Dec 28, 2014

Rome to Bari

On my last day in Rome, I slept in and then had breakfast with Frere Bernard in the chapter house. My French is better than his English, so we communicated in scrambled French and Italian, aided by copious amounts of good will and humour. I'm sure the strong coffee also helped. 

 Since my train to Bari was scheduled for a 6:00 PM departure, I had decided to do as much as I could and then head back to pack and say a final farewell to my hosts by 4:00.

 My first visit was to the archaeological site of Ostia Antica. Originally this coastal settlement was simply known as Ostia, which is derived from the Latin for "mouth, " since it was located at the mouth of the Tiber River. This port was Rome's gateway to the Mediterranean for centuries, but eventually it was abandoned. The harbour had been gradually filling in with silt, and then a large earthquake shifted the course of the Tiber away from the infrastructure that had been built up in the town. By this time, a second larger harbour had been constructed a few kilometres north of Ostia, which connected to the Tiber through a series of canals. The 50 hectare site is one of the best preserved Roman cities extant, rivalling Pompeii, but without the sudden fiery death associated with that site. It took me 90 minutes to reach the site, located some 30 kms southwest of Rome. A subway ride connected to a regional light rail line, which took me to within a few hundred metres of the entrance to the site. And since it was a Monday, the site was closed. (Shoulda planned that one better!) Their English language website has a lot of information (and photos!), so if you'd like to learn more, I encourage you to browse on over to I was a little disappointed, not only at not getting to visit the site, but also at the lost time it represented. Still, it was a beautiful sunny day, and at least I hadn't walked there! I was glad I'd spent the money on the Roma Pass, if only for the unlimited use of public transit it allowed me. 

 So, back on the LRT to the Metro and my next stop of the day. This was the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains). This church was consecrated in 439 as a place to house the chains from which St Peter had been freed in Jerusalem. (See Acts 12:3-19.) These chains had been given to the mother of the wife of an emperor by the bishop of Jerusalem, and the emperor's wife in turn gave them to the Pope Leo I. There are actually two sets of chains displayed in the reliquary below the main altar. The second set are said to be the chains which bound St Peter while he was a prisoner in Rome. Apparently, these two sets of chains were miraculously fused together to form one long chain when they were laid side by side for comparison by Pope Leo. Here's a description of the Feast of the Veneration of the Precious Chains of the Holy and All-Glorious Apostle Peter, commemorated on January 16.

 Of more interest to me was the statue of Moses, completed in 1515 by Michelangelo. That was cool to see in person. For only €1 deposited in a slot, I could turn on a set of lights which illuminate the statue. I'd noticed this set up in other churches, but it was the only time I was even vaguely tempted. Other visitors were quite happy to provide illumination for the rest of us. The lighting conditions proved to be too much for the camera in my smartphone, but a quick online search for Michelangelo Moses will provide much better images than I managed to capture. The Wikipedia article provides an amusing discussion of the horns of Moses. 

 From there, it was a relatively short walk along the Via Cavour to the Basilica of St Maria Maggiore. Unfortunately, I had walked the wrong way (downhill), and only realised my mistake when the road ended at the Forum. I could have turned around and trudged back up the hill, but with a transit pass in my pocket I decided to extend my experience of Rome's public transportation system by taking a bus. I'd almost certainly have arrived sooner if I'd walked, but at least now I'd travelled by subway, tram, LRT, and bus. The horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws weren't part of the Roma Pass deal, so I simply watched as they passed me by. I did qualify for a 10% discount on a Segway rental. Maybe some other time - if I return to Rome with a travelling companion, that would totally be worth it! 

 When I (eventually) arrived at St Maria Maggiore, my first impression was of the sheer size of the 18th century structure. The original church on the site was consecrated in 350, but all traces of that are long gone. In a previous post, I'd mentioned my dislike of Baroque architecture. At St Mary's, this general bias of mine was overcome - not because of the ornately beautiful decoration, but because this church felt like an actual parish church, where people were praying and using the confessional booths. Yes, there were tourists (and I guess I was one of them), but this did not feel like a museum or art gallery. It seemed like a place of community. I have no idea why I formed this notion, nor how much my feelings are to be trusted, but I left the basilica feeling uplifted. 

 From St Mary's, it was a short walk to the church of Santa Prudenziana. This is a small church, slightly off the tourist track, and my guidebook had warned that these smaller churches were often closed for several hours after lunch. Sadly, I'd forgotten this warning, and when I arrived at 12:45, it was to find a locked gate and a sign that said it would be open again at 3:00. I met three Americans at the gate, and one of them told me that St Prudenziana is the patron saint of the Philippines, so this is where all the Filipinos in Rome attend Mass on Sunday. 

