This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
Are you planning a trip to Italy and yet the huge crowds (and sometimes the huge prices) scare you a little? If you’ve read a bit about our Country, you’ll know that the best landmarks in Italy are generally to be found off the beaten path, away from the mass tourism. So let me introduce you to the Bomarzo Monster Park, also known here as the Sacred Grove. One of our hidden gems, and a place that historians still don’t fully understand, the Bomarzo Park is also one of the most haunted places in Italy! You aren’t afraid of ghosts, right?
Bomarzo Monster Park: history
The Bomarzo Monster Park was designed by the architect Pirro Ligorio (the one who completed St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City after the death of Michelangelo), on a commission from Prince Pier Francesco Orsini (also known as Vicino Orsini). It dates back to 1552: Prince planned everything in the span of 25 years. After the death of his beloved wife, Giulia Farnese, in fact, Vicino Orsini decided to drown his sorrows into an intensive and long period to study the classics. The result has become over the years one of the weirdest landmarks in Italy: a hidden gem not many people know about. So much so that even the Spanish painter Salvador Dali said that the Bomarzo Park was one of the most unique places he’d ever visited.
Vicino Orsini decided to dedicate the Sacred Grove, as he named this park, to his wife, but he never really shared with anyone the true meaning behind all the weird and grotesque statues scattered in this park.
Each one of the statues has been carved from huge blocks of stone that were already in the valley. The stone turned into scary beasts, heroes, sirens or weird and uneven buildings. According to a few historians, only his death stopped Prince Pier Francesco Orsini to keep turning every rock in the valley into yet another sculpture for his monumental garden.
What’s the meaning behind the grotesque statues at Bomarzo Gardens?
Scientists and historians have tried several times to understand the hidden meaning in this labyrinth, interpreting the symbols scattered through the Bomarzo Monster Park in several ways. They found ancient themes, lines from Renaissance literature, and classical buildings that don’t follow the rules of perspective, probably aiming to confuse the visitors. The result is that while they could guess many things, this is one of the landmarks in Italy that still remains a mystery. It doesn’t help that many of the inscriptions are too ruined to be read, due to a long period of oblivion. The park was in fact bought by the Bettini family only in the XXth century and many of the big statues were moved from their original position, making it impossible to understand if there was some kind of story to be told.
Although we still don’t know why the Prince built the Bomarzo Garden, some historians have guessed that it could have been planned as some kind of rite of passage that, according to the classics that Vicino Orsini loved to read, had to transform a “regular guy” into a hero.
Is this really one of the most haunted places in Italy?
There have always been theories about the fact that the Bomarzo Monster Park is a place deeply tied to esoteric practices and human sacrifices. When a sacrificial altar was found in the deepest part of the woods, about 15 years ago, it sparkled a series of ghost sightings. The altar was built using the same stone as the statues, but it was carved with specific obscure symbols like a few sun shapes with their rays turned to the left, and has channels to let the blood flow away to some kind of drainage system. Much like the sacrificial altars in Mexico. A few historians have mentioned that there might have been a cult venerating Uranus in stead than the Sun. Because they still don’t know for sure what they were doing at the Bomarzo Garden, and if there really were human sacrifices going on, they’re not sure what to make of this.
Many people believe that the Bomarzo Sacred Grove is one of the most haunted places in Italy, because many have seen the ghost of Vicino Orsini through the woods. Others claimed to have seen strange shadows, or that they have felt a sudden chill (that had nothing to do with the Italian winter weather!) while walking to the area where the sacrificial altar was. Those who believe in ghosts are sure that this place is haunted both by the Prince, who was literally obsessed by the Bomarzo Monster Park, and by the victims who died on the altar.
Whatever it is, considering that the woods can be particularly spooky also during the day, because of the monster statues, no one will ever convince me to walk around the area in the pitch of the night!
Bomarzo Park: the main monsters
Entering the Bomarzo Park you will go through a nice green area where there’s even a football field for the kids who come here with their schools. Everything looks merry and bright, especially in spring. Little you’d imagine that walking through the stone gate of one of the least known landmarks in Italy… you’d get to see scary monsters and weird statues!
Let me introduce you to the most popular ones:
- The Sphinxes: soon after stepping through the main gate of the Sacred Grove, you will find two Sphinxes that look like the ones in Egypt (so a woman with the body of a lion). They sit on two big stone altars and they are guarding the park, welcoming the visitors with lines written in ancient Italian.
- Proteus (or Glaucus): Not too far away from the Sphinxes there’s the first real “monster“, known with both the names of Proteus or Glaucus. It is a huge anthropomorphic mask with its mouth wide open, that seems to be coming out straight from the dirt, with a round stone on its head, topped by a tiny castle.
