CHRISTMAS IN THE ETERNAL CITY
I remember like it was yesterday, sitting in class in design school, learning about the construction of the Pantheon in Rome. And I remember, like it was yesterday, being amazed at the sheer genius of Roman architecture and engineering. While managing the construction of various vacation properties over the years, it has taken every last effort of mine to get my workers to build something square. Meanwhile, the Romans built a perfectly round, massive temple to all Gods – in 27 B.C.
And one year ago today, I had the opportunity to finally visit Rome to see in person, all of the buildings that I had studied.
Big Al and I jumped on the Frecciarossa, Italy’s fast train in Venice – some three hours later we arrived in Rome, for a three day Christmas visit.
After disembarking the train at Roma Termini, we hopped on the metro which I hoped would take us as close to our neighbourhood of Trastevere as possible. While Rome does have an easy to navigate underground metro system, we had to combine both the metro and the streetcar to arrive to our Airbnb. After ascending the steps of the metro up to street level, I saw this….
…..in the middle of an intersection…just sitting there…..a pyramid….. in Rome…. ???? I literally stood stock still, grabbed Al’s arm and kept repeating, ‘Do you see that? Do you see that? His nonchalant reply made me crazy…. :0) “Yeah – I see it. It’s a pyramid.”
‘Right! What’s an Egyptian pyramid doing in the middle of Rome????? In the middle of an intersection????
As it turns out the pyramid is the tomb of a Roman general called Cestius, who in all likelihood, served in a campaign to conquer Egypt 30 BC. During this conquest, apparently all things Egyptian became fashionable to wealthy Romans, and so Cestius commanded his heirs to build this pyramid as his tomb.
From that very first moment, I knew that I would enjoy being surprised by all of the unbelievable sights of Rome.
After checking into our Airbnb in the ‘Trastevere’ neighbourhood, we put our luggage down and went for a walk in the hopes of finding a nice restaurant for dinner. I was so pleasantly surprised to find that Rome, and not just our neighbourhood, is a cozy city, that is eminently walkable.
So, we picked a direction and started exploring. On our way we passed this random art installation,
….stopped at this place to check out the curing prosciutto….
…..and Big Al took a load off…..
…while ordering a Prosecco from the barman.
After a great sleep and a delicious breakfast, I grabbed my city map, we left the apartment, and immediately I was lost. For real, I can get lost over a dozen times on any given day…… But, I swear, by getting lost you can find some of the coolest places…..
In any event, I had so many things on my ‘Must See List’, that I had mapped out an efficient route from the apartment to our first major sight – the Pantheon. Along the way I endeavoured to see the following: Ponte Rotto, Cloaca Maxima, the Jewish Ghetto, Largo di Torre Argentino, before arriving to the Pantheon. To start the day, I had to find the correct little street that would take us to the correct bridge that would carry us over the Tiber River, where we would see the first two sights.
Formerly called Ponte Emilio, this is the oldest Roman stone bridge in Rome. Preceded by a wooden version, it was rebuilt in stone in the 2nd century BC. It once spanned the width of the Tiber, connecting the Forum Boarium with Trastavere (our neighbourhood). A single arch in mid-river is all that remains today, lending the bridge its current name Ponte Rotto, or Broken bridge.
As modern Roman daily life was carrying on around me, I couldn’t stop but stare in wonder at the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the ancient Romans. This would be one of many, many, many times I would stop and stare in wonder during my time in the Eternal City.
A few steps across the bridge, on the other side of the Tiber sits the Cloaca Maxima. I don’t know why, but these types of things interest me…… The Cloaca Maxima is one of the oldest monuments in all of Rome, and possibly the least glamorous one, at least when compared to the Colosseum or the Pantheon.
The Romans built it in the 6th century BC….as an open drainage system during the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, and was originally used to empty the marshlands upon which they intended to build their city, and to carry storm water from the central Forum section of the city, to the Tiber river.
Three centuries later, the open drain was covered, and waste from latrines and public baths were directed through the system. (Yes, the Romans had functioning latrines and baths three centuries BC.) Much later still, in the 1st century, during the rule of Augustus Ceasar, and under the stewardship of his lieutenant Agrippa (we will encounter Agrippa a little later in the day), the sewer system received a thorough cleaning, and was expanded to include the flow from 11 aqueducts
The Romans were so pleased with the effective water drainage system that they had created that they named it ‘Cloaca Maxima’ or Greatest Sewer.
