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Todayville Travel: Spring in Italy- Rome and Puglia

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First in the two-part series ‘Spring in Italy’

“Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.” “Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”

On a lonely country road near Ostuni, in the Province of Puglia – the heel of Italy’s boot – I stopped to photograph a field of poppies in an olive grove. After a few happy snaps I jumped back in the car and motored on. Fifteen minutes later I reached for my daypack and realized in horror that I had left the pack (complete with camera lenses and phone) on the rock wall that fronted the poppy field. We sped back. The bag was gone. Impossible. We hadn’t been gone half an hour and there were no other cars on the road.

Poppy field in Puglia

While I lay morosely in the ditch, tearing hair and gnashing teeth, my wife Florence calmly analyzed the situation: “Why don’t we call your Iphone?” We expectantly dialed from her cell. No answer. I moped back to the roadside. Florence then suggested, “Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.”

“Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”

We broke bread, cut cheese and sliced salami. I tried vainly to enjoy a cold Peroni on this otherwise beautiful day. It seemed impossible that, in the short time we had been away, someone could have spotted my satchel in a rock crevice on this remote country lane. “There must be another explanation,” I muttered, “maybe a conspiracy.”

An hour later we were disconsolately packing up when a faded 1960’s era Fiat Panda pulled up and stopped tentatively beside us. An elderly man with glasses thick as an olive-oil bottle gazed out from behind the wheel. He eyed us with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. A young boy with equally opaque glasses – obviously a blood relative – peered shyly from the passenger seat. Together they began a lengthy, incomprehensible Puglian discourse – and only when satisfied that we understood the situation, did they proudly retrieve my bag from the back seat.

“Mille, mille grazie,” I said, confused but genuinely grateful. I wanted a picture but the old signor waived us off and the aged Fiat puttered slowly away. “Yup,” Florence remarked, “a conspiracy.”

For years my patient wife has been suggesting, “We should spend a month in Italy.” And for ages I nodded – and deferred. But last spring when the annual request edged toward an ultimatum, in the interests of marital harmony, I acquiesced.

“And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.”

As seasoned travellers we often tour by the seat of our pants, plans random, frequently pulling into a strange town late afternoon searching for accommodation. This has worked well in some places but, in a country where you no speaka da lingua, advance booking is wiser – and infinitely less stressful.

So when the plane touched down at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport in early April, our four weeks of lodging – three nights here, four nights there – were all booked. Even our ride into Rome was arranged. A driver awaited us, patiently displaying a “Mr. and Mrs. Feehan” sign. And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.

We didn’t organize this trip on our own – nor did we use a tour company or travel agent. We employed a much better resource: Sandy, an acquaintance who loves Italy, has been there many times and knows exactly where to direct a couple of adventurous travellers in the land of the Azzurri.

Our friend fashioned the entire itinerary: four days exploring Rome, ten days in the south, a few days biking near San Marino and a final 10 days in the rolling hills of Tuscany. Her planning was so meticulous (right down to AirB&Bs in the heart of each town plus offering detailed day-trip ideas) that I feel we owe her a substantial commission – or maybe just a nice spaghetti dinner.

So for those looking for some free advice and a fool-proof schedule for your upcoming trip to Italy, Sandy’s phone number is…

Rome is a remarkable, fascinating place. This ancient capital of the empire is overflowing with architecture, museums, statuary, Roman ruins and wonderful old neighbourhoods. And despite the sprawling megalopolis that is modern Rome, its iconic sites (the Coliseum, Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon and St. Peter’s) can all be visited in a day’s stroll.

Rome at night

 

Enjoying Trevi Fountain with a few hundred intimate friends

But Rome is overwhelmed with tourists. On average 40,000 people a day cue up to shuffle obediently through the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. April is allegedly shoulder season – and we had booked a “private tour” – but we still had to share Michelangelo’s artistic brilliance with a giant throng of gawking souls, heads uniformly craned toward the majestic ceiling.

