Thursday, January 15, 2009

When in Rome...Part 2 (Churches, Catacombs)

After a busy day, we slept in – this is a vacation, so sleeping in was in order. After we finally got around we decided on taking a tour with the same group we used at the Vatican (even with the silly headphone listening devices haha) because we really liked our tour guide the day before. He was Italian, but was so good in English he could even make jokes – which as a person learning a language, highly impressed me. I think you really have to know what you are talking about to make a joke! The tour we picked was of the major churches of Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica doesn’t count because it’s in Vatican City – not Rome!) and the Catacombs (which are the underground burial grounds of the first Christians in Rome.)

While waiting around for the tour to start, we wandered in a church that was nearby. Not knowing what church it was, we mulled around, looked at the amazing marble floor, the gorgeous chapels and of course the ceilings. Funny thing is that when our tour started this church happened to be the first place we went. Having seen it only 20 minutes earlier, we laughed and finally found out that it was named Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) and was a church erected in the 5th century for Mary. Within this cathedral is what they call the church within the church – the chapel that tells the story of how this church came to be. They say that after years of war, the Romans wanted to build a church dedicated to Mary but couldn’t find a single point in Rome that didn’t contain a battle or killing story and asked Mary herself for help. She came in a vision and said that she will provide a miracle that will mark where she wants her church. The next day – August 5th, 358 - in the middle of the hot Roman summer, there was snow on the hill where her church is now built. Because of the story of the snow, it used to be called Santa Maria della Neve (of the snow). Also, turns out the Pope has mass here every year on the 5th of August to commemorate the miracle that happened many years ago. It is built on a hill and as a result, the bell tower of this church is the highest in Rome. This is also one of the four major Basilicas in Rome. Imagine our surprise – we had just strolled through this church not knowing any of this! Thank you tour guide!

We learned more amazing facts about Santa Maria Maggiore during our tour! The gorgeous mosaic marble floor that we had seen in all of the churches so far (and would see in every church to come) wasn’t really planned to look like it does. Supposedly the marble that covers most of the floors in Rome that are in a mosaic design are just parts of leftover marble that couldn’t be worked into the church. As a result, the floors of the churches are colorful and eccentric. They say ones man’s trash is another man’s treasure – and maybe this is where they came up with the saying because the floors were fantastic and all made out of trash! More gorgeousness - it is said that the gold that is splashed all over the ceiling was the gold that Columbus brought back from the New World and was given to Rome as a gift from the queen of Spain (I forget her name, but she commissioned Columbus to come to America). Even in Rome I am learning about Spain! Another huge deal for all Christians is the manger that Jesus was born in…and guess what? They say to have part of the original manger here – miracle! Surrounded by candles, gold, marble and more marble, the manger lies in a tomb for people to pray to.

The next stop on the tour was Saint John de Lateran – another massive Church. It was the first Christian basilica to be built in Rome – constructed in 324 under Constantine. After it was built and awed at, it was a model for all subsequent churches. Surviving earthquakes, robberies and fires, the cathedral is now even bigger than ever. It’s front doors are the original bronze doors from the Curia Julia in the Roman Forum (the open shopping area and meeting places of the ancient Roman Empire – more to come in a different blog). The Curia Julia is said to have been the first place that the Romans held meetings – dating back to 51 AD. Ancient doors eh? Nicknamed the Mother of all Churches, we were happy to check it out before we were off to the Catacombs.

On the way, you can’t help but notice the blend of ancient and modern in this city. From parts of the ancient city walls next to apartments built in the 1800s, Rome appears to be the perfect fusion of old and new. It is nice that the people who have been in charge of Rome over the last thousand years have kept intact all of these wonderful monuments that display just how incredible the original Roman Empire must have been.

Speaking of the original Empire, we met some of their best at the Catacombs of San Callisto – the most ancient catacombs in all of Rome. It was the first cemetery in Rome and even holds the remains of 16 of the Popes from the 3rd century – lovely. As the daylight was turning to night, we descended 5 levels into the ground to check out this massive vertical cemetery. Dimly lit and damp, the halls of the catacombs would be an ideal place to be lost forever, but looking at the graves to your left and right, it was not something I was interested in doing that night. Each grave was tailored to the size of the individual person (so they Romans didn’t have to work as much our tour guide said haha). There was more room at the head area of the grave and less at the feet, bigger for men, small ones for babies, etc. With ancient artifacts, old writing (in both Greek and Roman) and caskets on display, I couldn’t help but feel a bit freaked out. At the end of the tour our guide (not our regular guy – only Catholic priests are allowed to give tours of the catacombs) said a Catholic prayer and them wham I was ready to get out! As we headed out we saw some of the family rooms - if you wanted to be buried with your family, you would buy a whole room where your whole family would be buried and your living family members could come and visit your room. Tom thought it would be a funny idea to hide in a family room and then as members of our tour group walked by he would jump out and scare them – hahaha. I said that probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was definitely funny – unless its you who gets scared!

With our tour bus stopping right in front of our hotel, we ended our touristy part of the day and got to the wine part of the day! When we checked in, the hotel gave us a free bottle of wine because Tom is some sort of Elite member of these hotels or whatever. No matter the reason, I was happy and we enjoyed a delicious chianti (after this trip on which we drank a lot of chianti, I might have to say that chianti is my new favorite red wine). After resting up a bit, we got ready for the opera!

I had never seen an opera before, but figured if I am going to see one, I should do it in Rome! We found an opera called La Traviata. Held in an old church, the opera was pretty impressive. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was an experience. They are right when they say you don’t need to understand the words to understand the opera! Lovely me had a nice coughing fit in the middle of the opera though – good job Amanda. Regardless, I was happy I had seen it. It was about a girl who has a boyfriend but then falls in love with another guy who goes away for business. She is heartbroken that he won’t return and her current boyfriend finds out and leaves here. The new love comes back and tells her they will be together but then she dies – very dramatic as expected. It was good – but would I see another opera…I am not sure. But hey, I did it.

Following the opera, we had a quick dinner and then called it a night – another successful day in Rome!

More from Rome soon!


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