A group of young priests in flowing black robes walked briskly past us, each of them clutching a folder teeming with a disorganized pile of papers and chatting animatedly in rapid fire Italian. Amused, I remember telling myself to take it all in, for nowhere else in the world would you be able to see such a sight. We had just arrived at Roma Termini, Rome’s central transportation hub, from Venice. With our minds in over-drive (how can they not be? We were in ROME!), we walked through the station in desperate need to find the exit to Via Giovanni Giolitti, the street which will lead us to our hostel on Via Carlo Cattaneo. After consulting with a couple of polizia, we eventually found it, deposited our bags, and were on our way out again, all within a span of an hour after arrival. We enjoy are used to the hectic travel style – a pattern you will soon see emerging throughout my stories.
Armed with a city map from the reception desk and a 1L water bottle (Rome is extremely hot in August), we ventured onto the streets, ready to explore a different side of Rome. All of us had been to Rome in the past, but we spent majority of our time within the Vatican and we missed many of the other churches outside its walls. Not this time, though, as we vowed to ourselves to see the many other churches Rome displays on its streets.
Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major
(Basilica Papale Santa Maria Maggiore)
Situated right around the corner from our hostel, on the summit of Esquiline Hill, is the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major. Being the first, the largest, and the most important church dedicated to the Mother of God (theotokos), it houses the highly-venerated icon of the Virgin Mary Salus Populi Romani (Salvation of the People of Rome), which is believed to be painted by St. Luke the Evangelist.
It is believed the Virgin Mary herself chose the exact site upon which the Basilica is to be built. Legend has it that she appeared in a dream to Patrician John, a Roman senator, and Pope Liberius (352-366), asking them to build a church in her honor on a site she herself would indicate. The next morning, on August 5th, they woke up to find the Esquiline hill blanketed with snow. Pope Liberius then traced out the perimeter of the basilica in the snow and John financed the construction. The basilica was later commissioned by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) as the Bishop of Rome in 431 AD.
The basilica also contains the relic of the Holy Crib, ancient wooden pieces of the manger upon which baby Jesus was first laid when he was born.
Church of Sant’Alfonso
From the Basilica, we made our way to the Church of Sant’Alfonso on Via Merulana. Inside of the church is the original 14th century icon, a painting on wood, of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Unclear of who the artist is and the year of its creation, it was brought to Rome in 1498 by a Cretan merchant and was placed in St. Matthew the Apostle church in 1499. Tradition claims the icon to be miraculous as a man with a paralyzed arm was cured when he was transporting the icon into the church. For the next 300 years, pilgrims flocked to see the icon and to pray to the Virgin Mary for miracles. Unfortunately, in 1798 the church was destroyed following the invasion by the French troops. The icon was rescued by the Augustinian Fathers and was hidden and neglected for almost 70 years until it was placed in the Church of Sant’Alfonso in 1866, where it remains until today.
Basilica of St. Peter in Chain
(Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli)
After praying the obligatory Memorare to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, we continued to make our way through the narrow alleys and busy streets to the Basilica of St. Peter in Chain. The seemingly stark and boring exterior is nothing compared to the masterpiece it holds inside: Michaelangelo’s Statue of Moses.
Built at the request of Pope Julius II for his own tomb, Moses was to be one of 40 statues that were to adorn the colossal tomb. However, much to Michaelangelo’s disappointment, the project was interrupted for unexplained reasons (many speculate it was because of lack of funds), and as a result, was reduced to a much smaller sculpture.
It also houses the relic of the chains that bound St. Peter when he was in Jerusalem. The chains were given to Pope Leo I by Empress Eudoxia (wife of Emperor Valentinian III). Rumor has it, when the Pope held these chains beside the chains used for St. Peter’s imprisonment in Rome’s Mamertine Prison, they miraculously fused together, forming into the relic the Church posseses today.
Basilica of St. John of Lateran
(Papale Basilica di San Giovanni di Laterano)
After completing a quick gelato run for our afternoon snack, we detoured through Piazza del Colosseo, passing by the Colosseum, to finally arrive at Basilica of St. John of Lateran. Considered to be the oldest of the four great patriarchal basilica in Rome, it is the official seat of the Bishop of Rome a.k.a. the Pope. This gives it a rank that is higher than any other churches in the universal Catholic church, including St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The name Lateran was attached as a way to honor the Laterani Family, who graciously donated their land so that the basilica can be built.
Across the street from the basilica is the Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta), the staircase Jesus climbed to reach Pilate’s praetorium at the beginning of His Passion.
We ended our day with an early dinner at a local, family-run, restaurant. Nothing is more satisfying than feasting on home-made lasagna, accompanied with white wine, and capped with a bowl of tiramisu, at the end of a very, very long day.
Just the facts:
No admission fees were charged to go into any of the above churches/basilicas. They are also (relatively speaking) within walking distance of each other. Just make sure you have a good pair of sandals (thank God for Birks!) or walking shoes. Our dinner costs about 15E for each of us. The gelato was probably somewhere between 3 to 5 Euro.
Now, who says you can’t do Rome on a budget?