The Vatican Museum

Like many big cities Rome is a little seedy. Pope Francis has allowed the homeless to camp within meters of St Peter’s Square. Unfortunately this generous gesture does not add to the curb appeal of the Basilica. We felt a little uncomfortable at night, dodging snoring vagrants, cardboard houses, used needles and other discarded paraphernalia.

Times are tough at St. Peter’s Square

I’m not a big city guy so after four days with the hawkers and beggars and tourists snapping pictures with their “selfish sticks” I was happy to pick up our rental car and head for sleepy Puglia, in Italy’s delightful south.

Although it has millennia of history, Italy is actually a new country – only a few years older than Canada. Giuseppe Garibaldi rode in on his horse and unified all the disparate kingdoms in 1861. But even today northern Italians tend to look down their noses at their southern brethren. And reciprocally a hint of proud defiance defines the Puglian character.

Puglians are defiant- but fashionable!

Our first stop in the south was Matera, a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its cliffside cave dwellings or sassi. These grottos have been continuously occupied since Neolithic times and the humble Materans are enormously proud of the “negative architecture” of these underground abodes.

One warm afternoon while we strolled a grassy cliffside path, a well-dressed middle-aged man stepped out from the shadows, cigarette dangling from his lips. He introduced himself as Fabrizio and invited us to visit his family sasso and the kitchen where traditional (tipica) food was served.

Fabrizio

“Quanto?” I asked suspiciously, concerned about the cost. “For the cave, free,” he said, “and if you wish something to eat, you decide what to pay.” It was nearly 1 p.m. and we were somewhat peckish, so we warily accepted his invitation.

“I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.”

Thus began the most interesting and enjoyable afternoon of our Italian visit. After showing us the intricately hand-carved rooms where the ancients slept and stabled their animals – as well as the cisterns where water and wine were stored – Fabrizio led us up a narrow passage to his open-air kitchen overlooking Matera.

The view from Fabrizio’s kitchen

Then he started the service. First, the antipasti: crusty bread with four olive oil dips, each infused with a local herb, then bruschetta made from shredded garlic and ripe dried tomatoes, then an amazing assortment of meats, cheeses and vegetables.

I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.

Fabrizio chatted constantly while he worked – a knowing smile on his face – educating us on local foods, customs and lifestyle. There was also an unending supply of wine, “vino rosso della casa,” vinted from primitivo grapes, which have been cultivated in this region for thousands of years.

“Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?”

There were so many courses I can’t recall them all – fish and more cheese were in there somewhere – but I know we finished with dolce (sweets) and a jolt of espresso.

Fabrizio’s motto is “less is more” but I’ve rarely eaten more in one sitting. Three hours after stumbling in on this amazing gastronomic and cultural experience, we stumbled out into the late afternoon sun. As we left Fabrizio called out, “Won’t you have some pasta Bolognese?” I think if we had kept eating he’d still be bringing out dishes.

And what was il conto you ask? He humbly, delightedly accepted 40 euro – about $60.

A couple of weeks later on the flight home, over the drone of jet engines, I asked Florence, “Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?” She raised her eyes toward the heavens, shook her head and said, “It must have been a conspiracy.” Then she smiled and nodded off.

Ostuni at night

Trulli House

Next time: Riccione and the Tuscan Hills

 

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

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History

Gerry Feehan Receives the Legendary Invitation, A World Famous Newfoundland Tradition

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11By Gerry Feehan

This is the third of four parts in the Newfoundland series. Scroll down to find Part 1, Gros Morne, and part 2 North America’s Oldest European Settlement

If Newfoundlanders weren’t so damn friendly we’d have been on time for our Jiggs dinner.

Terra Nova National Park is situated in eastern Newfoundland, 399 sq km of rugged rock, trees and wetland, wrapped around idyllic fingers of Bonavista Bay. The Trans-Canada highway bisects the park, then continues southeast toward Come by Chance and eventually the capital, St. John’s, on the Avalon Peninsula. It was early October. Terra Nova was still open for business, but quiet, so we had our choice of primo campsites. As we checked in I grabbed a bag of firewood. It was going to be a cold night, with frost expected. The ranger stopped me, “No sense you paying for wood. The folks in site 17 just bought a big load. Just go over and join them when the fire starts.”

