Day 2: Catacombs and Cardinals (Rome)

François Malan
François Malan

We have just returned from our second day in Rome with our heading spinning with sights both macabre and magnificent. The day brought us to catacombs of the Capuchin order and cardinals offering mass in St. Peters. Those sights were supplemented by exquisite gelato and intoxicating Vin Santo. We are stuffed and satiated in our lovely hotel room at the Villa Pinciana on a cool and crisp Roman evening.

 Santa Maria Immacolata a Via Veneto, Krypta der Kapuziner
Santa Maria Immacolata a Via Veneto, Krypta der Kapuziner

We started out the day with breakfast at the Villa Pinciana and then walked to the the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto. The museum was not particularly memorable, but that is not why we came. We went to the catacombs to see one of the most chilling and haunting sights in all of Christendom: the macabre arrangement of thousands of human bones at intricate displays from lamps made of human jaw bones to floral patterns using the vertebrae of dead friars. Not surprisingly, it was one of the favorite sights of the Maquis de Sade when he visited Rome. There are various stories as to who first saw the bones as material for artistic expression. Some say it was an artist who fled the French Revolution while others “credit” an artistically minded friar. Either way, it is truly one of the creepiest experiences that you can have in Rome.

220px-Rome-SantIgnazio-DomeTrompeOeilWe then walked for a long walk again in Rome and went to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius. It is an often overlooked church with incredible art, including a faux dome. When the Church decided not to finish the church with a dome, it hired an artist to create a dome as an optical illusion. It is a gorgeous seventeenth century church and worth finding, though it can be a challenge.

Etruscan_-_Priest_-_Walters_541088After having a wonderful tomato and matozolla sandwich across from Church of St. Ignatius, we went to the Vatican on a tour with Green line. These tours are a bit pricey (over 60 euros a piece), but it allows you to skip the lines. Frankly, we were disappointed in the tour at Green Line. While the company does pick you up at your hotel (it does not drop you back off but does drop you off at a handful of spots), the tour was disappointing in terms of the content. It was rather labored and memorized and frankly stilted. The guide clearly did not want to be taking yet another group through the Vatican. When tour members (including many Americans) asked follow up questions, the answers revealed little depth of knowledge and a bit of irritation. For example, I asked why some statues show outstretched arms holding a plate. The guide seemed slightly irritated at the question and said that it was a Roman sign for bringing a gift to a home like a piece of cake. That appears partially correct but the truth is far more interesting. It is in fact the “patera” which appears also in Greek statues. It was a shallow libation bowl with an indentation in the center and sometimes called a mesomphalic phiale. It was meant to show a form of sacrifice to signify the quality of piety and reverence. Often the plate would hold coins and was turned to show the act of sacrifice. Other questions received the same rather tepid response. In fairness to the company, the Vatican tends to push these group tours along but the guide notably left more time for people to spend in the Vatican gift shop than St. Peters. We felt rushed and rather uninformed. You can do better than the Green Line despite the convenience of the pick up at your hotel.

275px-Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned_editvatican-museumsThe Vatican itself is of course magnificent. I was much more in awe with St. Peters though the Sistine Chapel was a thrill. I remain astonished by how many people can be told repeatedly not to take flash photography but still take flash photos. In addition to the incredible and famous art like the Pieta, there are some surprised like Nero’s bathtub — which was roughly 25-foot in radius and thousands of pounds in weight. It appears to have been carved from a single massive piece of marble. It is a joy to behold as long as you do not imagine the portly Nero slashing around in a huge marble martini glass.

IMG_0965One thing that royally ticked me off was the Vatican constantly hawking gifts and mementos. The worse such moment came when the Vatican actually blocked the view of the famous Vatican tapestries to put up not one but two large counters selling books and assorted gifts. It was truly depressing. The Vatican shares a considerable fee for visitors and then proceeds to try to fleece the faithful at every turn. If there is a mortal (and not just a venial) sin in architecture, it is the blocking of ancient works of art to try to get tourists to buy one more over-priced knickknack.

IMG_0983The Vatican itself however remains one of humanity’s great treasures. We loved it.

IMG_1011After the Vatican, we walked to various churches before seeking out what many considerable the best gelato in Rome: Gelateria La Romana Roma Venti Settembre. We walked a long distance but we would have walked across Rome for this ice cream. It was incredible even by Italian standards. I have long marveled at how much better gelato in Italy is in comparison to anything that we have in the states. If you go to the Galeteria La Romana, it will be hard to swallow other ice cream again. I had the dark chocolate as well as the banana and the pistachio. It was a truly spiritual moment. We intend to go back before we leave for home.

IMG_1016We left the gelato shop on cloud nine, and walked back to our hotel. We then went for dinner at Girarrosto ToscanoIMG_1013 a classic restaurant specializing in steaks and meat dishes. We were a bit disappointed in the risotto and the mushroom pasta dishes which were overly salted and unimpressive by Roman standards. The Chianti recommended by the restaurant was also unimpressive. However, the Florentine steak (served quite rare as preferred by the Italians) was quite good. The restaurant also brought by an complementary bowl of biscotti for dessert with a tall bottle of chilled Vino Santo to dip and drink. To our astonishment, we polished off the bottle which was delightful. We loved it and the staff was very gracious. The restaurant was packed with Americans, so I cannot call it a local spot, but it was a fine night out. We loved the Vin Santo and talked late (our stories seemed to improve as the bottle was drained!). I cannot rank the restaurant in the top spots for the cuisine but it was a nice evening and ambience with a terrific staff.

