Author: Host Ciao
Date of Trip: December 2015
I also took two Walks of Italy Tours. The first was in the afternoon so I first visited Palazzo Barberini, part of the National Gallery of Ancient Art. Many of Italy’s public museums now allow photography with no flash, a real bonus for me since I have always been a rather “insane photographer,” taking many, many pictures and preferring available light.
The tour met at Piazza Barberini just down the street by the famous Bernini Fountain of the Triton. “Crypts, Bones, and Catacombs” took our small group of seven people first to the church of Santa Maria della Concezione. We visited the museum and then the crypt underneath the church where the bones of the dead Capuchin friars are used to “decorate” the space. Some bones are wired together to form Christian symbols, and there are some complete skeletons.
We then rode a small bus farther out from Rome’s center and visited the Catacombs of Priscilla, a lesser known burial place. Here it is possible to see some beautiful ancient frescoes. One in particular seems to show a woman presiding over an early Christian service.
Another bus ride took us to San Clemente, the perfect place to see the “layers of Rome.” On top is a beautiful 12th Century church. Beneath this is a 4th Century Church also dedicated to St. Clement, the fourth Pope. Here some of the 4th Century frescoes illustrate his life. Below this are ancient Roman buildings including a Mithraic temple.
There is also a spot where you can see water rushing through under these buildings. This was part of the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer of Ancient Rome. Since we were near buses and taxis we were on our own to get “home” from here.
This was a very interesting tour. However, I think the guide, who was very good otherwise, skipped over a lot of interesting info about San Clemente. Yes, I had been there before. I would not miss it on a trip to Rome. Unfortunately, most of the areas we visited in the tour did not allow photographs. In fact I don’t think I have ever seen so many “No Photo” signs anywhere as in San Clemente.
The second Walks of Italy tour I took was “Rome as a Local: Hidden Gems and Ancient Wonders.” We had another good guide though she sometimes tended to talk too fast. She was also the one I disagreed with about the “tacky fair.” She had excellent explanations as we walked to and through the Rome Ghetto. The van met us at the Theatre of Marcellus, and we drove to the Circus Maximus, which she explained as the chariot race track of old Rome and then also as part of a fortress. On the Appian Way we stopped and walked a bit to a bar for a café’ and bathroom break.
We then went to the Park of Aqueducts and walked to some of the huge structures. She explained these to us and also took pictures of us if we wanted. From there we headed up the Janiculum Hill to the top for the wonderful view and for the surprise she hoped to give us. We arrived at the overlook just as the noon cannon was shot, but we could still see the cannon and the smoke from the shot. I have to admit I had guessed the surprise, but had not mentioned it. And I had never seen / heard it before either. (I read a lot.) This tour ended where it had begun at the side of the Victor Emmanuel Monument.
I was disappointed that Walks of Italy no longer offered the private Tivoli tour I had taken in 2012. However, I didn’t want to miss this town and hired a driver for the six recommended hours. I enjoyed Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’ Este on my own with some excellent info from the Internet and some books I own. There were possible tours, but I chose this way which was no more expensive and allowed me to move at my own pace up hills and stairs. I would recommend a tour for a first time visit to these places. Of course for Hadrian’s Villa, you need to be a “ruin runner” and enjoy history. For Villa d’ Este enjoying beauty is enough, but this is also a fountain lover’s paradise (guilty again).
Fun Night Tour
This was my trip for new tours, and I found a night driving tour with Rome Private Excursions. This was a bit expensive for one person at E180, but it was a great two and a half hours with a guide who spoke excellent English. There are logical places the tour covers, but it can be changed to include certain places the client wants. The guide said I was the first person he ever had who asked to stop at the statue of Anita Garibaldi when we were up on the Janiculum. I had a photo of her famous husband from the other tour. I thought his wife riding astride her swift horse with pistol raised deserved a picture. I’m thinking she is holding a baby in the other arm, but I won’t swear to it since my photo gets too blurry when enlarged.
