Day 4 – In Which we Head Underground

The long, hot Roman summer continues on without variation. Each day since we have arrived has been a carbon copy of the previous one, that is 35C, hot and sunny. Although I had very few set plans for my time here, there was one place that I did want to visit and that was the Roman Catacombes. Since John and Gonny were also keen to see them we decided to make an early start to beat the worst of the heat and the crowds.

There are actually several catacombs scattered around Rome but, after a little research, we came to the conclusion that the one most worth visiting would be the Catacombe de San Callisto. These famous catacombs occupy a sprawling site on the Appian Way just outside the towering city walls. Although only a small proportion of the 21 km of underground tunnels is open to the public, those that you can access do serve to give an indication of just how much effort must have gone into their construction.

We arrived at the entrance right on opening time and were very happy to see that we were the only English speaking visitors there at that time. That meant that we had the services of our very own guide, a quietly spoken Christian Pakistani student with the unlikely name of “Eric” who was in the middle of his Theology studies. Eric led us down a long flight of stairs into the wonderfully cool underground labyrinth that constitute the catacombs. He explained that over 500,000 bodies had originally been buried here, however their remains have now been relocated away from the view of the masses of tourists. Contrary to popular belief he also told us that the catacombs were not commonly used as permanent residences for the Christians, but were mainly for burials and for church services.

Eric proved to be a very capable guide but he did have the slightly unnerving habit of replying “please do not ask me that now” every time we wanted to ask a question. He told us that, if we were patient, that all our questions would be answered in due time. Since there was only the three of us, we felt like he might have varied his rules just a little.

After 45 minutes underground it was time to re emerge into the sunlight and heat. We eventually found the bus stop to catch the bus back to the city. The bus system appears to work very well, although the underground Metro system is rather tired and dirty looking by comparison.

The other place that I wanted to visit was the Pantheon. This is surely one of the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings, having been completed by Hadrian around 120 AD and has been in continuous service ever since. It was originally built as a temple but since the 7th century it has been used as a church dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs.

The most incredible feature of the Pantheon is the huge concrete dome overhead. This is apparently the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world and it is astounding to think that it has survived for almost 2000 years. Standing in the centre of the Pantheon I could not help but wonder how many of our modern constructions will still be standing in 2000 years. I suspect that most will have disappeared without a trace within a few hundred years at most. At yet this building was built without the aid of modern mathematics, computers or machines.

At the centre of the dome is a large circular opening which lets in the light (and the rain). Since the building is aligned North-South, the sunlight enters the opening and casts a beam onto the northern side of the interior wall. At solar noon this shaft of light strikes the wall directly opposite the main altar. Apparently the Pantheon provided an inspiration for the design of the huge dome in St Peter’s basilica.

After spending quite some time sitting inside the Pantheon and gazing up at the walls that have stood for so many years I finally decided that it was time to head back to my hotel for a short siesta. A short distance from the Pantheon I encountered a street seller selling small dancing Mickey and Minnie Mouse toys. Forgetting my common sense, and thinking only of how much fun they would be for my grandchildren, I handed over 5 Euros and was handed two small packets in return. The seller gave me a lovely wave and smile as I left. What a nice fellow, I thought.

About an hour later I finally stumbled back into my hotel room, switched on the air conditioner and decided to try out the dancing toys. They sat flat on the desk. Nothing, nada. Somewhere in the back of my mind a couple of lights switched on and I decided to do a quick search of the net to see how these toys actually worked. The unfortunate truth is that they actually don’t work at all.  Apparently it is a common scam that has been going on in Rome for years. The sellers apparently have a thin micro thread attached between a loudspeaker and a nearby object and they carefully attach each toy to that thread. Of course when you get home they do absolutely nothing !!!

Although I could have felt angry for being duped of 5 euro, I could not help but smile at my own stupidity. Obviously my travel smarts are not as well developed as they could be and I will put it down as a lesson learnt. At least it was harmless enough scam and it only cost me the price of a cup of coffee. It will also give me a story to share with others. Such is the nature of travel.

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