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Italy X – 15-20 July: Roma - part 1

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Saturday morning and the NCL Epic had docked at the pier in Civitavecchia. Somehow, remarking to a maintenance guy improved the hot water in the shower, as it no longer took a minute to get warm enough. (I hope that the woman in the next cabin who’d had cold water all week had hot that morning!) A muffin and coffee in the lounge, I then wheeled and walked the small roller down to the offramp, over the bridge and into the terminal. Once I found my large roller, I took the shuttle into town. The bus into Rome was an online ticket with GetYourGuide, and their pickup point was across the street in a bus parking area. I headed over there, only to be told by the driver it was where we’d been dropped off. GYG once again fails.

Gordon and I had seen one another as we left the ship, but he apparently moved more quickly, as he caught the first bus, which he needed to do as his plans were to get a train north. I had nothing on my schedule until midafternoon, so I was less pressed. Getting on the bus around 10am, we were on multilane roadways speeding towards the Eternal City. Our first stop was at the Vatican Walls. I believed that we’d be dropped in front of Roma Termini, the big, major train station, but we were left off a couple of blocks away, on the far side from where my B&B was. At this point, hauling my bag out from the under-storage area, I noticed that the large roller had developed a good size crack near the handle. Too heavy and too many lifts seem to have taken its toll.

Pushing the bags down the sidewalk of Via Solferino, I passed the bus depot in front of the train station. Three more blocks, and a turn down Via Torino to make a right onto Via Urbana. Confused because the building’s numbers increased from one on the right side, and were decreasing to 200 on the left, I dealt with bad sidewalks and building construction until I found my host’s building. As we’d communicated via WhatsApp that morning, he knew when to expect me, so I was buzzed in promptly. Two flights of stairs, and I was in Vicenzio’s flat. I had my own room, with a shared bath directly across the hall; use of the kitchen and the common room, plus a section of the closet in the hall. Plenty of floor space, the bed was rather low, and there was only a fan, no AC. By noon I was unpacked and settled in, on his WiFi, and dealing with tour reservations.

Because different guides present different perspectives, I had used GYG to book two tours at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The first for an hour at 2, offered its secrets, while the second at 4 was for 45 minutes and was a tour. The earlier tour was cancelled, so I had a few hours to explore.

Front facade, Cattedrale di Santi Sergio e Bacco degli Ucraini / Cathedral of Saints Sergius and Bacchus of the Ukrainians
Cattedrale di Santi Sergio e Bacco degli Ucraini / Cathedral of Saints Sergius and Bacchus of the Ukrainians, Rome

My itinerary sent me first to the Cattedrale di Santi Sergio e Bacco degli Ucraini / Cathedral of Saints Sergius and Bacchus of the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic seat. Located on the Piazza della Madonna dei Monti. I just had to continue on Via Urbana and take the fork on Via Leonina to get to the square. A four-story building between two others, its single south-facing entrance was between two statues of the patron saints set in niches. The very short nave ended with a brass screen, an iconostasis with three doors. The ornate vault curved, with molding and murals around several medallions containing oil paintings. On the side walls were shrines with oil portraits, framed in plaster carvings and marble trim. The gaps in the screen were enough to let me take a photo of the tabernacle and altar.

That visit to one of the smallest cathedrals I’d had the opportunity to visit took 10 minutes. Outside I ran into a Russian-French trio, who were looking at the façade. We wound up talking for a bit, as the girls were from Paris while he was still from Russia. With my encouragement, they entered the cathedral.

The second cathedral on my list was the seat of the Military Ordinariate, less than half a kilometer away. A long block went up a slight hill, and a left passing between the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas and the wall of the Villa Aldobrandini. The north facing tall white building between a street and the much taller brick Torre delle Milizie was locked. I got my pictures of the exterior, but hoped to return during the week when it should be open. I did look up at the garden above the wall I’d just passed, thinking it might be a great venue to get an overhead shot.

