Gulliver’s Church

Santa Maria degli Angeli is a really, really big church occupying a small part of the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.  To me, this is an extraordinarily un-church-y church.  Thoughts I should have in a church are happily replaced by imaginations of the size and grandeur of the baths.  And as if that weren’t distraction enough, there are special exhibits and a noontime show every single day!

Roman baths have fascinated me ever since I listened to The Teaching Company‘s Roman history course.  These baths were built around 300 A.D., extended over 30 acres and could accommodate 3,000 people at once.  (Stop and think about that!)  There were gargantuan pools for hot, lukewarm, and cold bathing, a vast suite of changing rooms, gymnasiums, two libraries, meeting rooms, theaters, concert halls, and gardens.

Piazza della Repubulica

I’m completely beset by how ginormous the baths were.  The church, huge though it is (huge enough to be the one used for state events), was built into a relatively small part of the ruins of those baths.  Rick Steves‘ Rome guidebook walks you through the church as if through baths themselves.

The piazza in front of the church, Piazza della Republica, was built along the outer edges of  the baths, so one can use that outline to begin to imagine their size. In fact, I had an hour break in the sun’s activity (damn that daylight savings time – I fell for it again), so I walked a few blocks from Santa Maria and the piazza to another church, San Bernardo,

San Bernardo

that was built inside a huge column that marked one corner of this huge complex of baths. So a big part of the fun of visiting Santa Maria is being able to understand how big the baths were. It boggles the mind.

At the “sunstrip,” the fun really begins.  It’s a little similar to a sundial, but it’s not round, so I don’t know what else to call it. It’s a long brass strip embedded in JUST the right place on the gorgeous marble floor. And there’s a hole up ingeniously hidden up in some crown molding that lets the sun in at JUST the right angle. So the sun shines on the floor and as the earth moves, the sunspot makes its way toward the brass strip.  And when the sun gets to the brass strip, TA DA — it’s noon!

TA - DA !!!

Except when it’s daylight savings time.  And you have to account for the difference between here and Greenwich Mean Time.  So the TA-DA ! moment happened at 1:13. Which explains why I had over an hour to kill in the middle of the day.

Discovering Your “Inner Train Geek”

I’m lucky to have Paul with me, at least for the first third of this trip. His company is enough – his willingness to write a blog post is icing on the cake. This one’s from Paul.

Here’s a tip for anyone staying near Orvieto and contemplating a day trip into Rome or Florence: it’s eminently doable, but simply rolling out of bed whenever you please (as we did) and showing up at the Orvieto train station (as we also did) with the intention of hopping a train to Rome (as we had) puts you at risk of a brief interruption in marital bliss (as we had), hereinafter referred to as a “BIMB.”

Here are two ways to avoid this and get the most out of your day-trip-by-train. First, don’t try it on your second day in Italy – you’ll be too jet-lagged to get moving early enough to make the most of your time in either city. Instead, do it on a day when you feel like getting up and out the door a little early. You can get to Rome or Florence by train before 10 a.m., but in each case count on catching a train that leaves Orvieto before 8 a.m.  (One Florence-bound and five Rome-bound trains do.) Don’t worry, the train’s rocking motion will help you recapture the sleep you bypassed. And it’ll be easy to find a train that gets you back to Orvieto in time for dinner (say, 7 to 7:30), if not a nap beforehand. This requires carefully studying the train schedule.

Which brings me to my second way to avoid having your day trip to Rome or Florence start off with a BIMB: one of you must be willing to find your “inner train geek.” Italian train schedules are readily available online. This easy access helps you familiarize yourself with the schedule and its symbols well ahead of time, long before you have your loving spouse breathing down your neck accusing you of misreading it.

Obviously, the definitive schedule (“orario”) is on the wall of the train station on the day you’re traveling. I find these schedules hypnotic, causing me to stand there for what must seem to Karen like hours, mouth agape in full fly-catcher mode. I dart back and forth from “Partenze” (the outbound schedule) to “Arrivi” (the return schedule), calculating trip duration (e.g., the fastest to Rome from Orvieto takes 52 minutes), and noting train types (the fastest are Eurostar, Intercity, and Euronight) and schedule changes for holidays (“festivi”), of which the Italians have un sacco (a lot). If you’ve mastered both the schedule and your traveling companions’ normal vacation pace, don’t be afraid to swagger to the counter and order up round-trip (“andata/ritorno”) tickets, rather than buying two one-way (“andata”) tickets. This should save you time on the other end.

