“When from the sea the shape of an island appears, there it becomes a site of the soul.”
Ponza is one of six islands that make up the archipelago called the Pontine Islands. Set in the Tyrrhenian sea just off the west coast of Italy between Rome and Naples, Ponza is the largest and most developed.
The port of Ponza was alive with sparkling lights pinned against the dark silhouette of rising hills as we deported the boat from Formia on the mainland. Excited but tired, we made our way through the night to our lodgings. Our explorations would wait until morning, after a good nights sleep. Read more →
I had just arrived in Trastevere from the ancient forum across the Tiber River in Rome. Dodging traffic and keeping my sense of direction paid off. Trastevere, with a past reputation of that ‘seedy, wrong-side-of-the-river’ village Rome. But I found it anything but seedy. With my back to the river, I began my journey into the depths of this ancient and colorful neighborhood.
Trastevere is still a busy place, but it has hummed with human activity since 750 BC. Beginning with the Etruscans, it eventually developed a large Jewish population and grew into a multi-cultural community. The inhabitants were called “Trasteverini.” Trastevere is Latin for Trans Tiberim, meaning ‘beyond the Tiber River.’
After stopping by a cafe for a cappuccino and cornetto, I passed ivy-colored trattorias and weathering apartments. Umbrella-shaded outdoor cafes lined the alleyways filled with tatoo shops and alimentari (a small market selling fresh produce, cold cuts and dry goods.) It was in an alimentari that I had my first experience on local manners.
“Non toccare, mi metterò che,” “Don’t touch, I will get it.” the young man chided as I picked up a banana. Taking it out of my hands he took it to the front counter. I paid my due and left, a little wiser on local protocol.
I set off to find the famous old church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Following a few twists and turns, I was standing in the small grassed courtyard before the church.
St. Cecilia was a young woman who lived here during the 2nd century when Christianity was sporadically persecuted. As the legend goes, she was martyred by beheading (three attempts) for her faith. A white life-size marble replica of her lies under the altar in the main church.
An archaeological dig below the church is believed to be the remains Cecilia’s home. I was eager to go exploring. After entering the church, I found a small office to the left where a friendly Italian speaking nun with a huge smile let me descend the stairs to the house ruins for a small fee.
The air grew damp and earthy as I stepped onto the ancient turf. I was experiencing an Indiana Jones moment. It was more spacious than I thought it would be, leading me to believe that Cecilia belonged to a wealthy family. A main hallway ran straight back with rooms on each side. Some original marble pieces, floor tiles and columns were left to be viewed.
After I left the church of St. Cecilia, I discovered the oldest fountain in Rome. It was located in the center of the nearby piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Traced back to the 8th century, it was restored during the late Renaissance by the architect Donato Bramante. This piazza is the neighborhoods most important one with the steps of the fountain designed to be the so-called ‘sofa’ of the neighborhood. During important soccer games, a huge screen is set up in the piazza for everyone to watch and share in the excitement.
This fountain is not without a legend. As it goes, on the night of the birth of Christ a stream of oil burst forth miraculously on this same spot in front of the church. Who can say for sure, but it certainly put this piazza on the map.
As I sat on the steps of the fountain and watched the hustle of people crossing the piazza against a backdrop of cramped and peeling buildings, I wondered if anything had really changed all that much over the centuries.
I crossed the piazza and onto the portico of the landmark church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
The church of Santa Maria was founded in the 4th century, making it one of the oldest churches in Rome. Inside are exquisite Cavallini mosaics dating from the 13th century. The portico (covered area just outside the door) is covered with bits of old stone with Christian symbols. Many are believed to be parts of lids to early catacomb burial niches. The entire front of the columns are lit up at night, casting a golden glow onto the piazza.
Evening was quickly descending. The narrow cobbled alleyways lined with medieval houses gave way to a throbbing Roman nightlife as twilight slid into darkness. Pubs, cafes and restaurants faced the crowded streets, beckoning to me as I passed. Waiters stood advertising their menus to the din of a nearby guitar.
“Madame abbiamo un tavolo per uno!” “Madam, I have a table for one.” A handsome waiter had just tapped my elbow and motioned toward a seat. His smile and touch convinced me. “Perché sì, grazie,” I buckled.
As the evening wore on, I made my way slowly back toward my room. Bands of musicians played along the streets while diners enjoyed good food and friends with indiscreet enthusiasm. Scruffy poets stood in corners quoting in reckless abandon. Trastevere hasn’t changed much over the centuries in appearance. The streets still attract crowds of locals and tourists alike. But today, it is becoming an upscale neighborhood, far removed from the pain and poverty of the distant past.
But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn’t compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed. I am inspired by the regal self-assurance of this city, so grounded and rounded, so amused and monumental, knowing she is held securely in the palm of history. I would like to be like Rome when I am an old lady.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
Guess who’s turning 2,767 years old this today? Rome it is. Twin brothers Romulus and Remus must get some credit as founding fathers of this famously historical metropolis. Nursed by a she-wolf after being orphaned, as legend goes, these boys grew up to establish the city of Rome in 753 BC. Rich in culture, wine, food, archaeology, fashion, music, and a travelers dream, Rome continues to impact the world today.
Moving away from legend, modern archaeologists believe that inhabitants of small Latin settlements converged at the Forum during this time, from which the city grew. The hills and marshes around the Forum and the location of the Tiber River protected the newly established community. Although the Etruscans from the north conquered Rome around 625 BC, they advanced the town into an important city-state, ruled by kings. The rest, so they say, is history.
