No one enjoys a city break with inclement weather and sightseeing in most European cities during December and January means the seasonal temperatures can deter all but the most earnest of travellers. Despite having an average 111 mm of rainfall and temperatures around 8°C, Rome provides the perfect escape route with its abundance of underground ancient sites.
As burials within the city walls were forbidden in ancient Rome, on the outskirts of the city is a vast network of catacombs: miles of tunnels cut into the soft volcanic stone for the purpose of creating burial chambers. These dark and eerie tunnels also contain some well-preserved examples of early Christian art.
Of the five sets of catacombs open to visitors, those of St. Callixtus and St. Sebastian are on the Appian Way (via Appia Antica) near the church of Quo Vardis. Named after the deacon Callixtus who was appointed by Pope Zephyrinus to be the administrator of the cemetery, the catacombs became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.
The catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the greatest and most important in Rome, occupying an area of 90 acres. The four levels of galleries are just under 12 miles long and more than 20 meters deep.
The catacombs house the crypt of St. Celia, the patron saint of music, many preserved mosaics and frescoes and, also known as ‘the little Vatican’, the crypt of the popes, the official burial place of nine popes and eight dignitaries from Rome’s third century church.
The catacombs of St. Callixtus can be reached by taking the 218 from San Giovanni Metro Stop. They are open all year round, except Wednesdays and Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday. Opening hours are 9.00 am to 12.00 pm and 2.00 pm to 5.00 pm. Please note the catacombs will be closed from January 29 to February 25 2015. Admission is €8.
Situated on Via Salaria is ‘regina catacumbarum’, the queen of the catacombs. The catacombs of Priscilla is an important site recorded in all of the most ancient documents on Christian liturgy in Rome and the burial place of a great number of Christian martyrs.
The catacombs of Priscilla house the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary, along with the Greek chapel with its Pompeian style stuccos and paintings depicting episodes from both the Old and the New Testament and the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, a painting that depicts a clear expression of faith in the Resurrection.
Closed on Mondays, the opening hours are 8.30 am to 12.00 pm and 2.30pm to 5.00 pm and admission is €8. For non-Italian speakers there are guided tours in English, French and German. Buses 86, 92 and 310 from Stazione Termini stop outside the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla where the entrance to the catacombs is situated.
Other burial sites in Rome open to visitors are the Domitilla catacombs situated on Via delle Sette Chiese and those belonging to St. Agnes at Via Nomentana. Check ahead for opening times.