Friday, 2 November 2012

What Lies Beneath

Rome is an absolute delight at street level - history on every corner, piazzas perfect for people watching & green spaces for 'time out'. Underneath your feet , however, is a whole city for you to discover as this itinerary attempts to show you.

Thursday

First on our subterranean itinerary is the church of San Clemente on Via di San Giovanni in Laterano (Mon-Sat 9.00-12.30, 3.00-6.00, Sun  noon-6.00.  €5 for excavations) This can easily be reached by taking the metro to Colosseo then walking up Via di San Giovanni until you reach the church. The building itself is a perfect introduction to our journey back in time through its many layers.
The church is in the care of Irish Dominicans who are still continuing the excavations started in 1857.

 As you enter the church look up to the Baroque ceiling which was added in the 18th century. 
                                                                                                                            The stunning mosaics in the apse & Cosmati floor originate in Medieval times but it is believed that the mosaics design(and maybe even some of the tiles) were taken from the original 4th century church which, after paying our €5, we will now descend to see.



The church we see here was rebuilt after the Normans sacked this part of Rome in 1084 and it became the foundations of the basilica above
Here are remains of frescoes, some of which depict the life of St Clement, the fourth pope who was banished to the Crimea by Emperor Trajan & forced to work in the mines. According to tradition he was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown in to the Black Sea.


We descend via an ancient staircase which originally would have connected the ground floor of a large Roman house to its basement. Here we see the remains of  two 1st century buildings the first of which contains a sanctuary to the Persian God Mithras. The dark room is the Mithraum, a meeting place where the followers of Mithras were initiated. The second room, the triclinium, was a place of worship with two rows of benches facing an altar.The cult of Mithras was popular with troops serving in the legions.
The second building is a public building - believed to be a warehouse or mint.

We can't go down any further but the lowest level can be glimpsed through an iron grille at the end of the corridor.Here are the remains of houses destroyed in Nero's fire of AD64. I'm sure you will have been aware of the sound of rushing water as you have made your way through the excavations. This is from a tunnel which was made to carry water to the Cloaca Maxima (Great Drain) in the forum and  the source is either a submerged ancient aqueduct or an underground spring. The water supply is pure & was used by the Dominicans in the water shortages of WWII.
As you leave the church take a few moments respite in the delightful colonnaded courtyard where you can reflect on the two thousand years you have travelled back to in one morning.



You may also reflect on where you would like lunch and fortunately I have a suggestion which is just across the road - Luzzi, Via di San Giovanni in Laterano 88. As it is Thursday you can be sure that gnocchi will be on the menu. You will certainly enjoy the fun atmosphere at this bustling, cheap trattoria. Although it is classed as a pizzeria you may be better off with pasta or the aforementioned gnocchi at lunchtime as the pizza chef  normally only works the evening shift.


Your destination after lunch will have required pre-booking before you arrived in Rome. You are going to tour the Colosseum but not just any guided tour. You are going to tour the underground & third tier. Booking this is straightforward if you follow this link  In the middle column with the picture of the Colosseum scroll about half way down & you will see an option to 'collect onsite' Click on this & enter the date you wish to visit. This will bring up a list of tours including 'underground tour' Click on the time you require & you are all set!
Hopefully you will have secured an afternoon slot so all that remains for you to do is make your way to the Colosseum & pick up your tickets. Pre-booking will have ensured that you 'skip the line'.
The Colosseum needs no introduction as it is one of the iconic sights of Rome. Indeed, I defy anyone not to be moved by the sight of the Colosseum as you exit the metro & see it before you for the first time.
This tour not only gives you the history of this amphitheatre commissioned by Vespasian in AD72 (& also explains how it became known as the Colosseum) but allows you to follow in the footsteps of the gladiators themselves.
You start by walking across the recreated floor of the arena, covered in sand as it would have been for the games that took place here.



You then enter the passage way that the gladiators would have taken from the Ludus Magnus or Gladiator training school into the arena. There were two ways out of the arena for gladiators. Either the same way as they came in - as a corpse or as a triumphal exit on to the the Via Sacra which we see straight ahead.

You then will see the area below the arena floor where the exotic wild animals were kept that were an integral part of any games. You can only begin to imagine the sounds & smells here, especially as the niches must have been extremely small for the large beasts. You will also see evidence of the intricate lift system that transported them to the floor above.



As a total contrast you now ascend to the third tier. In Imperial times this is where you would view the games from if you were poor, a woman or a slave. Today this tier gives us a glorious view, not only into the arena itself but also of the Forum, Arch of Constantine and of the foundations of Nero's Bath House - part of the Domus Aurea or 'Golden House. 













Your ticket to the Colosseum also includes the Forum & Palatine but we will save that until tomorrow as it is valid for two consecutive days. 
You now deserve a well earned rest in preparation for your subterranean dinner!
I'm actually going to suggest two restaurants to you but they are both in the same area. You will need to make your way to the Teatro Argentina are but as this is a transport hub for both buses & trams it shouldn't be a problem to get here from wherever you are staying in the city. The best way to find transport information is to check the ATAC Roma site. About half way down the page you will find a handy route planner tool. 
Before dinner we should take a look at the Area Sacra excavation site. This gives a good indication of how far above the original Roman buildings the  street level is today.

