It’s not obvious that an ancient tunnel runs underneath Civita, once a gateway to the city’s necropolis. As with most of life’s juicy discoveries, there are no helpful signs directing you past the edge of town to discover this secret treasure. To find it, you must possess a sense of intuition that there may be a reason to keep walking as the road dips to the right, passing the last few houses, and turns from orderly stones to dirt.
If you do remain on this road, you’ll pass man-made caverns, likely used for storage thousands of years ago as they are today. You’ll also find a sweet shrine dedicated to Mary of the Incarcerated, which she most certainly is. To the right of her barred cell is a slit where visitors may leave offerings –symbolically like the opening where a prisoner receives food– Mary’s (and Mother Church’s) daily bread.
The image of Mary imprisoned gives a clue to the emotional tone of this face of Civita. Even with the bustle of tourists above, this path becomes desolate quickly, as most merely pause to snap a photo of the valley before heading back on the decumanus maximus for lunch at Antonio’s bruschetteria.
The view from this side of Civita is very different looking up; it’s possible to see the craggy drops at the back of people’s yards, which once continued further out before landslides and erosion ate away the edges of town. Here, the only sound, besides a gentle breeze in your ears, is the annoying buzz of black flies like the ones at Luca’s house, persistently in your face as you push through high weeds, relentless as if to deter explorers from venturing forward.
It feels as though you shouldn’t visit this place, it’s so still. On the right are inlets into Civita’s old caves, now boarded or chained closed. Pressing forward, this walk reminded me of the old Greek and Roman myths where seekers descended into the Underworld to find treasure or rescue a lost lover.
Brushing past dead trees, the mouth of the tunnel finally came into view; my hands trembled uncontrollably as I stepped closer, foot by foot. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel –it wasn’t that long– but it looked awfully dark in between. I took it as a good sign that butterflies casually flitted about the entrance, though as I stepped inside slowly, I fought images of slasher films. “Don’t go in there alone!” I could hear myself shrieking to the heroine, as she entered the spooky cave by herself.
My hands shook the camera, making several blurry photos, as my imagination conjured spiders and bats, or worse –large rats, like the ones we saw in Venezia– scuttling about me. I stopped in the middle to take a breath, but the only sound was the crunch of dead leaves and gravel under my sneakers. My pace quickened at the end where I could thankfully see to avoid leftover beer bottles from some late-night party.
As I turned around to look at the tunnel from the other side, I pictured it during a different time when it was constantly in use: people passing one another to transport goods to the next town, storing their wares in one of the underground caves, or visiting the tomb of a family member. Not so scary, right? I stepped further into the light, unnerved by the sheer drop to the valley floor on the right, which pricked my fear of heights, but not enough to stop my appreciation of the beautiful trees and the view across to Lubriano.
On my return, the light was different; from the other side, the light actually spread farther into the cave, allowing me to discern more inlets (tombs?), each blocked with a cascade of small rocks. Once I made it back, closer to Civita’s upper world, I thought about the concept of tunnels, which often denote places of hiding or secrecy, places where things or people are buried, a sense of covert or dark acts. They are places where things gestate — things that don’t need or are repelled by light, justice, or truth. Tunnels can hold things that we fear; in dreams, they can represent a connection with our darker side, the place where our unconscious desires writhe unchecked.
Yet, tunnels also help us see the center of solid or seemingly impenetrable things; in tunnels we can discern a series of strata that are not visible from the outside. They not only convey us through those layers, they serve to transform us — to take us from one side to the other and enable us to perceive a different perspective upon reaching the other side.
Compared to bridges, which can be seen by the laziest eye, it’s compelling to consider what it means to move through a hidden conveyance, be it a tunnel, a great endeavor, or even a rite of passage. For thousands of years we have continued to step towards the light in order to discover new places, even if we could not initially envision them.
When I exited the tunnel, I felt a bit changed, even brightened, by my experience of Civita from underneath, though my hands still trembled. As I watched two butterflies weave out from behind me, I realized that it’s our human sense of adventure, courage and patience –and faith that there is something worth walking towards– that allows us to emerge, albeit slowly at times, from darkness.