The guide knew how to maneuver the streets around St. Peter’s so I didn’t have to walk too far to get to the huge Nativity scene in the square. We couldn’t get too close on the main street because of the barricades set up and kept there for the Jubilee and Christmas crowds. I took lots of pictures of the Presepio and the basilica. A new sight he took me to was Rome’s 9/11 monument. I didn’t even know there was one. It is two pillars bathed in light with a plaque not far from the Circus Maximus and the Palatine Hill where Rome began.
Our last stop was near the Trevi Fountain so I could see it since its re-opening. It was astonishingly white since it had been thoroughly cleaned. Who knew it could change so much? Certainly not me. I hadn’t even considered it dirty when I had seen it before. Of course, I took many pictures here. It was worth the money to me to be able to go to the places I wanted and that he suggested at night and take pictures.
I have been a foodie most of my life and have done some great food adventures including several cooking lessons. This year I found three tours I wanted to take offered by Eating Italy. One that I planned on was a wine tasting dinner on New Year’s Eve. However, the company felt they had to cancel this one for their clients’ sake because the restaurant they use had jacked up the prices so high for the holiday that it wasn’t fair. The two I did take were excellent. Unfortunately even before the tours I had discovered that I couldn’t eat as much as I could just three years ago. So when I went on the tours, I knew that when amounts were my choice I would cut back. Luckily the fact that we walked some from stop to stop helped.
Once a Foodie…
The first tour was the “Twilight Trastevere Stroll.” After meeting at the column in the central piazza on Isola Tiberina, we walked to a restaurant / wine cellar that is part of the Slow Food movement and that opened early for the tour. Walls in the wine cellar are 100 years older than the Colosseum. Here we were served red wine and a bowl of very tasty pork with gravy made using an old, old recipe. Then it was on to a cookie factory passed down from mother to daughter for several generations. After sampling three cookies, we headed to a Norceria (cooked meat and sausage shop) for a sampling of porchetta on white pizza, then to a cheese shop and a suppli maker. The guides were surprised that I knew about suppli (fried rice balls) and had even made them in the Sicilian version of arancini. By this time I was cutting way back on what I ate because I knew we still had several stops.
We went to a restaurant called Buff, as in buffalo mozzarella. Our antipasti was a plate of two small crostini, buffalo sausage, a half slice of tomato with a small buffalo mozzarella ball and a glass of prosecco. The “main course,” at still another restaurant, consisted of three types of pasta: gnocchi, large ravioli, and cacio e pepe’. I managed about three bites of each but drank the good red wine. The tour ended at a gelato shop with many, many choices. I opted for orange with almond and for pistachio before taking a taxi “home.”
After giving myself two days of wandering to recover, I took the bus and then Metro B to the Piramide stop. I checked the map in the station and walked a couple of blocks to find the meeting place for “Taste of Testaccio.” There were tables and benches to sit on here while I waited, and as soon as the guide Chiara arrived, she gave me a token for a cappuccino at the bar next door. I was able to bring this out to enjoy while waiting.
We had a small group of five plus the guide. Our first stop was a pasticceria, Barberini, where we had a small cornetto (croissant) and then one of their specialties, tiramisu’ in small solid chocolate cups. At a tavola calda (hot table / cafeteria) we had pizza al taglio (by the slice). We had two small slices, one of pizza marinara (tomato and spices) and one of pizza Margarita (tomato, basil, cheese). Here Chiara talked about the difference between Roman (crisp crust) and Naples (softer, chewy crust) pizza and reminded us that, other than a taglio, pizza was usually for dinner. I ate about half of each knowing what was coming since I had taken this tour before.
We then went to Volpetti, a top Roman food shop. Because of space we had samples outside of Pecorino Romano cheese with truffles and prosciutto. Inside we had time to shop and to taste balsamic vinegar from Modena at 10, 15, or 20 years old. I wasn’t going to buy anything, but got carried away and bought a bottle of 15 year old. They even wrapped it in bubble wrap for me. I shipped this home later, and I’ll tell you it was excellently marvelous drizzled on the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese I brought home in my suitcase. Hard cheese like this is legal as long as it is wrapped airtight, and the cost is much more reasonable than at home.
