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10.19.2015

Rome

Rome. It’s a trip C and I have been dreaming and scheming about for years. And we finally took it–12 days across the ocean, just the two of us. We did a lot of research leading up to the trip, but Internet research can only get you so far. Now that we’re home, here are the things we loved, could have done without, and just plain didn’t expect.

HIGHLIGHTS

+ Seeing Pope Francis up close at the general audience. We managed to get seats at the front of the back section of seats–in other words, right next to the path he drives in the popemobile when he first arrives. When he drove by (twice!), he was so close we could see the wrinkles on his face and the bags under his eyes.

+ Assisi. We went to Assisi, where St. Francis was born and lived, on October 4 (which is St. Francis’s feast day). The crowds were massive, but it was absolutely worth it because the experience was great. Plus, Assisi is cleaner and more picturesque than Rome. (Bonus!)

The two best parts of this were seeing the tomb of St. Francis (it’s beautiful, just beautiful) and attending mass at the Basilica of St. Francis. That last one was a little bit of a trip, because first we accidentally attended a ceremony presided over by the bishop (there is an upper and lower church at the basilica–the ceremony was in the upper, and mass was in the lower), where we received some sort of blessing with a relic of St. Francis (at least, we think–it was all in Italian). It took us a long time to realize we were in the wrong place–ha! Eventually things clicked, though, and we booked it down to the lower church for mass.

+ Meeting Father. A priest who used to teach C’s youngest sister in high school is now studying over in Rome, and we met up with him one day for mass at St. Peter’s and dinner in the evening. We had a private mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica, over the tomb of St. Pius X. Whoa. Then he took us to a “local favorites” restaurant that he and the other priests over there like to frequent, and we had the best meal we had the entire time over there. We also discovered that we’d already found the best gelato in the neighborhood, completely on our own (yay us!).

The best part of all that, though, was hanging out with Father. He was a lot of fun to talk to, and it was really nice to speak with someone who knew where our hometown is. He told us things about St. Peter’s Basilica that our tour guide had completely glossed over or explained poorly–I am beyond grateful that we got the chance to explore the church with him. In short: if you go to Rome and you know a cool priest–or any priest, for that matter–hook up with him while you’re there. It’ll be fun, and they know stuff. From restaurants to the story of the veronica veil (which totally isn’t what you think it is), you’ll learn things you’ll miss otherwise.

P.S. If you’re heading to Rome any time soon and want gelato in the Navona area, go to Frigidarium. I recommend the strawberry (fragola) dipped in chocolate, and C says get the coconut (coco). #yum

+ San Croce en Gerusalemme. Here’s the thing: there are churches everywhere. And many of them contain remarkable things that you’d expect to be a major draw the pilgrims and tourists. But they’re not. They sit inside churches or museums, almost totally ignored–it’s dumbfounding. For example: St. Mary Major has a little museum under it that houses several relics, including a piece of the true cross and strands of Mary’s hair. Say whaa? And yet, not only were those things not on display somewhere, but we had the museum practically to ourselves. (And I asked Father about it, because it felt unreal to me–but he said that’s just how things are over there.) It’s nuts.

St. Mary Major is definitely one of those churches–it has the museum relics, but the church itself is home to relics of the manger. THE MANGER! It’s crazy beautiful, and was probably one of my favorite “discoveries” in all of Rome. So go.

But you should also go to San Croce en Gerusalemme. This church wasn’t on either of the maps we had, and it wasn’t in the guidebook (we used the Fodor’s guide, which was otherwise great). It’s way out on the edge of things, near St. John Lateran and the Scala Santa (also highly recommended, because duh). The only reason we found out about it was because we met a nun at the pope’s general audience who filled us in on several things to see (hey Sister Rose! You rock!). And oh. my. word. GO! The church itself is built on dirt from Jerusalem (St. Helen, Constantine’s mother, brought the dirt and several relics to Rome after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem), hence the name. The church, of course, is beautiful (because they all are over there), but it’s the relics chapel that is the astounding part. You go down a long hallway (it’s supposed to be representative of the climb to Calvary) and enter a room, and on the opposite wall is a large glass case containing:

  • A beam from the cross of the good thief
  • A reliquary with bits of stone from the tomb, the cave in Bethlehem, and the pillar where Jesus was scourged (A large piece of the pillar itself is tucked away in a tiny side chapel at a church called Santa Pressede–also one of those “say whaaa?” finds.)
  • Two thorns from Christ’s crown
  • One of the nails that hung Jesus on the cross
  • A piece of Jesus’s cross (there are a lot of these, all over the place)
  • The sign that was hung above Jesus on the cross (partial remnants)
  • The remains of St. Thomas’s finger (you know, the one ole’ Doubtin Thomas used to probe Christ’s side after the resurrection)

There is also another room, connected to the first, where they have a copy of the Shroud of Turin–and let me tell you, that is incredible to see.