Returning to the B&B, I found a clean sturdy box, which I packed up with papers, flyers and memorabilia; chocolate and souvenirs; and the bomber jacket. The heat wave and 40°C temperatures weren’t forecast to go away. Then, with more spare time, I took a nap.

front facade, Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore / Major Basilica of Mary Maggiore
Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore

The meeting point directions were the front of the basilica, but both sides had big piazzas, and I was unsure where the guide might be. Going to the fountain in front of the gate around the steps into the building, I took a few pictures and then tried to find a shady spot to observe from. Three French women from near Geneva arrived just on time, and we then met our guide. [The ticket redemption email had been very specific on attire, as visitors needed to have their shoulders and knees covered.] The guide, a tall, younger woman was dressed in a skimpy crop-top and short skirt get-up, unlike the others who were attired more appropriately. We were waiting on a fifth, and it turned out he assumed we would go through security and meet in the shade on the steps (much wiser!) He was 30 years old, and from Lithuania. Our guide was a flirt with just about any male in sight, but had great English and took time to answer questions. Her focus was on the small mosaics below the frescoes at the gallery level. After working our way down the nave, we went down to view the relic of the manger, and walked around the baldachin over the altar.

I kept looking up at the coffered central aisle ceiling, and marveled at the several side chapels, with golden pillars, altars and paintings or icons. She led us back to the entry where we went upstairs to see the view from the front balcony towards the Lateran Hill. Descending, she left after 50 minutes, and I returned to the inside of the basilica for more photos. It appeared that Mass would be said, so I walked out with the young man from Lithuania who had been in Rome a few days and offered some suggestions on what I might see.

On my way back to the flat I picked up some bananas, and water for immediate consumption. After email and checking with Florida (my neighbor had had unexpected heart surgery), I packed up the journal and phone and headed down the street for dinner al fresco at Bar Monti. Starting with a draft beer, “Lisa” – birra del burgo, ⅓ liter, my starter was carpaccio di Bresaola (plus arugula, grana cheese, tomato.) A glass of Nebbiolo DOS (Lanhge) Ciabot Berton ’21 accompanied my pasta: tagliolino with walnut pesto (citrus, burrata, hazelnuts)

Carpaccio di Bresaola at Bar Monti, Rome
Carpaccio di Bresaola

Tagliolino with walnut pesto at Bar Monti, Rome
Tagliolino with walnut pesto


Rome day 2. A Sunday, I start after rolling over after the alarm, and then taking a nice shower before heading out. First goal, to get a 72-hour transit pass for the city, which I did at the main train station.

Chiesa di Sant'Onofrio al Gianicolo / Church of St  Onuphrius at the Janiculum , Rome
Chiesa di Sant'Onofrio al Gianicolo

From there I took a bus to Sant'Onofrio al Gianicolo, headquarters for the equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, over near the Vatican. Open until noon, I reached the small church at 11, walking through the gate up to the L-shaped porch. Proceeding inside, a lovely altarpiece, a multi-paneled fresco filled the apse curve and dome. Above the end of the western side aisle was a beautiful dome, done in vibrant red and blue, framed in gold, with four arched windows providing natural light. Out to the longer Palladian porch, the protected covered arch panels were full of illustrations. A Franciscan friary, much was closed to the public. I’d come to see if I could validate my research: historically, cardinals had been assigned to the site, and I hoped it might prove to be an ex-cathedral. Not the case, but I was glad to have visited.

Basilica di San Bartolomeo Apostolo all’Isola / Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island
Basilica di San Bartolomeo Apostolo all’Isola / Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island

Descending the Janiculum Hill to the Tiber River, I walked along the west bank to the bend at Ponte Garibaldi. The next bridge, Ponte Cestio took me to the Isola Tiberina where I would visit Basilica di San Bartolomeo Apostolo all’Isola / Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island. (Somewhere in my research, I found a citation saying it had been raised to cathedral status in 1018, but nothing else confirms. As a titular minor basilica, a cardinal priest has been assigned there since 1517; the last two in this position have been the Archbishops of Chicago.] Baroque in style, the western façade faced onto a roundabout, with the north corner joining an adjacent building. The nave, done in medium grays that looked blue in the light, had paintings coffered into the flat vault. My notes remark on the lovely frescoes, murals and mosaics. The remains of the apostle are in a porphyry sarcophagus under the altar slab, up steps from the nave floor.

Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura / Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura / Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls

Returning to the west bank, I sat and waited a bit on a bus to take me further down river. Exiting the bus after 4km and 11 stops, I had a short walk backtracking to the Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura / Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. One of four “major” basilicas in the Catholic Church (there are about 1880 minor basilicas worldwide), its architecture matches the classic definition for a basilica, a rectangular large public building, equivalent in the Eastern Church to a stoa. St Paul’s is a huge building, with a double colonnade on its western face, behind which is a manicured cloister area before getting to the church proper.

Standing on the porch before entering, the center door was open, allowing a view to the apse all the way from the entry, a golden glow coming from the clerestory and the coffered ceiling. Two side aisles flank the central nave, again with gold-on-white coffering and the floor is three colors of marble set in circles and squares. Between the tops of the columns and the murals of the clerestory are circular mosaic medallions, depicting each of the 265 popes – there are 11 spots left! The panels in the clerestory windows are all filled with travertine marble, thin slices placed to reflect the grain and create unique patterns, giving that golden glow. Below the baldachin and main altar is a grill, behind which is the recently discovered white marble coffin, which might contain the remains of Paul. (Per Wikipedia, carbon dating confirms appropriate age of the bones.) On the rear, a display shows the chain used to confine Paul on his way to his execution.

There’s an overwhelming amount of art, gilt, and marble in this structure. To really study it would take weeks, requiring special access to get proper angles to view the many works of art set high above a pilgrim’s or visitor’s head. (This is one of seven pilgrim churches in Rome.) I took shots of each of the statues of the twelve apostles, most depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom. Mentally saturated, I strolled past the museum, sure that I’d not truly appreciate it, and made my way off the basilica property. Around a corner to a bus stop, I waited 10 minutes before continuing my journey.

By 2:30, I was about 2 miles south, and walked up the hill of the Parco degli Eucalipti. The cicadas of Rome were pulsing, providing a cacophony of sound as I slowly walked in the fragrant shade. Crossing the busy Via Laurentina roadway, I found the gateway to the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane.

Chiesa di Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane / Church of Saints Vincent and Anastasius alle Tre Fontane
Chiesa di Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane / Church of Saints Vincent and Anastasius alle Tre Fontane

The road passed between the dark trunks of the trees shading it, brick walls on either side. At the end of this living tunnel, a shrine with the statue of an abbot indicated that silence was observed. Beyond, an arched entrance into the abbey itself beckoned. Several buildings were in view, with the church, the Chiesa di Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane / Church of Saints Vincent and Anastasius alle Tre Fontane drawing my eye. Entering, the smooth red bricks of the floor contrasted with the rough off-white of the walls. The dark wood pews in the nave lead to a metal fence, restricting any access into the presbytery.

In the quire, pews for the monks led to the altar, sitting five steps up and within an arch. Seats for a choir, and a chair for the abbot filled the apse walls. The quiet was such a contrast to what I’d experienced at the two basilicas, or even out of doors. No wonder a homeless man was calmly sleeping on one of the pews in the side aisle.

Leaving the church, which I’d again researched as a possible cathedral site, I took the path that led to the church where tradition felt Paul had been martyred. Another tree lined walk, a section directly in front had sectioned off the original stone path of rough basalt. More of a shrine to Paul’s death than the basilica, the explanations mounted on the wall pointed to the white marble column where the beheading took place, as well as the three fountains which were reported to have sprung up as the severed head bounced down an incline. The three fountains are now contained behind ornate marble carvings, about 20-feet from each other.