And so we did. And that’s how we met Burkey and Bev. Even before we reached their roaring fire, Burkey spotted us timidly approaching from the shadows, and without a word, pulled out spare chairs and began pouring drinks. It was Thursday before Thanksgiving. The Burkes were setting up camp, preparing for the arrival of friends and family, and prepping for the big occasion: Sunday’s Jiggs dinner. After a fun evening of chatter (interspersed with a few tunes from my ever-present ukulele) we rose to bid adieu. “You’ll come for dinner Sunday?” asked Barb. I did some quick calculating. We had a week left on The Rock but had yet to visit St. John’s. Plus there was the Irish Loop and Bonavista Peninsula to explore. And we had a long drive back west to Port Aux Basque, almost 1000km, in order to catch the ferry on Tuesday.

“Sure,” I said.

On Sunday we awoke to a gorgeous morning at the Cabot Highway RV Park, a few kilometers from the town of Trinity, on Bonavista Peninsula. (The intervening 3 days and our St John’s/Avalon/Irish Loop drive will be recounted in the fourth and final yarn of this series.) When we reached Trinity I headed straight through town, bound for the local pier, as I am wont to do. Preoccupied by the brightly painted clapboard homes, 19th century church spires and scenic fishing stages (houses hanging over the water used for cleaning cod), I failed to observe that the roadway was becoming dangerously narrow.

We ended up trapped on the town boat ramp, pointed seaward. There was no way to turn the motorhome around. Florence was starting in on my (justly-deserved) beratement when a boat pulled up to the wharf. “What are you after doing down there, b’y?” asked the operator with an amused look. With his guidance I was able to slowly reverse position and get the RV pointed away from the slippery slope and safely back toward land. I offered my thanks. “No trouble,” said he, bobbing in his boat. “I’m taking friends out for a tour of the bay this lovely morning. Would you and your wife like to join us?” I did some more calculating. It was a two-hour drive back to Terra Nova. Jiggs dinner was at 3pm. “We’d need to be back to shore by 1pm,” I said. “No worries,” he replied, “I’ll have you at the dock by noon at the latest.”

It was a fantastic outing. Skipper Bob and his partner Bonnie run www.trinityecotours.com. The tourist season was almost over and the day’s trip was just for fun. Although the usual fare is $90 a person, they refused to take our money. We followed the rugged coastline, where the remains of the ancient Appalachian Mountains slip into the sea. In Trinity Bay, while a whale spouted to starboard, we came alongside a fisherman hauling up net and cleaning cod. He offered us a bag overflowing with fillets and, with the waive of a hand, made it clear he wouldn’t accept payment.

Cod fishermen are a generous bunch

As we motored into a protected, hidden bay, the remains of a long-abandoned village came into view. Bonnie told us, “This place is known as Ireland’s Eye. On the other side of the island is a spot called Black Duck Cove. That’s where my dad lived until he was 11years old.  In the mid 50’s the government began a resettlement program to get people who lived on remote islands to move to the mainland where there would be better access to services like hospitals and schools.”

In some respects it was forced relocation. Many people, rather than abandon their homes, floated their lodgings to the mainland communities. “The old place on Ireland’s Eye was left behind but my grandfather floated a house from Pope’s Harbour to New Bonaventure in August 1965. It was a saltbox style, with the porch and bathroom added later.”

Life was hard on The Rock 50 years ago.

Skipper Bob and the crew

Time flies when you’re playing on the ocean. It was after 2pm when Bob idled the boat back into the marina. We bid a hasty thank-you and adieu and raced for Terra Nova. When we arrived at the campground it was getting dark. All sites were vacant save one. Bev and Burkey were just breaking camp, headed back to Clarenville.