The remains that you see are four temples of the Republican era and formed part of the Theatre of Pompey. The reconstructions below help to put the ruins into context.                                                                                                                           


The first shows the situation of the complex in relation to the Tiber.






The second shows how the four temples (at the top of the picture) fit into the complex itself. The small square building behind the temples is the Curia of Pompey - a very significant building as it was where Julius Caesar was murdered on the 15th March 44BC.



Whilst contemplating the historical significance of this site you may spot the odd cat or two as the south west corner is a cat sanctuary for Rome's abandoned cats.

Now for dinner. Both restaurants I'm suggesting are actually built under the  Theatre of Pompey. HosteriaCostanza, Piazza del Paradiso and Da Pancrazio, Piazza del Biscione - the basement dining room is where you want to be if you choose this restaurant.

Whichever you choose you can be sure that you will be feasting on traditional Roman dishes in a unique atmosphere.

Friday
This morning requires you to think about lunch (probably before you have even had breakfast!) If you would like to picnic (I have the perfect spot) you will need to pick up supplies. I do have an alternative if an 'al fresco'  lunch doesn't appeal.
Make your way to the entrance to the Forum on the Via dei Fori Imperiali and show your ticket from yesterday. Now the Forum (and indeed the Palatine) are  tricky for first time visitors. Without some form of guidance they appear to be 'just a pile of ruins'. However  you can download free guides to ensure that your visit is fruitful. From the point of view of our 'underground' itinerary I would like to point you in the direction of the Cloaca Maxima, the 'Great Drain' that we mentioned in yesterdays visit to San Clemente. Walk down from the Temple of Saturn, alongside the Basilica Giulia then turn right into Viscus Tuscus, originally a shopping street. About half way along on the right hand side you will the mouth of the Cloaca Maxima. This was Rome's first sewer, built around 600BC, to divert the stream  that flowed through the valley into the Tiber. 

After you have taken in the sights of the Forum you will climb up to the Palatine Hill. Take the steps near the Arch of Titus. Again this is a huge area with lots to discover but it does demand time & patience. It is the birthplace of the city founded by Romulus. Emperor Augustus was born here & his successors ran the Empire from the Imperial Palace that he built on this very hill. I'm going to suggest that we take in a view then enjoy wandering among the ruins before leaving by the exit on Via di San Gregorio. After all if you throw your coin in the Trevi Fountain you are sure to return to Rome & you can study the Palatine further on a second visit if you are so inclined!
As you reach the top of the steps you will see the Farnese Gardens signposted to your right. The gardens themselves were one of the first botanical gardens in Europe when they were designed in the 16th century for the Farnese family.
Beneath the gardens lie the ruins of the palace built by Tiberius.
Enjoy a stroll under the orange trees that line the paths as you make your way to the terrace for fine views of the Forum.



If you wander in the direction of the stadium you will be perfectly placed for the exit.
Stadium
Where we head after you exit the Palatine depends on your lunch choice. If you have chosen the picnic option we will be walking to Villa Celimontana.  

To reach this idyllic spot turn right on to Via di San Gregorio, cross the road & head towards Piazza di Porta Capena. As you reach the Piazza look for a turning on the left - Salita di San Gregorio. Follow this road all the way along until it bears right & becomes the Clivio Scauri. A little way  along on your left you will see the entrance to Case Romane which we will visit after lunch (it is closed between 1.00 - 3.00). Carry on a short way & straight ahead you will see the entrance to Villa Celimontana. Pick your spot & enjoy lunch!
If you have chosen the trattoria option then you need to turn left as you exit the Palatine, cross the road & head in the direction of the Colosseum. Look for Via Claudia on the right & walk up this road. You are heading for Taverna dei Quaranta which will be on the left side of the road. Enjoy a leisurely lunch in  friendly surroundings. After refuelling carry on to the Case Romane by crossing the road and carrying on along Via Claudia. Take a right turn on to Via San Paolo della Croce. This will bring you to the entrance. Pay your €6 & visit the small exhibition which tells the story of the Roman houses beneath the church of San Giovanni and  Paolo which were discovered during excavations in 1887. Then enter the dwellings themselves which have amazing frescoes still intact.



A small but beautifully presented museum ends your tour where amongst many objects you will see a fine collection of amphorae.










Again it it time for a well earned rest before venturing into Trastevere for dinner.
Trastevere is a delightful area to stroll around before dinner. The main square of Santa Maria in Trastevere is full of life but the surrounding streets are just as characterful. If you like a beer before dinner I can recommend a couple of places - both on Via Benedetta. Bir e Fud sells only.....you have guessed it ...beer & food! The beer on tap is brewed just north of Rome. Ma che siete venuti a fa is a tiny 'hole in the wall' sort of place but it has an amazing range of artisan beers.
For  dinner I'm suggesting La Cisterna on Via Cisterna. Take  Via San Francesco from Piazza Santa Maria & Via Cisterna will be on your left.
This traditional spot plays Roman songs and serves local pasta dishes. After your meal take a wander into the restaurant’s underground level to see the ancient Roman well. The proprietors encourage guests to throw a coin into the well and toast their safe return with a glass of prosecco.