 With slightly more than two hours before the church reopened, I decided to head to the catacombs. This involved a ride on the Metro followed by a short bus ride. (Both the bus and the trip were short.) I arrived at the 17th century church of San Sebastiano, which was built on the site of the original 4th century church. This is another church built outside the walls of Rome over a cemetery. Roman civil law prohibited burials within the city walls. (Pretty smart, from a public health perspective.) This is why so many of the ancient churches are to be found on the outskirts of Rome - as devotion to a particular saint entombed in the catacombs grew, their grave was excavated and a shrine built around it, with a church above ground. St Sebastian was martyred in the 3rd century. And the church was closed. There was a separate entrance for the catacombs, and a sign there announced they were closed for the month of December. I simply laughed out loud, and decided to head back to Santa Prudenziana. It had taken slightly over an hour to get to San Sebastiano, so I figured S. Prudenziana would be open by the time I got back. 

 As I was heading back towards the bus stop, I met up with another family of Americans. We commiserated over the closures, and then the wife mentioned that the catacombs of San Callisto just down the road were open. That was actually my intended destination, per Fr. David's recommendations, but I reached San Sebastiano first. On I went. 

 The guided tours of the catacombs at San Callisto ran every half hour, and they had tour groups for speakers of Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, English, and Dutch. They may have had even more languages available, but those were the people waiting for the 2:30 tour. 

 The catacombs of San Callisto extend over 20 kms. Originally there were four separate areas, but connecting passages had been cut into the tufa rock in the 4th or 5th century. This was the first cemetery in Rome exclusively for Christian burials, whereas at Santa Agnese pagans and Christians were laid to rest together. Another difference between these two catacombs is that the passages at S. Agnese were low and narrow and claustrophobic, but at S. Callisto they were much broader, and the roofs of the passages were 10 m high in places. The explanation for that was simple. They were originally cut to allow people to walk through. As the available space in the walls were filled with grave slots, the floors were cut lower to allow more layers of graves to be added on either side. Over the centuries, the passages acquired their current spacious dimensions. That also means that the oldest graves are the ones closest to the surface. 

The professional "grave diggers" (excavators?) weren't necessarily Christian, but they were paid by the Christian community for their work. Richer families would often pay to have private family rooms carved out, and some of these were also used as chapels. (Richer families also subsidised the costs for those who could not afford to pay for a tomb for their departed.) In the years of persecution, the state allowed Christians to bury their dead - this particular cemetery was built alongside the major Roman road leading to the south of Italy, the Via Appia. What was forbidden was Christian worship, so prayers in these chapels was illegal. One chapel is still used to celebrate Mass to this day. Several of these family rooms still have frescos on the plastered walls which date to as early as the 4th century. There are depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd, scenes of baptism and the general resurrection, as well as various Christian symbols such as the Chi-Rho monogram and the fish. (The Greek word for "fish" is ΙΧΘΎΣ , which is an anagram for Ιησούς Χριστός Θεού Υιός Σοτερ - Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour.) 

 By the time we climbed back up to the surface, it was 3:00. I'd given myself a 4:00 deadline to return to my room and pack up, but I thought that I might still be able to squeeze in a visit to S. Prudenziana. Great plan, except that buses don't run as frequently in the outskirts as they do in the city. It was ten to four by the time I got back to the Metro, so I will have to visit S. Prudenziana the next time I'm in Rome. 

 I packed up, and realised it felt gooood to be walking with my pack again. Instead of taking the Metro to the train station, I walked. I still got there an hour early, so I waited for my train to appear on the departure board so I'd know which of the 30 tracks I should board from. When I'd bought my ticket the previous day, the noon train was completely sold out, and judging by what I saw once I was aboard, the evening train had sold out to. Thankfully, it was assigned seating, although there was so much luggage stowed overhead I spent the first hour with my backpack jammed in the small space between my feet and the seat in front of me. Coulda been worse, I suppose. I'd thought I would use the four hour train ride to write an update, but I slept most of the way to Bari. That also meant that I missed the opportunity to register for the free onboard WiFi. It was only made available to passengers immediately after leaving Rome. When I tried to connect later, I was electronically informed that the WiFi connection my phone could see was unavailable. 

 I arrived in Bari shortly after 10:00. I hadn't pre-booked accommodation, but I'd located a likely hostel while still in Rome. It was in the heart of the old city, a kilometre away from the train station. The streets in the new part of the city are laid out on a grid, but old Bari lanes and alleys resemble a plate of spaghetti. I did locate the Basilica of St Nicholas in my wanderings, and I made a mental note of its location for the morning. When I got to my destination, I discovered there'd been a change of ownership and the €16 per night hostel was now a €45 per night B&B. I headed back up towards the train station and found something a little more suitable. While I was registering, there was a slight delay while the desk clerk helped another guest with her room key. They were using skeleton keys for the rooms, and this poor woman could not get her door unlocked.  

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