Ahhhh, spring! Possibly the only thing lovelier than spring in Rome is summer in Minnesota. But, alas, we’re not in Minnesota, we’re in Rome. And I’ve got to share this beautiful excursion in the center of the city.
Where: Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina
What to bring:
-Flashlight (if you have one)
-12-13 euros for a beautiful lunch at fancy-shmancy Ciampini in Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina
-Your sense of adventure
About halfway down Via del Corso, the main north-south thoroughfare in the city connecting Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo, stands the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina in the piazza named after it. These days the piazza features high-end stores like Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta, but tucked into the left side of the piazza (with your back to Via del Corso) is a medieval church with a beautiful 17th century interior.
Entering the church through the medieval portico, take a second to examine the ancient granite columns and ionic capitals, which were taken from other ancient monuments in the city and reused here in the 12th century. The usual cacophony from Roman streets fades away inside this holy hideaway. Baroque sculptures decorate the chapels flanking the church, as does the grave of artist Nicolas Poussin. The church itself, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Beneath it lie 3 levels of ancient ruins dating back over 1,800 years. And here’s where you need your sense of adventure: Because the subterranean ruins are a hidden gem, you need to work a little bit to see them. Look around for a priest, janitor, or attendant and ask them if you can see the underground. Usually you will find someone near the door marked “Ufficio Parochiale” about ¾ of the way up the church on your right. “E possibile visitare il sotteraneo?” or “Posso visitare la cripta?” should do the trick.
The attendant will lead you down the hallway and open a door on your left, allowing you to descend. They ask for a small donation (2-5 euros will suffice) for the maintenance of these ancient ruins.
It’s veritable time travel! Electric lighting illuminates the ruins, but turn on your flashlight to explore the details! Off to the right, you’ll find a frescoed wall dating to the 2nd century AD, when this area of Rome was not occupied by designer wares, but a residential area, consisting of insulae, ancient Roman apartment buildings.
Check out the mosaic floors of later 3rd century AD insulae and imagine an ancient Roman occupying the same spot you’re standing on right now 1,700 years ago. Explore the corridors that remain of the 4-5th century church eventually built here. The story goes that Lucina, a wealthy benefactress of Christianity in 4th century Rome, donated her real estate here for the church to use (her name remains in its title to this day), and walking all the way back you can still see the stone lintels of the entrance doors to the church at that time.
When you’ve had enough of the underground, head back up and forward through time out of the church. Head across the piazza to Ciampini for lunch. This famous, fancy little café serves great food and even better gelato. If it’s a nice day, try to snag a table outside. I took the ordering advice of fashionista wonder-woman Erica and I suggest you do the same: the club (pronounced ‘cleb’) sandwich and an iced tea (te freddo) with a scoop of their lemon granita in the glass (con limone granita). A little slice of heaven for about 12-13 euros.