Rain in Italy was very different from how it is at home. In Seattle the rain mostly comes as a steady drizzle or shower. The ‘hard’ rain is just a very steady downpour with a very occasional thunderstorm. It’s pretty mild generally speaking. Italian rain is RAIN. Big, loud, and completely soaking in a matter of minutes. Why am I writing about it like that? Because it rained on our last day in Rome. So hard that the streets flooded after about an hour and we ended up walking in water up to my calf.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fair warning: I don’t have many pictures from this day, although I have lots of memories. With the rain I was hard pressed to keep my camera dry.
Also: we did have umbrellas, purchased for 10eu apiece from an enterprising young man just outside of the hotel. We did not have rain coats, and I was dressed for the day in a maxi-dress.
We woke up to grey skies and the threat of rain. But Context Travel tours meet in rain or shine, so off we went for our tour “Of Cows and Commerce,” billed as a tour in which we will explore areas away from the Colosseum and Forum, such as the temple complex along the Tiber River. The Boarium is the ancient Roman cattle market which forms the heart of the old city- Forum complex. Our guide was Jose, a Cuban who had moved to the USA with his family as a boy and who now lives and teaches art and architecture in Rome.
While we were waiting for Jose the skies began to drizzle and darken, then rain. Jose had us all move into a hotel lobby where we sat and talked about the early history of Rome and how commerce played such an important role. Jose was hoping, he told us, that the rain would wear itself out, but instead it deteriorated into a flooding downpour. The eight of us decided we were game for the tour and we all set out.
tl;dr: we were soaked by the end.
We began in the Foro Boario, or cow market, of ancient Rome, located along the Tiber River. This is an area of Rome that few people explore which is a shame because there is a tremendous wealth of ancient sites, including over 15 different temples.
We made our way to the western foot of the Palatine Hill, where — in the middle of an old boario, or “cow pasture” — sits two small 2nd-century B.C. temples. The Temple of Portunus was crafted in the squared-off, Latin style, while the Temple of Hercules Victor (sometimes erroneously said to be the Temple of Vesta) was built in the older, rounded Etruscan style and ranks as the oldest marble structure surviving in Rome. Neither temple is open to the public on anything like a regular basis.
This little field lies right in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and right above the famous Cloaca Maxima, ancient Rome’s main sewer: the world’s first major sewer. In the portico of the church, on the north side, can be found La Bocca della Verità, an ancient sculpture thought to be a drain covering.
A legend states that, if a person places his hand inside the mouth (“bocca”) and then swears falsely, the mouth will close and sever the hand. It was a huge attraction for the large tour groups. I felt hugely sorry for the church official who had to make sure the flood of water from the street didn’t overflow into the church (which, btw, meant that the water level was higher that the 6″ curb between the street and the church entrance) but also that visitors had covered arms and knees. (The solution was to either tell that person to come back properly dressed, or to lend them a sheer scarf to place around the shoulders or midriff/upper legs.)
Underneath the main part of the Church is a lovely old worship space. The crypt, constructed in the eighth century, is located beneath the altar and was built to store the relics taken from the catacombs by Pope Adrian I. The crypt is shaped like a small basilica. The side walls have several niches, each with shelves made of marble, where the different relics are displayed.
Walking to the Tiber we spent a great deal of time out in the open, and it started to thunder and lightning. That was the moment I began to strongly consider the wisdom of staying on the tour.
There is only one island in the Tiber, shaped vaguely like a long, curved boat plowing through the wide waters of the S-bend at the heart of the city. In ancient times it was avoided as a cursed spot. For centuries Tiber Island was believed to have formed around the body of the hated King Tarquin Supurbus, whose overthrow (and tossing into the Tiber) led to the founding of the original Roman Republic in 509 BC.
All this changed in 291 BC when Rome was visited by a terrible plague, so the Senate voted to build a temple to Aesculapius, the god of healing. They sent a delegation to Greece to obtain a statue of the god, and while it sailed back up the Tiber with its holy cargo, an enormous snake suddenly dropped off the decks, swam through the waters, and slithered up onto the supposedly haunted Tiber Island. While modern folks might might think this would confirm the ‘cursedness’ of Isola Tiberina, to the ancients it was a portentous and positive sign from the gods. Specifically, a sign from Aesculapius himself, to whom snakes was sacred. So the Temple of Aesculapius was built, a sacred spring was discovered and was believed to have healing powers, and the formerly shunned island became a place of worship and pilgrimage site for the afflicted.
It was still pouring.
The tour ended on Tiber island and we immediately looked for a taxi to take us home. It seems, however, that Sundays are when many drivers take the day off. So we started to walk.
Now, you have to imagine me in that maxi-dress I mentioned earlier. Somewhere in the middle of the tour the dress had gotten so soaked that it was sucking up more water which was creeping up into my midsection. COLD. So I said ‘eff it’ and knotted it up above my knees. Now that we were on the streets, and it had stopped raining, I undid the knot . . . only to realize (a mile later) that my legs were chaffing from the wet cotton slapping against them. So up went the knot again and I just toughed it out. (Yes, people started at me.)
It was really only about 2.5km and 35-40 mins, but that walk felt like forever. We were SO GLAD to turn the corner and see landmarks that let us know we were within a few blocks of our apartment.
Hot showers and a nap were on our agenda for the rest of the day, but we managed to get out for dinner at La Soffitta Renovatio. This restaurant specializes in cuisine from Abruzzo Italy, and made for a nice change. We each had a pizza — easy peasey after the day, and truly delicious. A green salad and glass of wine (house, of course) rounded us out.
(Sadly, the tour is no longer offered, but seems to have been renamed the Daily Life in Ancient Rome Tour.)