“We are so sorry,” I apologized. “No problem,” said Bev. “You said you were coming for scoff so I knew you’d be here. I did up a couple of plates. They’re still warm.”

A traditional Newfoundland Jiggs dinner consists of turkey, dressing, gravy, bread pudding, carrots, turnip, cabbage, mashed potatoes, pease pudding, figgy duff – and boiled salt beef. For dessert Barb likes to do blueberry crumble and partridgeberry cake topped with hot vanilla sauce. Simple really. And easy to whip up, especially from the cramped confines of your trailer, in a campground, in the cold. Each platter held enough food for three Jiggs dinners. Burkey laughed and told us that a Newfoundlander’s idea of fine dining is a full plate. I offered him two fresh cod fillets and, although it was a little like carrying coals to Newcastle, he graciously accepted.

Florence and I were the only campers in Terra Nova that night. As they drove away Burkey said, “No sense you buying firewood, there’s plenty left.” Bev waived goodbye and they rolled out of our lives.

I looked at the overflowing feast, loosed my belt and dug in.

Jiggs Dinner

Next time: St John’s and the Irish Loop

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Kimberley, BC!

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Gerry Feehan takes us to North America’s Oldest European Settlement

Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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My European Favourites – Rome, Italy

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My European Favourites – Rome, Italy

Rome’s history spans three millennia and is one of Europe’s oldest occupied cities. The Eternal City was initially settled by a mix of Etruscans, Latins and Sabines. During it’s highest point, it became the capital of the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic and Roman Empire. When Rome had a vast Empire, it gained the nickname “Caput Mundi” or “Capital of the World.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the city came under control of the Papacy and it became the capital of the Papal States until 1870. The following year Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy which, in 1946, became the Italian Republic.

With close to 3 million residents in the city proper, Rome is the third most populous city in the European Union. The city’s culture, landmarks, monuments and myths have drawn visitors from every corner of the world.

The Vatican, the centre of the Catholic Church for billions of followers, is an independent state situated inside of Rome. The Vatican’s vast square, impressive museums, Sistine chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica require a full day of exploration.

The impressive ruins of Ancient Rome, which include Trajan’s Forums, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum are essential for any visitor of Rome. If you do a tour of Ancient Rome, be sure that you enter into the Colosseum. It’s an unforgettable experience.

We always include guided tours of the Vatican and of Ancient Rome on all of our Azorcan tours to Rome. Once we have completed those great tours, our travelers enjoy a free day in Rome to sightsee, shop and explore the city on their own. This story outlines a walk that we suggest to see some of central Rome’s great landmarks and squares at their leisure. You can find a google map of our walk at www.azorcan.net/media

Piazza del Popolo from Pincio Park, the two churches on the south and the north gate.

Piazza del Popolo

Our walk starts at the Piazza del Popolo, or the “People’s Square.” The large oval square is located inside the northern gate to the city (Porta Flaminia). Just inside the gate you should pop in to the Santa Maria del Popolo basilica to see two magnificent canvases by Caravaggio.

At the centre of the square is an Egyptian obelisk dedicated to Ramesses II. The obelisk was once located in the Circus Maximus, where Romans enjoyed chariot races. By climbing the stairs on the east side of the square, you will reach the Pincio Hill Terrace (Terrazza del Pincio) and have a great panoramic view of the square and beyond.

On the south side of the square there are two churches, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli and the Santa Maria in Montesanto. They look identical from the outside although they have different interiors. There are three main streets leading from the Piazza del Popolo. The two churches are separated by the main shopping street, the Via del Corso. The other two streets are located on either side of the churches.  On the right is the Via di Ripetta and on the left is the Via del Babuino. We will leave the square on the Via del Babuino and walk for about 600 meters until we arrive at the Piazza di Spagna.

The Spanish Steps on Piazza di Spagna, the Church of Trinità dei Monti and the Boat Fountain.

Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps

The Piazza di Spagna, or “Spanish Square” is named after the Palazzo di Spagna (Spanish Palace) which has been on the square since the 17th century and operates as the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican.

