Feb 15 2012

What Lies Beneath

I stepped through a narrow passageway and into a small room with thick stone walls. The warm, humid air weighed on my lungs with the mustiness of centuries past. The tour guide, a thin young man from California with Harry Potter glasses, who was living in Rome to study Latin, led the group past rows of pagan crypts, and as I peered through the openings that had been cut away in the stone, I saw some had hollowed-out spaces in the walls for crematory urns, while others housed elaborately carved sarcophagi. The guide shared the detailed history of the site, from 64 A.D. when Saint Peter was killed on the Vatican Hill, to 329 A.D. when the original St. Peter’s cathedral was built on land that once contained the Circus of Nero, to the 1500s when the current Basilica was designed by Renaissance artists including Raphael, Leonardo DaVinci, and Michaelangelo. I was astounded to see mosaics and frescoes from thousands of years ago, remarkably preserved and with still-vibrant colors, lining the walls and floor of one of the tombs, and intricate stone carvings in another, which we were told was the tomb of the Valerii family. The guide pointed to holes in the walls of one particular room and said that in ancient times it was customary for families to sit atop the crypts and share a meal to honor their deceased relatives. They would pour wine through holes in the roof “to nourish the souls of the dead.” I thought it sounded like a lovely tradition.

An outside view of St. Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photos on the necropolis tour.

My husband and I were on a tour of the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica. While researching tours before our trip to Rome, I came across a blog that mentioned this little-known opportunity, which is different than the usual “crypts and catacombs” tours available in the city (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it again to provide a link, but you can read other reviews on TripAdvisor). The Ufficio Scavi (Excavations Office) of the Vatican occasionally offers tours for a limited number of people – about 250 each day – to visit the the archaeological site underneath the Basilica. The necropolis was discovered in the 1940s during an excavation performed to build grottoes underneath the church. If you’d like to take the tour, you must email the office with the dates you’ll be in Rome, the number in your party (participants must be at least 15 years old), and your preferred language, and they let you know which date and time you will be able to take a tour. The cost is 12 euros per person.

I had been looking for this kind of uncommon experience, and not knowing if I’d even get a reply (I’ll be honest – I was skeptical), I emailed the excavations office with a request. After a few days, I received a reply with our tour date, information to confirm our reservation with payment, and a list of rules (as is the case for visiting St. Peter’s, men and women must follow the dress code and have their shoulders and knees covered).

The High Altar inside St. Peter's Basilica.The necropolis tour ends directly below this spot in the church.

The tour takes visitors three levels below the current altar of St. Peter, where you can see part of the original shrine (the Trophy of Gaius, which was built around 200 A.D.), as well as what are believed to be his actual remains.

This tour is a pilgrimage for some, and even though I’m not Catholic, I found it to be a fascinating lesson in culture and history. We emerged from the tour into the Vatican Grottoes, where many of the past popes are entombed. We joined the sea of tourists flowing upwards to the opulent cathedral above. The contrast between the vast basilica, with its gilded statues, intricate marble floors, and soaring arched ceilings, and the cramped, stone-walled, necropolis three levels below, was startling. I looked around and realized that most of the tens of thousands of tourists that visit St. Peter’s each day will never experience the rich history that lies beneath.

Jan 18 2012

Roman Holiday

My husband and I decided to buck tradition this holiday season, and instead of racing around the country trying to visit every branch of our family tree we flew to Italy and spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Rome. Our trip wasn’t as spur-of-the-moment as it sounds…my husband proposed at the Pantheon, and ever since our wedding in 2002 we’ve been saying we would go back to celebrate our 10th anniversary. With grad school, work, and travel plans already filling up the coming year, we decided it was now or never. It was a great choice–not only did we take advantage of off-season pricing, but we discovered that winter is a great time to visit the Eternal City. Now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to catch up at home and the office, I’ll spend the next few blog posts sharing the highlights.

The Pantheon

The Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese

I first need to give props to our hotel, the Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese. We landed at Leonardo da Vinci airport at 7:11 am after a very long flight and, even though we arrived at the hotel way before check-in time, our room was ready. They even upgraded us to a corner room with three windows overlooking the gardens across the street. (“Our Christmas present to you,” said the attendant at the front desk.) The decor was elegant yet comfortable, and the lobby had a hint of old-Hollywood glamour with sparkling chandeliers, rich wooden bookcases, and dramatic black and white photos on the walls. A breakfast buffet was available each day, but at 30 euros per person it was pricy. Most mornings we opted to order a la carte or grab the complimentary breakfast-on-the-go (croissants, apples, and bottled water with a news summary available in English, Italian, or French). The new rooftop restaurant, La Tarrasse, had fabulous views of the city skyline and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and it was the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine after a day of sightseeing.

The streets were filled with light.

When I think of Rome, the first thing that comes to mind is the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. I love seeing legions of Smart Cars zipping past the Colosseum. Wandering the narrow streets, it’s amazing to see so many Italian women navigating the cobblestones in sky-high heels. And tourists use smart phones to snap pictures of historic monuments like the famous Fontana de Trevi (Trevi Fountain) and the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps). In December, the city was decorated for the season, with lights strung between buildings, store windows filled with gift displays, and a huge decorated tree next to the Colosseum.

The Spanish Steps

The first day, we focused on the ruins. We started at the Colosseum and then spent hours wandering around Palatine Hill, where the city of Rome originated in 753 B.C., and The Roman Forum, where the monuments have curious, magical names like the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Temple of Vesta. The weather was perfect — sunny with a clear blue sky and temperatures in the 50s — and the crowds were much smaller than the last time we had visited, in the peak tourist month of June. It was the perfect beginning to the week.

The Arch of Septimius Severus