On the walls and ceiling are numerous murals depicting scenes from the life and death of Paul, and of St Peter who reportedly was martyred the same day in 67AD. Rather dark inside, little light came from the stained-glass windows depicting the two Popes who rebuilt the shrine. Coming back towards the abbey church, I walked up the handful of steps to a round chapel “Stairs to Heaven” on my left. Before I left, I stopped in the gift shop, where the artisan Jehoshu’a sold religious objects to benefit the abbey. I purchased three, including a Croce Trinitaria Bizantina, stunning detailed pendants in chrome, silver and gold.

Following the path through the arch and down the walk to the entry, I had a gentle climb back to where I’d crossed the roadway, where a bus stop was placed. While anticipating having to ride multiple buses (per Maps), the first along would end at Termini, the train station lot. I still hadn’t activated my transit pass, as I was unsure how to do so – I’d been riding for free all day. Once back in my “neighborhood”, I visited a PAM market to get bananas, fruit juice and a bottle of water, as well as “snacks” – cheese, salami and tarallini. Back to the flat, I sat in the lounge and did email, snacking and drinking diluted fruit juice. After taking a nap and then rinsing off the heat of the day, I headed out to find dinner, wandering down Via Urbana to Blackmarket Hall. Starting with a glass of Barbera d’Alba “Mira DOC Dante Rivetti” from the Piedmonte, I selected organic roasted courgette au gratin. The sauteed pieces of zucchini came mixed with bread crumbs and rosemary, but I found them bland before adding salt and pepper, which helped a little.

Then I asked for a bacon cheeseburger, medium rare. A home run! Although the fries were undercooked but edible, the burger was superb, medium rare, juicy. They’d used a packaged slice for the cheese, the only thing I’d fault. It is an Irish restaurant, but I found the Italian staff to be fun and charming, while the Irish waiter was stiff, bored and young. Over my dinner, I had a great conversation with a couple from Bourgogne, enough so that I had an Oban 14 as an after-dinner drink to continue our time together. He is originally from Morrocco, while she hailed from Paris. Returning, I tried for a shot of Maria Maggiore with my phone, but it was a bit blurry.

Rome day 3: This was my day to visit Vatican City. I arose before the alarm, took a shower and was off to the bus depot to get over the Tiber. I still hadn’t figured out how to activate my pass, so I just extended my potential use. Arriving at St Peter’s at 7:30, I wandered a bit taking photos of the basilica and the square, relatively empty of people and with the soft morning light.

Out of the square and around a corner, the GYG groups were forming up, and I was assigned to an English-speaking tour numbering 19, led by an American (out of DC) named Sev. (The woman guide I’d had at Maria Maggiore was gathering a group nearby.) We were all provisioned with radios and headphones, setting off for the dome. We passed through the church briefly, spotting the Michaelangelo Pieta.

The first series of 221 steps were accomplished by a lift, with 10 permitted per trip. While waiting for our slot, a drone was actively scanning the roof, looking for damage. With Sev in the lead, we began the climb of the actual dome, 335 steps, with only one of the group faltering and returning to the “midpoint”. A portion of the climb took us inside and close to balcony over the floor. I walked around the top twice, getting my pictures, trying to identify places like the Papal Observatory. Down the stairs, I, along with a few others not interested in waiting for the lift, continued to the street level.

Tickets are required for guided tours within St Peter’s, and they were available starting at 9. We’d reached the porch of the church ahead of that, so, milling with multiple other groups, we waited until Sev processed through the queue, and began our tour. He talked about the Pieta, the Bernini baldachin and the high altar. As we moved towards that altar, he remarked on the measured markings in the floor, pointing out how each of these height landmarks would fit within the space. (I had to correct him when he stated that the Immaculate Conception Shrine in DC was its cathedral, as I’d visited St Matthew the Apostle and knew better.) Two queens had been honored to be buried in the church, an honor usually restricted to Popes, so he explained the history of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Similar to cathedrals having a cathedra, or throne, for the bishop, basilicas often have a papal chair. This chair in St Peter’s is dark, decorated in gold, and sits above the altar at the back of the apse. As it is so distant from the floor, its size has been expanded – Sev had a photo of someone cleaning it, and they were dwarfed! I continued to walk around taking pictures after he parted our collective company and had collected the radios (I now have a collection of earphones). Crystal coffins, lighted from inside, containing recently deceased popes allowed them to be venerated.