The center of the square has the Boat Fountain (Fontana della Barcaccia). The fountain was designed by Pietro Bernini, the father of the famous artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for Pope Urban VIII in 1623. The fountain features the Pope’s family (Barberini) emblem with suns and bees.

Looking up from the square is the Church of Trinità dei Monti. The famous 135 steps connecting the square to the church were built in the 18th century. The Spanish Steps are a favourite place for tourists to sit, relax and enjoy the square.

A hundred meters south from the Spanish Square is the smaller Piazza Mignanelli. The square has a 19th century Marian column named, the Column of the Immaculate Conception. The ancient Roman column is topped with a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary with a crown of 12 stars standing on a globe. The interesting column has the symbols of the evangelists on the globe and statues of Moses, David, Ezekiel and Isaiah at the base. Worth the quick stop.

From the Piazza Mignanelli, we can take the Via Frattina back to the main Via del Corso to peruse the shops until we reach the Via delle Muratte and go left to the Piazza di Trevi.

The Trevi fountain and the Neptune statue at the centre. The colorful Galleria Sciarra.

Trevi Fountain and Galleria Sciarra

The Trevi fountain is probably the most famous fountain in the world. It’s actually the end point of the only ancient Roman aqueduct that is in continuous use today, the Vergine aqueduct. Architect Nicols Savi won the design competition commissioned by Pop Clement XII in 1732 but died before it was built.

The travertine stone fountain was completed in 1762 against the Palazzo Poli (Poli Palace) with the water cascading down three rocky cliffs that are decorated with plant sculptures. The water flows down each cliff into the large, 65 foot wide, fountain basin. At the center of the fountain is the ocean god Neptune in a shell shaped chariot that is being pulled by two horses. One horse is calm and the other angry. Each horse is being guided by a triton.

Placed into the façade on either side of Neptune are a statue of a virgin girl, who legend says, showed Roman soldiers the source of the water, and a statue of Agrippa ordering the construction of the aqueduct.

Ancient Romans threw coins into fountains so that the water gods would give them a safe journey or a safe return to Rome. Today, tourists throw coins into the fountain over their shoulder to ensure a return to Rome. A second coin is for love, and a third for marriage. About 3000 Euros is collected very day from the fountain and given to a charity that provides prepaid supermarket cards for the needy.

After throwing your coins into the fountain, walk to the left on the Via delle Muratte for about 120 meters and turn left onto Via Santa Maria in Via. A block in, you will be directly in front of the Galleria Sciarra. Enter into the amazing interior courtyard with a glass and iron roof, called an arcade. The richly Art Nouveau decorated walls, in celebration of women, were painted in the late 1800s by Giuseppe Cellini using a unique painting method using pigments and Punic wax called “encaustic painting.” I like to stand in the centre of the galleria and gaze upwards, admiring the brilliant colors. The intensity and shade of the colors change depending on the time of day and the intensity of the light spilling in through the glass ceiling.

Leaving the galleria, go back to the Via delle Muratte and turn left. A block away you will cross the Via del Corso to the Via di Pietra that will take you to the Piazza di Pietra (Rock Square). Traverse the rectangular Piazza di Pietra, and staying on the left of the square, take the Via dei Pastini until you reach the Rotonda Square and the Pantheon.

The Rotonda Square and the entrance to the Pantheon. The interior of the Pantheon.

The Pantheon and the Ides of March  

The Rotonda Square (Piazza della Rotonda) has a marble fountain with an obelisk at its centre. The fountain was constructed in 1575 and the Egyptian obelisk, one of 13 found throughout Rome, was added in 1711. The main attraction of the square is the magnificent Pantheon.

The Pantheon of Agrippa, or just the Pantheon, is an architectural wonder and one of the best preserved buildings from Ancient Rome. In 27 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa commissioned the building of a circular temple to “all the Roman gods.” The temple burned down, but in the early 2nd century, the Pantheon underwent a reconstruction by Hadrian. Interestingly, the inscription to Agrippa still remains on the front portico of the temple.  After the fall of Rome in the mid 4th century, and attacks by barbarians, the Pantheon endured many years of neglect.

