Today’s final Roman adventure took me to the catacombs of the Appian Way. Of course, I stopped at the Trevi Fountain on my way to the catacombs and tossed a coin in the fountain to ensure a return visit.
I grabbed two small croissants and a hot chocolate and sat by the fountain for a while before setting off on my morning adventure. I knew two different buses that would take me to my first stop, and chose the one that went closest to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. Of course, the bus driver spoke no English and when I thought we might be close, I asked before getting off. “St. Callixtus?”. “Sì, sì,” he said. What he really should have said was, “You need to stay on the bus for two more stops or else risk taking your life in your hands walking along this narrow, ancient street with no sidewalks.” Anyway, I made it. Oh, and if you think taking a bus along the cobblestoned Appian Way sounds fun… well, it sure gives you a good massage!
First up: the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. The catacombs contain three levels and thousands and thousands of tombs. Wealthy families and families of popes and martyrs had their own family rooms, while the poorer were entombed in the walls along the corridors. I took the tour with seven other Americans and a broken English-speaking guide. Along the way we saw the tombs, of course, but also frescoes painted in the 5th century using minerals and vegetables for pigment. We stopped in a small chapel well underground before we came back up, and the gentleman who was guiding the tour suggested that we could pray or sing before we left if we wanted. So here we were on Good Friday, eight Americans singing “Were You There?” in the catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome. Definitely a memory I won’t soon forget. Sadly, no photos are allowed in the catacombs, so I had to buy a postcard to remember the experience.
The second catacomb I saw, St. Domitilla, was equally impressive and contained more colorful and detailed frescoes. St. Domitilla contains over nine miles of catacombs, though we saw only a small part. The plan was to also visit San Sebastiano, but by that point I was already catacombed out and knew they would all blend together in my mind anyway. I got on the bus back to the Centro Storico and had time for a quick lunch and gelato (at my favorite place – The Gelatist; I even went for three flavors today!) on the way back to my hotel. Then it was off to the airport for the 9 hour trip back to Boston!
Today I explored the ancient ruined port city of Ostia Antica, a 30 minute train ride outside of Rome. In its heyday, the city boasted 50,000 residents. Now, all that’s left are ruins of that vibrant, bustling city. You might think there’s not much to see there, but you’d be very mistaken. Before catching the train this morning, I stopped at Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the largest Catholic basilicas in Rome. Then I grabbed a maritozzi and “hot chocolate” from Pasticceria Regoli. A miscommunication ended up with me getting a warm milk with cocoa sprinkled on top instead of hot chocolate. Hardly the rich Italian hot chocolate I was hoping for!
The train ride was short and easy, and soon I was wandering around ruins dating dating back to the 3rd century B.C. As much as I’m not a history buff, and the details didn’t interest me much, just wandering around streets that were walked on over two thousand years ago was a treat. Being in a place like that only serves to reinforce that our American history is such a small part of the history of the world.
I followed Rick Steves’ audio guide to get an overview and then wandered on my own for another two hours or so. While much of the city is in ruins, there are some well-preserved statues and monuments, beautiful tile mosaics, a theater, and even latrines (with zero privacy and a communal sponge in place of toilet paper!). In one area around a square, there were many merchant stalls, each with a mosaic in front to describe what kind of business it was.
After visiting the ancient ruins, I spent a short time wandering around the current town of Ostia Antica before heading back to the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome. Trastevere has a reputation for its quaint streets and piazzas and I was determined to get there before I head home. I spent a couple of hours just wandering all of the narrow lanes and decided to have dinner at a little trattoria with outdoor seating on a piazza. A parmesan stuffed ravioli with butter and sage sauce and tiramisu sure hit the spot after all that walking!
Tomorrow morning I will toss my coin in the Trevi Fountain in hopes of a return visit one day. However, with so many other places I want to see in the world, I don’t know that I’ll be in a hurry to return here. Seeing the ancient sites has been amazing, but Rome is still a city, and I have only a short tolerance for large crowds!
