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A Long, Busy and Fun Day in Rome

Posted on April 20, 2008 by Holly Hayes
Part of: The Great European Road Trip

Greetings from Spoleto! This is a fantastic town and we've had such a nice stay here. The weather has been beautiful (mostly sunny and low 70s) and we've visited wonderful churches, a castle, and taken in some beautiful views. The region of Umbria is gorgeous - green, hilly, and full of lovely little towns - and if our meals in Spoleto are anything to go on, the food is delicious too! Unfortunately the internet access at our hotel has been pretty poor, at least in our third-floor room, but tonight I've set up the laptop in the lobby where the signal is strong so I can catch up a little.

But first I have to continue the Rome report, as we had such a good time there too.

Wednesday, our first full day in Rome, was nice and sunny so we got up early to make the 8:00 shuttle bus into town. Sadly that turned out to be rush hour so it took 1 hour 15 minutes of creeping along on the freeway to get there. This was especially unfortunate because nearly all of Rome's churches close between 12 and 3:30pm every day. But we hit the ground running when we arrived and did pretty well before the churches turned into pumpkins at noon.

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The first one we visited was Santi Quattro Coronati (the four crowned ones or martyrs), founded in the 5th century but mostly dating from the 11th century.

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The most interesting part for me was the pavement, which was an early medieval patchwork of recycled Roman marble, some with bits of Latin inscriptions from their original uses.

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Down the hill from there is the Lateran Baptistery, a.k.a. San Giovanni in Fonte (brick building on the right). This is very cool because it was built by Constantine in the 4th century and the original walls are still entirely intact.

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The inside doesn't look as old because it was redecorated in the Renaissance and other periods, but the beautiful porphyry columns and main structure are original.

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Closer look at the good, original stuff.

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In the courtyard outside the baptistery was an ancient Egyptian obelisk, brought by an emperor to Rome.

Near the baptistery is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome and what the baptistery was built for. But we'd visited last time and time was limited, so we passed it by and headed up another hill instead...

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Past some ancient Roman ruins...

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...to Santo Stefano Rotondo, a 5th-century round church amid lots of trees that we visited last time and really liked. It was under major renovations then, but those are now almost done and the main part is open again.

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The round aisle of the church, with the columns of the central sanctuary on the right.

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View to the ceiling in the center

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Since St. Stephen was the first martyr, the outer walls are decorated with murals depicting martyrdoms. They date from the 16th century and are seriously gruesome. Charles Dickens visited Rome in 1846 and wrote about this church: "St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper."

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He wasn't kidding!

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At the bottom of the hill on the other side, we came to Santa Maria in Domnica, built in the 7th century.

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Interior. The highlight here are the 9th-century mosaics in the apse (left).

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Detail of apostles in the apse mosaic.

Then it was up and down another hill to San Giovanni e Paolo:

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This church is very cool on the outside but not terribly interesting on the inside.

After that we descended another hilly road that came out next to the Palatine Hill (topped with Roman ruins) and the Circus Maximus (where the Romans had chariot races). We walked between the two, marveling at the history everywhere you look in Rome.

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The Circus Maximus is now covered in grass and functions as a city park, with joggers and children playing.

At the end of the Circus Maximus is the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It is a very popular tourist stop, but not because of the church's architecture or history - in its porch is the famous Bocca del Veritas or "Mouth of Truth."

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This ancient mask has a hole in its mouth and legend has it that it will chop off the hand of a liar. It featured in the movie Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn. I had never realized it was connected to a church, and the really nice thing is that the church is open for longer hours than it would be otherwise! Mainly so the bookshop is accessible to the crowds of tourists, no doubt.

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We went past the church more than once during our visit and there was always a long queue of tourists waiting to take pictures with their hand in the mouth.

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Across from the church is the Temple of Vesta and a fine fountain.

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The church interior gets less visitors than the face on the porch, but it is very much worth visiting. It has a good, ancient feel about it. The architecture is Romanesque, re-using some classical columns and capitals, and the separate choir area still has its furnishings (screens, pulpit, etc.).

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And there are some nice frescoes in the apse.

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And finally, framed in the bookshop is this original 8th-century mosaic.

We had hoped there would be some lunch options near the church since it's such a big tourist draw, but there was not a restaurant to be found in the area. So we continued on, hiking up towards the Capitoline Hill.

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Along the way we passed a couple more ancient churches, part of a Roman theater that looks like a mini-Colosseum, and some lizards sunning themselves on an ancient fragment by the roadside.