One last piece of advice:  if you’ve got time to kill before the next train leaves for Rome or Florence, instead of cooling your heels inside the station’s sterile lounge, consider distracting your family or loved one with a coffee or spremuta (fresh-squeezed orange juice), or else a quick and cheap (€1) ride up the Orvieto funicular, which you can catch just across the street from the station.

Artist’s rendering of K&P, post-BIMB

Bernini, Borromini, and Bramante … Rome doesn’t get much better than this

I had a perfect hot day in Rome last week. (On a hot day in Rome, perfection includes getting back to an air conditioned room by 3:00 and spending the hottest part of the day resting one’s feet.)

Loyal readers (that’s you, Mom and Paul) already know of my fondness for Gianlorenzo Bernini, the sculptor and architect whose work decorates Rome and — please don’t think me shallow for mentioning this — starred in the Dan Brown book and Tom Hanks movie “Angels and Demons.” Visiting Bernini’s masterpieces is a perfect way for people like me who aren’t naturally drawn to museums to appreciate art. It also turns out to be a fine way to spend a day in Rome — see “My Roman Holiday” for one such day earlier this year.

On my walk through Rome last week, I branched out beyond Bernini … and liked it very much.


I started the day with a good look at the magnificent facade of a Borromini church near my hotel. Sant’ Ivo is inside the walls of the old Rome University, and it’s only open to the public a few hours a week. This morning, drinking in the beauty of the facade was enough for me.

Poor Francesco Borromini — he was so overshadowded by Bernini, his contemporary and eventual rival. It sounds like he was a tortured guy. The guidebook I was using interpreted his use of convex and concave curves as an expression of his internal conflict. Whatever. All I know is they sure are cool.


Trying to beat the heat, I hustled across the river and up the Janiculum Hill to see Il Tempietto, a glorious little dome-on-the-ground, the Renaissance masterpiece of Donato Bramante, a predecessor of Bernini and Borromini. Il Tempietto was closed the last time I tried to visit it, so my enjoyment was laced with the self-satisfaction of having conquered the sometimes-bewildering schedule for visiting churches in Rome.

Bernini and Borromini in the same block!

My next stop was a two-fer: a small and incredibly rich Bernini church (Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale) a few steps away from a small and striking Borromini church (San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, aka San Carlino). It was amazing to see one right after the other and compare the different ways these contemporaries created majestic places in such small places. Both are oval … but that’s about where the similarities end.

I was especially eager to spend some time in Sant’ Andrea, and not just because my last visit was cut short by the bare-shoulder police. (My friend Carol and I had forgotten to take something to wear over our sleeveless tops and the caretaker or usher scowled at us until we left.) I read that Bernini himself was particularly fond of this church and that in his later years he would spend time inside, just admiring it. If it’s good enough for Bernini, it’s good enough for me. I would have relished my time there under any circumstances, but the idea that I was doing what he had done himself was particularly moving.

Borromini’s comparable masterpiece is on the corner no more than a block away from the Sant’ Andrea, and I’m glad I had my Michelin’s guide with me. It calls this church, his first full-scale work, the one that “probably shows his genius at its best.” More important, though, the guide pointed out the ingenuity, beauty and importance of the facade, which is hard to appreciate because it is so close to the street. Without that prompt, I would have missed one of the best parts of this gem simply by failing to cross the street and look back.

So while I still love Bernini, Borromini is #1 on my list of “Socially challenged Swiss Italian architects of the Roman Baroque that I would most like to have with me if I were stranded on a desert island.” (Um, I’m not the only one that keeps that list, am I?)

Francis – the secret ingredient

Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled with the strides I’ve made learning Italian. I even fought a traffic ticket in Italian, for crying out loud.  (Sort of – watch this space. I’ll tell the story soon.) Still, after 5 weeks fending for myself, it was a relief to be treated to a day in Tuscany, in the care of Francis Surman. To say he’s a driver undersells what he offers. Yes, he’s a fine driver — with a large and comfortable 8-person Mercedes van — but, more than that, he has extensive experience as a personal assistant.