Today has been the best day in Rome so far. Not because I did anything special, but because I didn’t. I didn’t see any grand museums or visit ancient historic sites. In fact, this is the only day of vacation where I didn’t have anything specific planned. Instead, I took to the streets of Rome and simply wandered. In and through centuries-old churches, around small piazzas off the main tourist routes, and down tiny alleyways just to see where they went. It was glorious.
I set out around 6:45AM (I managed a good night’s sleep and feel a little better today – I’m thankful I brought allergy medicine with me!) and made my way to a couple of churches en route to Trevi Fountain. Since it’s only about a 10 minute walk from my hotel, I’ve already been there a few times, but was hoping to beat the crowds this morning. There was a (relatively) small number of people, so I was able to take some pictures without being elbowed out of the way. I had a general idea of some of the churches I wanted to visit, and a walking tour outlined in my guidebook, so I just wandered from one to the next. I probably visited about a dozen churches, and I’d be hard pressed to pick out a favorite. They were all beautiful in their own right, many with painted ceilings and wall frescoes (including those by Raphael, Caravaggio, and a sculpture by Michelangelo). I also visited the Pantheon (alright, so I did see one ancient site today…) and Piazza Navona, containing Bernini’s famous “Fountain of the Four Rivers” along with two other fountains.
And what did I eat today? Well, I started with a croissant filled with cream from a pasticceria near Piazza Navona that I ate sitting on the steps of the fountain by the Pantheon. I followed that up with a cup of hot chocolate at an outdoor cafe table in Piazza di Sant’Eustachio. The hot chocolate was good, and the setting was lovely, but I’m not sure it was lovely enough to justify the cost (€7!). Next up was a spontaneous purchase of a carbonara roll at a little shop on a quintessential Roman side street. I couldn’t resist. About 15 minutes later, I was convinced to sample basil gelato from a little gelateria up the street and ended up with a small cup of that and vanilla. At home, I would never mix ice cream flavors, but here it just kind of works and everyone does it. “When in Rome…” and all that. For dinner, I ate an entire pizza (thin crust) and another cup of gelato. So to recap: I had carbs for breakfast, carbs for lunch, carbs for dinner, 2 cups of gelato, and a hot chocolate. I’m pretty sure I won’t want any more pizza or pasta for a while when I get home.
I did it. I climbed to the top of the dome in St. Peter’s Basilica. Given my claustrophobia, and the fact that the 321 stairs were barely wide enough for one person as they twisted up corkscrew-style (at the very top, there is a rope to help you up the final set of stairs), it was quite a feat.
But my day started well before my dome climb. I had decided to book a “Pristine Sistine” tour with Walks of Italy, because the tour goes immediately to the Sistine Chapel before the doors open to the general public, and then backtracks to see the highlights of the rest of the museum. I figured I’d get more out of a guided tour than I would on my own (there are over 20,000 pieces of art on display in the museums’ 1400 rooms!). And given the number of people crowded into the Sistine Chapel when we passed through a couple of hours later, I’d say it was a good call. Now is probably a good time to mention that I have either a cold or very bad allergies (the verdict is still out). To top it off, I only slept for about 4 hours last night, so the 7AM meeting time was already pushing it. My headset only partly worked, so I didn’t get to hear all of the commentary on the tour and I probably didn’t appreciate what I was seeing as much as I would have if I felt better. Nevertheless, seeing the Sistine Chapel in person was another once in a lifetime experience. After the tour, I took a quick walk through the crypt before climbing the dome. I rationalized taking the elevator part of the way up due to my lack of sleep and cold/allergies. From the top you have a 360 degree view of Rome and its seven hills as well as a bird’s-eye view of St. Peter’s Square.