We had a decent lunch of spaghetti and lasagna at the Gran Cafe near the bottom of the Capitoline Hill, where we'd eaten during our last visit. The food was nothing to write home about and of course it was rather overpriced, but service was quick, our drinks came with ice, and the bathrooms were clean. It was a very welcome break.

During lunchtime nearly all the churches in Rome are closed (from about 12-3pm), so we got to relax our pace and bit and check out some ancient sites for awhile.

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We started with the Largo Argentina (aka Area Sacra), Roman ruins that take up a block in the center of the city. The ruins of four ancient temples are known for their population of cats. The cats looked awfully happy - curled up in the long grass or stretched out on the ancient stones in the sun. It was an excellent site and we can't believe we missed it last time.

From there we made our way to the Pantheon, David's main pick of the day and a site I was glad to revisit too. It was built in 125 as a Roman temple to "All the Gods" and later converted into a church, saving it from destruction. It's magnificent.

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The interior wasn't quite as atmospheric as our first visit, mainly because it was filled with crowds of people. We were beginning to realize that April is part of the high season in Rome - apparently not as many people go in the sweltering heat of July like we did! Go figure.

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Also, in July the sun had been directly overhead and therefore made a lovely pool of light on the floor directly beneath the oculus. This time, it shone in at an angle, making a bit spot on the wall. Still very cool, but the floor was better.

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We hung out in the busy plaza outside the Pantheon for a bit...

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...then headed to the adjacent Piazza Maria Sopra Minerva, home to the church of the same name. Amazingly, this is the only Gothic church in Rome, and Rome has a LOT of churches.

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One of the best parts is the wonderful Bernini elephant supporting an Egyptian obelisk in the plaza:

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Inside, the main attractions are:

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The tomb and shrine of St. Catherine of Siena

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And a sculpture of Christ by Michelangelo.

Near both of the above is the tomb of Fra Angelico (1395-1455), a Dominican friar and painter of beautiful church murals:

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Then we took the rather long walk back to the Capitoline Hill, which we climbed, along with a whole lot of other people. We had gotten quite spoiled with our many months of off-season travel and the crowds got old real fast. But it was only for two days and if any place is worth it, Rome is.

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An adjacent staircase led to the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which we had visited last time so we skipped. The white thing on the left is part of the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a unified Italy, completed in 1935. It's impressively huge, but an eyesore.

We crossed to the other side of the Capitoline Hill for some nice views over the Imperial Forum:

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We didn't enter the Forum this time (you can't do it from this end anyway), but went down lots of stairs and dodged motorcycles across a busy street to check out Trajan's Forum.

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At one end of Trajan's Forum is Trajan's Column, which was under scaffolding during our last visit but is now fully exposed and beautifully cleaned. It was made in 113 AD to commemorate Trajan's victory in the Decian Wars, and is covered in intricate reliefs of the battles.

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Then we headed down the street, which ends at the Colosseum. Here we had a brief rest on a bench while we watched the crowds and admired the huge amphitheater that's famous for a reason.

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And finally, we began to head back up yet another hill towards the Termini train station, where we would catch our shuttle bus back to the hotel at 6:30. Along the way, we made one of the most interesting stops of the day: a tour of San Clemente. It is a 12th-century church built on top of a 4th-century church, which was built on top of a 1st-century Temple of Mithras. Magnificent! The upper church can be visited during normal opening hours, but the lower church and other excavations require an admission ticket of €3. Worth every penny. Thankfully, you can wander around at your own pace instead of having to go with a guide like in the catacombs.

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The unusual facade, seen from across the street.

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Interior (12th century)

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Apse mosaic (12th century)

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Choir with original marble furnishings

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Base of the stairs to the lower church and excavations

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Lower church (4th century)

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Fresco in the lower church

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Medieval pavement with re-used Roman marble

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Glimpse of the underground spring that we could hear rushing throughout the excavations.

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One of many Early Christian inscriptions displayed in the lower church.

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The Mithraeum (1st century), another level below the lower church. Mithraic temples were designed to look like caves and had benches lining three sides. In the center is an altar showing Mithras slaying a bull, a symbol with cosmic significance.

We finished our tour just as the church was closing, and had to walk very fast to Termini to make our 6:30 bus. Needless to say, it was a very exhausting day and we basically collapsed back at the hotel room!

And it's gotten late again so I'll have to continue our second day in Rome later. Fortunately we didn't see quite as much the next day! And I look forward to sharing some photos of beautiful Spoleto, too. Tomorrow we leave for Assisi, the home of St. Francis, just 40 minutes north.