My favorite hill of the famous seven in Rome is the Aventine, set between the Tiber, Testaccio quarter and the Circus Maximus. A walk there is a lovely way to spend a sunny morning. Ancient churches, mellow-colored buildings and secluded gardens with umbrella pines and cypresses offer a respite from the sometimes noisy and chaotic other hills of Rome.
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This time I started my walk from the quiet and luxurious Hotel San Anselmo just a block from the church of the same name. The blackbirds that had been singing since five a.m. were still cheerful at ten.
My feet were soundless as I padded along the cobbled streets made soft by pine needles. My first objective was chocolate from the church’s shop stocked with sweets, wine and lotions and potions all produced by the Benedictine order.
Now it was time for sightseeing. Just outside the church’s gate is the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, bordered on two sides with monuments alluding to the military prowess of the Order along with emblems of the Rezzonico family who commissioned the design from Piranesi in 1765.
The third side of the Piazza is the walled entrance to the Knight’s priory garden. As usual, there was a line of tourists squinting through the gate’s keyhole to see a miniature view of Michelangelo’s dome surmounting St. Peters.
Some years ago I had the luxury of visiting the shady gardens filled with laurel, viburnum, box and myrtle but this time the door was firmly locked.
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Leaving the Piazza I came to Sant’Alessio, established in the 3rd or 4th century on the site of a Roman house although remodeled in 1216 and 1750. The church has medieval Cosmati floors with their swirling and geometric designs in red, green, white and black marbles making the floor seem in motion.
A florist was setting up for a wedding, the flowers fragrant in the mild air. St. Alex, who wandered as a pilgrim for 17 years after his conversion to Christianity, returned home to serve as a slave and sleep beneath the stairway unrecognized by his parents.
The stairway and the sleeping saint are memorialized in an 18th century sculpture showing him holding a scroll that would reveal his identity after death. Perhaps he would awake to bless the newlyweds.
The adjacent church, Santa Sabina, is the most beautiful basilica in Rome to have survived from the early days of Christianity. It was founded by Peter of Illyria sometime between 422-32 on the ruins of two temples and a small house. Like so many ancient churches named for saints it is uncertain who Sabina actually was, either a martyred local Roman noblewoman or a woman from Umbria.
No matter, the airy church with 5th century massive carved cedar wood doors, interior mosaics of two women representing converted Jews and Pagans, 24 fluted Corinthian columns from an ancient pagan temple and high windows of gypsum flooding the interior with light, is an oasis of peace.
Coming out into the sunshine again I watched a man filling his water bottles from a typical 19th century drinking fountain set next to an ancient grotesque face whose mouth drools into a Roman bath.
It was time for my chocolate as I wandered into the Giardino degli Aranci surrounded by crenellations and turrets, the remains of a fortress build by the Savellis in the 13th century.
The garden design is inspired: my eye was focused on St. Peters before me as I walked among laden orange trees, pines and cypresses set in greensward toward a bench to enjoy my picnic in Rome. The beautiful panorama of Eternal Rome before me was enhanced by entwined lovers celebrating spring.
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Temporarily fortified, I passed a tiny ancient walkway, a clivio, leading down to the Tiber.
Next I passed the Rose Garden, where all Rome enjoys beauty of the hundreds of plants blooming every June. Some of the garden is laid out in the shape of a menorah in memory of the 17th century Jewish cemetery that once occupied the site.
My goal was Santa Prisca, thought to be named after the daughter of a family who befriended St. Peter. Because of her faith she was martyred by Emperor Claudius in a typically grisly way: when lions refused to tear her apart she was beheaded.
The church has been rebuilt so many times that any sense of ancient times is lost until I learned that it was built over a home dated to AD 95 containing a Mithraeum where pagan worshippers believed that their salvation came from the sacrifice of a bull symbolizing the victory of life over evil.
The bells from a mediaeval tower rang out reminding me of the time. Full of thoughts about salvation but hungry for lunch it was time to decide where to eat.
Down the hill in one direction to the Taverna Cestia for Taglioni Cacio Pepe, the Roman version of mac and cheese? Or, down another side toward the best deli in Rome, Volpetti? I opted for Volpetti to pick up snacks and have a picnic on my room’s terrace while enjoying the surrounding buildings that now seemed to be done up in food colors.
Some seemed tomato red but the most attractive one had cantaloupe-colored walls, lemon trim around the windows and eggplant-colored shutters.
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** All photos property of and by the author, Judith Works, and used with permission