Basilica of Santa Prassede: 9th-century Mosaics, 1st-century Relics, and Nearly No Visitors

Picture 631

Lots of travelers visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Few know that, just around the corner, Rome boasts an equally precious, way older — and, in my opinion, more moving — church. Just don't be swayed by its unassuming exterior.

The Basilica of Santa Prassede stands on the site of St. Prassede's own house where, according to tradition, she put up martyrs including St. Peter. A church was first built here in the 5th century, although an oratory might have existed as early as 150 AD. The ruins of those earlier buildings haven't yet been excavated. Some day…

But in the meantime, you can explore the current church — which was built in the 9th century. And it has frescoes and mosaics from the same period,
Picture 623 something that (no matter how much really, really old stuff I see) still blows me away. Check out the glittering mosaics in the Chapel of St. Zeno, right. You can also descend into the crypt, which the famous Cosmati brothers decorated in the 13th century, to see the sarcophagi of Prassede and her equally-saintly sister, Pudenziana. The tombs have relics of the sisters, including a sponge they used to soak up the blood of 3,000 different martyrs.

But the most famous relic in the whole church is the Column of Flagellation. It's pretty safe to say this probably isn't the real deal… but then, that's not really the point with relics, is it?

The Basilica of Santa Prassede is open every day from 7:30am-12pm and 4pm-4:30pm. Don't forget coins to light up the mosaics. 

Click here for a map.

Continue Reading

Five Rules for Finding Rome’s Best Restaurants

How to find the best restaurants in Rome - don't eat here!
It can be tough to simply stumble across great restaurants in Rome, a city that's thick on the ground with mediocre, overpriced dining options. And so, to eat at the very best restaurants in Rome, it's always advisable to have a list of recommendations with you (and to make reservations in advance).

But what if you just want to eat well, avoid Rome's worst dining options, and not spend tons of time researching and booking restaurants? Then just keep these five rules in mind. With these tried-and-true ways to find yummy food, even without a guidebook, who knows… you might even stumble across a trattoria you never would have discovered otherwise!

1. Get away from the uber-tourist centers… or at least be aware that the closest you are to, say, the Colosseum, the harder it'll be for you to find top-notch nosh. There are some nhotable exceptions to this: The local favorite Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, for example, is remarkably close to the Roman forum for having such darn good food. But while the family that runs Taverna has the pride and business acumen to keep their food delicious and their prices moderate, not every restaurant so well-positioned will do the same. Especially watch out for the areas right around the Vatican and the Trevi Fountain, which are veritable food deserts.

2. Run, don't walk, away from that oh-so-friendly host trying to get you to come inside. He seems nice? He speaks English? He's telling you you're beautiful and your husband is a lucky man? That all means one thing: His food's not good enough for people — most notably Italians — to come in on their own.

3. A tourist menu can be okay. Yes, if it's posted on the door as "MENU TURISTICA: 10 Euros for appetizer, pasta, and wine!", you might be in trouble. But if you go inside and are handed an English menu, don't worry. Most restaurants do this these days.

4. Never look for a place to eat at 6pm. Or 7pm. Or anytime before 8. As a general rule of thumb, if it's open that early, it'll be catering to tourists: Italians never eat before 8:30.

5. Trattoria, hosteria, taverna…meh. Any difference there once was between these has pretty much slipped away. Just remember that a birreria is more a place for fried food and beer, and that most good pizzerias aren't open at lunch.

Finally, remember what you're looking out for: That hole-in-the-wall place that doesn't even look like a restaurant on the outside, but when you walk in (remember, at 9pm), it's bustling with Italians. Eat only at gems like these, and you're guaranteed to have some of the best food in Rome.

You might also like:

Crimes and Other Nefariousness: Rome's Top Scams 

Where to Eat in Rome's Most Touristy Areas

Can You Drink from Rome's Water Fountains? Really?

 

 

Continue Reading

Galleria Borghese: For the Art Lovers, Bernini, Caravaggio, and More

 Picture 227
Rome's Galleria Borghese is one of Italy's best art museums, filled with pieces by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini… to name a few. But it tends not to be on most first-time tourist itineraries. Even though skipping the Borghese is like visiting Paris and dismissing the Musee d'Orsay. If that's you, stop here: maybe art just ain't your thing. And that's okay.

For those who love this kind of stuff, though, you can't miss it. First, there's the building itself. The Villa Borghese, built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is a rare gem: Never used as a home, it was built with the express purpose of showing off Scipione's art collection. With art and architecture intertwined, taking in the collection itself is a pleasant, unified experience. Look above you, and frescoes echo the themes of the pieces beneath. Look before you, and ancient and 17th-century sculptures of the same subjects intermingle.

013490_0320 But if there's any broad generalization you can make about the collection, it's that it was certainly borne out of passion: Borghese was such an avid collector that he had Domenechino jailed so he could get his hands on "Diana Hunting," sent henchmen to steal Raphael's "Entombment" from Perugia in the dead of night, and bargained so hard with Caravaggio in a game of 17th-century papal justice known as "Paintings for a Pardon" that he may have helped cause the artist's death. And it has the masterpieces to prove it.

Love Bernini's supple sculptures? Then you'll be blown away by the pieces here, some of the earliest and  Bernini2most famous from his long career: the "Apollo and Daphne," then thought impossible to render in stone (and so beautifully done that, I'll admit, it brought tears to my eyes); the "David," a self-portrait of the artist as he takes on critics and, perhaps, even Michelangelo's own world-famous "David;" "Aeneas and Anchises," done when Bernini was just 21 years old; the "Rape of Proserpina," so realistic you can see how Pluto's fingers indent Proserpina's plush skin — and feel her fear as he carries her to the underworld. Except that it happens to be marble. Right.  

But Bernini's not the only hotshot at the Borghese. Caravaggio, that 17th-century scofflaw who split his time between brawling, barfights and Baroque art, has gotten renewed attention this year with the 400th anniversary of his death. But at the Borghese, he's always been a big deal. One of his earliest patrons was Scipione Borghese, and the villa has his "Sick Bacchus," "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," and "Madonna of the Snakes," among other pieces.

That's not to mention the collection's pieces by Rubens. Raphael. Correggio. Lucas Cranach the Elder. The list keeps going.

The Borghese: There's a reason why it's my first post. It's fantastic.

Just remember that if you go, you must (must!) book in advance, as entrances are only on every odd hour (9am, 11am, 1pm, and so on). Do it a couple of days ahead of time as slots fill up quickly, especially in the high season. You can do it online here for an extra booking fee, or call 0039 06 8413979. A slight hassle? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

The Borghese is located at Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5.

Continue Reading