Rome ticked every box for Sarah-Jane: History; Art; Culture; Belief.
Rome ticked every box for her sister Carrie: Coffee; Pizza; Ice-cream.
As a primary teacher who spent her life trying to get children interested in History when all they really wanted to do was play angry birds; a trip to Rome was SJ’s annual treat. She couldn’t explain it – she just loved the place. Someone once described it as ‘enchanting’ and that really was how she felt. Every year the eternal city cast its spell on her and she loved it more with each visit. It would have been lovely to be able to visit in a comfortable month like May or October, but although some might envy teachers their long holidays; it did mean trips abroad tended to be saved for the summer holidays. This year she was dragging her younger sister Carrie along for the ride.
Carrie was four years younger and although the girls looked quite similar; they couldn’t have been more different in temperament. They often went on the same excursion but headed in different directions. SJ, with guidebook in hand would explore galleries, museums and art galleries; while Carrie would head for the shops, or an ice-cream bar that had been recommended to her. This worked for them both because meeting for lunch was a chance to catch up and compare postcards.
They planned their day out with care. August in Rome was notoriously hot and sticky and could be quite draining, so they tried to alternate outdoor sites that were going to be scorching, with places in the shade that would offer some respite from the heat of the sun. Thus while Carrie roamed the Corso wandering in and out of wonderful Italian shops; Sarah-Jane went to the Historic Centre; touring the hot, dusty monuments of the forum, she had then sat on the Palatine Hill in a shady spot, overlooking the Imperial Palaces, pretending to be an Empress.
Their modest picnic lunch was taken al fresco in the grassy oval that was once the mighty Circus Maximus; but which now resembled little more than a school running track.
‘Ben Hur would have had trouble turning a huge chariot round with that drinks truck in the way.’ Carrie pointed out.
‘But then he might have enjoyed a cold drink after all that hard work too,’ laughed SJ.
Together for once, they trudged up and down hundreds of stairs in the steaming cauldron that’s better known as the Colosseum, wondering what it would have been like as women to have had to sit right up in the top tiers.
‘Could have been worse’ said Carrie. ‘You could have been a slave… or a lion.’
They made sure they had the arrangements sorted so that they could meet for a drink before they got the bus to Vatican City together. Then they went their separate ways. Getting out her map-book, SJ walked straight down the main road and headed for a little place near the Piazza Venezia. In Roman times it was called the ‘Tullianum’. Nowadays it was sign-posted as ‘The Mamertine Prison’ but probably, it was best known to church-goers as the place where St Peter was held before his death – and where there was a slight chance that he may have received a visit from St Paul. Possibly.
Sarah Jane had heard about it from a church friend who said that it was a beautifully spiritual place. After all the crowds and tales of violence that she’d just heard at the other end of the forum, she was ready for a little peace.
It was slightly tricky to find the entrance, not many people seemed to know it was there, but then she spotted a wooden door with two figures on, and handily, one of them was carrying a large set of keys! Walking up the stairs she found herself in a tiny, dark entrance area. The woman behind the counter informed her that tickets were €3 – or €5 for entry with an audio-guide.
‘I’ll just have the three euro one please. I think I know this story.’ This was greeted by a good natured Italian shrug. ‘Si Senora, prego,’ replied the woman. ’Please mind your step, the floor is uneven.’
Thanking her, SJ stepped inside the curtains. She hoped that she hadn’t sounded too much like a know-it-all when she had said that she knew the story. But she had so enjoyed the stories of St. Paul. What a traveller he had been – Cyprus, Greece, Ephesus – it read as a list of some of her favourite holiday destinations!
Then she turned her attention to the task ahead. Out of the summer sun it felt cold and damp as she made her way carefully down the rickety iron stairs and as she got to the bottom she realised that she was the only person in there. She couldn’t help an involuntary shiver running down her spine as she imagined Peter being lowered through that hole in the ground into what was just a water cistern opening into a sewer. Sitting alone in that cold cell in the darkness, with the sound of water dripping – did his faith waver in his final days?
‘So … did you two boys manage to meet in here, I wonder?’ SJ asked herself, standing on the iron walkway and gently touching the rough stone walls. She hoped that they’d had the chance to talk. If Nero had realised what he was sparking that terrible night on Vatican Hill: events that would ultimately turn the whole of the Roman Empire to Christianity; maybe he would have decided to stay in bed! She wondered: did they speak of their certain knowledge that the next time they met; they’d be in heaven? This time the shiver that ran through her held a tingle of joy.
Emerging into the sunshine she made for the café on the terrace to wait for Carrie. As she sipped her cappuccino, in the distance she could see her afternoon’s destination – the mighty dome that Michelangelo designed on the world’s largest church –the basilica dedicated to St Peter. Raising her cup in salute she smiled to herself, ‘…and on this rock I shall build my church…’