nondescript Adriatic seaside town, Camerano, whose very name is linked to its surprising labyrinthine maze of subterranean grottoes and tunnels, used by its first inhabitants, the Piceni, in the 9th-c. B.C, our guide, Daniele told us.
Deriving from the Latin, camerone means “underground vaulted space”, Daniele told us as we started our tour, aptly called “Le Grotte di Camerano, la memoria del sottosuolo.” (“The Grottoes of Camerano, remembrances of the underground” or literally, “undersoil”). With Daniele and a handful of other adventurers, we spent a fascinating hour exploring about a kilometer of the two kilometers of underground grottoes and tunnels, carved into sandstone. Daniele pointed out to us finely-rounded domes, barrel vaults, carved ribbed vaults converging on a mysterious sun/moon symbol, circular halls, ornate friezes, curious religious symbols and exquisitely – carved columns.
Our meanders in the underground labyrinth took us to a 17th-c. cistern, a medieval prison, a vaulted medieval church complete with apse and crypt, a 17th century private family chapel with black alabaster altar, and a secret initiation grotto for the Freemasons.
In 1944, all three thousand Cameranesi hid in the sandstone sotterranei – each family occupying a niche in the underground tunnels – for eighteen days as the British and Germans battled above. The most recent use of the Camerano underground? Not quite: Daniele told us that the largest vaulted room of the underground had been used as a discoteque some years ago! “But the local teens were very respectful of this ancient space, leaving no signs.”
Since 2008, le Grotte di Camerano have been opened for guided visits, disco now closed. The labyrinthine grottoes and tunnels are silent now except for the subdued voices of guides with small groups of fascinated visitors.