Been to Rome before? Seen this, done that? Well…maybe you have and maybe you haven’t. Here are some of my favorite off-the-beaten-path things to see/do that are not always an easy walk down one of Rome’s breathtaking cobble-stone streets. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth every ounce of effort to see. Maybe you need to go back. Hopefully, it will be with Select Study Abroad.
Catacombs are basically tombs, only they are deep underground in man-made subterranean passages (already a good sell I think). Those of you who have been to the famous 18th century catacombs in Paris will think of piles upon piles of bones for miles underground. (NOTE: not recommended for those who suffer from claustrophobia, fear of skeletons, or phobias related to feeling as if you have been suddenly flung into the middle of what appears to be a horror film).
In Rome, where really the first catacombs sprung up, there are no skeletons, I assure you, but there are miles and miles of underground tunnels and subterranean chambers (so again, difficult if you suffer from the small space, no light or way out thing, but not so much the horror flick stuff). The most famous catacombs in Rome are those where important saints like Peter and Paul were believed to be have been buried, but there are over forty under and around the sprawling city dating back to the 2nd century. Ok. Enough with the history lesson, these joints are off the heezy (yes, I am an old person). No, seriously, they areamazing. They are full of mysterious symbols, early Christian markings, paintings, and are just generally creepy and eerie (you know, in a good way). Note my illegally taken photo on the right (sorry, tour guide!). Oooohh aaaaahhhh. Don’t you want to be there!? The answer is, yes.
So, here is what you do. First, you have to decide which one(s) you want to see. There are several clustered together on the Appian Way (one of the old Roman roads), which is generally a popular hub. They are all run differently, look different, and they all cost something slightly different. The best, if you ask me, are the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (Saint Sebastian). The entrance is through a church (so basically you feel like Indiana Jones right from the start) and these catacombs have a lot more art and artifacts than the others. That is not to say they are not all worth a visit, they are. And honestly, if you visit during the summer (the catacombs aren’t even open in the winter) it is so nice because it is super cold down there!
The trick is timing. You need to take the right bus (this will likely involve at least one bus change at a major piazzas as it is outside the main part of the city). Once you are on the right bus, everyone else will be going to the same place, so just follow the group. The catacombs are closed for pranzo (lunch, generally 12-2pm), so try to show up well before or just after. The back up after lunch can take some time – you have to go in with a group and a guide and they are organized by language so, you may wait awhile for the next English speaker if you are not at the front of the crowd come 2 o’clock. I think 3pm is a good time to arrive since the crowds will have cleared and you still have 2 hours until things close. Note: getting stuck there during lunch is not so fun. There is NO food, other than vending machines. (*Also. Never believe anything you hear about hours of operation. These things change ALL THE TIME. Always check. Here are two catacomb websites: San Sebastiano and Callisto).
Anyway, it is amazing. Take the Italian tour and try and pick up some of the vocab. Words like death, funerary monument, and Christian burial rites are extremely useful in every day conversation. Wink wink.
2. St Paul’s outside the Walls
A woman told us that if we hadn’t seen the Basilica di San Paolo fuori le Mura, we hadn’t really seen Rome. So, obviously, we hopped on a bus to see what Rome was all about. Apparently, after all this time we hadn’t really been there yet (gasp!)
Well, she wasn’t wrong. The church is absolutely beautiful and completely worth the 15-20 minute bus ride (from the Colosseum). St. Paul’s is one of four great ancient basilicas of Rome (one of the others being St. Peter’s itself). The basilica was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine I (roughly 272 – 337 A.D.) on the spot where it was believed St Paul was buried.It is very well situated with a large lawn in front. The interior of the church is also stunning. Almost the entire structure burned down in the mid-19th century but the new architecture and design retains much of the original appearance. The long nave with its rows of columns and intricate marble floor draw your eye down to the apse (the end of the church) with the use of incredibly dramatic lines. From the door, the space looks practically endless. In the apse is one of my favorite things: a tabernacle (basically, a small house for the host) by the 13th century artist Arnolfo di Cambio. It is intricately decorated in marble with scenes from the bible. Arnolfo just happens to be the Florentine artist extraodinare whose name is associated with three of the most important medieval buildings in Florence, including the Duomo (the beginning stages) and the Palazzo Vecchio.
The sarcophagus that supposedly holds the saint’s body (minus the head…that is at a different church, duh) is visible below the altar.
3. The Tempietto
Tempietto = little temple.
Open any architecture book on the Renaissance and this building will be on the first page, if it isn’t already on the cover. It’s the building every architect wished he could have built and every patron wished he had bought in the Renaissance.
The building is really not a temple, but a martyrium or a tomb marker, indicating the supposed spot of St. Peter’s martyrdom (where he was crucified, not buried). It is considered one of the most harmonious and complete examples of High Renaissance architecture by the celebrated architect Donato Bramante. It was commissioned by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain (this is the same power couple who sent Christopher Colombus on his merry exploring way) for the courtyard of a church known as San Pietro in Montorio.
If you saw it in a photo by itself you might think the Tempietto was rather large, but as you can in these photos it is not large at all (awwww. Weddings). In fact it is so small that it is really not a usable architectural space and could be thought even more so as a piece of sculpture to be appreciated from the outside, rather than something one would be inclined to enter. Had Bramante finished his original plan to have it set ina courtyard lined with columns (or a colonnade), mimicking the structure’s colonnaded exterior, we can imagine how striking the sight would have been.
The church, and the Tempietto, are set on one of Rome’s hills and require quite a walk up-hill if you want to see it in person. But, once you reach it the sight will be all the more splendid.
4. Ice Skating under Castel Sant’Angelo
The last example is not as much of a difficult walk or bus ride to a far-off monument as much as it is an off-the-beaten-path time to visit Rome: winter. This is when many tourists stay home and the locals enjoy their less crowded streets. It’s also when the less-expected experience just might jump out and land in your lap and allow you to take advantage and see something or do something you never would otherwise. In my case, good old-fashioned ice skating with a view of Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican.