Day 14: back to Rome
So I had been surprised that we needed to get our suitcases ready the night before and I was further surprised that the last morning was so rushed as well. I suppose it makes sense that if embarkation for the next cruise starts at noon, they need to get those rooms ready and the passengers off the boat, but we were obliged to leave the room at 8:30 (we had breakfast just before then), and shortly afterwards our preselected time/luggage tag was called, and we swiped out of the ship for the last time, walked to the “cruise ship terminal” (essentially a very large tent), found our luggage in the “purple luggage tag” area, found a shuttle bus from the port to the bus parking lot, bought tickets for and boarded the municipal bus to the train station, bought train tickets back to Rome Ostiense, and made our way back to the Hotel Pyramid.
This time we went out a different exit, and saw in the opposite direction, an IKEA and a place called Eataly, which I understood to be a massive food court. So we brought our bags back to the hotel, dropped them off at their storage room, and, having been told that our room would be ready in an hour, went off for lunch at IKEA/Eataly — except that it turned out to be a sort of mini-IKEA without a restaurant, and Eataly turned out to be more of a gourmet food market with a few pricy restaurants, and our “keep our eyes open on the way back to the hotel” was also a bust, so we checked in, ate some fruit, and moped around for a bit before heading out again.
The plan was the catacombs, which were not far but a bit of a hassle to get to by public transportation so we found a pizza and gyro place to get some lunch (finally!), then bought some bus tickets at the train station (because we knew we would take the bus from the catacombs to our next destination), and found the taxi stand to go there. Now, it was already hot but we figured, “it’ll be underground, so that’ll be perfect,” and the tour itself was pretty dang interesting, but my son repeatedly said he was tired and, afterwards, wanted nothing other than to lay down in the grass, but there didn’t seem to be anything tangible wrong with him so we continued to make plans for our next step, which was, in this case, the cathedral of St. John Lateran, which happened to be the end-of-the-line of the bus line that ran out to the catacombs (which, though they seemed in the countryside, were really still very much in the center of Rome).
(No, I have no photos of the catacombs; taking pictures was prohibited.)
This is a pretty danged cool church, all the more so with its description of being uber-historic (consecrated in the year 324!) but at the same time, constantly remodeled. (Historical preservationists would have a heart attack!)
The doors, by the way, were previously at the Roman Senate at the Forum, and survived by having been relocated.
Now, just to throw this in there, it was Sunday. We had spent the morning dealing with transportation logistics so hadn’t been to mass and I had kind of left it at “we’ll see if we can figure something out around dinnertime.” And indeed, there was a 5:30 mass right there, and it was 5:15 already but my son was getting tired and, after all, our final destination was Trastevere, a neighborhood described as having a great combination of restaurants and relaxing atmosphere, and there were several historic churches there. But first I wanted to find the Holy Stairs, which, per the guidebook, were immediately adjacent.
What are the Holy Stairs?
These are the stairs at the praetorium in Jerusalem which Jesus climbed up when on trial by Pilate, brought to Rome by St. Helena (Constantine’s mom) in the year 326. Or maybe not. Skeptics say that Jerusalem was razed in the year 70, and at any rate, that type of marble, or any marble at all, really wouldn’t have been used in construction in Jerusalem at the time of Herod. A more optimistic author writes:
Before my visit, I ask another Jesuit, an officially registered guide with an aptitude for things scientific, about the Holy Stairs. The doubts, he explains, had to do with the type of marble with which the stairs are made: It is Italian, not Middle Eastern. But then he adds with a twinkle in his eye, more recent research has shown that the Romans had the habit of constructing civic buildings in the far reaches of their empire from materials imported from the fatherland—a none-too-subtle way of reminding conquered subjects on whose soil they now stood. The stairs were an obvious mark for Helena and, unlike nails, hard to duplicate. With unlimited access to the imperial credit card, she would have had no problem acquiring her stairs and sending them gift-wrapped back to Rome. Her son built Constantinople. These people were not coupon-clippers.
What’s more, the stairs had been covered with wood since 1723 to protect them, but in April they were uncovered as part of a restoration project; rather than close off the stairs entirely while the wood was being restored, they opened up the marble stairs themselves to the public. And this was planned to last until Pentecost, but the restoration project must have lasted longer than expected, since the signs now said they’d be accessible until July 9th. (It was June 30 that we were there.) What was particularly extraordinary about the stairs was that, as a result of nearly 1,500 years of pilgrimage, there were deep grooves in the stairs – which meant that it was, in fact, fairly penitential to ascend them, on one’s knees, at a slow pace, as determined by the prayerfulness of everyone in front of you, along with a bottleneck as the stairs narrow. And here’s the deal: whether these were the “real” Stairs Jesus Climbed or whether Helena got conned on her relic-collecting trip, every groove was evidence that I (and my husband and son, who definitely didn’t know what he was getting into but was kind of stuck) was following in the footsteps (“kneesteps” – you have to kneel) of so many pilgrims for so many years, and that, to me, was extraordinary, regardless of what the truth of the matter was. (Incidentally, Wikipedia has a photograph with a small number of pilgrims; I don’t know if it’s a matter of time-of-year, time-of-day or if everyone was drawn by the bare marble, but the Stairs were filled with people.)
Also, as a bonus, mass had started in the top-of-the-stairs chapel, the “holy of holies,” pretty much as we started at 5:30, and we could faintly hear the priest’s voice as we ascended. When we reached the top, it was 6:00 and they had just started the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which took a further 10 minutes.
Now, I have no pictures of the interior (again, no pictures permitted). Here is the exterior:
Yes, it not only looks so little like a church that we only stopped in out of curiosity, thinking we would then resume the search for the actual Holy Stairs, but that is indeed an ad. Now, maybe Samsung was a significant donor to the renovation going on inside, but couldn’t they have phrased it a bit differently: “Samsung is happy to sponsor the renovation of this holy site,” for instance? Yikes.
The Holy Stairs!!!
But the rest of the day was anticlimactic. My son got increasingly worn out, so we took a cab to the Trastevere neighborhood, but then we concluded that we simply needed to have dinner at the first reasonable place rather than walking around to find the more-atmospheric part of the area. And he hardly ate any dinner, and we took a cab home rather than the planned “look, a bus goes right by here that gets us back to our hotel!” and then I pulled out the thermometer from my toiletry bag and he did indeed have a fever. (He was fine the next morning, except that he ended up with a mild cold and it’s fairly common for him to have a fever that goes away without any other real symptoms except that it becomes a cold.) After we got home, he was disappointed that we weren’t able to explore the area, because it was part of an episode on Rick Steves’ travel show which was on rotation on the cruise ship’s travel channel.
And that was the vacation. The next day we got up early, walked back to the train station, took the train to the airport, and flew home.
So I hope you enjoyed some of my pictures or stories. And if not, thank you for humoring me every bit as much as the stereotypical couple who dragoon their friends into watching vacation slides.