To this very day, a small trickle of water flows through the Greatest Sewer…. :0)
After strolling through the Jewish Ghetto (and making a reservation for Christmas Eve dinner), we started heading towards the Pantheon. After meandering down a narrow alleyway, we came upon a large and busy street, and suddenly, just there, on our right was this:
The sacred area of Largo di Torre Argentina
With streetcars lumbering by, taxis haphazardly navigating the traffic congested intersections, with Romans going about their busy day – stands the exact location of the Roman Senate, where on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BC, Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death!
This archeological wonder was excavated as part of Mussolini’s rebuilding efforts in 1929, revealing four Republican victory temples that lie sunken 20 feet below modern street level.
As I stood there in wonderment and took in this archeological site, I noticed the presence of many cats. And that seemed weird and out of place. As it turns out, the ancient Romans considered the feline to be a sacred animal.
In the 20th century, the cats of Rome were fed at the expense of the City Council with rations of tripe. Later, though, the lack of resources forced budget cuts, and hence was coined the phrase “Non c’e trippa per gatti.” Literally translated that means “There’s no tripe for cats.”, which is an Italian saying that more or less means – There’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell. Yikes!
To this day, Torre di Argentina is home to 150 cats, who are tended to and fed by volunteers.
After a short stroll northwards along Via della Rotonda, we arrived to the back of the Pantheon. Continuing northwards a little, and entering the Piazza della Rotonda, I turned around to see the façade of the Pantheon.
Pantheon – a Greek adjective meaning ‘honor all Gods’
The Pantheon is the only structure of its age and size to survive the damage of time, and gravity. Most historians claim that the Pantheon was built in 27 BC. After several devastating fires, this iteration of the Pantheon was built by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD.
There on the triangular pediment is the inscription which reads ‘ It was built by Marcos Agrippa in his third consulate’. If I had designed and built the Pantheon, I would put my name on its pediment too!
The portico of the Pantheon is supported by 16 massive Corinthian columns. Each column weighs 60 tons, measures 11.8 meters in height, and 1.5 meters in diameter. Brought all the way from Egypt, these columns were dragged more than 100 km from the quarry to the Nile river on wooden sledges. They were floated by barge down the Nile River when the water level was high during the spring floods. After they were transferred to vessels, they crossed the Mediterranean Sea, and then on to the Roman port of Ostia, where they were placed back on to barges, and pulled up the Tiber River to Rome.
The greatest engineering marvel of the Pantheon is its dome and the oculus. The diameter of the dome is 43.30 meters and remains the largest unsupported dome in the world today.
The sheer ingenuity of the engineers of the day resulted in the thickness of the dome progressively decreasing towards the oculus. On the lowest level they used travertine, the heaviest material. Next, they used a mixture of travertine and tufa, then tufa and brick. All brick was used around the drum section of the dome, and then finally, they used pumice – the lightest and most porous of their building materials was used on the ceiling of the dome.
On the date of April 21, when the midday sun shines through the oculus, it strikes this metal grill above the doorway, saturating the courtyard with light. The Romans celebrated April 21 as the founding date of the city. On that day, at that time, the Emperor would stand at the entrance of the Pantheon, and be bathed in light.
Fun fact: If the Dome was flipped upside down, it would fit perfectly inside the rotunda.
Measuring 7.8 meters, the oculus of the Pantheon remains the largest in the world. It was the only source of illumination for the entire building. The oculus is never covered. Should it rain, the rain falls into the interior and runs off the slightly convex floor to the still functioning drain pipes beneath the structure.
Several Italian kings – Vittorio Emanuelle 11 and Umberto 1, as well as the famous Renaissance painter Raphael and his fiancée are buried here.
Fun fact: The Pantheon has been in use, since the time it was built- in 27 BC.
On our way to the Borghese Gallery and Museum, happily we had to ascend the Spanish Steps.
Despite not being able to buy tickets to see the treasures in the Galleria Borghese, a stroll in the Villa Borghese Gardens was lovely. (Tip: it is best to book your tickets to the Galleria Borghese online, well ahead of the date of your visit.)
On the way back from the Villa Borghese Gardens, these gleaming stones embedded in the sidewalk, caught my eye. Studying Italian every morning paid off as I was able to read the inscriptions and understand that these stones commemorated Italian Jews that were deported from Italy during World War 11.
