Sunday, April 01, 2012

Rome Trip Report, part 2

Day 4
Hubs wanted to sleep in on Day 4, so I was left to my own devices that morning. Still luckless in my pursuit of a bakery, I grabbed a quick pastry and espresso on my way to the Church of San Clemente.

Though the breakfast wasn't much to write home about, the church was. On the ground level, San Clemente is a 12 century Christian basilica. The church, built at a time when Rome barely tolerated Christianity, features beautiful frescoes of St. Catherine. I lit a candle at the altar and explored a bit. Then, I went to the ticket office. For a mere 5 Euros, you can descend two layers below the current church, and thousands of years into Roman history.

Down the first set of steps, you can immerse yourself in a fourth-century Christian church, featuring both Christian and pagan inscriptions. Ancient mosaics of St. Cyril, who is assumed to be buried here, flicker at you in the dim light. Go one more level down (into the dark, cold ground), and you'll find yourself 2000 years earlier, in the pagan temple of Mithras. You can check out the temple's worship hall and Sunday school room, in addition to poking around in adjacent ancient Roman homes. It felt pretty profound to be down there, thousands of centuries removed from the life I live today, poking through a long-abandoned temple. Doing so gives you a very clear understanding of how Rome is built - stacked, layer upon layer, with each successive generation scavenging the buildings that were there before, filling them in, and building on top of them. I think every visitor to Rome should come to the Church of San Celemente. I was amazed. (Sadly, no photos are allowed at this attraction.)

After I came back up into the current day, I decided to visit San Giovanni in Laterano, the first openly Christian basilica built in the city of Rome. The 18-th century facade is impressive, with large statues of Christ and the apostles at the summit. The tall bronze green doors were moved to this church from Rome's ancient Senate building in the 1650s to remind everyone that the church was Europe's lawmaker. The church is huge and impressive. No wonder, as it's where the pope occasionally holds mass. The mosaic half dome over the apse glistens, and the bishop's chair beneath is where newly-elected popes must sit before the can officially become pope. (Methinks the ceremony is likely timed so that the shaft of light entering the window above left falls squarely on the bishop's chair.)

After seeing the two churches, I headed back to the apartment, grabbing a pistachio gelato cone along the way. Then, hubs and I set out together to grab some lunch. We stopped at Ristorante Due Colonne Di D'Annunzio Angelo, which was just a block or two from the apartment on Via Serpenti. What a find! I chose a ricotta and spinach ravioli in butter sauce, and hubs had a sausage pizza. This pasta, and this restaurant, became favorites during the trip. The pasta was tender, the filling flavorful, and the sauce creamy. To wet our whistles, we ordered both red and white house wine. (The white, mine, was a snappy frascati. Delicious.) With water for both of us as well, the tab came to only 30 Euros. Afterwards, we did a little grocery shopping at some of the nearby markets. Fruit, milk, pastry, cheese - just a little something to have on hand in case we wanted to sleep late or have a quick snack.

We took a little break back at the apartment before heading out to find the Pantheon, Rome's oldest continually operating church (and one of the best-preserved monuments in the world). It's massive, and the dome and oculus are very impressive. We checked out Raphael's tomb, examined the portico's giant granite columns, and sat on the steps outside to visit a bit. (We really enjoyed photobombing all of the high school tour groups' pictures. Heh.) We ambled around the piazza a bit and took in the fountain before hunting up dinner and heading for bed.

Day 5
After an early pastry, espresso, and some strawberries in the apartment, we were off to the Villa Borghese. We had reservations for 9 a.m. sharp, so we took the metro as far as we could, then walked through the Borghese Gardens to the entry point. First off, we toured the Pinoteca (to avoid all the crowds on the first floor). Cardinal Broghese, though not an overly religious man, was the nephew of the pope. He was wealthy enough to amass quite an art collection, and much of it is religious in nature. After exploring the Pinoteca, we headed the amazing sculpture and Caravaggios on the first floor. I LOVED Bernini's Apollo and Daphne. I thought it was the best sculpture we saw on the entire trip. The stone of Apollo's cloak and Daphne's leaves was translucent; I can't believe stone can be carved like that. Also flabbergasting is the fact that the statue has remained so perfectly intact all of these years. Clearly, it's always been someone's treasured possession. Bernini's Rape of Proserpine was also gorgeous, and hubs loved his David. (I sorely wish I could show you some photos of the statues, but cameras must be checked at Villa Borghese. Boo. And, may I also say, hoo.)

After enjoying the art, we walked around the Borghese Gardens. They are now a large public park, replete with fountains and trails. (I tried desperately to pick an orange off a tree inside a small gated garden, but I couldn't reach the fruit! Curses!) We ambled out of the park in search of food. We found Ristorante Vladimiro a couple of blocks off the main drag and settled in for lunch. We started with a delicious plate of fresh mozzarella and prosciutto, followed by tortellini for hubs and a gorgeous porcini mushroom risotto for me. We used plenty of bread to mop up the sauces and stayed there, talking and laughing, until we realized we'd consumed a whole bottle of wine between us! (Whoops.) Our bill was around 50 Euros for this meal, which is a bit pricey for lunch, but we loved it!

