Lots of Romans head out of the city this weekend, going home for Easter. One Rome resident who'll be around Easter weekend, though, is the Pope — and if you want to catch a glimpse of him, you have plenty of opportunities!
Today, the big Good Friday event is the Way of the Cross ("Via Crucis"). Be at the Colosseum at 9:15pm to see the Pope (and thousands of people); be aware that nearby streets will be blocked to traffic and that the Colosseo metro stop will be closed after 6:30pm. After all, just look at these crowds…
Tomorrow, the Pope will preside over the Easter Vigil at St. Peter's Basilica, starting at 9pm.
On Easter Sunday, the Pope will celebrate Mass in St. Peter's Square at 10:15am, followed by the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the central loggia of St. Peter's at noon.
And, just for fun, here are a couple more photos from last year's Via Crucis at the Colosseum.
Today, the neighborhood of San Lorenzo is known for its students, grungy atmosphere, graffiti… and as a place you might not exactly want to wander around alone late at night.
But it should be known for something else, too: the magnificent church that gave the quarter its name.
First off, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (or "St. Lawrence outside the Walls," because it is — justbarely — outside the city center) is ancient. Literally. Better yet, more of the ancient design has survived here than in Rome's (admittedly many) other ancient churches. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, first built an oratory here in the 4th century; the church itself came in the 5th century and was reconstructed by the Byzantines in the 6th.
And there are more than traces of the 5th- and 6th-century structures today. Walk up to the very front of the church and around the altar, and you're exploring the same aisles and chancel that the ancients built (below). Not only that, but the mosaic above you — restored in the Renaissance to the brilliant colors you see today — dates back to the Byzantines, too.
Okay, so the church is ancient, and it's beautiful. Yeah, yeah. What else?
Well, it's built on the spot where St. Lawrence himself is buried. One of Rome's most important saints, Lawrence met his fate during Valerian's persection of Christians in 258 A.D., and — the story has it — was grilled to death. (The Vatican has a sense of humor about the whole thing: Today, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs).
Lawrence was buried in Christian catacombs here, and when Constantine became emperor, he built a shrine and funerary hall at Lawrence's tomb. That's all directly under the church's altar today. And if you peek through one of the grates under the altar, and bring a flashlight (or a flash camera!), you can see some of the ancient tunnels that, presumably, lead down into those catacombs.
If that doesn't do it for you, make sure you also check out the mysterious marble slab behind the altar: According to tradition, this is where Lawrence's body was laid after he was grilled… and it left a stain that would never go away.
Not a big fan of St. Lawrence? Hey, it's okay. The church also has the remains of the martyrs St. Stephen and St. Justin, also beneath the altar. And if none of these ancient folks do it for you, then try the gloriously-decorated Chapel of Pope Pius IX, where the longest-reigning pope in history — as well as the pope who convened the First Vatican Council and decreed the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary — is interred. The pope, who died in 1878, has been kept visible for the faithful today, with just a silver mask covering his face.
All this, of course, is leaving lots of things out. Like the gorgeous 13th-century episcopal throne and marble screen, inlaid with precious porphyry and granite. Or the 13th-century frescoes, still in good condition, on the exterior of the church as you enter. Or the lovely 12th-century cloister, complete with fragments of ancient inscriptions and sarcophagi… and with the remnant of an all-too-modern bomb, courtesy of the Allies, that hit the cloister in World War II.
I could go on. Instead, I'll just leave you with one last gem: a 2nd-century sarcophagus depicting a pagan marriage feast. (Today, incongruously, it holds the 13th-century remains of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi).
The church is open daily from 7:30am-12:30pm, 3:30pm-7pm, and on Sundays from 7.30am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm. It's located at Piazzale del Verano, 3, in the heart of San Lorenzo — a 20-minute walk from the Termini train station, or a 10-minute walk from the Policlinico metro stop on line B. Click here for a map.
Like everything else, Christmas in Rome may not be quite what you expect. You won't see a Santa Claus on every corner or hear Christmas carols in every shop, and the city's Christmas markets are lacking compared to those in northern Europe. But Christmas spirit is alive and well in Rome — you just have to know where to seek it out.
And so, I give you: Twelve ways to get into the Christmas spirit in Rome. (Try humming along while reading. Believe me, it helps).
1. On the first day of Christmas, Rome gave to me… one Santa house. Over the next month, Rome's Auditorium transforms into a holiday extravaganza, with 40 Christmas trees, visits with Santa, a Christmas market, and an ice-skating rink. A full calendar of events includes a gospel festival from Dec. 19 to 26. The Christmas festival runs until Jan. 9; the Auditorium, located near Stadio Flaminio, is easily accessible by bus (the 910, 217 and "M" both go there from Termini) or the number 2 tram from the Flaminio metro stop. For more information, click here.
2. Two ice skates. Slipping and sliding Skating underneath the iconic silhouette of Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo, the ancient-mausoleum-turned-castle-of-the-pope, is a holiday tradition. Click here for more information on the Castel Sant'Angelo rink. Other skating rinks in Rome include those at Re di Roma, Tor di Quinto, and Villa Gordiani.
3. Three…thousand Christmas cribs. Along with its dozens of other museums, Rome even has one devoted to presepi. Featuring more than 3,000 scenes from all over the world, the museum — which is closed in the summer — is open every afternoon from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, as well as during other limited hours throughout the winter. It's located under the church of Santi Quirico e Giulitta, nearby the Colosseum. For more information, call 06 679 6146.
