Rome: the city of churches, priests, seagulls and water fountains

2010-09-15 00:00

There’s an old joke that the Greek football team can never win a game because every time they’re given a corner, they open a café. The same could be said of the Romans, except that they would build a church.

In any city block there is at least one church. When I say church I don’t mean a simple building. In South African terms, most churches in Rome are huge, grand, ornately-decorated cathedrals that have been standing since long before any colonists set foot on southern African soil.

We have visited so many that the details have become blurred, however, some stand out:

Left: Basilica of San Giovanni dei Florentini.

A Greek Orthodox church where there was a sound track of Gregorian chant, the Basilica of Giovanni di Florentini where we lit candles, L’Organo di Sant’ Antonio dei Portughesi that has a beautiful sanctuary, Santa Maria alle Fornachi beside which we stayed and was decorated for a festival with light balls [PIC] and Santa Maria Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome that contains some awe-inspiring mosaics and an unusual painting of St Peter crucified upside down (PIC).

There are more than 900 churches in Rome, most of them Catholic, but not all. They are owned and maintained by the state, at least in theory, which explains the peeling paint, leaks, tatty exteriors and general state of disrepair of some of them. Almost as common as churches are symbols of piety and religious dedication. Many street corners are decorated with grottos, memorials or plaques dedicated to a saint or recalling the sanctity of a holy person. I wonder if these outward signs of holiness reflect the spirituality and general quality of life of the average Roman.

Left: St Mary on street corner.

Almost as ubiquitous in Rome as churches are priests. I have never seen so many priests in one place: of all ages and all races, and almost all dressed in black. They remind me of crows, with only their white dog collars to relieve the black mot of them wear, even in Rome’s soaring heat and sweating humidity.

Writing of crows reminds me of other birds in Rome. Since I stayed about 300m from St Peter’s Square, I had romantic visions of being woken in the morning by softly cooing doves. No such luck. Rather, it was the squawking of squabbling seagulls that woke us most mornings. They were all over the city, especially in St Peter’s, and liked to squat on the cross on top of the church next door to catch the warm morning sun.

Almost as common in Rome, but much more welcome, were the water fountains. The city is blest by a network of public drinking fountains that provide a constant source of clean, cold water. These fountains can be found from St Peter’s to the city centre, all fed by a system of pipes and aqueducts little changed since Roman times. Coming from a water-scarce country, this free, abundant source of drinking water was almost too good to be true.

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