We took a very slooooow walk back to the hotel and had a nice nap. We were lazy once we awoke, choosing only to stroll around our neighborhood and return to a convenient favorite - Ristorante Due Colonne Di D'Annunzio Angelo - for dinner. This time, we started with olive bruschetta (yum), moving on to the ravioli (for hubs) and the mussels (for me). The ravioli was again a hit, and the mussels were delicious, served in a winey broth with plenty of crunchy bread for dipping. We washed it down with house wine and headed back to the apartment, full and happy.

And WHAT should I find on the way home? Antico Forno, an absolutely gorgeous local bakery. I couldn't resist popping inside, where we surveyed the delightful food on offer and picked up an apple turnover and a pastry filled with pine nuts and cream. Heaven. I went to sleep that night looking forward to breakfasting there in the morning. La dolce vita, indeed!

Day 6
When I awoke, hubs was still sleeping. I quietly slipped into my clothes and sneaked down to Antico Forno for a leisurely breakfast. I got a nice hot cappuccino and a giant chocolate croissant. I ate, relaxed, people-watched (there was a steady stream of customers), and planned for the day.

I headed first to the Capolitine Museums, located off Piazza Campodiglio. I arrived at the museum shortly after they opened, stepping inside to access the oversized remains of a colossal statue of Constantine. I photographed the she-wolf of Rome, as well as a large equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelias. Fabulous views of the Roman Forum can be had from the museum's Tabularium, and it feels as though hundreds of eyes are watching you in some of the statue rooms, where busts of famous Romans line the walls. Highly recommended. Though I did encounter other visitors, this museum wasn't crowded.

Lunch time. We popped into a little joint for a selection of pizza and fried zucchini flowers. With drinks, it was 8 Euros for both of us. A tip: you'll notice lots of these types of places, with open storefronts and a glassed-in bar with pizzas. Don't be fooled. Not only is the food really good, but if you go in and follow the counter all the way back, you'll often find more substantial fare: roast chicken and potatoes, pastas, salads, and sometimes even sweets. All good and inexpensive.

With full bellies, we hopped on the metro to the Cappuccin Crypt. A word about Rome's metro - Riding the metro, while quick and inexpensive, is very crowded, particularly at peak times and in peak places (like Termini). People have a tendency to quite forcefully shove themselves on and off the trains. Unless the distance is fairly far, walk. If the weather's good, walk. Whenever you can, walk.

Anyway, we arrived at the crypt early, so we decided to stop for a quick espresso and tiramisu at a restaurant on the nearby square. Refreshed, we got in the fairly short line to enter the crypt as soon as it opened. It was fascinating. The bones of thousands of friars (the namesake of cappuccino, for their dark brown robes and frothy white cowls) decorate six crypts. The friars created the crypts as a reminder of mortality and their charge to do good while on Earth. Admission is a mere 1 Euro donation, and you can also buy postcards in the tiny shop.

Afterwards, we decided to visit Castel St'Angelo, Hadrian's tomb-turned prison/fortress. It's a huge, round structure outside of the old city walls, across the Tiber River. We walked the perimeter, traced the steps of Hadrian's funeral procession, and saw where the ashes of emperors were once kept. After being used as Hadrian's tomb, the building became a safe haven for threatened popes, so we got the chance to rummage through the papal apartments and the Vatican treasure room.

Views from the top of Castel St'Angelo are AMAZING, and there is also a cafe on one of the upper floors. We couldn't resist stopping for an espresso and watching the sun set behind St. Peter's dome. After lingering for a bit, we crossed the Pont de St'Angelo and began strolling towards Piazza Navona. Piazza Navona is beautiful, but crowded, at dusk. We admired Bernini's Four Rivers fountain and people-watched a bit. The light there is gorgeous.

After a few turns around the piazza, we hunted up Ciccia Bomba, a restaurant recommended by one of our guidebooks, for dinner. We started with fried zucchini flowers. Then, I had the spaghetti with anchovies, and hubs had the fettuccine with tomatoes, zucchini, and clams. (Mine was good, but I thought his was better. I had pasta envy. I almost stole his!) We drank still water and red wine and toasted our good fortune to be in Rome together.

Sauntering back to our neighborhood, I HAD TO stop at Antico Forno yet again for small pastry horns filled with cream and chocolate. (Once I found Antico Forno, I stopped there at least once - and sometimes twice or even three times - per day. In Rome, I saw some of civilization's grand masterpieces of architecture and art. But what do I miss most? This bakery. Art that is consumable is no less valuable, right?)

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