All of that sits in one place. It’s unbelievable. And yet, no one knows about it! Once again, we had the place to ourselves. It’s crazy. If you’re going to Rome, go to this church. Not to understate it or anything, but it’ll blow your mind.

LOWLIGHTS


+ The filth. For the most part, we walked everywhere. And, I’ve gotta tell you, once you get away from the major basilicas and sites like the Colosseum, the city is gross. There is trash everywhere, it smells awful, everything is covered in grime and slime, and… ugh. It’s just disgusting. Wear shoes that cover your feet and that you won’t mind tossing out (or washing really, really well) when you get home.

Note: Our in-laws went to Rome about ten or so years ago, and they seemed surprised when we made this observation. We think it’s because they took a more organized pilgrimage trip, while we escorted ourselves around town. If you’re loading up onto a bus or taking the train everywhere, you might not face as much filth.

+ The smoking. I live in a city with an ordinance that prohibits smoking indoors and within ten feet of any public building. It’s awesome, but I guess I sortof forgot how lucky we are. In Rome, it seems like everyone smokes. And, because you’re in such close quarters, when someone else lights up, you get a nice bouquet of cigarette smoke to go with your sightseeing/lunch/dinner/shopping. There were very few meals that we enjoyed entirely smoke-free, and we were constantly trying to navigate our way around smokers on the sidewalks. Yuck.

+ The bathroom situation. I knew this was coming, but it was still hard to stomach the lack of public restrooms. They just aren’t a thing over there. Use the bathroom whenever you eat in a restaurant, because those are about the only ones available (and they’re usually fairly clean… I can’t say the same for bathrooms at places like the Colosseum). Plus, they’re free (with the cost of your meal, of course)–C and I paid 60 cents each to use the bathrooms in the square in front of the Basilica of St. Francis, and a toll is common. We learned very quickly to use a free restroom whenever we found it and to limit our intake of liquids.

+ Pushy peddlers. They sell selfie sticks, umbrellas, ponchos, light-up toys, and loads of other junk. They hang out in the squares, on the streets–they’ll even come into a restaurant to try to sell you stuff. They’re incredibly pushy and rarely take “no” for an answer. They’re unbelievably annoying. And, we learned, they supply about $45 million a year to the Italian mafia. Just say no, folks.

THINGS THAT SURPRISED ME

+ Selfie sticks. They’re everywhere. At home, they’re a bit of a joke. But in Rome, they’re a hot commodity.

+ Rude Italians. I thought Italians would be warm and friendly, but they were kinda frosty. They’ll answer your questions, but with the barest of answers–they don’t offer up any more information that is strictly necessary.

+ Pushy tourists. Americans are pushy when in groups, it’s true. But I still feel like we give each other a certain amount of personal space. In Rome, people got riiiiiight up on you, pushed past you, cut in line, elbowed you out of the way, etc. It’s survival of the fittest/rudest over there.

+ Touristy-ness. I’m sure that a big part of this stems from the fact that we were tourists doing the touristy things. But I was surprised by how touristy Rome felt. If you’ve ever been to Estes, Colorado, and walked through the shopping “lane” in town, you’ll know exactly what much of Rome was like–tiny shops and restaurants lining the streets (sometimes sprawling out into the streets), people everywhere, and a general sense of being sold to. Of course, when tourism is as much a part of the local economy as it is over there, I suppose it’s only natural.

+ Intense salesmanship. OK, this is just a nice way of saying that the shop owners were pushy. I remember standing in a shop in Assisi looking at these ceramic watercolor art pieces while the shop owner kept up a constant stream of chatter in my ear. It was that way everywhere we went–they never left us alone to think. I have a really hard time shopping that way–I need time to process and make a decision–and most of the time we just walked out of the store.

All in all, the trip was wonderful. But in many ways, it wasn’t what we expected. Of course, that’s the remarkable thing about travel: it’s never what you think it will be, but it’s always a valuable experience.

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