I knew this afternoon would need to be low-key, so I wandered away from the Vatican and towards the Centro Storico (Historic District) in search of food. I initially wanted a snack, but decided I might not feel like a big dinner tonight and opted for pizza instead. I ended up at an outdoor restaurant in the middle of Piazza San Lorenzo, which was good for people watching, though the pizza was nothing special. I stopped for the requisite picture of the Spanish Steps before heading back to my hotel. “Dinner” tonight was at Prosciutteria Cantina dei Papi, a little prosciutteria serving small plates and charcuterie boards. I sat in a corner enjoying a small board with a spread of fruits, meats, cheese, a bowl of bread, and a glass of Prosecco. I topped it off with overpriced, lackluster gelato from a nearby gelateria which I ate sitting by the Trevi Fountain.
From the Colosseum to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill to ancient temples and churches only recently excavated, today was a day to imagine life in ancient Rome. My first stop of day was the Colosseum, where I had a guided tour of the Underground, Arena, and Third Ring. The tour started on the arena level where we could imagine thousands of people watching everything from gladiator contests to public executions. From there, we headed to the Underground to see the corridors, tunnels, and elevators used to transport animals up to the arena floor. Our final stop was the third ring (“mid-class seats”) to see the view spectators had of the entire Colosseum.
Next up was a walk to a few churches near the Colosseum. I saw the Basilica of San Clemente, which is made up of the current 11th-century basilica, which was built on top of a 4th-century basilica, which was built on top of a 2nd-century pagan temple. From there, I stopped at Santi Quattro Coronati, a small church and monastery at the top of a hill. I wandered in and sat to admire the ceiling paintings for a few minutes as several nuns took seats around the altar. As I was leaving a woman told me in very broken English that the nuns were going to pray together. I sat back down and was able to listen to a 10 minute sung prayer service by the small group of nuns. It was amazing. The last church I visited was San Giovanni in Laterano, which is a much larger cathedral with lots of gold.
My final stop in ancient Rome was at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. I had downloaded Rick Steve’s audio guide, which was a definite help in understanding the history of the Forum. It was incredible to wander around the ruins and see toppled columns, foundations, and marble inscriptions thousands of years old. By the time I was done, my feet were begging for a rest. I intended to just walk up to the viewpoint on Palatine Hill, but took a wrong turn and did a lot more walking that I expected. I finally got my overview photos of the Forum, then made the long trek back to my hotel. Dinner tonight was at a small trattoria I had passed this morning. The pasta was good, but the tiramisu was as light as a feather and topped with an even lighter cream sauce that was divinely creamy and rich!
Bongiorno from the Eternal City! I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Rome, so I’ll reserve judgement about how much I like it until I have more to base it on. Suffice it to say, I’ve enjoyed my first day and a half, and I have a feeling it will only get better from here.
Yesterday can be recapped quickly, so I’ll start there. I took a very late flight on Friday night (nonstop on Norwegian air; my first time flying with them and it won’t be my favorite airline, but it got me here in one piece) and spent a couple of hours getting to my hotel and unpacking. My hotel is lovely, but my room was very small and lacked any space to comfortably use my laptop (where am I supposed to type my blog posts?!). I mentioned it at the front desk and came back later to discover they could move me to a larger room (with a desk) today. I decided to walk to the Vatican yesterday to pick up my ticket for the Papal Mass, but it was a long walk and I ended up cabbing it back to my hotel. While at the Vatican, I walked around in St. Peter’s Basilica for a few minutes and stopped in the souvenir shop. I ate my first Italian dinner in a quaint little restaurant across from my hotel last night.
Today, the obvious highlight was attending the Palm Sunday Papal Mass at St. Peter’s Square. I got there early and was near the front of the line to get in, which meant I had a pretty good view of the mass and a front row seat as the pope passed by in his popemobile. The square was decorated with palms and there were piles of palms to take on the way in. The mass itself was almost entirely in Italian, so I didn’t understand much. The best part of being there was seeing the pope as he drove through the crowds (about 50,000 people) in his popemobile after the benediction. It was probably a once in a lifetime experience.
