Monday, September 3, 2007

16 June: Underground Rome

We were up at 7:30 and out the door by 9:30 to make sure we arrived on time at our Context: Rome tour meeting point near the Spanish Steps. (We never actually got to the Spanish Steps on this trip, but since the frenetic Piazza di Spagna area with its high-end designer boutiques and throngs of tourists is perhaps my least-favorite area of Rome, we were not overly disappointed.) Before leaving the hotel I made arrangements for our transportation back to the airport tomorrow afternoon. I think this was the sixth staff member I had spoken to at Residenza Canali and her English was not as strong as the rest, so I was a little nervous about whether we had communicated our departure time adequately. We decided to confirm again when we returned in the evening, just to be on the safe side.

I had surprised Mom with tickets for Context: Rome’s “Underground Rome: The Hidden City” tour for her birthday. I have never booked a tour for anything in my life, so I did this with some trepidation, but I read great reviews of Context: Rome and I was really hoping that we would get to see some unusual places that the ordinary tourist wouldn’t normally happen upon. Originally I was planning to book the "Layers of Rome" tour that included the Domus Aurea, Nero’s palace, but unfortunately this site has been closed to the public once again and the tour was taken off of Context’s schedule a couple of months ago. Thus I booked “The Hidden City” instead, which sounded interesting – including a visit to an ancient Roman apartment building.

We arrived at the meeting point in front of the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina about ten minutes early. Our guide, Elizabeth, an Austrian expert in Classical history married to an Italian man, arrived a few minutes later. We found her to be friendly and well-informed, and she spoke the most wonderful Austrian-and-Italian-accented English. We were joined by another mother-daughter duo and a mother and her teenage son, Jake (whom I liked immediately because he used his keychain flashlight to look into every nook and cranny). One of the things I like about Context is that they limit their groups to six people, so you don’t feel like you are part of some obnoxious horde following a guide yelling at the top of their lungs (or worse, using a loudspeaker) just to be heard.

With our group assembled, we entered San Lorenzo in Lucina, walked to the back of the church, down a corridor to a room displaying pottery and glass artifacts found at the site, and paid a 2 Euro donation to gain entry to the extensive ruins beneath the church. We entered via a short flight of stairs leading through a stone archway and found ourselves in a veritable maze of rooms. First we looked down into a dug-out pit where we could see the painted wall tiles from a 2nd-century building. Nearby, two rooms had been excavated to reveal extensive black-and-white mosaic tile floors (see photo). Several long corridors connected a series of rooms that had once constituted a 4th-century apartment building. We also visited a large domed room that was the site of the original 5th-century basilica, complete with a stone foundation where the ceremonial bath had stood. Elizabeth pointed out where columns and chunks of stone had been reused to make the foundation of the modern church. Jake used his flashlight to peer through a chink in the wall into an unexcavated room full of rubble (we joked that it looked to contain “ancient Roman trash”). There were signs of ongoing archaeological work everywhere – tags hanging off stones in the walls, crates crammed with ceramic shards – but Elizabeth told us that many Roman excavation projects are plagued by lack of funds, so the work usually happens in fits and starts, with long gaps in between.

Back outside, Elizabeth used a map to show us that we were standing on what used to be the broad plain of the Campus Martius, where the ancient Romans grazed cattle and carried out military drills. Elizabeth pointed out the original location of the Ara Pacis, the Arch of Peace, built by Augustus to commemorate his victories in Gaul and Hispania (John and I visited the reconstructed, intricately carved marble arch in its new, modern museum back in December) and, nearby, the spot where a towering Egyptian obelisk once stood. August had the obelisk erected as the focal point of a massive sundial; each year on his birthday, September 23rd (the fall equinox), the shadow of the obelisk would cut directly through the Ara Pacis, demonstrating that Augustus was clearly destined to be the bringer of peace to Rome. The obelisk was rediscovered after many centuries and now stands in front of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

Near the Pantheon we stopped to look at the crumbling remains of an immense, curved brick wall that was once part of the Baths of Agrippa. Over the centuries, houses have been built over, around, and literally through this ancient structure. I assume the interior rooms of those houses have curious curving walls, following the lines of the original building, although the brick has probably long since been plastered over.