- Hercules and Cacus: also known as the Giants’ fight. This is the biggest statue at the Bomarzo Monster Park and represents two giants fighting. Around them there might have been other soldiers, much smaller, but they have been mostly destroyed by the passing of time.
- The Tortoise and the Whale: not very far away from Hercules and Cacus. The two statues are a big tortoise with the goddess Nike on the top of its shell, and a scary whale with its mouth wide open that is emerging from the dirt. The statues are positioned in a way that feels like they are constantly looking at each other.
- The Leaning House: One of the best known buildings in this area is a small house that is leaning on one side, just like the tower of Pisa. You can walk inside and feel completely lost, because of the irregular slope. To make it simple, it feels like the inside of the house is leaning on a different side, compared to what you’ve seen on the outside. Some think that originally the entrance to the Sacred Grove was right in front of the Leaning House.
- Neptune and the Nymph: After visiting the Leaning House you will have to climb a few steps to a different area of the Bomarzo Gardens. There’s a big open field where huge stone jars have been scattered around. Next to them, a majestic Neptune statue, with a dolphin on his arm and a big sea creature emerging from the dirt. A few steps away from Neptune, another pretty big statue, this time a sensual Nymph, is laying down while watching the nearby God.
- The elephant: This statue is more than a bit macabre. It shows an elephant with a tower on its back (another esoteric symbol) holding a Roman legionary with its proboscis. Clearly it’s trying to kill the Roman soldier. According to the historians, it might refer to Hannibal Barca (nope, not talking of Hannibal Lecter), and the Punic Wars.
- The Drake: A scary wyvern fighting against 3 other beasts. One looks like a big feline but the statues are too ruined and aside from the wyvern it’s almost impossible to recognize the other figures.
- The Orc: The most famous monster in Bomarzo, that made this park one of the most unique landmarks in Italy. This big stone face with its open mouth is a tiny ritual chamber. You can step inside to see the altar (which might have been used for more obscure rituals), which is creepy enough when you see it. If you need more, try to speak inside the chamber: your voice will be amplified and distorted, becoming something straight from a horror movie.
- The Temple: Built about 20 years after the rest of the park, in memory of the Prince’s second wife, it looks like a mix of Classical and Renaissance styles. It is closed to the visitors, but many people, when the weather is good, come here to have a picnic. In front of the temple in fact there’s a green field that overlooks the nearby cities. It can be pretty crowded in the hot summer days. Tourists? Nope, they’re mostly locals! We’ve visited in Spring and we were completely alone, almost too good to be true!
Where’s the Bomarzo Monster Park?
The park is in Lazio Region, Central Italy. It’s about one hour and half to the North of Rome. So if you are spending a few days in Rome and you want to do something a little different, exploring a mostly unknown landmark in Italy, the Sacred Grove represents the perfect day trip.
It is located in an area full of Etruscan history, also known as Tuscia Viterbese, surrounded by beautiful towns. Almost like the beautiful countryside in Tuscany, and one step away from Abruzzo region. In case you are wondering, food in this area is to die for! I also have a useful guide to Italy tipping with Italian sentences if you need it!
How to get to the Bomarzo Gardens
Many travel agencies in Rome or online offer the chance to book a trip to the Sacred Grove on a tour bus.
Yet if you want to plan this on your own, you can hop on a train to Orte (VT) from the Tiburtina Station in Rome. Once there, you will find the Cotral buses for Viterbo that stop in Bomarzo. You can buy a bus ticket at the local bar. Mind you: the Cotral buses don’t work on Sunday. The bus ride lasts more or less 1 hour.
Once you get in Bomarzo, hopefully with a city map on your phone, cut through the town. If you follow the sign to the Bomarzo Monster Park from the station you’ll in fact add +2km to your walk. It is a road intended for cars. Walking in Via del Lavatoio you will find another sign pointing to the Park, this time it’s the right one. It’s a 20 minutes walk, more or less.
Now do you understand why people prefer to book a tour bus or to rent a car?
If you’re roadtripping in Italy with a rented car (staying at the Hampton by Hilton hotel Rome East you won’t even have to go through the huge traffic in Rome) the road is pretty easy. Take the A1/E35 motorway to Attigliano and then you just have one straight road on the SP Bomarzese to the Monster Park.
Opening times and tickets
The Bomarzo Monster Park is open all year round.
You can enter from 08:30am to 7:00pm from the 1st April to the 31th October. And from 8:30am to sunset from the 1st November to the 31th March.
The ticket costs 10€ and can only be bought at the park. Children from 0 to 4 years won’t have to pay a ticket, while they have a reduction from 4 to 8 year, so you’ll only pay 8€.
At Bomarzo Monster park there isn’t a shop so if you’re looking for souvenirs from Italy it’d be better to do so in the Tuscia Viterbese area.