I walked from the Vatican to Villa Borghese, home of Galleria Borghese, one of Rome’s many art museums. Along the way I stopped for a mini ham and cheese sandwich, cannolini, and hot chocolate. The Borghese has it down in terms of making a visit as pleasant as possible. You pre-book tickets for a 2 hour time slot, and you show up at the appointed time along with 359 other people who were also lucky enough to snag tickets. I opted for an audio guide since I’m not much of an art person and knew I wouldn’t appreciate it much without some background knowledge. I would liken the gallery to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in that it had many small rooms with laminated guides you could pick up to learn more about the artwork. The audio guide hit the highlights, but I had a hard time listening through some of the commentary. My new mantra while in Rome is “look up” because the ceilings contained the most amazing artwork in the gallery (in my opinion)!
I continued to look up at the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria where I stopped after leaving the museum. The main attraction at this church is Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, but the ceilings were equally impressive. I was also surprised to discover the church contains the preserved remains of St. Vittoria. They are in a glass case in one of the side chapels. A quick stop at my hotel (my new room is more spacious and has a desk, but is very dimly lit – I guess you can’t have it all), and I was off to Enoteca Barberini for dinner, where I enjoyed a Quattro formaggi pizza (good, but I felt like I could have gotten the same thing at home) and a glass of Prosecco. To finish off the night, I found a local gelateria for two scoops of gelato (one milk chocolate and one white chocolate – yum!). I’m hoping to catch up on sleep tonight and then tomorrow I’m off to explore ancient Rome!
If you’re wondering where all of my blog posts are, there hasn’t been very much to tell and I’m very much ready to go home. I’ve eaten some lackluster meals, took a long, traffic-filled road trip up the Keys, and witnessed an altercation at the pool. Read on for more details…
Tuesday: My hotel situation greatly improved on Tuesday, thanks to my new digs. Best of all, the room has functioning a/c. I went to Smathers Beach for sunrise again and got some pictures at the Southernmost Point before the crowds arrived. Breakfast was at Pepe’s, the oldest restaurant in Key West and a favorite of both Ernest Hemingway and Harry Truman. Then I hit the pool for a while before heading back into town for an enormous slice of Key Lime pie at Blue Heaven and a sunset “Wind and Wine” sunset sail with Danger Charters. The sunset was pretty and the wine, hors d’oeuvres, and conversation were freely flowing.
Wednesday: I watched the sunrise from White Street Pier and had a disappointing breakfast of Godiva white chocolate French toast (it sounds way better than it tasted) at Camille’s before setting off on my journey up the Keys to Islamorada. The water was a stunning Caribbean blue, but I didn’t find many spots to pull over and take pictures. I made a short stop at Sombrero Beach in Marathon and a pit stop at Publix in Islamorada, then turned around and drove all the way back to Key West. I envisioned myself enjoying a relaxing afternoon by the pool when I got back. That was not to be. Two guys decided it would be fun to grab a huge iguana by the tail and toss it into the pool. Twice. Because one of the guys didn’t get a picture the first time. Another guy decided it was his job to confront them and threaten to kill them if they did it again. A war of words ensued before other pool goers intercepted. Three managers had to come out and deal with the situation. It was hardly the relaxing afternoon I was hoping for. In fact, it was kind of the final straw and made me wish I a) had chosen a different vacation destination, and b) was heading home sooner than Friday. I did enjoy a lovely dinner of Gnocchi Gorgonzola at La Trattoria Oceanside.
Thursday: Since I was ready to pack my bags yesterday and head home, I determined to just make the best of today. Sunrise and breakfast were on the menu this morning, followed by a couple of hours at the beach. Don’t mistake Key West beaches for the Caribbean. The water may have the same color, but the beach is loaded with seaweed and the water is rocky, not at all sandy as you may expect. I enjoyed watching the pelicans diving for lunch and finished a book (no easy task with the wind turning the pages for me!) before heading back to the hotel. I went back into town and had the world’s soggiest pizza for dinner. I didn’t even bother staying for sunset. I can only hope that tomorrow’s final Key West breakfast is a good end to the vacation…