Our next stop was the Crypta Balbi museum, which opened in 2000 as the newest addition to the National Museum of Rome. The site was discovered during construction work in 1981 and the new museum houses the remains of a crypta, an enclosed portico and large rectangular courtyard, which stood behind the stage of the Theater of Lucius Cornelius Balbus (one of Augustus’ generals). It was the smallest of three theaters in the vicinity, the others being the Theater of Pompey and the Theater of Marcellus. In Augustus’ time, the crypta was a place to relax and socialize during intermissions and between theater productions. Over the centuries, the theater and adjoining crypta fell into ruin, to be replaced by markets, warehouses, churches, homes, shops, and factories. Today it is very difficult to visualize the scale of the ancient Roman structures, but the museum does an excellent job of bringing the past to life through a series of schematics that show the theater in its heyday, and then how the site likely decayed and evolved over the ensuing centuries.

We had an 11:45 appointment to descend underground into the vast ruins beneath the modern museum. Elizabeth first showed us a section of exposed wall in which you can see fragments of the orginal marble-faced portico topped by centuries of medieval construction, including bits of Renaissance-era clay drain pipes – in all, more than twenty centuries of Roman history written in the stones. As we continued deeper underground, we passed through various chambers cluttered with chunks of columns and even the cobbles of an ancient Roman road.

At noon we had the unique opportunity to visit an active archaeological site hidden behind the museum. Elizabeth explained that we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time, as this was not part of the normal tour. We exited the museum via a back door and stepped out into an open area surrounded on all sides by a jumble of houses and the curious cantilevered tower of Santa Caterina dei Funari. We traversed the site on a covered metal walkway, peering down into various excavation pits, and descended a flight of stairs to enter the exedra, a large half-moon shaped, domed structure that stood at the opposite end of the portico from the theater (see photo, right). This particular structure was later turned into a public bathhouse, and a few sections of the curved bank of toilets have been reconstructed. We descended further into the rooms of an ancient villa, complete with marble and mosaic tile floors and a few surviving columns. At the end of a stone passage we found a temple to Mithras, an early-Christian era religious cult. The experience was spell-binding and, while the whole tour was worthwhile, this “behind the scenes” visit was the icing on the cake!

We left the Crypta Balbi and walked across the street to Largo di Torre Argentina, where Elizabeth explained the context of the four Republican-era temples and pointed out the area where Julius Caesar is believed to have been assassinated (outside the Theater of Pompey, the ruins of which are under buildings across the street). Mussolini had the Argentina ruins preserved, the story goes, because he wanted to emulate Augustus as the new “bringer of peace” to Rome.

At this point our tour came to an end. We thanked Elizabeth profusely, then Mom and I went across the street to a large bookstore that Elizabeth had recommended, where we each bought a copy of a book on ancient Roman monuments with reconstruction overlays (bigger and better than the small one I had purchased at the Colosseum).

It was now about 1:00 and we decided to wander back through the Jewish Ghetto (photo, right), where we had lunch at Da Giggetto, right next to the Porto d’Ottavia. We ate outside under an umbrella and had a fabulous meal despite the fact that it was oppressively hot and breezeless. We shared a half-liter of white wine and a simple caprese salad – a huge ball of mozzarella and juicy slices of tomato, just about perfect with a drizzle of olive oil and a dusting of black pepper. I had the house special cannelloni (spicy pork filling, delicious tomato sauce and rich béchamel) and Mom had the classic spaghetti alla carbonara (raw egg, pancetta, and parmesan); both were excellent. Our waiter was very friendly and funny – he seemed to know exactly what we were going to order before we ordered it, and when I asked him to take a picture of us with Mom’s camera, he turned it around and snapped a picture of himself first!