We are off in the morning for a tour of some of the older sites with a personal tour guide who has advanced degrees in architecture and history. It will be our last day before we leave for Sicily. However, we will be returning to Rome for one more Roman night next week before we fly to the States.

Here are a few other pictures from today:








21 thoughts on “Day 2: Catacombs and Cardinals (Rome)”

  1. Thanks for the great travel report and pictures. You took in quite a bit. Did you by any chance climb the stairs up to the top of the dome in St. Peter’s Cathedral? There is a magnificent view of Rome from up there.

  2. The first Italian gelato I had was in Florence. It was simply heaven and from then on, my husband and I ate gelato in every town. We have not been able to find any ice cream/gelato in the U.S. that even comes close. I will have to try it at the Bellagio in Vegas.
    I was in awe of the art and architecture at the Vatican. However, like most popular tourist spots there will always be merchants hawking Souvenirs.

    1. Gigi – Ice cream is by butter fat content. The higher the butter fat content, the better the taste. So, you want cows from the Midwest for their milk. BTW, the higher the butter fat, the higher the price.

  3. “Frankly, we were disappointed in the tour at Green Line.”

    When I was there about ten years ago, I was perfectly happy with the audio tour with headphones that you can rent. I hope they still have those when I go back.

    A good way to avoid the crowds is to get there about 20-30 minutes before they open. Once inside I made a mad dash to the Sistine Chapel. There were only four other people there. I gave myself a nice leisurely viewing. When I finished the circuit and landed back at the Sistine Chapel, it was as crowded as a can of sardines.

  4. Aridog, Nick, and Paul-These are all inconvenient facts that you point out, and publishing them puts you at risk of excommunication from the Church of Political Correctness.

  5. I must be dense. I fail to grasp the “benefit” of carbon offsets (aka credits). If operation X improves its environmental profile they can “sell” credits to others who aren’t doing as much. Is that right?

    How does this process create a net reduction in pollution when a purchaser can just go buy ” credits” and even increase their pollution? For example: Al Gore uses (he claims) carbon offsets purchased to support his own high pollution footprint. Exactly how has he, or any of the other enviros with huge carbon footprints, acted to actually reduce their personal footprints? He has also participated profitably in a trade/exchange for these credits. Is that not a conflict of interest per se?

  6. Fat Al Gore, Leo, and all those jet setting, mansion owning, limo liberals must pay through the ass for carbon offsets.

  7. Tom, The environmental scientologists sell indulgences, they’re called carbon offsets.

  8. Thank you for the pictures and the descriptions. I travel through the travels of others and am delighted in such comentary. I’m looking forward to the next “chapter”.

  9. Jonathan-thanks for your updates..we enjoy them.
    Re the Vatican hawkers/vendors, a tip — don’t let them sell you any indulgences.

  10. JT…I am gong to share your travel stuff with my better half Judi…aka “jakadela” at a WWAN site near y’all. She may comment, just know that she is a fan or anything Roman, including the Vatican. She’s my rock so I support anything she does… especially Rome.

  11. Prof Turley, you and your wife are in the city my better half adores the most…she cannot travel to Europe with out a long stop in Rome. My kid also tends to favor Italy, but farther north, like Florence. At the moment she is in Corfu, then Santorini , Greece, but just had to, couldn’t resist, a stop first for 3 days in Venice. Brat is spoiled I tell you. I would still be awed by Rome, no matter what. Guess I’d better go sooner than later. Huh?

  12. Alluring images and so much to witness, that is Rome. And most definitely:

    As Chancellor Gorkon once said, “You have not experienced gelato, until you’ve tasted it in the original Italian.”

  13. so much to see and do, never enough time in Rome. If you have time on your last night and want non turisto roman food , go to the Trastevere area for a meal.

  14. I am tasting every bite!!! The memories of my trip to Rome more than 10 years ago are flooding back! Such a lovely romantic city. I will never forget my last meal in Rome…Puttanesca, my favorite sauce ever!!!

  15. I am glad you are enjoying your visit. Sorry that commercialism has gotten in the way of good taste. 🙂 Sometimes there are few places to put the counters. The Phoenix Art Museum guides you out through the gift shop. I know other museums who do the same thing.

  16. Rome is a great city for walkers. I would get up early before the crowds and walk w/ no plan. The best gelato I have eaten in the US was @ the Bellagio in Vegas. But, I agree, not as good as Italy. The best I have eaten is @ a place in Sorrento, packed w/ locals on their after dinner stroll. Enjoying your posts. Thanks.

  17. Thanks for amazing photos and commentary. That you are walking off all those calories, is exactly what we have always done when touring Europe. Eating must be carefully titrated to be in direct proportion to the comfort of one’s shoes and the health of one’s joints.

  18. Ahhhhhhhh, the gelato in Rome is a transcendental experience. I’ve never had ice cream here that compared with the best gelaterias in Italy.

    Sounds like you’re having a lovely time.

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