In 609 AD, the Byzantine emperor Phocas donated the building to Pope Boniface the IV. The Pope consecrated it and dedicated it as the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs (Santa Maria ad Martyres). It is more commonly called Santa Maria Rotonda. As a church, it was saved from the decay and destruction that many Ancient Roman buildings suffered during the middle ages. In 1625 Pope Urban VIII, the guy with his family crest on the boat fountain at the Spanish Steps, removed many of the bronze coatings that used to be on the Pantheon’s porticos. He used the bronze to create the canopy of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica and for fabrication of canons for the Sant’Angelo Castle.

In 1870, still a church, the Pantheon was turned into a memorial for famous kings of Italy and some famous artists. Amongst others, the tomb of Vittorio Emanuel II, the first King of a unified Italy, is in the Pantheon along with Italian Queen Margherita of Savoy and famous artist Raphael.

The Pantheon is most famous for its hemispherical concrete dome that is larger than the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The dome is supported by eight large pylons and has an 8.92 meter opening in the centre, called an oculus, that allows natural light. The 43 meter height of the building is equal to the diameter of the dome. Two thousand years after it was built, it remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

The Pantheon’s oculus and church alter. The Elephant statue in the Piazza della Minerva.

The Ides of March 

Taking the Via della Minerva on the east side of the Pantheon, you will quickly arrive at the Piazza della Minerva. The interesting statue of the Elephant carrying an obelisk is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667. The obelisk was discovered in 1665 when excavations were taking place for the building of the nearby church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The Egyptian obelisk was brought to Rome possibly in the 1st century for the temple that once stood there for the Egyptian goddess Isis.

We continue on the Via della Minerva until we reach the Largo di Torre Argentina on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. You will see Roman ruins that were unexpectedly discovered in the 1920s during the demolition of old buildings. The square contains the remains of four temples from the era of the Roman Republic in the 2nd and 3rd century BC and remains of the Theatre of Pompey that was built later in 55 BC. The curia in the Theatre of Pompey was the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated by being stabbed 23 times on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The Largo di Torre Argentina site is also famous for having quite a few cats wandering the ruins. Mice beware!

After checking out the ruins, go west long the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II for about 350 meters and go south on Via Dei Baullari until you reach the Campo de’ Fiori.

The bustling Campo de’ Fiori market and a fresh flower vendor.

Campo de’ Fiori

Campo de’ Fiori means “field of flowers’ as it was a meadow during the middle ages. Over the centuries, the Campo de’ Fiori was notorious as the place for public executions. At the centre of the rectangular square is a statue of Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno, a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, that was burned alive for heresy at this very spot on the square in 1600. His statue, completed in 1889, looks defiantly in the direction of the Vatican, who placed his works on the “list of forbidden books.”

During the day since 1869, the Campo de’ Fiori has been a bustling market with stands selling flowers, fruit, vegetables and fish. The historic streets surrounding the square are named for various trades include Via dei Balestrari (crossbow makers), Via dei Baullari (coffer makers), Via dei Cappellari (hat makers), Via dei Chiavari (key makers) and Via dei Giubbonari (tailors).

Leaving Campo de’ Fiori, walk back to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II where you will see the small Piazza di San Pantaleo across the street. Located at the back of the square is the  Museum of Rome in the Palazzo Braschi. Take the street on the right of the palace, Via della Cuccagna, which will lead you to the Piazza Novonna.

Piazza Navona’s Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and colorful buildings with restaurant patios.

Piazza Navona

The Piazza Navona’s elongated shape is a result of it being built on the former site of a stadium whose remains sit about six meters below the square. The Stadium of Domitian, built in 86 AD, was used for games and horse races. Some of the stadium’s ruins can be seen underneath some of the surrounding buildings.

