Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate.
(Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)
Inscribed above the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (111, 9)
Along the road of Lake Averno, an easily missed sign, “Grotta della Sibilla”, leads to a dirt path overarched with trees. The path curves and ends at a cave. Here Aeneas, with the Sibyl at his side, embarked on a journey into Hades.
This, archeologists say, was once a Roman military tunnel that connected Lake Averno to Lake Lucrino, where fish used to be abundant until the 1538 volcanic eruption which killed them off and created a whole new mountain nearby, called Monte Nuovo.
Inside the tunnel, carved out holes above show that during Roman times oil lamps perched in the crevices to light the way. This also means that the space would have been filled with noxious fumes.
The cave has many corridors of what once was a sophisticated circuitry of stairs and passageways. Now they are no longer connected, but instead end in dirt or water.
One stairwell in the middle of the cave, Carlo insists, leads to the beginning of the River Styx. At the bottom of the stairwell lie limpid water pools, past which there is only blackness.
Going back down the main tunnel, at the very end a vast staircase leads to another cavern. This may have been a Roman restaurant, bathhouse, or – Carlo maintains – the cave of the Cimmerian Sibyl who uttered her oracles in Homeric times.
A body of water has a wooden plank where visitors cross to see the caverns in which the Sibyl bathed and uttered her predictions.
In truth, because of bradyseism it’s difficult to tell what exactly existed here two thousand years ago; most of the grotto is under thirty to sixty feet of dirt, but when the candles go out, the pitch blackness of the cavern gives the impression of being in a place where Hades himself still roams.
Getting There: Located inside Lago Averno, the Grotta della Sibilla is privately owned and unfortunately is no longer open to the public, as of 2015, due to the ill health of Carlo Santillo, the elderly gentleman responsible for the site and guided tours.