I am totally burying the lead on this post, but it’s because I don’t want the food – the dairy free aspect of the narrative – to get too lost in the shuffle, as it too often does. You see, on this Friday, our last full day in Rome, we were going on a tour, inspired by a guided walking tour of Rome’s mosaics contained in the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Rome (Amazon link). In the process, we encountered two of Rome’s most celebrated sacred edifices, the Basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterano (or Saint John the Lateran, if you prefer).
The day began with the first of these two monumental buildings. When we walked through the front door, we were asked if we wanted to pay a little extra for a special tour. Honestly, my “this is a rip off!” sense kicked in, but this time, I ignored it and a little while later, we were going to places that are usually off-limits to the public. This included some papal apartments where the most interesting thing for me was a large antiphonal full of chant. Therese always loves hearing me sight-read my way through a chant responsory.
Before we got to those apartments, we spent some time gasping with wonder at the mosaics on the wall of the front terrace or balcony. The large mosaic of Christ catches the attention most readily, but the many other sections depicting things like the day it snowed in Rome which led to the basilica’s founding are also marvelous to see.
Both before and after our private tour, we joined the rest of the visitors to the basilica in gaping in wonder at this incredible building. In Rome, there are levels of artistic wonder to be experienced, and certainly my experience here at Santa Maria Maggiore was at one of the highest levels.
If you eat right across the street from a huge church that is a tourist draw like Santa Maria Maggiore, you can usually expect to pay a lot for some mediocre quality food. Our lunch at Antico Caffé Santamaria thankfully deviated from that norm. I ordered just one course, a pasta with seafood. It arrived wrapped in an aluminum foil that had been formed into some kind of animal. The dish, once extricated from its animal foil form, was lovely – the kind of high quality pasta that was simultaneously toothy and succulent that we encountered at many of our best meals in Rome, with mussels and shrimp and a nice not-too-spicy tomato sauce.
Sort of on opposite sides of the great basilica are two small churches that are no less impressive than their big sister – Santa Pudenziana and Santa Prassede. We visited the former first. If I didn’t know better, I would think that Santa Pudenziana was an abandoned building that has been slated for destruction. From the outside, it really looks pretty decrepit. But we have to cut this church a break, for it has been operating since the 4th century, and is considered to the be oldest church in Rome.
And certainly the mosaics over the apse are wonderful – they have a freshness to them that makes it hard for me to believe that they were created in the late fourth century, when the building was new.
Santa Prassede’s Church is a bit larger on the inside, and offers art from a mixture of time periods as is usually the case with ancient European churches. But for me, by far the most interesting part of it was the earliest, the Chapel of San Zeno.
As you might have guessed, that is where the most impressive mosaics reside, from the 8th century (similarly-aged mosaics are found above the altar as well). Perhaps it is the light issue that partly makes them so compelling – the small room, with no window, is naturally quite dimly-lighted. If you put a coin in a box outside the entrance, it lights up so you can see the amazing mosaics. But even then, you might need to really squint a bit to make out some of the extraordinary details.
The plan had been to maybe visit a couple more of the churches listed on the walking tour I was following – if we had done so, that would’ve led us on foot directly to San Giovanni in Laterano. But the day was speeding along, and we were getting tired, so we knuckled under and just got a taxi to take us right to the great basilica.
And once again I was in awe – because let’s be honest, if you can’t be awed by such beauty, the epitome of earthly perfection, what can you be awed by? This is a magnificent building. I was focused on the mosaics of course, over the altar at the far end of the church. But there is so much else worth of my attention – the Baroque sculptures standing in the niches along both sides of the center aisle, the floor tiles, and so on.
To finish the afternoon, I went in search of the basilica’s baptistery, where two chapels filled with mosaics reside. But one chapel had a service going on, so it was forbidden for us tourists to enter. And I never figured out where the other one was. Oh well.
By this point we were really feeling a bit weary. But I thought having some afternoon refreshment might sustain us until we returned to our hotel. A bit of Google searching revealed a place that might have some vegan desserts not far away called Olive Dolci.
Calling this “a place that might have some vegan desserts” is a huge understatement. Olive Dolci is one of the coolest vegan dessert shops I have ever seen. First of all, they have many many varieties of vegan frozen desserts, in all the flavors you expect to see at a gelateria, like stracciatella. I tried one, I don’t remember what it was called but it was chocolate based, and it was first-rate, creamy and rich.
In addition, they sell baked goods. I nearly lost my voice when I saw the individually-sized sacher tortes on display. Yes, once again, completely vegan. I took one back with us, and ate it the next door during our train ride to Venice – it was extraordinary.
So there you have it. On a Friday in Rome, I enjoyed some very good pasta and seafood for lunch, and a stupendous vegan dessert for an afternoon snack. And oh yeah, in between I saw some of the most incredible sacred spaces anywhere.