With my fill of the main floor, I descended into the crypt. No photography allowed, so I followed the crowd, observing the numerous marked graves of pontiffs, as well as pieces found during archeological digs. When I was leaving the crypt, I found that I was back outside on the street. If I needed to return to the basilica interior, I would need to join the “free” queue to re-enter. That was a surprise that no one seem to know about! Fortunately, I’d seen (and photographed) as much as I wanted.

Walking into and out of the numerous shops offering religious items, trinkets, memorabilia and books, I escaped unburdened, making my way back towards the river and the Castel Sant’Angelo. (One of my favorite Roman sites, it always recalls the Puccini opera Tosca.) Crossing the Tiber, I planned on staying in the shade as I headed to revisit the Pantheon, taking the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II. The Parrocchia di Santa Maria in Vallicella, apparently known as Chiesa Nuova, beckoned me and I went inside. (How a church from the 1500s could be called “new” was beyond me.) Scaffolding in the apse covered the drawing card – several works by Peter Paul Rubens. Hoping for better luck, a bit further up the avenue, I entered the Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle. Baroque, and about 100 years younger than the Chiesa Nuova, more monumental art, elaborate murals, gilt everywhere.

The depiction of the crucifixion of St Andrew on the apse wall is probably one of the few views I’ve seen where the martyrdom of an apostle shows an aged man. A huge dome looms over the crossing. Chapels drip in marble.

Exterior: The Pantheon (aka Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs)
The Pantheon (aka Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs)

Window shopping, I was checking prices and availability for a suit (for my transatlantic crossing cruise) and a large roller suitcase. As I was in tourist land, prices were steeper than I’d be comfortable with. Hunger struck at 12:30, and I found an off-the-beaten track shop where I had a Caesar salad and water. The salad, which seem to take forever to appear, was cut up iceberg, tomato wedges, chicken pieces and a light dusting of shredded cheese. It sufficed. On to the Pantheon, I was amazed at the crowd – the queue was enormous, more groups were joining while I watched. The Piazza della Rotunda broiled under the sun, and I saw no escape if I stayed to enter the building.

Trevi Fountain with crowd
Trevi Fountain

So I passed and continued my stroll, passing the Trevi Fountain, with crowds looking to throw money over their shoulders and/or take a selfie.

Picking up a bottle of sparkling water (as close as club soda as I could find), I settled in at the flat for a bit to research both a place to ship a package to the States, and a place selling luggage. Both options were close, near to Maria Maggiore, so I grabbed the box and headed first to Mailboxes, Etc., which said it would send me an email with a tracking number, and expected a delivery by the end of the week in Florida. Then on to the luggage store, where I got a larger Samsonite roller for an outrageous price. On my way back to the flat, I walked by a shop offering 99€ suits. The Asian woman there was very helpful, finding a jacket which fit well, made of lightweight wool, in a darker blue shade. She marked the pants length for me (the waist was a trifle too loose), and I bought a leather belt, two ties and two solid-colored dress shirts. I’d collect the whole bunch on Thursday.

Feeling very accomplished, I returned to the flat for a brief respite, and then headed down to the street and into Pasta Urbana, several doors down. With 9 tables and no air, it all was quite cozy.

Risotto alla crema di scampi and bottle of Satrico wine
Risotto alla crema di scampi and Satrico wine

Getting a bottle of water and a half bottle of Satrico bianco, I ordered a risotto alla crema di scampi, asking them to add garlic and red pepper. Different shrimp than I’m used to, these had an extra joint and long pincer still attached. It appeared that the crema included pomodoro. While I enjoyed, I talked with a couple from Washington state and their college age daughter. We all ordered the tiramisu for dessert.

Book: Cathedrals to the Glory of God
Cathedrals to the Glory of God

You can purchase your own copy

(or have me send it as a gift) of

Cathedrals to the Glory of God

by clicking this link:


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