After lunch we crossed the Ponte Fabricio for the second time (beautifully framed by green leaves in the afternoon sun) back to Tiber Island, where we stopped for a few minutes to watch a group of Italians arriving for a wedding at the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola. It was a scene straight out of a movie – the women dressed to the nines in chic black or navy with strappy stiletto-heeled sandals, the men in black suits driving expensive Italian and German sedans, and the children in frilly white dresses and patent-leather shoes.

We meandered our way back to Trastevere, which was tranquil and quiet, apparently enjoying an afternoon siesta. We stopped to take pictures of a particularly lovely tangerine-colored villa (right), whereupon not one but two older gentlemen stopped to smile and jabber at us in Italian. We had no idea what they were saying but they seemed to be pleased that we were taking a picture of this particular building. We smiled back and I took a picture of the plaque mounted on the building to try to translate later, assuming it meant something important happened there. (Postscript: Well, the plaque just seems to prohibit the throwing of something – rubbish? – in the street, so this little mystery remains unsolved!)

A little further down the street, two young men came around the corner carrying those huge super-soaker squirt guns that kids like to play with on hot summer days. We immediately held our arms out and I shouted, “Prego!” whereupon the men grinned and cheerfully obliged by spraying us with water.

We found the bead shop that we had visited on Friday; Mom had told the proprietor that we would come back but I’m sure he didn’t believe us. Mom bought some flower beads that she was coveting and I found some things I needed to finish my necklaces. The nice man gave me some crimp beads for free (carefully laying them on a bit of tape so I wouldn't lose them) and asked me about my photography (since I had my Canon digital SLR around my neck). On our way back we stopped for gelato in Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere because we realized that we had been in Rome for three sweltering days without a single gelato! I had coffee and dark chocolate and Mom had lemon and sour cherry. We sat at a table inside (the outside tables were full and it was refreshingly cool inside) and watched as yet another wedding party came tumbling out of the church across the square; half of the guests then seemed to descend on our gelateria! Best of all, we were served real ice water with our gelato and got to use the restroom.

We retraced our steps back to Tiber Island and the Ghetto and arrived back at our hotel with an entire hour to clean up before our dinner reservation at Il Bacaro. I dressed up for the occasion in my recently purchased black-and-white cotton sundress (all the rage in Rome). We were the first guests to be seated outside under the lovely vine-covered arbor. We perused the refreshingly innovative menu and ordered an excellent Pinot Grigio riserva. Mom had smoked goose carpaccio with paper-thin slices of white peach drizzled with olive oil, followed by veal cutlets with an incredible pink grapefruit sauce, and pistachio ice cream with strawberry sauce for dessert. We decided hers was the prize-winning meal of the whole trip – everything was perfectly fresh, gorgeous, and delicious. My meal started out on a bright note with a warm calamari salad with delicate lemon-mint pesto. I thought I would be healthy and ordered the swordfish roulades with shrimp, zucchini and radicchio in a soy-balsamic glaze, but the fish was downright fishy and too salty. I came very close to complaining, but for whatever reason decided to grin and bear it. My dessert redeemed my entrée (what was that about being healthy?) – rich chocolate mousse with even richer chocolate sauce, which was absolutely heavenly! Our three-course meal, including a 25 Euro bottle of wine, came to a very reasonable 100 Euro. Despite my disappointing entrée, I would highly recommend this place.

We thought we might actually get back to our hotel a little early for once (it was about 9:30) but we ended up delving into a lengthy conversation with the couple sitting next to us – an Irish woman and French man. We traded stories about Rome and our other travel experiences for a good half-hour before finally tearing ourselves away. I dragged Mom to the Trevi Fountain, which was of course totally mobbed with tourists from across the globe. We took some pictures and tossed a 1 Euro coin into the fountain together (assuring our return to the Eternal City) and then walked slowly back to the hotel, savoring every moment of our last night in Rome.

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