Some more research unearthed that in the mid 1990’s, the German artist Gunter Demnig had the idea to commemorate victims of the Holocaust by placing these ‘stolpersteine’ (stumbling blocks or stepping stones) in front of the last place the victims lived. The stone would be a way of symbolically returning that person to their home.
The ‘stolpersteine’ are made of concrete, then covered in brass and engraved.
There are now more than 40,000 of these stepping stones in cities all across Europe. All you have to do is look down.
Pasta being prepared by hand.
My husband is an avid student of World War 11. During the planning stages of this trip, I asked what him what he would like to see in Rome. So it is no surprise that he asked to see something related to World War 11. After a lot of research, I found this bullet ridden house on Via Rasella. It stands as a permanent reminder of the massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine, one of the worst atrocities committed on Italian soil during the war.
Here is what happened:
On March 23, 1944, a group of Italian Partisans attacked a battalion of SS policemen, as it came down Via Rasella, by exploding a bomb that they’d hidden in a rubbish cart. While 28 SS police died immediately, more would die over the next days. In the panicked moments right after the bomb exploded, the policemen who’d been knocked to the ground, grabbed their weapons and sprayed gunfire around themselves in self defense.
In reprisal for this attack, Hitler ordered ten Italians killed for every Nazi who’d died in the cart bomb explosion. Thirty-three SS officers had died, but instead of taking 330 men and boys, the Nazis took 335 by mistake.
On March 24, the Nazis took the 335 victims outside the city center to the Via Ardeatine, and murdered them in cold blood. By the time they realized they’d taken five people too many, it was too late. They killed the additional five as well, to prevent them from being witnesses.
The victims were buried in a cave there, called a fossa. Their remains were discovered only after Rome was liberated later in 1944. The event today is known as the ‘Massacre of the Fosse Ardeatine’.
Most of the neighbouring buildings have been renovated over the years, with the exception of this one building in the photo above, as a reminder of the tragedies and horrors of war.
Il Mercato Centrale
There is nothing that I enjoy more than visiting a market in a new city. And Il Mercato Centrale in Rome was lovely. With my husband being vegan, a visit to the market ensures success in being able to find vegan fare for him.
Our third day in Rome dawned warm and sunny. In an effort to beat the endless stream of tourists queuing for most of the sights, we left quite early to the Colosseum. Below is a view of the Colosseum after exiting the ‘Colosseo’ metro station.
Commonly referred to as the Colosseum, this arena was originally known as the Amphitheatrum Flavium – named after the Emperor Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty. However, the name Colosseum was derived from the nearby ‘colossal’ statue of Nero. Interestingly, Vespasian did not destroy the huge sculpture of Nero, rather he had the head replaced with that of Apollo.
The Colosseum was built (between 72 A.D and 80 A.D.) as a monument of victory for the Roman people, NOT for the Emperor. Emperor Vespasian built it to demonstrate the value of a ‘public’ landmark, as opposed to the self-indulgent projects of his much despised predecessor, Nero.
The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater in the world. Oval in shape, it measures 189m long, 156m wide and 50m high (about the height of a 12 storey building).
The Colosseum was built from travertine and tufa, without the use of mortar. More than 300 tons of iron clamps hold the components together.
A view from the Colosseum.
This brilliant building had 80 entrances and could seat approximately 50,000 spectators who would come to watch sporting events and games. These events included gladiatorial combats, wild animal hunts and, believe it or not, ship naval battles.
On our way to Palatine Hill, we strolled through this garden of antiquities.
A view of the Colosseum from Palatine Hill.
The rest of the afternoon was spent noshing…
…enjoying all of the Christmas decorations….
…snacking on chocolate…
…queuing at the shoe shop…
…checking out the chestnuts…that were roasting on an open fire…
…giving way to a gaggle of Knights Templar….
…enjoying more Christmas decorations…
…and enjoying more shoes…!
Our Christmas Eve meal was spent in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome, at a kosher restaurant called Su Ghetto.
Tip for travellers: Many Roman restaurants close early of the 24th, on Christmas Eve, so that the staff can celebrate Christmas with their families, and remain closed until the 26th. With the exception, however, of the excellent restaurants in the Jewish Quarter. Reservations in advance are required.
After a spectacular vegan meal, and some geographically appropriate wine for Christmas Eve….
…we walked to St. Peter’s Basilica for the Pope’s annual Christmas Eve address.
The mass was broadcasted on large video screens to all of the gathered folks in the square.
The Pope’s blessing was a magical conclusion to a spectacular first visit to the Eternal City!
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays – to one and all!