If you happen to be in Rome, join in with the festivities taking place all over the Eternal City. In the Circus Maximus, reenactments of the history of Rome which include the story of Romulus and Remus and several exciting battle scenes between Romans and Barbarians will take place. The Pantheon and Piazza del Campidoglio will host live bands and concerts. Street performers and parades with traditional costumes of historical figures such as Roman soldiers, slaves, barbarians and senators will be seen throughout the city.
Monuments, archaeological sites and museums are free all day.
Aventine hill will be wrapped with torches and lights. Gladiatorial shows and Roman feasts will take place followed by grandiose fireworks over the Tiber River that will cap off the evening.
The Romans know how to celebrate, so don’t be outdone. Grab a gelato or, better yet, a glass of sparkling Frascati and enjoy a beautiful sunset wherever you are.
Like a fairytale kingdom floating over the Tiber River Valley, Civita is one spot on earth seemingly untouched since medieval times. Perched on a pinnacle of tufa rock high above a vast canyon, erosion and earthquakes over time caused parts of this once prosperous village to tumble into the valley below. Formerly attached to her sister city Bagnoregio by a saddle of land, Civita is destined to eventually perish but stubbornly refuses to let go.
My experience with Civita is short but holds lasting impressions. A footbridge 900 ft. long crosses the chasm and leads up to tall medieval gates. The view of the canyon below reminds me of a lunar landscape. Evidence of fallen chunks of earth and tufa surround the valley, leaving deep grooves that mar the landscape. The entrance to the village is a massive stone passageway cut through rock by the Etruscans 2500 years ago and embellished in the 12th century with a Romanesque arch.
As I pass under the archway, my feet touch down on old stone. Ivy crawls up walls and drapes over old archways. Pots of red geraniums line stairs and balconies. All is quiet but the occasional drip of the swirling grey mist.
Down the street, I notice a Renaissance palace on the piazza with only a facade. The rest of the house broke off and fell into the valley far below years ago due to the erosion of the hill. Windows reveal the sky instead of curtains.
A church on the main piazza is originally the site of an Etruscan temple that became a Roman church. Tall pillars across the front stand as a reminder of those early pagan shrines.
The ground beneath Civita is honeycombed with ancient cellars and cisterns. Some have existed since Etruscan times and are still used for storing wine and collecting rainwater. During World War II, a bomb shelter was made inside a pre-Roman tunnel.
The late afternoon grows cold and damp as I explore the further reaches of Civita. Following a pathway just down from the village, I find a small cave-like taverna with a warm fire illuminating the dark interior. The warmth draws me in. A 1500 year old olive press stands inside the doorway, once operated by blindfolded donkeys.
A young friendly man greets and seats me at a small table by the fire. Slices of bread are toasting on top of a grate over lapping flames. Shadows dance on the walls as the smell of hot bread and garlic fill the room. Sipping a glass of red wine, I watch as the bread is taken from the hearth. An olive tapenade is spread liberally on the garlic-rubbed bruschetta and placed before me. Maybe it is the combination of drizzling weather and the warmth of the open fire, or that it was hours since I had eaten. Possibly it was the entire magical experience of Civita. Whatever the reason, the rustic goodness was unforgettable.
It all started in Naples, typically alive with activity. Shop proprietors were busy selling their wares while lines of hungry people formed in front of several small pizzerias for a lunchtime snack. All was bustling and full of the sights, sounds and smells that make Naples uniquely what it is. Before long I found my funicular, Centrale to Piazza Fuga. It would take me up to San Martino, a neighborhood of Naples high above the city.
After arriving in San Martino, I bumped into Giovanni on the road leading up to Castello San Elmo. His genteel manner and friendly countenance put me at ease immediately, and I found him easy to talk to. We immediately engaged in a lively chat and soon ended up at his shop, De Paolo Cameo factory. I was delightfully amazed. The shop windows were alive with many mother-of-pearl cameos, all delicately carved into beautiful ladies, mythical creatures and lovely flowering scenes. But that wasn’t my only surprise!
After stepping inside the small shop, I was greeted with warm smiles by Giovanni’s two brothers. One looked a lot like Jack Nicholson. I never said a word to him about it, but when he sold me one of his prize cameos, he gave me a wink and assured me I could tell others that ‘Jack Nicholson’ sold me a cameo.
The shop was fascinating. I learned that the tradition of making cameos had remained in the family for three generations, keeping the Neapolitan tradition of cameo engraving alive and lucrative. Vincenzo De Paolo, founder and CEO, opened shop in 1932 and since then has kept up the passion, pride and uniqueness of product that has built a legacy of this creative family tradition.
‘Jack’ (never caught his real name) was carving a cameo just inside the door of the shop. It was very intriguing to watch the fine etching that turned each shell piece into a lovely design. There were no two alike.
Two types of shells are used. One is the Sardonic, coming from the Caribbean or the Bahamas, with a brown underside that enables clear incisions. The other is called the Carnelian, which tends toward red tones, of Africa origin.
Necklaces, earrings, pendants and bracelets were all bedecked with cameos portraying intricate flowers, female profiles and mythological figures from vintage to modern. Upon closer inspection, I was very impressed by the delicate detail of hair curls and facial expressions.
Vibrant displays of coral necklaces and earrings were sprinkled throughout the displays. Interestingly enough, coral has been found in the Etruscan excavations and paintings. I found that even today many people believe coral contains strong healing powers and helps to keep disasters at bay. Coral has always been in vogue, it seems, and is quite striking in appearance.
When I left with the hand-picked cameo necklace that ‘Jack’ sold me, Giovanni walked me down the road toward Castello San Elmo and the Museum of S. Martino which was once a monastery, built in 1368 (more on this to come later). The views of Naples and the bay between these two was breathtaking and I took a number of photos. Giovanni wished me well and retraced his steps back to the shop. I stood looking down at Naples, taking in the early evening sunset that began to streak the sky with delicatecameo colors.