Some long overdue Rome and non-Rome writings

Oh my goodness, has it really been that long since I last updated?

I can explain. First it was down to nothing but my own laziness/busy-ness. Then it was because I started going gliding again for the first time since 2008, and as a result of that, I met a guy, moved to Shakespeare’s County with him and now never have the time to update!

But I thought I’d write a quick update to let you know that I’m still here, and tell you a bit about trips I’ve done since I last updated and the travels I have planned for the rest of the year. I’m afraid they’re not all to Rome, but as they say, variety is the spice of life…

I went to Rome back in September for a long weekend with my mum, which was really nice. It’s a bit of a tradition of ours, and it’s nice because we’re both interested in the same sort of stuff – especially the traces of very early Christianity that are all over the city if you know where to look. I stayed an extra night on my own and met up with a friend of mine, who just happened to be in Rome with a friend of hers that night. We went out for a fab meal at Da Baffetto in the evening, and the next day I took them on a bit of a tour (my friend’s friend had never been to Rome would you believe!). We discovered the most fantastic place for lunch: Obika, a mozzarella bar!

Sublime plate of mozzarella at Obika

Sublime plate of mozzarella at Obika

It was absolutely amazing – I had no idea that there were so many different kinds of mozzarella. They bring out a massive platter of all the varieties, along with some tomatoes, bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and let me tell you, it is the food of the gods. There are branches of Obika in other countries if you can’t make it to Rome, but it’s definitely something that you should put on your bucket list if you’re at all interested in cheese.

In December Lee and I had our first trip abroad together – a nice Christmassy weekend in France. We went to Boulogne and stocked up on French food and wine, wandered around a Christmas market (at which there were, inexplicably, llamas), treated ourselves to mouthwatering steak at a lovely restaurant in the square, and went in the cathedral. It’s surprisingly do-able in a weekend and if you get Eurotunnel tickets, an overnight trip is only about £30 each way.

Random llamas at Boulogne Christmas market

Random llamas at Boulogne Christmas market

We returned to France again in April, stopping overnight in Boulogne en route to Bruges, where we spent a delightful sunny day. I had been to Belgium once before, but just passing through on the way to Germany with my grandparents many years ago, so there hadn’t been time to take in the cultural differences then. From the moment we parked the car I was struck by how neat and tidy everything was – the carpark at the station was pristine and there was a massive secure room absolutely full to the brim with bikes.

The main square in Bruges

The main square in Bruges

The historic centre of the city is conveniently signposted for tourists arriving by train, so we had a leisurely walk through a park and then spent much of the day wandering the city’s meandering streets. The number of chocolate shops was quite amazing, and inevitably we spent quite a few Euros on stuff to take back. I hadn’t realised that Bruges has lots of canals, a bit like Venice, and there was a nice little market set up along the banks of one, where we indulged in waffles purely because we were in Belgium. We ended up sitting outside in the main square watching the world (and a marching band) go by. All we could just about afford in the extortionately priced restaurants was a ham sandwich to share, a giant beer for Lee and a glass of red wine for me. Needless to say, I came away sunburnt, but it was a glorious day.

Next weekend we are off to Scandinavia, which will be my first trip to that part of the world, though Lee has been before. We are going to Copenhagen for the day on Friday, before crossing the bridge into Sweden for the rest of the weekend, where we are attending the wedding of my dear friends Hanna and David in a village not far from Lund. It should be amazing, though I’m not really looking forward to a 3am start on Friday!

The next trip we have booked after that is a weekend in Rome to celebrate our anniversary in October. I can’t wait to show Lee around my favourite city and introduce him to all the best gelaterias! I was surprised by how much the price of flights has gone up since I last went. In the end though we got a good deal with Monarch, which I discovered via We’ll be staying in my usual B&B, which is five minutes’ walk from St Peter’s, so that’ll be lovely.

