Mediterranean Enchantment – 2009
Catacombs and Ship Noordam at Civitavecchia
April 26 - May 10, 2009
Updated July 4, 2009
By LEWIS NOLAN
To view photo album of 128 pictures mainly taken by Betty Nolan, go to www.ritzpix.com and sign in under Lewis’ email name of email@example.com (password ln9876 with lower case initials). Under “My Albums,” activate “Rome and Mediterranean Enchantment” album and play as a Slideshow with longest offered delay in seconds.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009 – From Rome to Ship Noordam off Coast of Italy
We arose about 7:30 a.m. after sleeping comfortably in the ritzy St. Regis Hotel in Central Rome. Our room, No. 333, was a gem of luxurious quarters with a huge, marble bathroom and a 42-inch HD TV. As with yesterday, I made breakfast out of a leftover sandwich from dinner at the hotel restaurant in the lobby. And also as with yesterday and her custom, Betty went without early morning food.
We checked out of the prepaid hotel at 9:30 a.m. It was a good deal we got in our Northwest Air weekend package arranged by Gulliver’s Travel in our hometown of Memphis; regular rack rates were roughly five times our “deal,” or 1,350 Euros a night (about $2,000).
One of the highpoints of our morning was a visit to a church we would have never found on our own. It was the Basilica of St. Peter’s Chains located adjacent to a college in Central Rome. We were awed by the magnificent, large marble sculpture by Michelangelo of Moses. In the church, the iron chains and manacles that once held then miraculously parted from St. Peter’s arms in a Roman jail long ago have been preserved behind glass on an altar covered with a golden arch that signals the importance of the relics beneath.
As the Revised Standard version of the New Testament tells the story in Acts 12: 6 and 7, “The very night Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison.; and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and awoke him, saying “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. . .” The story continues with Peter walking out of the prison with the Angel, who disappeared.
If the church has it, we did not see any accounts of how the iron chains came to be recovered and encased in glass 2,000 years later. However, I was still curious and once back home did an Internet search for “St. Peter’s Chains” using Google. I unearthed the following information attributed to a historic writer.
the first pope, was imprisoned on 2 separate occasions during his 25 year reign
as the Vicar of Christ. The pious Eudocia, wife of Emperor Teodosio II,
journeyed to Jerusalem and found the chain that had bound Peter during his
second imprisonment. According to the Acts of the Apostles (12:6), an angel
caused the chains to fall from Peter's hands and led him past slumbering guards
The chain was eventually given as a gift to Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461). In Rome there was already a chain that was greatly prized which had bound the saint during his nine month imprisonment in the Mamertine Prison near the Forum. When the pope compared the two chains, they miraculously fused together into one unbreakable series of links. Because of this miracle, Empress Eudocia built the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, and dedicated it to the apostle in the year 442. The relic is now kept in a golden urn beneath the high altar in the Basilica, close to the famous statue of Michelangelo's Moses.
St. Peter was crucified in the year 67. He requested to be nailed to the cross upside-down, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same manner as his Savior, Jesus Christ.
As promised, our hired local guide and driver, Franco Lattughi, drove us out what turned into the ancient Appian Way to the south. The narrow roadway lined with stone and concrete walls was built by the Roman Legion to provide rapid movement to soldiers 2,000 years ago.
On the drive out of Rome we had additional good looks at what remains of the famous Coliseum where gladiators once battled and early Christians were painfully put to death, the grassy Circus Maximus track for chariot races, and the weathered statues and monuments of the Roman Forum where the remains of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar are buried.
We drove out the Appian Way to what were the outskirts of the city of Rome many centuries ago. It is now mainly farmland and groves of olive trees. There, we arrived at what has been known for centuries as the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, an underground network of seven miles of tunnels and chambers dug out of a soft stone for the legal burial of Christians.
They were given the name of Sebastian in his honor. He was himself a converted Christian who served as Tribune in an elite Roman Army fighting unit, the First Cohort of the Roman Imperial Guard. As a high military officer, he had the authority – and the will – to help the early Christians practice their faith out of the sight of the pagan government. Sebastian was caught and condemned to a public and painful death by arrows shot into his body while he was tied to pillar.
Abandoned for death, Sebastian miraculously survived his deep wounds. He personally appeared before Emperor Diocletian to appeal for understanding of the Christians’ religion. He was sentenced to death by flogging and was whipped until there was no doubt that he was still alive. His body was tossed into a sewer to keep Christians from having a new cause. But a Christian lady by the name of Lucia saw Sebastian in a vision, found his body and buried it in one of the approved catacombs that later carried his name.
We added a visit to the Catacombs to our itinerary on the recommendation of a dear friend, Mike Pietrangelo of Memphis with whom I happily worked for many years and who subsequently served as our family attorney. He is a proud Italian American who visited the Catacombs while in Italy some years ago.
We joined a Catacombs tour group led by a guide who spoke perfect English. He told us that some “relics” from St. Sebastian’s remains are now elaborately entombed in a church at the main entrance to the Catacombs. But we also learned that other of his “relics” plus virtually all the remains of early Christians – many hundreds and perhaps thousands - buried long ago in the top layer of tunnels have been moved and reburied in a lower level to safeguard them from tourists filching souvenir bones and skulls.
A section of tunnels about 30 feet below ground level are open to tour. Electric lights provide dim illumination in what I thought were rather creepy passages. With a trace of claustrophobia, I had an uneasy feeling that it could be nightmarish to be plunged into darkness in the event of a power failure and have to grope one’s way out. Evidently the genes passed to me through my mother’s coal mining family of West Virginia are not strong.
Open, stone boxes that for centuries held human bones rest on earth platforms in the Catacombs. The equivalent carved and painted of “tombstones” placed in the tunnel walls here and there are inscribed in Latin and ancient Greek. Leading off the tunnels are elaborate “rooms” with vaulted ceilings that were the preserve of wealthy families. The guide told us that the rooms and tunnels were hand-carved out of soft rock that hardened when exposed to the air. The digging was done by church employees and volunteers out of the spirit of providing free burial to members. Tourist photography is discouraged.
An enduring legend is that the bodies of the Christian Saints Paul and Peter were hidden for a time in the Sebastian Catacombs during a period of anti-Christian “purges” by the Roman government. Much later they were entombed in churches bearing their names at the Vatican. Our guide made it clear that the Christian Catacombs were tolerated by Rome even before the religion was recognized as a legal and proper faith following a famous decree by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century. That ruling came after he credited his vision of a cross as helping with a great military victory.
After viewing the elaborate “tombs” containing the remains of St. Sebastian and other dignitaries in the church at the entrance to the Catacombs, Franco drove us to the ancient Roman port of Civitavecchia where we would board the Holland America Ship Noordam for the 10-day cruise in the Western Mediterranean. We found that the port is a busy place that is marked by a large, stone fort designed by Michelangelo. Passing in and out of an enormous, stone “breakwater” there are all kinds of cruise ships, commercial freighters, fishing boats and yachts of all descriptions. It is a ferryboat stopping point for the regular ships serving Sardinia, Sicily and the countless ports and islands along the coast of Italy.
Boarding Holland America’s Ship Noordam was a breeze, just as it was to board their ship Ryndam in Vancouver in July, 2008. The line’s staff is expert and friendly. Our accommodations arranged by our travel agent, Erin Bobbit de Padilla of Gulliver’s Travels in Memphis, were wonderful. We were pleased with the size, furnishings and equipment of our Superior Veranda Suite booked under an upgrade program. A telephoned request for some extra blankets was met within 15 minutes. The large deck with lawn furniture just beyond double-glass doors that overlooked the harbor and Mediterranean was inviting.
However, feeling a bit out-of-sorts because of a developing upper respiratory viral infection, I was just a bit put off by minor faults in the boat’s dining room services that evening. I wondered if the captain of this ship was as good as the captain and his crew on the Ryndam had been on our last cruise. (I was quite pleased that everything on the ship over the next week and a half turned out to be near perfect and discounted my initial slightly negative impression to travel-induced crankiness.) The ship was gently rocking from rough seas the first night of our voyage.
The king-size bed in our large and nicely furnished stateroom was quite comfortable. But I slept only fitfully due to the new surroundings as we sailed that night to the first stop on the cruise. Due to rough seas, the ship was somewhat “rocking and rolling.”