Saturday


Again, today will have required pre-booking here as we are going to visit

the necropolis underneath St Peters. This is known as the Scavi tour. Hopefully you will get a morning slot but if you only manage to secure places on the afternoon tour then simply swap this itinerary around.
Explore St Peter's Basilica either before or after the tour depending on the time slot that you are allocated. If you head to the right hand side as you enter you will see Michelangelo's sublime Pieta, created when he was only 25 years old. Sadly this is now behind glass after an attack in 1972.



Close by is the tomb of Pope John Paul II. 

At the end of the nave you will see a life size statue of St Peter whose right foot is worn away from centuries of veneration by pilgrims.







The Baldacchino or canopy over the main altar is the work of Bernini who used bronze from the roof of the Pantheon to complete the work.






Don't forget to look up at the magnificent dome. The letters of the Latin inscriptions are 6 feet tall!



Set in the floor are 28 marks comparing the length of the nave with the world's largest churches.







To access the Scavi tour you need to walk through the right hand colonnade as you leave the Basilica & head to the security screening area. Once through 
show your reservation to the Swiss Army Guard who will point you to the Scavi entrance.


Scavi entrance

You will start your visit 30 feet below St Peter's in a cemetery from Roman times. You will walk along an ancient road lined with mausoleums. It ends with a glimpse of the tomb of St Peter.

It is truly an amazing tour worth the pre-planning as daily numbers are limited. Be aware that the atmosphere is  very humid so I'm sure the fresh air will be very welcome as you walk to my suggested lunch spot. You will need to exit through the right hand colonnade as you leave St Peters then walk alongside the Vatican walls towards Piazza del Risorgimento. Shortly after you leave the colonnade look to the right for a stall that sells a unique souvenir. Everyone should go home with a lollipope!

Once you have reached Piazza del Risorgimento take the second road on the right - Via Cola di Rienzo. This is a good street for inexpensive shopping but it also includes a fabulous deli - Franchi. A good place for a 'stand up lunch stop'. I recommend the suppli (fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella) that you simply have to try whilst in Rome. After lunch take the metro from Ottaviano to Barberini. To reach the metro cross the road from Franchi & take Via Fabio Massimo. Carry on along this road until you see Via Giulio Cesere on your left. This will lead you to the metro station.
When  you reach Barberini  take Via del Tritone and follow the signs for the Trevi fountain. There will be crowds but you do need to throw your coins in to ensure your return to the Eternal city!
Of course you couldn't come to Rome without experiencing the Trevi but another reason for being in this area is to visit the La Citta del'Aqua. A Roman apartment block from the first century AD was discovered whilst renovating the Trevi cinema.Young in Rome has a good article on the excavation & you should find it easily as it is signposted from the Trevi Fountain. Afterwards why not take refreshments in Harry's Bar, part of the Mondadori bookshop where you can again view the ruins through a glass floor.
Depending on the time you will either be able to rest up or have to make your way to your 5.00pm wine tasting venue. Again you will have booked your place for 'Sparkling Saturday's' at VinoRoma. This is an absolute 'must do' for not only is Hande a superb sommelier but also a good source of information on the city. The icing on the cake is a visit to her wine cellar.


My suggestion for dinner is Trattoria Monte, Via di San Vito which is not too far to walk from VinoRoma. This friendly trattoria specialises in delicious food from the Le Marche region. Enjoy your evening!







Sunday
First stop this morning is the Capuchin Museum & Crypt (€6) on Via Veneto. The crypt contains the bones of 4,000 friars which are arranged as a mosaic - creepy! Also a very sobering experience as as a panal reminds us ' What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will become'. 
Enough of this gloom & doom - let's 'do' brunch! I'm going to suggest a couple of places both of which open at 12.30 - L'Asino D'Oro, Via Boschetto 73 & Open Colonna, Via Milano 9. Both are light, airy places to dine which will contrast with the underground restaurants you have experienced so far. 
For the final visit of this 'what lies beneath' itinerary I'm recommending Domus Romane , Palazzo Valentini. You will have needed to have booked the 2.00pm tour in English here as far in advance as is possible as places are limited. Palazzo Valentini is a 10 minute walk from both L'Asino D'Oro & Open Colonna. You can get directions from both to Palazzo Valentini here.
Palazzo Valentini
Once you reach Palazzo Valentini 
walk through the arch way until you reach the courtyard. The entrance to the Domus Romane is on your left. What you will see are the remains of two lavish villas but presented in a way that you will not have seen before. I can't think of a more fitting way to end our tour of underground Rome in which we have travelled back through many centuries together.