Our last trip of the year will be to Tunisia for a week in November. We booked through Thomas Cook so I’m not expecting five-star luxury, but it will be a great opportunity to experience a completely different culture from anything we’ve ever experienced before. And I’m told we can ride camels on the beach, which itself is reason enough to go.

I shall try not to leave it so long until the next update…

Posted in Miscellaneous Rome | Comments Off on Some long overdue Rome and non-Rome writings

Behind the Scenes at Rachel’s Rome Writings

Sorry for neglecting the blog of late. I have been insanely busy! I thought I’d share an interview I did with Wandering Educators a while back – better late than never – and I’ll be back with more great Rome features in the New Year!

Originally posted here:

From Jessie at Wandering Educators:
I took 5 years of Latin in high school. It wasn’t enough for me – I couldn’t learn enough about Rome, Italy, languages, and food (well, you know me). So, I am drawn to all things Rome – past, present, and future. From Romulus and Remus to Gelato, I am all in. So imagine my delight when I found a website ALL ABOUT ROME  – for thinking people! Rachel’s Rome Writings, by Rachel McCombie, is more than a travelogue – it’s a resorce for learning about Rome  – places, spaces, walks, food, and more. You can read about the Tomb of Eurysaces, the top Rome attractions, archaeology, churches, places to stay, the Seven Hills of Rome. It’s so much fun to dig into this site and explore. AND! Rachel is our NEW Rome Editor, so look for more great articles from her – both on our site, and hers. Her latest here? Rome’s Trevi Fountain – understanding the rituals. Love it!

Rachel McCombie

Rachel McCombie

We sat down to talk with Rachel about her site, Rome, travel tips, and more. Here’s what she had to say…

WE: How did you get to love Rome?
RM: It all started when I was at university. I studied Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, meaning I got to study both ancient writings and the surviving monuments. In my second year, one of my many amazing tutors told me about a summer school which is held every year at the British School at Rome, and I decided to apply. I’d been to Rome before, but this was a lot more intense – site visits all day every day, with lectures in the evening. It was the best two weeks of my life, and I really got to know and love the city. I’ve been going back regularly ever since!

WE: Please tell us about Rachel’s Rome Writings…
RM: I’ve always kept a journal and I loved reading back over what I’d written on the trips I’d made to Rome. Since the thoughts I’d jotted down weren’t really that private, I thought it would be nice to start a blog and share my experiences with the world! It started off as just a transcript of some of my travel journals, but it’s a lot more varied now, with posts ranging from history lessons to wine bar reviews. I’ve also taken thousands of photos of Rome during my time there, so it’s a great way of sharing those, too.

WE: How can travelers best plan a journey to Rome?
RM: Don’t go in July or August! It’s unbearably hot. October is my favourite time of year to go, as the weather is on the hotter side of warm without being stifling. I’d definitely recommend finding a hotel or B&B that’s as close to the historical centre as possible – not only is the atmosphere better, but it means you waste a lot less time on public transport! The centre of Rome is small enough that you can get around on foot to see all the main sights. As for planning what to see, it depends on your interests really. Rome is bursting with archaeology, museums, interesting churches, and of course shops and restaurants, so I’d recommend investing in a good guidebook – I like the Eyewitness Guide to Rome – and seeing what takes your fancy.

WE: What are your favorite off-the-beaten path places to see in Rome?
RM: Some of the smaller churches are wonderful, I think. The Caelian Hill – sort of behind the Colosseum – has several amazing churches which hardly any tourists seem to know about. Santi Quattro Coronati is a favourite, particularly if you get to hear its resident nuns singing, and it has a stunning chapel with scenes depicting the conversion of Constantine. I’d also recommend the Janiculum Hill, which is on the Vatican side of the river – the views from there are incredible.

WE:How can travelers best live like locals in Rome?
RM: Perhaps try renting an apartment from somewhere like Holiday Rentals. Make sure you visit an Italian supermarket – the food is great and the wine is cheap. Alternatively, go to the Testaccio market, where there’s an abundance of delicious local produce. If you want to dine out, try Trastevere, over the river – it has some of the best trattorias, and an energetic atmosphere for a night out. Try tonnarelli cacio e pepe – a pasta dish with pecorino cheese and black pepper. It’s a Roman speciality, and so simple but so delicious.

WE: What are your top Rome travel tips?
RM: Don’t try to do too much, because you won’t be able to fit everything in. And don’t worry about getting lost in the maze of back streets – you see more by getting lost! Finally, don’t waste too much time queuing. If you turn up at the Vatican and the queue goes right the way round the piazza, don’t bother – just go back at around 6.30pm and you’re likely to get straight in. For the Colosseum, buy a ticket at the Forum Romanum first thing in the morning, and that’ll let you skip the queues (it’s a combined ticket for the Forum, Palatine Hill and Colosseum). Don’t get drawn in by the numerous tour guides who’ll harass you outside, and don’t photograph the men dressed as gladiators unless you’re prepared to cough up around €5.

WE: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
RM: I’d like to share this photo that I took of the Via Baccina in Rome because it summarises what I love about Rome. Quiet backstreets with tall, ochre-coloured buildings with loads of shutters, and remarkable archaeology lying unexpectedly around every corner. That’s the Temple of Mars Ultor at the end of the street, built by Augustus in his forum. It’s just absolutely amazing to be able to walk down a modern street and see the same columns that Augustus would have seen.

Posted in About Rachel McCombie | 2 Comments

Reflections on the Trevi Fountain

I recently became the Rome Editor for a lovely travel site called Wandering Educators, and for my first post I decided to write about the Trevi Fountain. It’s one of Rome’s most popular landmarks, so I thought it would be interesting to delve a bit deeper, as it were, and look at the history behind the tradition of throwing a coin in.

You can read the post here if you’re interested:  Rome’s Trevi Fountain:  Understanding the Rituals.

Another Rachel’s Rome Writings post coming soon!

Trevi Fountain

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A walk on the Janiculum Hill

I had been to Rome eight times before I discovered the gem that is the Janiculum Hill. Of course, I’d heard of it and knew where it was; you may remember my post on the Seven Hills of Rome, of which, as I noted, the Janiculum is not one. But somehow I’d never got round to exploring it, and one stiflingly hot day this July, I finally did.

I have to say, I owe my discovery of this peaceful part of Rome to my dad, who decided it would be a good place to go for a walk on our last morning in Rome. Admittedly I was a little unwilling on account of the heat, and I definitely would have got more out of it had the temperatures been more comfortable (the sun was beating down and temperatures were soaring into the mid-thirties – so high that even the lizards seemed to have sought refuge, for there were none in sight). However, we got a good sense of this part of Rome and it’s somewhere I’ll definitely return to at a milder time of year.

Janiculum Hill Rome view

Photos simply can't do justice to the magnificence of the views from Rome's Janiculum Hill

We approached the hill from the Vatican, via a series of steps set not far back from the Tiber. They’re not continuous all the way up, rising instead in stages, and at each new level the view of Rome gets better. Once you’re at the top, you are met with a stunning panorama of the city of Rome, and you instantly get a sense of how Rome sits within the mountainous landscape beyond. The immediate view encompasses Castel Sant’Angelo to the left, the Pantheon straight ahead and Trastevere down to the far right. As usual, the most eye-catching monument from this distance is the gleaming white Vittorio Emmanuele Monument, which dwarfs the surrounding buildings. I was surprised to have some difficulty in locating the whereabouts of the Colosseum, which, though it seems vast when you’re standing next to it, blends into the cityscape remarkably effectively. Eventually I spotted it by reference to the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument and the senate house in the Forum Romanum, the sharp diagonal line of the Colosseum’s restored wall edge giving it away.

Manfredi Lighthouse, Rome

The Manfredi Lighthouse is an unexpected sight nestled in the trees of the Janiculum Hill

There are plenty of benches along the top of the hill which overlook this impressive vista, and I could quite happily have sat there all day admiring it. But we valiantly continued our walk in the oppressive midday heat, coming to a lighthouse which was a gift to Rome in 1911 from Italians living in Argentina, and, a little further along, the striking Garibaldi Monument, of the man himself mounted on his horse in rather a Roman way. We were somewhat taken by surprise by the sudden firing of a cannon at noon, which my dad had forgotten to warn us about. This tradition, apparently dating from 1847, was started in order to signal the exact time to Rome’s churches, so that they could start ringing the bells at the correct time at midday.

Orto Botanico, Rome

A scene from the Orto Botanico, taken by my mum

Our final stop of the morning was down the slopes of the hill into the Orto Botanico, which was a tranquil oasis filled with Japanese-style water features, elegant shrubberies and a small solitary duck which had orange feet. It’s fair to say that we were pretty hungry by that point, so we didn’t spend long there – just long enough to know that it is somewhere I’ll definitely visit again. The other entrance to the Botanical Gardens is in the Trastevere quarter of Rome, and it was there that we made our exit for a much-needed lunch.

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St Peter’s Basilica at night

I’ve just returned from a week in Rome and have lots to write about, so there will be more blog posts coming soon! In the meantime, I thought I’d share a rather cool pic I took on my iPhone last week of St Peter’s Basilica at dusk.

St Peter's at nightNight photography is difficult and I don’t have a tripod! But there will be more to follow once I get the photos off my proper camera.

Posted in Churches, Photography | 2 Comments

Top Attractions in Rome

“Where should I go in Rome?” is a question I’m often asked by friends and acquaintances, and it’s one I actually find fairly difficult to answer because there’s just so much that I would recommend! Therefore I thought I’d aim this post at the first time Rome visitor, so that there is somewhere on this blog that I can point to for a basic overview. Here’s a checklist of the really famous tourist attractions that you really shouldn’t leave Rome without seeing – and some tips on the best times to go.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

Don’t worry – even if you don’t go in, it would be difficult to miss Rome’s most famous landmark, which is centrally located and not exactly hidden away. Nothing can prepare you for the vast size of this mighty Roman amphitheatre, and expect it to be seething with tourists. If you do want to go in, the ticket is combined with the Forum Romanum and the Palatine Hill (priced at €12), so buy your ticket at the Forum Romanum first thing in the morning and you’ll be able to skip the daunting queues and get straight in.

The Palatine Hill

Domitian's Palace

The sunken garden of Domitian's Palace, on the Palatine Hill.

Once the seat of Rome’s emperors, and the origin of our word “palace”, the Palatine Hill is now an extensive archaeological site with commanding views of Rome and plenty of lizards. There are large areas which lack shade, so if you’re visiting in the heat of the summer it’s highly advisable to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat. See above (the Colosseum) for Palatine Hill ticket advice.

The Forum Romanum

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum seen from the Capitoline Hill. In the foreground is the Arch of Septimius Severus.

The original Roman piazza, the Forum Romanum was the heart of ancient Rome and was where administrative buildings such as law courts and archives were located. The present jumble of ruins is difficult to make sense of, so take a guide book with a good map (I recommend the Blue Guide to Rome or the Eyewitness Guide to Rome). As with the Palatine Hill, there is little if any shade, so visit early in the summer months and/or take a good sun hat! See above for ticket advice.

St Peter’s

Saint Peter's Basilica

The famous dome of Michelangelo, St Peter's Basilica

The mighty Basilica di San Pietro is the largest Christian space in the world, and it’s always heaving with visitors. You have to go through airport-style metal detectors to get in, and if you see a queue stretching round the piazza it’s advisable to come back later in the day, when it’s likely to have died down. Visitors can appreciate the basilica’s vast proportions both from the ground and, providing they’re not scared of heights, from Michelangelo’s famous dome. There are two options for visiting the roof: on foot for €5, or by the lift for €7. However, be warned that if you chose the lift you’ll still have a fair few steps to climb to get up to the cupola for the best views of Rome. The climb is well worth it when you step out of the narrow staircase to enjoy a stunning, 360 degree view of the city.

The Vatican Museums

Raphael School of Athens detail

A detail from Raphael's famous mural 'The School of Athens', in the Vatican Museums

Home to one of the world’s most important collections of antiquities and art, the Vatican Museums are definitely worthy of a visit. The exhibits seem to go on for miles and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, so don’t try and see everything in one go – you won’t manage it! Instead, try and get an overview from a guidebook in advance and decide what you particularly want to see. Many visitors head straight for the celebrated Sistine Chapel, which is right at the end of the tour, so some sections of the museum can be surprisingly quiet. There are usually impressive queues to get into the museums, but lunchtime is often quieter.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The Pantheon is the most complete structure to survive from antiquity. This Roman temple owes its incredible state of preservation to the fact that it was converted to a church, and although the trappings of modern religion have an impact on the atmosphere, it’s nonetheless an extremely impressive space. The hole (or oculus) in its vast dome is open to the elements, so the rain falls to the marble floor. Look out for the tomb of the Renaissance painter Raphael.

The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain, surrounded by people as always.

Rome’s most famous fountain – and indeed one of its most famous landmarks – is always swarming with tourists, making it difficult to negotiate the small piazza which it dominates. However, don’t let this put you off: the impact of seeing it for the first time is scarcely diminished by the crowds. Don’t forget to throw in a coin to ensure your return to Rome!

The Spanish Steps

Nightime view of the Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps at night

The Spanish Steps aren’t far from the Trevi Fountain, and make a great end to a day exploring Rome as they’re particularly atmospheric at dusk. If you don’t have the energy to negotiate the huge number of steps, there is a lift in the Metro station just to the left. Definitely try to get to the top, as the views are incredible! If you’re in the mood for some history, pay a visit to the Keats-Shelley House, to the right of the Steps. This was the house in which the poet Keats spent his final days, and his former bedroom offers a view of the Steps which has changed very little since the time of the Grand Tourists.

Posted in Archaeology, Churches, Recommendations, Top Attractions in Rome | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Tomb of Eurysaces – the man who made his fortune by baking bread

Tomb of Eurysaces

The Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker seen through the Porta Maggiore Aqueduct

I’m a huge fan of the Tomb of Eurysaces. I first encountered it in books as a classical archaeology student, when I studied it in some depth and it became one of the topics I felt most at ease answering questions on in the dreaded Exam Schools. I remember my first glimpse of it, from the Leonardo Express going into Termini from the airport – and then seeing it up close on the British School at Rome summer school. For me it’s one of those landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Athenian Acropolis, which you see so often in books and then can’t believe you’re seeing in real life. Except that it seems to be only classical archaeologists who have heard of it!

Disclaimer:  everything that follows is from my memory! So if any of my former tutors happen to be reading this then I apologise if I haven’t done it justice ;-).

The Tomb of Eurysaces, though easily visible from the airport train, is relatively off the beaten track, at the Porta Maggiore – about ten minutes’ walk from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. The locality is dominated by the imposing remains of a Roman aqueduct (or two aqueducts to be precise, one on top of the other). The tomb is late Republican, thought to date to sometime between around 50-20BC,  and the aqueduct was built later (under Claudius). Visiting the monument today, you can see just how close the tomb is to the aqueduct, which suggests that the aqueduct’s engineers and architects were sufficiently impressed with the Baker’s tomb that they built around it.

