Rome is Mecca for us Catholics.  While we’ve been to Italy 4 times previously, we’ve only been to Rome once.  We returned this time since there’s a lot to see and do in Rome that we haven’t seen before and because my Dad, who passed away last year (as did my Mom), asked a special favor of me that required me to return to Rome.

On our first visit (2004) we stayed in a beautiful convent in Trastavere and decided whenever we return to Rome, that’s where we will always stay, and our return visit was no disappointment; we are reaffirmed: our next trip to Rome, we will stay again at Santa Francesca di Romana.  We so love the place that I hesitate to mention it for fear that “word will get out” and it will be that much more of a challenge to stay with them when we return in the future.  And return we will.

Speaking of Trastavere, there’s lots written about this area of Rome, about it being a formerly “seedy” district that’s now going through some sort of renaissance.  This transformation must have gotten started quite a while back because our first visit in 2004 was equally nice as this trip 8 years later.  The cool things about Trastavere (other than practicing and perfecting its pronunciation: Truh-STAHHH-vuh-ray) are the restaurants, the views of the river, the restaurants, the people watching, and the restaurants.  Did I mention the restaurants?  Oh, and the wine…at the restaurants.  I’ve read that it’s “dusty” and “dirty” and I wonder where in Trastavere those travel writers actually went: perhaps the ancient Forum, which is very conveniently just across the river and (technically) NOT in Trastavere.  But the Roman Forum should be dusty; it just wouldn’t do to pave it over.

The main point of spending an entire week in Rome was to wind down, to relax, to enjoy a slower touring pace before we returned home.  In addition to the requisite visit to Vatican City and Saint Peter’s our main touring objectives were to visit the Galleria Borghese (also fun to pronounce: Bor-GAY-zee) and gardens and the Scavi tour at the Vatican (the excavations directly beneath the church).  We were also planning for some unplanned visits (an oxymoron?), i.e. a few days with nothing on the itinerary that could be filled with ad hoc exploring or last minute decisions.

The Galleria Borghese is definitely a not-to-miss for art lovers, though they do pretty well move you on through the exhibits with reservation-only entries (you must book at least a few days ahead, we did so online once we arrived in Rome) and visits limited to 2 hours–quite strictly, mind you.  We like to linger and read lots of the descriptions, and truly listen to all the audio guide options, i.e. actually “get to know” the art.  We’re not art snobs, mind you, but we do enjoy learning and when you’re kept to a strict timeline, well, it can be unnerving.  The highlight for me, as usual, was the sculpture, particularly Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne.  The adjacent gardens are also very nice and afforded a leisurely stroll with plenty of people watching, gelato-eating, and Peroni-drinking opportunities.

Now the Scavi tour of the Vatican–for me–will be one of those life-events I will always remember.  I won’t get all philosophical on you now, but do keep in mind two things about me: first, I’m a life-long Catholic, and second, I lost both of my parents last year.  The Scavi tour takes you beneath St Peter’s Basilica to the ancient Roman cemetery where tradition holds that Saint Peter was buried after he was crucified in the nearby Nero’s Circus.  The first few centuries after Peter’s crucifixion, early Christians–still being persecuted–venerated his grave in secret.  After Constantine legalized Christianity, successive monuments, then churches, were built upon the site, basically burying the original site under centuries of construction.  The existence of Peter’s actual tomb became somewhat more tradition than a known fact, so in the early 20th century the pope ordered archaeological excavations (scavi) beneath St. Peters’ to see what of the traditions could be validated.  Long story short, not only was an ancient Roman cemetery located, but also the grave site of an obviously prominent and venerated early Christian was located, pretty much precisely below the altar of the modern church and fitting early historical descriptions.  Furthermore the grave contained the remains of a 1st century man.  Are these the remains of Saint Peter himself?  The church has remained aloof on a definitive statement of such affirmation; some things must be left to faith after all.  It was here, directly beneath the altar of Saint Peter’s, in front of what might be the remains of Peter himself, that I fulfilled my Dad’s request.

While photographs are not allowed on the tour, the Vatican has put together a very nice online virtual tour: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/necropoli/scavi_english.html

Rome does not disappoint as a location for simply walking, looking, and discovering.  We popped in on many lovely churches, visited the pope’s official basilica St John Laterno, and spent more time in the ancient section (this time getting in the Palatine hill unlike our visit in 2004).  But the far-and-away great surprise visit of the trip was the Cappuccin crypt, or more exactly the wonderful museum run by the monks; we only wish we had known in advance how great the monk’s museum was or we would have scheduled more time to visit (we had reservations at the Galleria Borghese and you better not be late).  We had no bad meals and many exceptional ones; our favorite restaurants in Rome are Carlo Menta’s on Via della Lungaretta and Taverna de Mercanti on Via Michelle Cappelli, both in Trastavere and both earning multiple visits from us during this trip.

We left from Fiumcino airport not without some challenges.  Upon arrival at the airport (having to get up at 4:00am) we learned that our flight to JFK was 3 to 4 hours late.  After some finagling we managed to get on an alternate flight direct to Atlanta.  So without having to make the originally planned connection in JFK, we actually made it home on time.  Just in time to catch July 4th fireworks!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog series on our vacation in Europe.  Perhaps I will go back and blog about some past trips to Europe, often people want to know what our city-by-city itineraries were.  I’m thinking also I’ll blog what’s on my “still to-do” list, sort of my bucket-list of travel and “go-do” destinations.

Some fun statistics for our 2012 Europe vacation:

  • Air miles traveled: 9,074
  • Ground miles traveled: 1,525
  • Chuck pounds gained: 8 (but happy to say I’ve shed all those and have since lost another 18 pounds)
  • Pictures taken: 3,600 (about 2,000 by me, 1,600 by my brother-in-law)

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