From here we went to the Protestant Cemetery to wander a bit. We learned the history of the pyramid at its edge and visited poet John Keats’ grave. She also talked about the poet Shelley though we didn’t visit his grave. The next stop was the huge new modern market. Here we stopped at a tomato shop and had bruschetta which we could rub with garlic and then put tomato and arugula on the bread slices. (I prefer basil.) At Enzo and Lena’s shop we had buffalo mozzarella with the last of the tomatoes for a small Caprese salad.
As we walked Chiara explained the history of Mt. Testaccio. This is a rather steep, high hill made from layers of dirt and shards of olive oil vessels that landed near here on the river, but couldn’t be used again. Business are built into the hill. At one such restaurant where we had the “main course,” we sat next to a glass wall through which we could see layers of the hill. We were served three pastas: amatriciana, carbonara, and cacio e pepe’ with water and red and white wines. Again I ate a couple of bites of all three.
At the suppli shop, our next stop, I managed about one bite of one of my favorite foods. Chiara gave us bags and I was going to save mine, but grease leaked through the bag. I was afraid of getting it on clothes and the balsamic package so I regretfully threw it out at the next stop—a gelato shop of course. Again we could have two kinds so I chose pistachio and tiramisu’—very, very good.
I shared a cab with a couple on the tour back to Piazza San Silvestro. There I could direct them to Via del Corso and its shops and also toward their hotel near Piazza del Popolo. Then? Home to hotel to relax, nap and read and at supper time eat a bag of popcorn and a cookie I had bought the day before.
Avoid This Experience
One new experience that I definitely would not recommend even though it turned out all right was the experience of a Roman hospital. Because of what was probably a touch of stomach flu, I grew very dizzy when I was in the bathroom around midnight on New Year’s Eve (I could hear the fireworks). Foolishly I decided I could get back to my bed only about 10 feet away. I didn’t. I did not pass out but fell hitting my head probably on the small shelf next to the bed. I got into bed and realized my arm really hurt too. I turned on the light and realized my forearm was bleeding. No longer dizzy I got up washed it off and realized I had scraped off about a two inch wide layer of skin. I wound a towel around it and went back to bed.
In the morning I asked the hotel desk man about a doctor. He had me take a taxi to Santo Spirito Hospital’s pronto soccorso—emergency room. With the help of a man I think was an EMT and who was in a room I found after wandering some empty halls, I made it to the receiving room. Luckily one of the intake people spoke English.
To shorten this, I spent seven hours there probably because there were lots of interruptions with big emergencies. I had two EKG’s, a head scan, X-rays of both forearms (the non-bleeding one was bruised), and a blood draw. All were “normal” and I refused an overnight stay for observation. A nice young orderly bandaged my two wounds and wrote down what I should buy to treat and cover them. After I signed four pages of release forms that I couldn’t read except in spots, he took me to the security desk where the officers called a taxi for me.
And More Ruins
The whole experience including all tests cost me exactly two taxi rides. One of the young men at the hotel explained the four pages to me when I got back. But what a way to spend New Year’s Day! And, no, I did not party the night before!
As well as hiring a driver to visit Tivoli, I also did that to visit Ostia Antica. This early Roman settlement was founded in the 4th Century and originally controlled access to Rome on the Tiber River. I had not been there for quite a few years and just wanted to wander (read: do some ruin running). I spent about two hours there and would have liked to do more, but I was worried about my right foot which had been hurting.
The excavations have a map, which is kind of big and awkward to use much when walking, but there are posted maps along the way on different streets pointing out the sites/sights. I stayed mostly on the main street, Decumano Massimo, with some side ventures to visit the theatre and several temples. I headed toward the book store, but realized I had to get back to the main gate to meet the driver. This probably saved me money.
The driver took a longer route back to Rome but still had part of my four hours left so to use up the time he drove me around the EUR area where he explained some of the buildings to me. Good drivers do use the complete time that you hired them for. The driver to Tivoli also did this. He asked me what I was going to do the next day, and I said I was going to start by taking buses to Santo Stefano Rotondo, an old round church that had been closed the last time I was in Rome. So off we went back to Rome and then to the church for me to visit it (and use up the six hours).
I had planned one more tour with a new company. This would have been a day trip to Assisi, a town I love. Unfortunately this proved to be one of my disappointments as the tour was cancelled the day before. I was offered another time, but already had plans for that day.
Old Favorites Not To Be Missed
My stay in Rome and the pre-planning for it did not include only new tours, tastes, and sites. I would not miss the Vatican Museums and it is very easy to make reservations online and avoid the long, long lines there even in winter. My habit is to spread my time in this superb place over two days. The first day I visit up to the Sistine Chapel. As I did this year, I like to start with a tour of the Vatican Gardens. This includes entry to the museums too. After the gardens and a stop in the cafeteria for lunch and a chance to sit for a while, I started the long trek, so many steps, so few benches!
Yes, I purposely take the long route to the chapel since I want to see most of the museums. Once again I took picture after picture, probably many I already have since the Vatican has always allowed this for many years except in the Sistine Chapel. I try to take pictures only of statues, ceiling panels, and other decorations that I know or can figure out the title to. Once I reach the Sistine, I head to the door that leads down to St. Peters (one the right as you go away from the altar). Sometimes this is reserved for groups, but this year there was no guard by the door. If there is, you can usually find a tour group leaving and mingle.
For my second day with my early reservation I entered very close to opening time (some tours are sent in early). I headed directly to the Sistine Chapel by the shortest route possible, arriving there ahead of the tour groups and almost alone. I then had plenty of peaceful time to admire the works not only by Michelangelo but also by other great artists.
As the crowds began to arrive, I went out the regular exit and wandered through the halls that hold some of the gifts to Popes, including a flag that had been on the first moon landing. Parts of the libraries can also be seen—and lots of stands selling souvenirs. After a stop in the cafeteria for water I went to the Pinacotecha, the painting gallery, which I like very much. I usually do not visit all the museums; there are just so many possible places to see. I plan ahead to decide what to skip.
Jubilee Churches and More
Of course, I visited St. Peter’s several times—too much there for one visit for me. The first time, I arrived around 7:30 and was able to get through the airport-like security check in a few minutes—not many there at that time. I also was able to go through the Jubilee’s Holy Door even though I was not a registered pilgrim. This might not have been possible later in the day. The only place I felt not being registered was a problem was inside the basilica. The area around the main altar was roped off only for those registered. I wasn’t happy about this but not much could be done. I had tried to register before I left home, but unlike museum and tour reservations on line this didn’t work easily so I gave up on it.
I also always visit the other major basilicas in Rome, and this time they also had Holy Doors for the Jubilee of Mercy. They also had security which they normally do not have although it was not quite like that at St. Peter’s, which is always stricter. I went through security very easily and swiftly at St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls. However at Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) I had to stand in line for over 20 minutes. I’m fairly sure this was because I was there about noon instead of early in the day. These churches are open all day and there were several others near Santa Maria that I wanted to visit before they closed for several hours at noon.
Other places I wouldn’t miss on any trip to Rome include the Borghese Gallery, where pre-made reservations are a must for the allowed two-hour visit. I also enjoyed the Ara Pacis in the very modern building that houses it. I headed up the Cordonato to the Capitoline Hill to visit both museums there and enjoyed lunch on the terrace of one, the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Even in winter this was nice since there were heavy plastic “walls” keeping out any wind. Across the Tiber, I headed to Villa Farnesina, always worth a visit for art including some by Raphael. And, of course, I did not miss my favorite ruins of Ancient Rome: Roman Forum, Paletine Hill, and Colosseum. I also have many churches I try to visit because they are truly the free art galleries of Rome.Three visits this trip were to places I had not been inside of for several trips. These were Villa Giulia, the Etruscan Museum, and Castel Sant’ Angelo and the Doria Pamphili Gallery. All three were very interesting and well worth the time though I needed some of the benches to rest on in wandering through them.
With a driver I had hired to visit some of the places on the Appian Way, I went again to Fosse Ardeatine, the memorial to the Romans slaughtered by the Nazis in revenge for a Resistance attack during World War II. The memorial is in the caves where the 335 men and boys were shot and which were blown up to hide the slaughter. However, the place was seen and has been excavated. Every victim, including some unknowns, has a separate tomb in a huge cave. This is a very moving place to visit.
We did not make it to San Sebastiano, a church I wanted to visit again, because for some unknown and unannounced reason, the Appian Way in that area had become one way—the wrong way. However, I did, for the first time, visit the tiny church of Domine Quo Vadis, one I had never been inside of. This is built on the spot believed to be where, as he was fleeing Rome, Peter saw Christ coming toward him. Peter asked, “Where are you going, Lord?” Jesus answered that he was going back to Rome to be crucified again. Peter turned back and in Rome was captured and crucified. This is a simple small church with paintings of Peter and Christ facing each other across the aisle and on either side of the altar paintings of their crucifixions.
While I had visited San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere before, I especially wanted to visit this trip because I had made a contribution to a Kickstarter campaign to restore the tiny room where St. Francis of Assisi stayed when he came to Rome. My timing wasn’t good since I arrived just before Mass was to start. The custodian talked to the priest, who, when he saw my thank you letter and photo, allowed me to go up to the tiny room with some people who had just come down and were willing to go back with me. One man spoke English and asked how I knew about this. I told him I had visited the church before, heard of the campaign and thought it was a worthwhile effort. I was glad to visit this very simple room.
Another visit I always make when I am in Rome at Christmas time is to the exhibition of “100 Presepi” in a hall behind Santa Maria del Popolo. This features 100 Nativity scenes from many places in the world and many parts of Italy. Some are very small and some are quite large. They are made out of all kinds of materials: wood, terracotta, clay, fabric, chalk, metal, and even bread. Some are very simple and some elaborate and even political such as one showing the Holy Family in a tent like shelter with sand bags and oil drums around them. On one side a tank with soldier faces away from them and on the other an artillery emplacement. Both seem to be guarding the family.
For me this is a fascinating way to spend time because of my Nativity collection at home, most of which, not surprisingly, are from Italy. Disappointingly for me, no photos are allowed though I certainly saw people using their phones to take pictures. I always buy the catalogue, but somehow many of the pictures in there do not do the scenes justice. For example the picture of the scene I described above does not show the tank or artillery, which I think loses some of the meaning.
And how did I celebrate Christmas as a tourist in Rome? Not with the huge crowds at St. Peter’s. On Christmas Eve, I went to the English Mass at San Silvestro, which I consider my Rome parish and which is only a block from my “home in Rome,” Hotel Parlamento. I enjoyed this Mass and the guitar music we sing to. The Irish priests invited those of us attending the service up to their apartment afterwards for Prosecco and Panetonne, Christmas cake.
On Christmas morning around 9:30, I headed to the International Museum of the Presepio in the basement of the church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta on Via Tor de’ Conti very near the Colosseum. Again I enjoyed Nativity scenes from many places in many styles, big and small. Here I can take photos, but since exhibits are behind glass, not all pictures are as good as I would like. As an example of the different types, I have one I bought there in 2012 that shows the Holy Family in a matchbox. There are a couple of other churches in the neighborhood to visit to enjoy the Christmas scenes.
For Christmas dinner at noon, I went to the Scholars’ Pub. Yes, it is Irish. Many Roman places are closed since this is indeed a family day, and I enjoyed my beef in Guiness and a pint. After I rested a while back at the hotel, I went back to being a Roman again and strolled from church to church with the locals to view the Presepi that are a focal point in each church.
Sure not everything went as planned, and I had changes I would rather have missed. But would I go back again? For sure–as soon as I save enough money and if my swimming and exercise classes keep my body moving well enough.
A presto (till later)