The day I had been waiting for had finally arrived. We would see the catacombs I had heard so much about. Images of cavernous tunnels filled with remnants of painted white tombs decorated with cheerful frescoes of birds, flower motifs and other early Christian
symbols danced in my head. But first there is getting to the catacombs – an exercise in Roman public transportation that works well enough with a metro-bus combination similar to the journey to Ostia the day before. The last stop of bus 660 drops you off at Appia Antica, just down the road from the Basilica di San Sebastiano. This is the current resting place for Saint Sebastian’s remains as well as one of the famed arrows and part of the pillar he was tied to. Although I’m not a religious person, Saint Sebastian is one of my favorite saints mostly because of how often and elegantly he was portrayed by numerous artists throughout history. Some say it was because he could be depicted mostly nude, showing off the artist’s skills in rendering the human form without drawing too much attention to the fact that his subject was naked.
The catacombs below the church can be seen only with a guided tour and no pictures are allowed. The pictures shown are photographs of postcards. Our knowledgeable guide was very enthusiastic about his subject matter and I think he could have easily talked for twice as long if there wasn’t another group at our heels. He explained the history of the tunnels and the type of volcanic rock that the tombs were carved into. The setting was very much like the catacombs we saw at San Giovanni in Siracusa. But for me the most compelling sight was the three gracefully decorated mausoleums just under the church. One of them had the type of white walls and flower motif that I had pictured in my mind. The other two had equally decorative carvings along the walls and ceiling. Originally exposed to the open air, they had been intentionally covered up to build the church above.
The second catacomb site we visited, San Callisto, is the largest and most visited site in the area. This day was no exception with group after group passing through the ropes to visit the tunnels. Fortunately, only we and one other couple went with the English speaking guide, so even though there were hordes of people in the extensive tunnels we felt like we had a private tour. The explanation of the Christian history and the characteristics of the stone and tombs was pretty much the same. This site was used before Christianity was legalized by Constantine but continued after with the symbols used to mark the tombs and chapels becoming more overt. It was one of the more popular places to be buried during the period in which nine Popes were interred here, but when the Popes were moved, its popularity waned and eventually the site stopped being used. Wandering through the corridors you could get a sense of its impressive scale. Many of the passageways were sealed off as to not lose stray tourists in the vast 22 kilometer tunnel system. Some of the tombs had the frescoes I was hoping to see, but not many and not in great condition. Looking at the postcards in the gift shop I imagine some the best frescoes are not open to the public. Although the catacomb sites were fascinating, this was definitely a case of having my expectations set too high.
Our last lunch in Italy. Hard to believe. But we knew we wanted just one last pizza. We picked a random place on our way home from the catacombs that looked like it was doing good business, maybe touristy but not a problem if they could produce good pizza. Which they did. Don ordered a Napolitana. The waiters often are concerned when we order a pizza that doesn’t have cheese, but of course that is exactly what Don is looking for and they seem to relax a little. I had the porcini mushroom pizza, thinking with all the big baskets of porcinis I had been seeing outside the restaurants certainly they had to be better than those we had in Zafferana. The pizza was perfect. Nice slices of fresh meaty porcinis with the soft scent of the forest and mild mushroom flavor.
Our Last Supper
We wandered the streets for what seemed like forever, nothing looking like what we wanted – too touristy, too quiet, too expensive, not elegant enough. Finally a decision had to be made and we settled on a more up-scale restaurant, L’Angoletto, with outdoor seating on a quiet piazza near the Pantheon. The menu was more traditional Italian with an ironic Sicilian influence. We ordered the zuppa di cozze, mussel soup which is never exactly soup. I’ve finally figured out that mussel soup is really steamed mussels in a nice broth and steamed mussels are mussels cooked in salty water. Better to order the zuppa. Don’s pasta dish was one of the most interesting and attractive platings we had seen – baby octopus (just over an inch long) served with a Sicilian sauce with peeled cherry tomatoes, capers and black olives served over a short, wide tube pasta called paccheri. For our second course we went back to our old favorites, baccalà for Don (classic and well done) and I tried again with the ossobuco. Success! The super tender fall off the bone meat I was looking for, still pink – I don’t know how they did that – with a huge marrow center. The only problem was that the sauce was a little heavy on the salt. Good enough that Rome was redeemed from the previous night’s horrid example of this classic dish. The wine was a Sardinian Carignano del Sucis, Rocca Rubia Riserva from Santadi – spicy with little fruit, it had mellow tannins and a long dry finish.
Just how many times can you eat gelato in one short visit to Rome? I don’t even want to say, but we had to make just one last trip to our favorite gelateria, Giolitti, for that creamy perfection. Really nothing tastes the same as Roman gelato. Don with his vanilla leanings discovered two new flavors, riso (rice) – vanilla with real rice, and zabaione –a Marsala custard. Both very good in a non-chocolaty kind of way, but I’m way too biased to comment further.
Arrivederci Roma, Tornarmo Presto!