Italy opens 1,000 hidden cultural treasures to the public this weekend

This weekend, Italy will open up more than 1,000 cultural monuments, archaeological areas and other hidden treasures which are usually inaccessible to the public.

Italy opens 1,000 hidden cultural treasures to the public this weekend
The Villa Torlonia in Rome is one of the cultural monuments participating in the weekend. Photo: Bruno/Flickr

The list includes ornate villas, hidden gardens, historic castles, churches, museums, and other secret spots that usually keep their doors closed.

It's part of the 'Giornate FAI di primavera' (spring days of FAI), an initiative promoted by the Italian National Trust, FAI, between March 24th and 25th. This year marks the 26th edition of the annual event, which has grown each year and offers tourists and locals alike a rare insight into Italy's hidden gems.

The video below gives a glimpse into some of the sites on offer.

In Rome, architecture fans can head to the Neobaroque Palazzo Marini, home to the Italian Navy's central library and adorned with nautical themed sculptures, stained glass windows, and other decoration. 

Milan's Pirelli skyscraper and the city's first high rise, designed by the country's top engineers and architects, will also open its doors, giving locals the rare chance to climb its 32 floors. The building houses Lombardy's regional council and visitors will be able to see both the council chamber and the panoramic views from the 31st floor.

Elsewhere in the city, curious tourists can explore the construction site of the new metro, the Gerolamo theatre which is known as 'the little Scala', and several other important palazzi and villas.

Culture fans in Florence can explore the convent of the Ognissanti, filled with beautiful frescoes, or Le Murate complex — an artistic hub nestled in the site of a former prison. And further afield in Tuscany, visitors can head to the former mental hospital at Maggiano, a stunning 18th-century pharmacy in Asciano, or Livorno's Naval Academy. 

In Sardinia, there are churches, military sites, and the Saline Conti Vecchi — large salt plains including a natural oasis home to hundreds of flamingos, a huge natural area you can explore by train, and a museum complex — to explore, while over 100 palazzi will be open to the public in Sicily.

READ ALSO: Seven places to see wild flamingos in Italy

Entry to all of the sites is free, though there's an optional donation to FAI of between €2 and €5, and in a few cases entry is restricted to members of the organization. These exceptions are clearly marked on the website, where you can find a full list of the open sites across the entire country.

One example of a site only open to FAI members is the private apartments of former Neapolitan king Ferdinand II in the city's National Library, though across Naples more than 80 other cultural gems will be open throughout the weekend, including the seat of the city's chamber of commerce and Villa Rosebery on the coast, one of three official residences of the Italian President.

READ ALSO: This map shows where to find the very best pizza in Italy


Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres.