For the first time in nearly a month, the cafe was waiting for me. Welcome to Rome. I’m sitting at a table outside a little cafe on a cobblestone Roman side street with a Taxi rolling inches from me with his headlights spotlighting my chocolate cornetto. The pace is slower at 6am but the open cafe attracts a rather large number of early-birds ranging from a few tourists but mostly working class Italians starting their day. The cafe routine remains the same, an Americano and a cornetto per favore. Si…grazie…prego. Then off to the bar to coordinate with the barista. Starbucks did a nice job of picking it up and mass producing it. However, no amount of service or variety will match the charm.
The Day’s Warm Up
After breakfast, our first mission yesterday was to move from the apartment to the hotel. Dragging the luggage across cobblestones for a 10 minute walk was mildly/ annoying but we were early enough to avoid heavy pedestrian or car traffic. We were unable to check into the hotel but dropped our bags and wandered the streets that had come alive. Traveler’s tip: Rome has a pretty heft city tax and it has to be paid in cash – a rather disconcerting process as you pay for your pricey hotel room and then hand the clerk another 150 euros for who know’s what.
Moving down the street, we were drawn to the soothing voice of Frank Sinatra echoing off of the buildings as we found the first of numerous street performers along the Via del Corso – a guy who had to be about 80 was lip synching in full black suit and fedora at 10:30am. He did it his way. There were already a lot of people out and the day was warming up quickly. We stopped at the Basilica of San Giacomo, St. James, which just happened to be in the neighborhood. If we had trading cards for the Saints, St. James would be one of key ones in our collection.
My parents were feeling a title frisky, at least from a shopping perspective, and, curiously, it was a very large Skechers store that caught their attention. I’m not sure if Skechers in the states is offering the same designs, but they have clearly gone upscale here and broadened to offer something for everyone. Mom found some very European white tennie’s with some copper bling and Sally talked my dad into a sporty blue pair with a striking yellow design. The total was enough to qualify for the VAT refund which, like the cash for the city tax, feels like another questionable process as we found ourselves winding down a side alley to a locked door hidden in a courtyard where you are buzzed-in to discuss the refund process. My conclusion on the process is that it is not worth it, especially in this case for what amounted to about $25.
We were supposed to meet our guide at the hotel at 12:30pm so we made our way back to the hotel, picked up some snacks along the way, and readied ourselves for an afternoon of exploring. Cecillia showed up right on time (which is good as Italian time tends to be “ish”). I will say that all of our guides and drivers have been very punctual, very professional, and true lifesavers. Small in stature and looking rather scholarly in her glasses, Cecillia conveyed a sense of calm and competence as she greeted us warmly. Cecillia (pronounced Che – Chilia) was also very aware of our time limits and the ambition of our day. Our goal was to visit 6 primary basilicas and one catacomb. Andiamo!
Blogger’s note: my plan is to touch on some high points of our day but it must be said: there is no way to capture in words or visually the height, breadth, and depth of the world we traveled yesterday. I took at least 500 photos and we talked Roman and Christian history for about six hours straight as we drove and walked around Rome. Please forgive the many omissions as well as the places in which I wander with too much depth.
Basilica, Basilica, Basilica
The term “basilica” was originally the Roman public building where courts and other public gatherings were held. As Christianity emerged, many of these early gathering places were converted to places of worship. For 2000 years, Christianity has been building on top of other dates and places as it has blended existing tradition with the propagation of the Faith. Today, Basilica’s are generally recognized as more important places (for a variety of reasons) relative to what would be a standard “church.”
One goal of our time in Rome was to visit seven key Basilicas that were integral in the founding of the Catholic Church and considered key sites for Christian pilgrimages to Rome. Four of the Basilicas (St. Paul, St. John Lateran, St. Lawrence, and the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, were built by Constantine). The other three, including St. Peter’s, are significant for their relics and/or their role in the Church. The tourist element of our journey turned distinctly pilgrim yesterday as we took a deep dive into the winding, the hard to believe, the beautiful, and the miraculous.
Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura (Saint Paul Outside the Walls)
Speechless. That is what I felt walking into this monumentally large basilica. Second in size only to St. Peter’s, the scale of this Basilica was difficult to comprehend. At 500 feet long by 300 feet wide and standing 250 feet tall, the space made my eyes go wide and brought a smile to Cecillia’s face as she watched. Eighty massive columns lined the main nave and the gilt ceiling seemed to stretch for miles. Still an active church, most of the floor space was completely empty, creating an even greater sense size.
After he legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire through the Edict of Milan in 313AD, he decreed that the remains of Paul of Tarsus would be returned to his original tomb and basilica would be erected upon the site. The tomb was located outside the wall around Rome and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls was consecrated in 324AD. Lying at the heart of the nave and the transept (the cross form of the basilica) is St. Paul’s tomb, visible through glass and in the original brick and stone below today’s structure. Massive statues of the apostles line the colonnade and the overall effect of the interior is one of awe and wonder as one’s eyes are drawn through time and upward toward the Divine.
I wanted to linger. I wanted to wander. I wanted to stand and stare. As with a most of the Basilicas we visited, today’s structures are relatively modern as most were rebuilt or substantially modified over the course of their nearly 1500 year existence. St. Paul’s was substantially destroyed in a fire in 1823 and completely rebuilt incorporating much of its original structure and remaining materials in the newer, and far more grand Basilica.
St. John Lateran
Duilio (our driver) rolled the van around and picked us up outside of St. Paul’s. Pronounced Dweel-ee-oh, his names means war, however, he was a very peaceable man. Later in the day, we walked out of a Basilica and found him asleep, literally at the wheel. Ever discreet and not wanting to embarrass him, Cecillia called him on the cell phone from across the parking lot. I’m not sure if he could get in trouble for “sleeping on the job” but Duilio was there for us in thick and thin (mostly thick when it came to the traffic yesterday).
The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran was the first Basilica in Rome and the oldest Basilica of the Western World. It is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome and the seat of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is not located within the Vatican but is a property of the Holy See and is dedicate to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The original site was a Roman Fort for the imperial bodyguard cavalry of the Emperor of Rome which was abolished when Constantine defeated Maxentius for control of Rome in 324. Constantine cleverly converted the fort into St. John Lateran and the first Basilica.
The Basilica was the seat of all Popes and the Lateran Palace their home until 1309 when French Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon, France. St. Catherine of Siena was integral in convincing Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome in 1377 but the location of St. John Lateran was determined to be unsafe to hold the Papacy. Today’s St. John Lateran is filled with beautiful statues of the Disciples by Borromini (the architect of the current interior) and its most treasured relic is the table of the Last Supper – though at one time held the skulls of Sts. Peter and Paul encased in gold which were stolen by Napoleon’s men in the early 1800s.
See What I Mean?
Two stops in and you may be starting to get picture: there is a LOT. We visited the catacombs below St. Sebastian which included the Saint’s remains as well as examples Christian and Pagan Roman burial vaults. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem which was consecrated to house relics brought from Jerusalem by Constantine’s mother, St. Helena. The relics include: the title sign over Jesus on the cross, two thorns from the Crown of Thorns, a nail from the Crucifixion, St. Thomas’ finger, and small pieces of the Cross from the Crucifixion. We also visited St. Lawrence, which housed the tomb of St. Lawrence who was burned alive on a grill, and finished at Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major).
Saint Mary Major, also known as St. Mary of the Snows, is one of four Basilicas classified as “major” (along with St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John Lateran. It holds the relic of the Holy Crib in which Jesus was born and the Basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Pope Francis visits the stunning Chapel of Mary to pray before and after each trip he makes. The Borghese Chapel features the Icon of the Virgin Mary, thought to be the oldest Marian image in Rome.
We entered a total of seven Basilicas yesterday – probably a bit too much for one day but it was important for us to get to the seven Basilicas of St. Philip Neri’s Pilgrimage, a Catholic tradition that has been around for centuries. Every one of these Holy places was unique in its own way and worthy of more time to explore as well as sit and contemplate. We only scratched the surface and my words here are wholly unworthy of these spectacular testaments to faith, tradition, craftsmanship, and artistic genius.
Though we will never be able to see everything and will only be able to recall bits and pieces of what we learn, there is a wonderful side effect of our efforts to see and experience as many of these as we can: curiosity. With each stop, with each question, and with each answer, comes the desire to learn more. We are seeing just enough to pique additional interest in the history and the stories of the Saints, the Basilicas, Rome, and the complex history surrounding all of it. Far from satisfied, I am ready to go deeper and that seems like a tremendous gift of this adventure.
More to Come
We closed the day around 6:30pm and prepared ourselves for our 7:30pm dinner. Silvia booked our dinner at Tulio, a local place founded in 1950 – not as old as some of the other relics we’ve seen but pretty old for a restaurant. We were able to sit outside in the cool evening air and enjoy some wine and the last bit of the evening. Tomorrow, we’ll have more to share as we spend the morning with Cecillia on a walking tour through historic Rome.