Tomb of Eurysaces detail

A close-up of the Tomb of Eurysaces, showing the bread-making frieze along the top and the distinctive round holes on the sides

Eurysaces himself was a freedman, and the fact that he was a baker is made abundantly apparent by his impressive and wholly unique tomb. Not only does its inscription identify him as a baker and contractor (the final word of the inscription, the word “Apparet”, translates “as is obvious”, implying obvious from the appearance of the tomb, according to my tutor), but there is a wonderful frieze showing the bread-making process around the top. Furthermore, the strange form of the tomb itself is thought by some to depict machinery used to make bread. I don’t think anybody really knows exactly what it represents (there are several theories), but an idea I like is that it represents a dough-kneading machine. There are rusty patches in the sockets of the prominent holes on the side, suggesting that there might once have been attachments – perhaps the arms which would have worked the machine. If this is indeed what it represents, it would show off the up-to-the-minute technology employed by Eurysaces, portraying him as wealthy (being able to afford brand new technology), successful (being contracted to produce the bread in such quantities as would demand such a machine) and progressive (this kind of machinery would have been a new invention at the time). Among other theories, it has also been suggested that the holes correspond to the size of a unit of grain, by which Eurysaces meant to demonstrate the importance of his bakery to the city.

The tomb is also very useful to archaeologists because its frieze shows organisation of production, indicating that industrial-scale production was taking place in the ancient world. Moses Finley had argued, among other things, that this did not happen, but we see in the frieze several different groups of slaves who are each specialising in different stages of the bread-making process. This is the level of organisation which would have been required to produce bread (or any other commodity) in industrial-scale quantities. As well as telling us about the great demand for bread in Rome, this means that Finley was wrong, and the tomb is part of an ever-growing body of evidence which contradicts his arguments and which shows the sophistication of the Roman economy, which had previously been understated.

The point to take away from the monument, though, is that here is a man demonstrating how dramatically his status has changed since he was freed from slavery. This is a common theme in freedman funerary art; we often see freedman depicted on their tombs clearly wearing togas (which were reserved for Roman citizens, i.e. slaves wouldn’t have worn them), or clasping the hand of their wife in the gesture indicating marriage (another privilege of the free). There are other examples of bakery equipment on graves, such as a flour-grinding mill on a tomb at the Isola Sacra necropolis near Ostia, but Eurysaces took the idea to a whole new level. Baking was how he made his fortune, and so it is how he wanted people to remember him. He was clearly a wealthy and successful man, to have built such an impressive tomb – which just goes to show that upward social mobility was every bit as possible in ancient Rome as it is today.

Posted in Archaeology, My favourite places | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Eat, Pray, Love – not worth sitting through even for the shots of Rome

Eat Pray LoveA while back I reported that Julia Roberts was to star in an adaptation of the Elizabeth Gilbert novel Eat Pray Love, a fact I was looking forward to on account of the fact that a third of the film (the ‘Eat’ section) would be set in Rome. I hadn’t enjoyed the book (because it was so badly written) but thought that, as is sometimes the case with poor literature, it might make a better film. I was wrong. It’s now out on DVD, and I can sadly report that the film is even worse than the book.

There were some pleasant scenes of Rome, including, as has been widely observed, one in which Roberts could be eating San Crispino ice cream. I was perplexed by the fact that she was calling the Mausoleum of Augustus the “Augusteum” (not a term I’d ever heard used to describe it, maybe it’s an American thing?), and it’s not open to tourists. I’m pretty sure you can’t get into it without some kind of permit – it’s not a homeless shelter, as stated in the film.

I have read a lot of people saying that the book really ‘spoke to them’. Perhaps both the book and the film are aimed at an older audience than me, but I found it impossible to sympathise with Liz, despite having been through a similar situation myself. I put this down both to Julia Roberts’ awful acting and also the fact that, from the film, I really didn’t get what was so dreadful for her – the guy she was married to seemed perfectly nice and she seemed to have a nice life. What was unconvincing enough in the book was doubly implausible on film, which by its nature had to leave out a lot of the explanations in the book.

