By Alexandra Redisch in Narni, Italy
Civitas Narniae was what the Romans called it, so I suppose that means I can tell people I’ve been to Narnia. Although nowadays the town goes by the name of Narni. Located about an hour and a half’s drive from Rome, Narni is a place I’d really like to return to. C. S. Lewis loved the name so much he used it for his imaginary world, thus putting Narni on the map, so to speak. This, then, is the real Narnia.
Thing is, the real Narni is just as magical as C. S. Lewis’ version. Granted, there are no talking beavers, no fauns, no witches and certainly no lions, but there are symbolical mysteries that give Dan Brown’s books a run for their money, especially in Narni Sotterranea (Narni underground).
In the 1970s, three young men from Narni started thinking about the old tales they had heard, about the old St. Dominic monastery having been used for hundreds of years before being closed. Rumours abounded of terrible things having happened there, but the elder locals refused to talk about it. So one night, during a medieval festival, the three men began digging through the walls of the old monastery. Under cover of the loud music, they managed to make a hole in the cellar and press through. They must surely have been stunned by their discovery.
Today, the same men still run the excavations. They take us through a small 12th century church, through the remains of a Roman house, to a room that hosted the Tribunal of the Inquisition, used as a torture chamber and prison cell. The church still has intact frescoes depicting the city as it was in the 1100s, and there are even a few half-hidden skeletons poking out of walls.
The torture chamber sports wrist chains hanging from the walls and a rather spooky looking chair. However, the prison cell is the most interesting. One of its most famous inhabitants, Giuseppe Andrea Lombardini, was an inqusitor-turned-freemason (as well as a bigamist), so the walls are peppered with masonic symbols and other strange markings yet to be decoded, naturally awakening the conspiracy theorist in me.
The real Narnia today
Back in the present, we alight to the blinking sunlight to watch rehearsals for the next day’s festival celebrations. Italy’s national day is almost upon us, and Narni is celebrating with a medieval festival, much like the one that saw the birth of Narni Sotterranea more than 30 years ago. There are horsemen, archers, musicians and dancers, and we are treated to a fabulous show.
All too soon the day ends, and the spell is broken. Suddenly I find myself on a bus with no air condition, with a coke in my hand and my Dan Brown book in the other, trying to capture what is left of the symbolical mysteries of Narni.
Disclosure: In Narni and in Umbria, I was a guest of Umbria Regional Tourism Board. However, as always, all opinions and conspiracy theories are mine.