Among the haunted ruins of Galeria Antica
Among the haunted ruins of Galeria Antica
“C’était là qu’il vivait. Il aimait les longues voûtes prolongées, où l’on n’entendait que les oiseaux de nuit et le vent de la mer; il aimait ces débris soutenus par le lierre, ces sombres corridors et toute cette apparence de mort et de ruine; lui, qui était tombé de si haut pour descendre si bas, il aimait quelque chose de tombé aussi; lui, qui était désillusionné, il voulait des ruines, il avait trouvé le néant dans l’éternité, il voulait la destruction dans le temps. Il était seul au milieu des hommes! Il voulut s’en écarter tout à fait et vivre au moins de cette vie qui pouvait ressembler à ce qu’il revait, à ce qu’il aurait du être.”
Gustave Flaubert, Rêve d’enfer
One of the great legacies of the Romantic Age is undoubtedly our curious love for ruins; we seek them out to align our emotional experience with the sight of bygone lives.
I have never really questioned why this is; seeking instead an aesthetic and profound experience as a necessity in my life, like Flaubert’s character from one of his early works and I cannot help but being excited, feeling a sudden thrill and exhilaration when the vegetation reveals its secrets.
One such place is Galeria Antica and I have been there on many occasions and, somehow, the ruins of this old town have always revealed new emotions and new discoveries in different seasons.
Nowadays, Galeria Antica’s location may seem out of place; as we leave the urban sprawl around the Via Cassia and drive along the Via Braccianense a rural landscape opens up before our eyes. It is hard initially to imagine there being an abandoned settlement among the fields, pastures and farms south of Ostiera Nuova.
If we look more carefully, however, we will notice that the landscape here is not entirely flat and isolated copses and woodlands reveal ravines and gorges, where the rivers and streams have carved the tuff stone. It is over one of these rocky outcrops, directly above the ravine of the Arrone stream that the first inhabitants of Galeria chose to found their settlement.
It seems likely that the original town of Careia was a minor Etruscan settlement halfway between the more powerful cities of Veii and Caere – the tombs which are visible at the foot of the settlement and by the Arrone would suggest an Etruscan origin. The presence of the nearby Via Clodia indicates that a network of paths connecting these different places already existed in pre-Roman times.
Following a rather anonymous period in the Roman age, Galeria disappears from our records until the 9th century, when Pope Hadrian I established a domusculta here, a papally-sanctioned agricultural settlements of sorts.
After a destructive attack by the Saracens, the town became the fiefdom of the Conti di Galeria, and in later centuries and in rapid succession, of powerful Roman families such as the Orsini, the Caetani and the Savelli and experienced a number of battles and destructive sieges (including that in 1321 when the city of Orvieto sacked the city and took precious marbles and decorative elements back to the Umbrian town).
The community survived until the 18th century as a minor agricultural settlement (with 300 inhabitants in its heyday) and then mysteriously disappeared, according to local lore, due to an epidemic of malaria. The threat was perceived as so great, that the inhabitants simply left everything behind, including the bodies of the deceased, to start a new life at the nearby more “modern” settlement of Santa Maria in Galeria. However, the circumstances are the stuff of mystery and legends and still haunt this place with eerie and sinister forebodings!
Nowadays, if you wander around the old ruins you will spot the most noticeable structure in the old town: the bell tower of the Church of Saint Nicholas, one of four known churches which include the Church of Saint Andrew, demolished in 1837, the church of Santa Maria della Valle (also known as Ospedale Vecchio) that was damaged by lightning in the 16th century and the Church of Saint Sebastian which also disappeared in the 1600s. The mighty walls of the settlement also span the rocky outcrop and are partly built over Etruscan and Roman fortifications with one major entrance above which you can still see the empty spot where the old town clock was once located (and was then moved to the modern settlement).
Below the ruins of the town, by the Arrone river, you can also explore the stunning old mill, partly built into an Etruscan tomb, with its impressive channeling system and grindstones and cross the bridge (be careful: there are no parapets!).
Galeria is also a biodiversity hotspot and in 1999 Lazio declared it a Natural Monument with an extension of about 40 ha. The reason will soon reveal itself, as the ruins and the geology of the site have contributed to different micro climates where different trees and plants thrive. Holm oaks, laurel trees, ivy, downy oaks, turkey oaks and elms, among others, have found their niche here. Scats and paw prints also reveal the fauna that we would expect from these environments, such as foxes, badgers, hedgehogs and occasionally wild boar. I am always astounded at the way in which the strong roots of the trees blend with the brick and stone walls of the ancient buildings, a sight already described by the archaeologist Thomas Ashby during his topographic studies of the Roman Campagna in the early 1800s!
Galeria has also, not unexpectedly become a common site for pagan, New Age and Satanist worship as the many symbols (such as the Vegvísir) and graffiti inside the tombs suggest (you might get nervous at the Lucifer and Satan graffiti!) and I will end this post with a local ghost tale that I’ve found online: I am yet to encounter the ghost known as “Senz’affanni”.
According to the story, “Senz’affanni” is the spirit of a local inhabitant, who presumably died during the malarial outbreak and who returns to Galeria to sing and play music for his beloved as he rides his white steed throughout the town. Witnesses claim to have heard the sound of hoofbeats and a distant plaintive cry in winter, especially when the Arrone’s water levels are at their highest.
Now that we cannot leave our “comuni” due to the current Covid restrictions, perhaps you can find out whether Senz’affanni is truly roaming Galeria Antica at dusk … if you are brave enough to do so!
How to get there:
The safest option is to park one’s vehicle in the hamlet of Santa Maria in Galeria (where you will also find a restaurant, Da Claudio) and then walk down the road called “Via di Santa Maria in Galeria” for about 500 metres. The Church of Santa Maria in Celsano (named after the Casale di Celsano, an excellent example of rural 17th century fortified farmstead) should be open on Sundays. Be careful as cars tend to go very fast here and there is no pedestrian sidewalk. As soon as you reach a gate by a bend in the road (if you choose to park here, please note that thefts have been reported lately), despite the No Entry signs (pedestrians are allowed in), walk up the road until you reach two other gates on your left. These lead to private property and should not be crossed.
On the right side however, a small path leads through the vegetation and 500 metres later (unmarked) you will spot a basalt-stone path and the walls of the settlement. If you take this path, you will enter the town through its main gate and you can then explore the site freely, paying close attention to the steep cliffs on all sides and the openings, grottoes and tombs strewn all over the place.
Another path in the vegetation on the right leads you, over a short distance (200 metres) to the bridge and the mill. You can access the mill by taking a visible path to the left before crossing the bridge or you can observe it from the other side of the stream.
Be careful when walking by the stream as it can be slippery and should be avoided after heavy rains!
Please take care when visiting the site as it is currently in a state of abandon and decay.
There is no drinking water available on the spot.
Let me know if you meet the local Genius Loci, Galeria’s lonely but friendly black-and-white cat!