In short, Francis is a “fixer” who makes things happen. Guests at our villa have hired Francis to negotiate their rental car in advance (whether in Rome or Orvieto), to pick them up at the airport, to help ship their purchases home, to tour them around Rome, or, as we did, to take them on a ramble through wine country and get them home in one piece without any close encounters with Italian authorities.

Here are two examples how Francis has helped our guests: for some, he has met them at the airport in Rome, added his name onto their rental car contract there, driven them to the villa, and helped get them settled; for others, he has picked them up at the airport and driven them in his car or van to the Orvieto rental agency and then led them to the villa. Letting Francis work out these sorts of details can be a very gentle way to begin a trip to the heart of Italy.

A thoroughly delightful companion, Francis speaks 5 languages, has an encyclopedic knowledge of films (ask to see his Hannibal Lecter impersonation), and is at ease in any crowd. And it’s easy to see why so many of Francis’s regular clients are affiliated with the UN (which employs thousands in Rome): he could give the professional diplomats a run for their money. On the day we toured Tuscany with Francis, the plan was for Jeff to come to Benano early in the morning to consult with us and the workmen on the construction project, while Francis would come later with Jeff’s wife Robin and our other three friends. As we were wrapping up our meeting, Francis came to the door and announced his arrival. Jeff asked, “Are we ready to go?” Without a “yes” or “no,” Francis gave Jeff all the information he needed to discern the answer for himself. He replied pleasantly, “Your wife is in the car.”


Gelato makes a good day great, and the quest for the perfect gelato is a delightful hobby — or obsession.  I didn’t plan my visit to Rome around gelato, but, come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea.

“Chiuso” (Closed) — it’s been said that this is the most common word in the Italian language

My most recent pursuit of gelato began when I was at the Spanish Steps.  Before lunch.  (And your point is … ?)

I thought of the gelato place called 71 Sotto 0 (translates to 71 degrees below zero) and realized that would be a great destination for the next part of my tour of Rome.  Our friends who live in the Rome found it and swear that it’s hands-down the best in the city.  It’s a gelateria that looks like all the others, but … mamma mia, the gelato is delicious.  For those keeping track of such things, the address is Via Monte Brianzo, 71.

I got to walk all the way down the oh-so-elegant Via Condotti.  Along the way, I took a peek into a little church on the left called Santa Trinita.  It was interesting enough to distract me from my quest, if only briefly.  As Italian churches go, it’s very small.  So small, in fact, that it’s essentially just the dome.  So I entered right into the rotunda area, “did” Santa Trinita very quickly, and was back on the prowl for gelato in no time.  I returned to the street, which changed names and jogged a little, requiring me to bear left at one point (again, for those keep track of such things).  Via Monte Brianzo is essentially the far end of Condotti near where it would run into the river.  71 Sotto 0 is on the left, and I could see the ice cream cone hanging over the door from a block away.

But the  sign on the door read chuiso (closed).  I was out of luck.

San Crispino's

San Crispino’s – named after a saint who probably never existed

Mightily disappointed, but not dissuaded, I soldiered onward toward San Crispino, another favorite gelateria.  Paul reminds me that it’s named after a saint who is no longer thought to have existed.  Nonetheless, eating San Crispino gelato is a religious experience.

It’s a pretty slick operation – there are several locations, New York Times reviews, long lines in the summer, and a great reputation.  The gelato is delicious and distinguished by particularly innovative flavors (e.g., ginger).  The honey flavored gelato made me so curious that I had to ask for a taste (“posso assaggiare” — “may I taste…?”).  I went with the apple and cinnamon and wasn’t disappointed.

If San Crispino had not panned out (and once I regained my composure after a second closed gelateria, that is), I would have had other good options: Giolitti, the gelato institution of Rome or Blue Ice.  Blue Ice is a chain with stores all over Rome; we often find ourselves at the one near Campo de Fiori.

Thank heavens (or the fictional Saint Crispin), San Crispino’s was there for me.  Sated with gelato, it was time to look for lunch. Again, I ask … what’s your point?