Friday, July 30, 2010

A turn toward the spooky

Yesterday was another day to visit one of the sites on Charlie's list of things to do in Rome - the catacombs! From looking at guidebooks, we knew that getting to the catacombs was not going to be easy. They're off on the Via Appia Antica, the old road of the dead in the Roman period, and they're not easily reachable by subway. In addition, both of our guidebooks stressed very emphatically that the Via Appia is "not pedestrian friendly", so we knew we couldn't walk. Thus, our options consisted of several buses; the one that stopped in the most convenient location for us was labeled as "notoriously unreliable". "How unreliable could it be?" we thought. Ha.

We took our short train ride from the hotel to the bus stop, and got to the stop just in time to see a bus pulling away. We weren't too upset, though, because we both wanted lunch and there was a nearby sandwich stand. So we got our sandwiches, and ate them. And waited. And waited. And waited.

All told, we waited more than an hour for the bus, and then had one brief shining moment where we thought it had arrived, but we were wrong - it was just a guy going on break. This is how we felt:

Finally, our bus arrived, and we were off. I followed the bus route on my map, but once we got onto the Via Appia and close to the catacombs, I was a little worried about missing our stop, so I suggested we get off the bus a little while before our first destination, the Catacombs of St. Callixtus.

Big mistake.

Because we got off the bus too early, we had to walk along the Via Appia for a bit, and "not pedestrian friendly" doesn't even begin to cover how terrifying it was. The Via Appia is barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic, has no sidewalks, and is boarded by ten-foot walls on both sides, so there's nowhere to go to escape. This doesn't stop the cars from going at incredible speeds, and the motorcycles from deliberately cutting close to pedestrians while honking their horns. This was one of the tensest moments of our trip so far.

But finally, we reached our destination. To visit the catacombs, you have to join a guided tour, and I can't say that I'm sorry about that - after being inside them, I could easily see how one could get lost and never come out again. Our tour group was a large one, though, and the tour guide wasn't particularly informative, so our group's purpose was mainly as a set of living bread crumbs to keep us from getting lost. Charlie and I stayed in the back of the group, and used his flashlight to peek at darkened tombs and wall paintings as we went by.

I was thinking about Nathaniel Hawthorne and other nineteenth-century American expats the entire time, and at no point did the ghosts of the Grand Tour appear to me more fully than at the moment when we stepped into the tomb of St. Cecilia:

St. Cecilia's remains are long gone, now transferred as holy relics to a church in Trastevere, but in their place is the marble statue you can see in this photo (not my photo - no pictures allowed in the catacombs). The statue is a copy of a work by Stefano Maderno that is now in the same church in Trastevere that houses the saint's body, and represents (supposedly) the position and appearance of the saint's body when her remains were rediscovered several hundred years after her burial. But it was the inscription that interested me: "In Memory of Edith Cecilia McBride of New York U.S.A." All the tour guide could tell us was that the statue was placed in the nineteenth century by a husband in honor of his dead wife, and I was unable to find out any information after my brief search online. But what an interesting story this might be! I'm definitely filing this one away for the future.

Here's another representative photo of the tombs:

The real bummer about this tour was that I know from teaching the survey class that St. Callixtus is full of important early Christian painting, but the tour guide didn't point out any of them to us, and Charlie and I had to do our best to look at things quickly without losing sight of our human bread crumbs. I know I must have walked past the paintings of Jonah, the Good Shepherd, the loaves and fishes, and others, but I wasn't able to get a clear idea of what I was seeing. They need to run a special tour for art historians.

But hey, at least the grounds outside were beautiful:

This was seriously one of the most gorgeous places I've been in Italy. I wish I had more time to explore the countryside.

Our next tour was in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, but unfortunately I wasn't able to find any pictures online of the coolest aspects of that tour. Both Charlie and I liked this tour a lot better - we were a much smaller group, and our guide did a much better job of explaining things. Our favorite part was when he showed us the pretty well-preserved remains of an old pagan necropolis that would have originally been open to the sky (now it's underneath the floor of the church). The best way I can describe it is that it sort of looked like a stage set for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, if you've ever seen that play on stage - three tiny Roman buildings set at crazy angles. That was definitely a high point of the day.

Afterwards, we walked a little way down the road to the Circus of Maxentius, but the gates were closed, since I think it was too late in the day to get in:

But it sure was picturesque. And here's Charlie outside the closed gate:

After that, we decided to head back up to Rome, since we couldn't stand the insanity of the Via Appia anymore, and we were exhausted. I know I probably missed some cool tombs further down the way, but I don't think I'm going to be going back down there, because I value my life and all. There's a lot to be said for splurging on a taxi occasionally, and I think that may be the best way to do things if you want to see the Via Appia.

Later in the evening, we went exploring in Trastevere and then along the Tiber River near the Isola Tiburina, which has something of a carnival atmosphere with street vendors and outdoor drinking establishments at night. And I had my first taste of Duff beer:

It's not bad - kind of tastes like Heineken. But I think the main reason to drink it is the amusement factor.

Gotta go - we're going to the Sistine Chapel today, and this time I'm going to look up!

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