Wolfson Investigates: Weird Rome

When I go on holiday, I like to go and look at some weird stuff. Luckily, the capital city of Italy offers ample opportunity. My first port of call was the Capuchin Museum and Crypt. In a quieter part of the city with a small admission fee, the museum explains the history of the Capuchin monks and their charitable work around the world. Cappuccino coffee is named after the colour of their robes (so now you know). The exhibits include everything from a flagellant’s whip to a Caravaggio painting. Descending downstairs to the crypt, in the footsteps of the Marquis de Sade no less, the place gets decidedly more peculiar; in the depths are several small chapels decorated with the bones of over 4,000 monks. Even the lightshades are made of monk. Looking a little bit like a set from a 1970s Hammer Horror film, the bone-coated chapels are alarming, baffling and surprisingly warm. However, the shrines are meant to reinforce the transient nature of physical existence, rather than scare the beejesus out of anyone, and they are endorsed by the Catholic church (if that counts for anything).

capuchin crypt

Regrettably, the museum does not allow its visitors to take photographs of the interior. The no-photo regulation is to preserve the exhibits, I imagine, but it was actually quite refreshing to visit a tourist attraction that didn’t have crowds of people assaulting it with cameras. If you’re curious, there are plenty of photos and videos already on the web.

Venturing back on to Rome’s more well-beaten tourist track, my companion and I took a tour of the Colosseum by night. Alhough expensive, we found it worth every euro: Our Italian guide, Gabriel, was passionate about the history of Rome and led us through several other ancient sites on the way, including the Forum, which is almost as impressive as the mighty amphitheatre itself. Just as the sun began to sink, our small party entered the destination with a quiet and reverential excitement. We wandered out in to the vast arena, gaping around with a collective wow! Apparently, exploring the Colosseum after all the daytime crowds have gone is worth the fee alone, but Gabriel was allowed to take us below the arena, where the animals, slaves, gladiators, et al would have awaited their doom, hundreds of years ago. He asked us to imagine the horror and the suffering; the blood and the sweat and the excrement. My fellow tourists were noticeably appalled. I loved it.

colosseum

If you want weird Rome, it’s hard to beat the insanity that is the Vatican. A separate state in itself, the scale of the Pope’s gaff has to be seen to be believed. It’s hard to take it all in as you’re herded through the various chambers and chapels like cattle, gawking at each vast Michelangelo and Raphael fresco before being pushed on to the next (up close, the painting is a bit ropey in places, maybe that’s why you’re not allowed to look at it for long). In the Sistine chapel, talking is not allowed and I was amused to watch the little Italian guards reprimanding those who found shutting up for a few minutes too much of a challenge. To me, it seemed like a heck of a lot of fuss over some bloke named Jesus but perhaps I’m being flippant.

I urge you to go see these sights for yourself if you don’t mind taking your life in to your hands every time you cross the road.

I have some very special blogs in the pipeline so watch this space!

D.W. (photos by J.F.)

Advertisements

Wolfson Investigates: Grin Low Woods

Although my collection of short stories Hidden Places on Earth is largely fictional, some of it is based on real-life. Some peculiar experiences of my own have inspired me and two of these happened in the same place: Grin Low Woods in Buxton, Derbyshire. It seems like a good place to commence a series of intrepid reports called Wolfson Investigates.

IMG_5690

To provide those unfamiliar with the area some context, Grin Low Woods fringe the town of Buxton in the county of Derbyshire in the UK. Home to a spectacular limestone show cave called Poole’s Cavern and a Victorian folly known as Solomon’s Temple, it is popular with tourists and locals alike. Nowadays, it is well cared for by the Buxton Civic Association. 25 years ago, when I was a young man, it was considerably wilder and untamed. Being that awkward age of 16/17 years old when you are somewhere between a child and an adult, the woods were a sanctuary for me and my friends. We could get drunk and mess around and if the local police turned up, as they often did, we could escape into the dark realm of the trees. It was there, one night, when we saw it.

Will o the Wisp

My pals and I were astonished to see a ghostly globe of light dancing among the tree tops. We watched it as it bounced around playfully for a few minutes before vanishing into the gloom. It left us scratching our heads in bemusement. Little did we know that we were witnessing a rare but notorious phenomenon. In the UK, it is commonly called a Will o’ the Wisp or a Jack o’ Lantern but different cultures have their own names for them. They are usually seen in swamps or marshland and, in some myths, are believed to have a malevolent intelligence; luring unwary travellers from the road into dangerous bogs. A more scientific theory suggests that globes of fire are formed by escaping gas. Our Will o’ the Wisp was out of place in the woods but, in hindsight, I wonder if the deep limestone caves beneath them create a similar geological process. I did not think too much of the incident until some years later when I mentioned it to a friend. He retold the tale to his dad, who lives in a house at the bottom of the woods. Apparently, he went pale. He had seen one too!

Hkg9716262

My second experience was less of a mystery, but no less disturbing. During the same period of nocturnal, teenage rambles, my peers and I were surprised to find that we were not the only group in Grin Low Woods at night. Following the main path up to Solomon’s Temple, we saw a long procession of cloaked and hooded figures, carrying flaming torches. They must have seen us too but gave no indication. They merely continued walking in eerie silence. We followed them for a while, frightened yet fascinated. The hooded assembly mounted the Low, free of the treeline to conduct a pagan ceremony on the hills. We finally lost our nerve and fled back through the trees. We noted the solitary bus parked near Poole’s Cavern at the bottom. At least the witches had arrived by conventional method!

I often walk in those woods but it is a long time since I have seen anything strange there. However, those early experiences still linger in my mind and I would still think twice before going there at night alone. If you have a similar exploit or an interesting theory on mine, I would love to hear from you. You can message Darcus Wolfson via Twitter or Facebook using the links at the top of the page.

D.W.