Over many years, the Piazza Navona has been a centre for markets, festivals, races, and theatrical performances. On weekends in August from the 17th to the mid 19th century, when the square had a concave bottom, it was partially flooded to offer Romans a cool place to congregate and enjoy the summer. In recent times, a Christmas market is held annually on the square.

The Piazza Navona is dwarfed by the 17th century Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. The church is named after St. Agnes, who was martyred in the Stadium of Domitian. The white church is situated on the west side of the square, and is one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Rome. Located at the south end of the square, the Palazzo Pamphilj and the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart are other notable buildings.

The Moor Fountain, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, and the Neptune Fountain.

The Piazza Navona has three impressive fountains. The Fontana dei Fumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Bernini in 1651, located at the centre of the square, has statues representing four major rivers (Nile, Danube, Ganges, Rio de la Plata) on four continents. Above the statues, sits a copy of an Egyptian obelisk topped with the emblem of the Pope’s family, a dove carrying an olive branch.

Completed in 1575 by Giacomo della Porta, the Fontana del Moro (Moor Fountain) is located at the south end of the square. It features a Moor standing in a conch shell, wrestling a dolphin and surrounded by four tritons.

One the north side, the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) was originally designed by Giacomo della Porta at the same time as he designed the Moor Fountain. The initial fountain was just the basin without any statutes. In 1878, Antonio della Bitta, added the central sculpture of Neptune fighting with an octopus. A few year later, artist Gregorio Zappalà, was commissioned to add surrounding sculptures of sea nymphs, cupids and walruses.

From the Piazza Navona, you can continue north on the Via Giuseppe Zanardelli and across the River Tiber on the Ponte Umberto I (Umberto I Bridge) to the front of the massive Supreme Court building. From the bridge you will see the Castel Sant’Angelo on your left. That is our final destination on our walk.

Castel Sant’ Angelo, the bronze statue of Michael the Archangel and angel holding a cross.

Castel Sant’ Angelo

The round structure on a square pedestal wasn’t originally intended to be a castle but was built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian in 139 AD. The burial chamber at the center of the mausoleum contains an urn with the ashes of Hadrian plus those of future emperors from the Antonin and Severi families. The mausoleum was turned in to a military fortress in 401. When the fortress was besieged and sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD, the ashes were scattered by looters. When the Goths attacked in 537 AD, the tomb statues and decorations were destroyed.

Later, in the 14th century the castle’s walls were fortified and towers were added. A secret fortified passage from Castel Sant’ Angelo to the Vatican was added to protect the papal community. The castle has also been used as a prison where many were tortured, starved and even executed in the courtyard. The Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno, who was burnt to death in the Campo de’ Fiori, was a prisoner here for six years.

Since 1753, the Castel Sant’ Angelo has been topped by a bronze statue of Michael the Archangel sheathing his sword. The Castel Sant’ Angelo bridge has ten angel statues holding up instruments of the passion of Christ including a pillar, whips, a crown of thorns, Veronica’s veil, his garment and dice, nails, the cross, the superscription INRI, the sponge and the lance.

The Castel Sant’ Angelo is located in the Parco Adriano (Hadrian’s Park) and is now a museum that is visited by more than a million people each year.

Let’s Go To Rome

Rome is full of historic buildings, squares and ruins. There are places we could have easily added during our walk, but just as “Rome was not built in a day,” it is also true that “Rome can not be seen in a day.” I included the most interesting and significant stops in Rome’s Centro Storico.

In the evening, I suggest going to the medieval Trastevere neighborhood located just south of Campo de Fiori by crossing the River Tiber at the Pont Sisto. Partake in the evening walk or promenade (passeggiata) while checking out the artisan shops. After working up an appetite, there is no shortage of trattorias, restaurants, beer pubs and bars to enjoy “la dolce vita” late into the night.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters, listen to our podcasts and view maps related tour all of our ‘My European Favourites” stories.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

My European Favourites – Tallinn, Estonia

Read more of Paul’s stories on Todayville by clicking here.

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