On my fourth morning in Rome, I was nervous. I had the map laid out on the hotel bed and was tracing my fingers across the unfamiliar sounding names of serpentine streets. The plan was to see the Basilica di San Clemente at Laterno and the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in chains)! I knew it was very close to the Colosseum so walked confidently towards the impressive amphitheater, standing proudly against a cobalt blue sky. I opened my map up in front of it. After giving myself five minutes of peering cluelessly at the streets on the map, folded it carefully, put it back in my pocketbook and went to the first policeman I found.
“Scuzi, senor, how get to Basilica di San Clemente?” I constantly spoke terrible English during my stay in Rome. For some reason, I felt if I dropped some words, I may be able to communicate better!!!
The policeman answered back in accented but perfect English, pointing me in the right direction. I stopped to look at the ruins of Ludus Magnus, a gym for training gladiators. Archaeologists believe there was a network of corridors that linked this structure to the Colosseum.
The Basilica di San Clemente at Laterno was tucked in a narrow lane. This basilica was dedicated to Saint Clement, the fourth pople, making this one of the oldest Roman basilicas. Ruined in 1084, it was rebuilt on the same site by Paschal II in 1108. I entered the Capella di Santa Caterina (St. Catherine’s Chapel) which has some decorative frescoes by Masolino de Panicale (1383 – 1447). This is a prime example of of a church piled atop a church piled atop a pagan temple. A 12th century church was built directly over a 4th century church, which was built directly over a 2nd century pagan temple. This kind of architecture is not unique in Rome since almost the entire city is built directly on top of the ancient one. In San Clemente, one can actually go down to the lower levels and get a glimpse of the city’s architecture in the 2nd century. 2nd century!!!! How incredible is that?
I had to buy a ticket (5 euros) to go into the lower basilica. The lower church was dated back to the 4th century and still has some relatively well-preserved frescoes. The base of the building dates thousands of years back in time. It corresponds to a 2nd century house in which a Mithraeum was created later, a grotto shaped room, devoted to the Persian god Mithra. I found the worship place of this ancient cult more interesting than the churches above it, so I read up on it further. Since photography was prohibited, the facts are all I have to fall back upon.
Mithras, or Mitra, is a very ancient deity. In the Vedic religions that preceded Hinduism, Mitra was a solar deity of oaths and treaties who was closely connected with the sky god Varuna. In Persian religion, he is the solar deity of friendship and honesty operating under the supreme god Ahura Mazda. The followers of Mithras, the Mithrans, met in caverns or in artificial enclosures made to look like caverns. Under the basilica too, the mithraeum had the grotto look. Along the walls there were stone benches where the sacred banquet was held. In the center of the room the alter with the god is visible. The god is slitting the throat of a bull. The blood from the bull symbolized the benevolent force and fertility. As part of their rituals, Mithraic priests sacrificed bulls until the blood flowed into troughs, which followers would then scoop out with their arms to bathe in. Next to the temples are the buried remains of a Roman palazzo of 1st century. We could hear the sound of rushing water as we walked around the rooms underground. I learnt that this water is from the ancient pipes and aqueducts between the walls.
After being transported completely to the 2nd century, walking along the dimly lit rooms and corridors, listening to the swish of the running water and imagining the worshippers of the pagan god congregating to worship in the Mithraeum, I made my way up to the lower basilica. It was fascinating because of its antiquity and how well some of the frescoes have survived the onslaught of time. But the annoying aspect for me was being stuck behind a French-speaking tour group, who blocked every single way, I tried to exit. They were listening to their tour guide in rapt attention, completely unaware of me, trying to duck under their arms, around their torso to find a leeway to exit the narrow hallways. I do have a touch of claustrophobia, roaming around the labyrinthine belly of the basilica for over half an hour was starting to stress me out a bit. One woman, finally, acknowledged my efforts to get by them, spoke to the others and the way parted for me. I walked between them, Moses-like, and climbed the ancient stairs to emerge in the 12th century chapel for Saint Caterina. Felt like I traveled through a time machine. As I sat on the pews to absorb the experience and write in my journal, real world donned on me again, and not in a nice way. I saw a young man standing at the door of the chapel, looking very important, official and confident, he had an money-box in his hand. As the tourists walked into the Basilica, he thrust the money-box confidently in front of them and saying something in Italian. It gave me the feeling that he was expecting them to pay to enter the church. Most of the folks, I observed, dug into their pockets and brought out euro notes to put into his box. I knew the entry to the chapel was free. As far as I know, churches don’t charge you to go in. But people were falling for his con man’s tricks. The ugly within the precincts of the beautiful. I gave him the white of my eye as I walked out past him. The restrooms in Rome are few and far between, hence it requires a little bit of planning. Within four days, I had checked out where some of the public bathrooms are, in case of an emergency. From the Basilica of San Clemente, I walked around aimlessly looking at ancient buildings, peeking inside them to see a beautiful courtyard and a fountain in the center and slowly made my way towards the public restroom at the back of the Colosseum, on Via Colosseo (note it down if you plan to visit Rome soon)! But the French group had beat me to it. Older women were standing in a long line to use the facilities. They turned, smiled and greeted me like an old friend and I did the same.