I found the opening of the film thoroughly crass, in which she claimed that Cambodian refugees, who had suffered from genocide, torture and starvation, would ask about guy problems (“I met this guy in the refugee camp”) when offered psychological counselling. Er, I doubt it. Just another example of Hollywood trying to sugarcoat everything. To be fair, I don’t remember this ridiculous statement being made in the book.

In conclusion, a dire film and not worth wasting over two hours of your life on, even if you’re a die-hard Rome fan and would watch anything set there. Even the Mary-Kate and Ashley movie “When in Rome” was better than this!

Posted in Films set in Rome | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cul de Sac, Rome – a wine bar review

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I’m a big fan of wine bars in Rome, so I thought it was about time for another review of one. This one was recommended to me by Agnes Crawford of Understanding Rome, and now that I know about it I will definitely be going back every time I’m in Rome!

The wine bar in question is called Cul de Sac, and you can find it in a small piazza called Piazza di Pasquino, just outside Piazza Navona.

Its website boasts that it has a collection of over 1,500 wines, sparkling wines and champagnes, making it the perfect place for me to stop after a tiring morning in the Palazzo Altemps and the Museo di Roma.

Cul de Sac, Rome

Cul de Sac - might not look much from the outside but I promise you it is! (Photo from the Cul de Sac website)

It looks rather small and cramped from the outside, and it’s quite narrow, but it goes back a long way and there’s actually quite a lot of seating inside. The walls are lined with innumerable bottles of wine, and I was surprised to observe one gentleman sitting across the room from me drinking Fanta! Fanta! In a wine bar! I ask you!

Having had an unfortunate solo dining experience the previous night (I don’t think the rude waiters appreciated me taking up a table when they could have made more money from two people taking it), I was relieved to find that Cul de Sac welcomed the solo diner, and I was not alone in enjoying a solitary lunch among the tempting array of bottles.

I ordered a glass of Puglian red wine and lasagne, both of which were very reasonably priced. There was plenty to choose from on the menu, including a great selection of cheeses and cured meats which would be ideal with wine tasting.

I had been told that Cul de Sac doesn’t have a kitchen, instead serving a variety of reheated dishes, but this didn’t detract from it at all – the lasagne was superb, and the wine was a perfect accompaniment and was poured for me at the table into an enormous wine glass, a sight which cheered me tremendously after my strenuous morning of museums.

Apparently it’s equally great for dinner, so perhaps next time I’m there I’ll give that a try… it gets 5 stars from me!

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Rome’s Churches: you don’t have to be religious to enjoy them

I returned last week from another wonderful week in Rome and will now be giving this blog some much-needed attention. As it’s Easter, I thought I’d start with a post about my favourite churches in Rome, because I’ve now visited about 30 of them and have a reasonable idea of which I would recommend people to visit. 

I was originally going to set myself the challenge of seeing how many churches I could visit in one day – I read that Rome actually has three churches for every day of the year! – but in the couple of weeks prior to my trip I was struck down with a nasty virus, from which I was still recuperating by the time I reached Rome. Having visited the majority of the publicly accessible archaeological sites in the centre of Rome (and, thanks to the BSR, some of the ones which are closed to the public as well), I visited a lot of churches this time in search of new sights, though actually ended up going back to a lot of the ones I’d been to before. I would like to stress that I am not religious at all, but you really don’t have to be – it’s interesting enough visiting Roman churches without having to be into all that!

So here are a few particularly interesting churches I would recommend you visit (by no means an exhaustive list of course!) – I’m not including the Pantheon or St Peter’s here because they are just too obvious!

Santa Maria Maggiore

Cosmati flooring in Santa Maria Maggiore

Characteristic marble flooring in the Cosmati style, Santa Maria Maggiore

One of the four Papal Basilicas (the others being San Paolo fuori le Mura, St John Lateran and St Peters), Santa Maria Maggiore sits on the Esquiline Hill not far from Termini Station and is easily accessible from either Termini or Cavour Metro stations. The legend goes that the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in around AD 358 and told him to build a church corresponding to the area which he would find covered with snow the following morning – for which it was originally known as Santa Maria della Neve, i.e. of the snow. It also houses an important relic (if you believe in that sort of thing) – a piece of the crib of the Infant Jesus, which is displayed on Christmas morning every year. The basilica is lavishly decorated, and as with many early churches in Rome (including the majority in this blog post), its floor is in the so-called Cosmati style, developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, with the marble having come from ancient Roman buildings.

Santa Prassede

Santa Prassede Rome

The light interior of the Basilica di Santa Prassede

Nestling in a little side street a stone’s throw from Santa Maria Maggiore is a smaller but equally wonderful basilica, Santa Prassede, which is well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Its inauspicious entrance belies an impressive but not over-the-top interior, the walls of which are decorated with frescoes for a more subtle and I suppose more ‘airy’ look than the lavish Santa Maria Maggiore. It’s not without the gold mosaics, however; those of particular interest are in a tiny chapel to the left as you go in, and can be illuminated with a coin-operated light.  The mosaics here – which, uniquely, cover the entire chapel – date from the early 9th century, and are incredibly well preserved. You can go down into a small crypt beneath the altar of the main church to see the tomb of Santa Prassede, as well as a 13th century altar decorated in the Cosmati style.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin - rather plainer than a lot of churches in Rome!

If you’ve seen the film Roman Holiday then you will at least recognise the outside of this church, which is frequented by tourists on account of the so-called ‘Mouth of Truth’, an ancient Roman drain cover with a rather creepy face thought by some to depict the god Oceanus. It’s mounted on the wall outside and is said to bite off the hands of liars; cue long lines of tourists waiting to be photographed with their hands in its mouth. If you’re an Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck fan then by all means do the same, but otherwise I’d say skip the queuing and go straight into the church, which is a lot more interesting. It’s actually structured around a Roman administrative building and an early Christian welfare centre. Its association with the Greeks began in the 8th century and the name “Cosmedin” is thought to come from the Greek word meaning “to adorn”. It has a bit of a Greek Orthodox feel about it, and sacred music played on a sound system adds to the atmosphere.

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, flanked to the left by the vast Vittorio Emanuele Monument.

If you stand at the bottom of the Capitoline Hill you’ll see Michelangelo’s gentle cordonata on the right, and on the left you’ll see a dauntingly steep staircase up to the plain brick facade of a church – Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. The staircase was built in 1348 to give thanks for deliverance from a plague, and if you’re not feeling up to the climb, you can also access the church from the side entrance from Piazza del Campidoglio, on the top of the hill. The name ‘Ara Coeli’ means ‘altar of heaven’, and derives from a medieval legend that this was where the Tiburtine Sybil prophesised the coming of Christ to Augustus. It occupies the spot where the ancient Roman Temple of Juno would once have stood (famous for its sacred geese). The most interesting thing about it (I think) is that the columns don’t match – they’re taken from ancient Roman buildings, and one even has an inscription – ‘a cubiculo Augustorum’, possibly suggesting that it came from a Roman public building.

Santi Quattro Coronati

View from Santi Quattro Coronati

The view from outside Santi Quattro Coronati - an unexpectedly rural part of Rome.

I was introduced to this gem on the Caelian Hill by a friend of mine, and it’s definitely worth knowing about. It’s in a part of Rome which has a surprisingly rural feel to it, making it a good place to head if you get sick of the crowds (as I frequently do). The basilica and its surrounding monastic buildings are occupied by a closed order of Augustinian nuns, and on several occasions I have been lucky enough to have heard them singing in the basilica – a beautiful sound. The real wonder is the small Chapel of St Sylvester, on the right as you approach the basilica, which is decorated with a marvellous series of frescoes dating to the chapel’s founding in 1246, depicting the life and conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperor Constantine. This chapel is one of Rome’s innumerable hidden treasures and perfect if you’re after something a bit different after the bustle of the usual sights.

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