4. Four (bites of) panettone. Rome's food traditions are incredibly seasonal — and if you want to taste some of the city's best cookies and cakes, Christmas is the right time to come. Try panettone, a traditional Christmas cake (although it tastes more like sweet bread) filled with candied fruits. Other sweets to taste include panforte (a much heavier, denser Christmas cake that's akin to fruitcake) and torrone (chocolate bars filled with nuts or nougat).
6. Six silks a-saving Sudan. It's a Christmas market with a twist: The goods include everything from Nepalese hats to Cambodian silks to Italian panettone, and the proceeds go raise money for the Pediatric Centre in Nyala, Sudan. The Emergency Christmas Market takes place this year at Palazzo Velli on Piazza Sant'Egidio 10, in Trastevere, until Dec. 23.
8. Eight (thousand) toys a-hanging. The goods at Rome's main Christmas market at Piazza Navona aren't anything to write home about — they're mostly mass-produced toys, decorations, and candies. Still, there's something about seeing Piazza Navona all done up for Christmas, and seeing so many Italian families out and about and in the holiday mood, that's worth making a stop. There's also a carousel for little ones.
9. Nine Lessons and Carols. To celebrate the 4th Sunday in Advent, St. Andrews' Presbyterian Church of Scotland is having its Service of Nine Lessons and Carols — followed by, the website says, "mince pies and mulled wine in the manse." Yum! (And, a "manse" sounds pretty cool). The Nine Lessons and Carols service, in English, is at 11 am on Sunday, Dec. 19.
10. Ten(-squared) cribs a-…cribbing. Now in its 35th year, Rome's "100 Presepi" exhibit of Christmas cribs — including both traditional cribs and the more creative, made out of every material from ostrich eggs to tea bags. The exhibit also has a crib-building workshop for children called "Nativity as a Game" (reservations required). The exhibit runs until Jan. 6 and is located at Piazza del Popolo's Sala del Bramanta. For more information, click here.
11. Eleven pipers piping. It's the time of year when sheepskin-clad bagpipers and flutists from Abruzzo and Calabria come to Rome, playing traditional Christmas songs in the streets. They're performing for free, so if the sheepskin didn't give it away, you'll be able to tell the difference between them and Rome's usual hordes of buskers! Look out for them around the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, and St. Peter's.
12. 12-and-unders singing. This (English) service will retell the Christmas story through activities and carols. It's at the All Saints Rome Church at 5pm on Dec. 24.
Over the Christmas holidays, many visitors to Rome have one goal in mind: how to see the Pope. (Note: This post has been updated to reflect 2019 dates and information!).
The brass ring of the experience is, of course, midnight Mass at St. Peter’s. While that’s a very, very special (if crowded) experience, it’s also tougher to book than a scavi tour. If you want to take a shot, then fax or write the Prefecture of the Papal Household at +39 06 6988 5863 with your information; here’s where you can find out how to book midnight Mass at St. Peter’s.
Keep in mind that this is best done at least a couple of months in advaance. By December, it’s pretty safe to say there won’t be any spots left—unless, that is, you’re in with a parish that can try to work their magic for you.
Luckily, though, there are other ways to get a glimpse of the Pope over the Christmas holidays. These include:
On December 8, see the Pope at the Spanish Steps. Each Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, the Pope goes to Piazza di Spagna in an act of homage to Mary (see photo at top… previous pope, same idea!). (Get there early to get closest to the column erected in honor of the Immaculate Conception, which is where the Pope will be for his blessing). It’s at 4pm, and no tickets are required.
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Even if you don’t have tickets to midnight Mass, you can still attend. You’ll just have to stand out in the piazza and watch the ceremony on Jumbotrons; not quite the same, okay, but still pretty neat with thousands of people packed into the square. Just remember that it’s actually at 9:30pm, not midnight. (Pope Benedict changed it a few years ago, apparently wanting to get to bed a bit earlier, and Pope Francis has followed in his stead).
Go to “Urbi et Orbi” on Christmas Day. This is the special blessing the Pope gives the crowd — and gives all Catholics watching or listening through T.V. or radio worldwide — that happens only twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. The Pope appears at the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica at St. Peter’s Square for the blessing at noon. Tickets aren’t required.
Pray the “Angelus” with the Pope throughout December. For 2018, in December the Pope leads the faithful in prayer from his window at noon on Dec. 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29. For January dates, check here as we get closer. Tickets aren’t required.
Attend a Wednesday papal audience. The general audience will occur every Wednesday in December and January, as usual. Tickets are required (but free); send your information to the same fax number as listed above for the midnight Mass.
Get tickets to another Pope-led mass. In December 2019 and January 2020*, these include:
Dec. 12: Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Peter’s Basilica, 6pm
Dec. 24: Mass for the Solemnity for the Birth of Our Lord, St. Peter’s Basilica, 9:30pm
Dec. 31: The First Vespers and “Te Deum,” St. Peter’s Basilica, 5pm
Jan. 1: Holy Mass, St. Peter’s Basilica, 10am*
Jan. 6: Holy Mass for the Epiphany, St. Peter’s Basilica, 10am*
Jan. 12: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Sistine Chapel, 9:45am*
*January 2019 details have not yet been released; when they are, they’ll be here. However, they’ll be the same dates and likely the same times and locations as what’s shown above.
Remember that, again, you need tickets for these Masses in advance. (For less popular ceremonies, you can turn up two or three days in advance and get them directly from the Swiss Guards, without having to fax in advance. Truly. But for special ceremonies like these, I’d recommend doing the advance booking).
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