From San Clemente, I made my way to San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in chains). This church houses the famous Moses by Michelangelo and the original chains that supposedly bound Saint Peter.
The constant walking with two bags with bricks in them was taking a toll on my back and hips. I sat down in front of the Colosseum and indulged in my favorite activity – people watching, while my weary body rested to build up enough energy to walk back. And I found this gentleman/lady looking at me.
And some Roman soldiers milling around, trying to earn some euros.
In my contemplative, people watching mood, I also realized a couple of eccentricities of the city of Rome. First is the psychological warfare that goes on daily between the pedestrians and the vehicles. Often, in many streets, there are crosswalks and no lights. The norm is for the vehicles to come to a complete stop to let the pedestrian cross. But I noticed the complete disregard for this rule, especially by the cab drivers. In fact, the vehicles somewhat accelerated threateningly as they came close to the crosswalks, the poor tourists, as a result, quickly stepped up back onto the curb, lacking the courage to boldly step off the sidewalk to face the audacious driver. I hail from Kolkata, where the traffic is synonymous to chaos, I should have been used to this, yet I just couldn’t jump in front of an aggressive cabbie expecting him to brake and let me cross the street. Sean’s suggestion was, not to look them in the eye, just get in front of the car and they will stop. I didn’t think a loving spouse should ask his better half to walk in front of a moving vehicle, but he was trying to be helpful, so I held my peace. On these particular occasions, I loved tour groups. They gave me the confidence to cross the street fearlessly, by being one among many. If there were no tour groups in sight, I sidled against a local who boldly stepped off the curb without giving the on-coming vehicles a second glance, and scurried across with him/her.
The other eccentricity probably applies to all the tourists across the globe. It is their propensity to stop suddenly to either take a picture or exclaim excitedly at a point of interest. I walk fast, I had to stop abruptly on several occasions to avoid a sure collision with my fellow explorer. The beauty of it was, they were completely unaware that they were about to be bumped by me. Most of the times, I smiled indulgently and passed by. Once in a while, when I was tired, hungry and hurting, I did a say a quiet ‘What the heck?’ as I walked by them.
It was almost 2 in the afternoon when I grabbed a lunch of an eggplant, buffalo cheese, sundried tomato and fresh basil pizza and came back to the hotel to rest for a while. I planned to go meet Sean in Trastevere and walk back to the hotel with him.
Sean and I strolled along the famous Via Del Corso looking at the designer stores and ended up at the Spanish steps again. I had gone there without my husband, but the romance in the air made me want to go back with him. After all what is the point of being in Rome if one is not kissed on the Spanish steps by the beloved? We witnessed a man proposing to his lady-love and she accepting the proposal on the steps. We all clapped when the gentleman turned to the crowd and said, with tears in his eyes, ‘She said YES!’ We were thrilled to be part of a special and endearing moment. We walked around the steps and went to the Trevi fountains, had a nice dinner of spagghetti carbonara (me) and gnocchi sorrentino (Sean) at a trattoria and a ‘not so yummy’ gelato near Piazza Novona. Then we worked off the dessert by walking through narrow cobble stoned alleyways, which I absolutely loved, to Campo di Fiori – a piazza alive with musicians, diners, tourists and shops.
Day four ended. I realized I still had the remnants of my country mouse syndrome as Sean had to pull me back on the sidewalk a couple of times as I exuberantly exclaimed at a frescoe or an ancient looking apartment, or flowers on the window sill of a dilapidated house, completely unaware that the person behind me was so close to colliding into ME!!!
Destination for Day 5 – the doma and cupola of the Basilica of St. Peters and maybe Castel Sant’ Angel, if I still had the energy.