Another spin of my travel wheel of fortune (think Tarot card, not TV game show). For my last day in Rome, I Ubered out a ways, to Basilica Papale San Paolo Fuori le Mura, or Saint Paul Outside the Walls. I pictured a small, remote edifice haunted by the past, quiet enough for footsteps to echo in the nave, and rustic enough to hear the hum of bees in the cloister. I’d seen photos of the mosaic over the entry, but this was off the beaten track of the Centro Storico by miles. And I somehow edited out the meaning of basilica. In retrospect, I realized the image in my mind’s eye was a partial view of the mosaics across the front and perhaps a part of the cloister. I had the scale all wrong. Uber drove me past an immense structure when the scudi dropped. This was no humble, drowsy rural church, this was one of the heavy hitters.
As soon as I saw the security tent, up by the road and away from the building, I took my iPhone and the Altoids tin that holds my cash out of my pockets and put them in my bag. I know the drill. It didn’t take long. For all the great size of this place, there were few people in line. I appreciated the very visible presence of security at these sites. Though I have no faith that it would stop a determined suicide bomber, I’m glad they stand guard over humanity’s heritage.
I buzzed in and followed the sign to the museum and cloister section. I loved the rotini twirl of the slender columns and the wink of delicate mosaics.The cloister, created between 1220 and 1241, was modest in size compared to the one in the Baths of Diocletian, but no less tranquil. There was a shallow pool in the center and I saw the orange flash of a koi tail beneath the water plants. A pair of young priests walked briskly through the covered arcade.**
I turn a corner, step into a small room, and there before me was a niche of reliquaries. They were still in service, that is to say, the bone fragments of skulls, arms, fingers were still inside. There was a notice to the effect that this was a chapel, not a museum exhibit.
There was a list matching a reliquary image to a list of who’s who inside; St. Stephen, St. Laurence and St. Timothy among them. I took photos and notes on the style and construction of the boxes. I felt lucky and blessed.
There’s a small museum of Saint Paul Outside the Walls-related artifacts: letters from popes pertaining to the basilica, accounts of the rebuilding after near total destruction from an 1823 fire, painting of disciples writing their gospels, illuminated manuscripts, but the glare off the glass cases was such I have no photos to share.
I thought it was funny when I realized I had to exit through the gift shop. Shades of Banksy! Turns out they sell Vatican stamps and had a post box for them. Decision made, I bought a handful of postcards, took my pastry and sat in the sun on a bench outside a cafe.
Nearby me 22 college students sat around a long table. The café rolled out a trolley with a bowl of steaming pasta and two kinds of sauce, and a server dished it up for them. The kids burst into snatches of song. There was intermittent giggling and banter. They reminded me of Camp Merrimac counselors out for dinner at My Father’s Pizza.
I pulled out the postcards and my pencil stubs and drew for a couple of hours. I needed to finish them in time to post them, but it was a pure pleasure. This was as close as I got to my fantasy idea of this site; scribbling away absorbed and happy, a little drowsy from the sun, in an atmosphere that was both lively and calm.
After a while, I dropped my cards from today and yesterday in the Vatican box. I have faith they will be delivered.
It was time to enter the basilica. As huge as I now knew this place to be, my jaw dropped. I was staggered by the sheer size. It was the definition of monumental. The maybe 50 tourists at the other end were dwarfed into insignificance, barely visible. It would have been utterly impressive if the chairs set out for worshippers weren’t blue molded plastic. That put a dent in the grandeur.
There were three main spaces, with 80 columns delineating them. Here’s one side, minus the blue plastic chairs. Triple it, making the central one twice as wide in your mind.
So far, St Peter’s in the Vatican is the only church I visited that hummed with life. There are worshipers in some of the other churches, but they are there to pay obeisance to the art.
Ubered from there to Quetzalcoatl Chocolatier, Via delle Carrozze, 26, Roma for some of the best caramel and chocolate I ever put in my mouth. I am somewhere between a connoisseur and a fanatic when it comes to that combination. Pricey? Well, yeah. but worth it. I get eight pieces to take home, and a few pieces of dark chocolate dipped ginger. Intense, packing some heat, spicey-sweet. Back to the hotel to finish packing, and let me praise the marvels that are E-bags. I was done in record time. Though my plane doesn’t depart until 12:30pm tomorrow, I’ll be hauling it to the airport at 9:30***
Around 8pm I walked to Valentino’s. It was the first time I’d been for dinner, though I’d been many times for lunch. I said my goodbye to Rome over a plate of pasta Amatriciana, in a place that had consistently shown me patience and kindness. I thanked them, most sincerely and they wished me safe travels.
** I’ve seen nuns on every street in Rome and I’m always surprised when I catch them window shopping. They are seldom solo, mostly women of color, and wear a wide variety of habits. I’ve seen more priests in churches than on the street, and even a couple of men in rough brown or white robes with cowls whom I presume are monks. They have backpacks like all the tourists, and rosaries hang from their waists.
*** I left at 9:45. Delta had moved my flight earlier by 15 minutes. I sprinted from the curb the .98 distance to the gate. Fortunately, there was no line for security. I made it there only 15 minutes before it started boarding.