Rome and the South

Thermal Baths of Caracalla

Less popular sites worth seeing in Rome

I was recently in Rome. Here are some of my favorite sites which are – in my opinion – worth a visit despite they might be less popular than others:

The Baths of Caracalla are very close to the Forum and the Palatine, however many visitors miss the huge complex.

Inaugurated in 216 by the son  of Emperor Septimus Severus, Caracalla, the thermal bath complex, the largest and most beautiful in Rome, remained in operation up until the 6th century when the Ostrogoths, under Totilla, sacked it, destroying the hydraulic installations. Inside its thick rectangular walls are the remains of the main buildings, once surrounded by gardens and by the library, entertainment and conference rooms, and the gymnasium.

Thermal Baths of Caracalla

Thermal Baths of Caracalla, Rome

The entrance opens into the ‘Frigidarium’ (cold water room) and its pool, followed next by the ‘Tepidarium’ (luke water room), and finally the ‘Calidarium’ (hot water room), with a huge circular pool, that originally was topped with a cupola, which dominated the entire complex.

The pool was heated by a system of radiant panels. Beneath the room were a system of furnaces and pipes, along with elaborate passageways, facilitating the movement of huge quantities of wood and ash, as the baths could accommodate up to 6000 – 8000 people at a time.

Thermal Baths of Caracalla, Rome

Thermal Baths of Caracalla, Rome

The internal and external walls were covered in multicolored marble. The rooms and gardens were decorated with mosaics, paintings and statues in marble and bronze, some of which can now be found at the Vatican museum.

Admission free first Sunday of each month

  •      St. John in Lateran

The site on which the Basilica sits was occupied during the early Roman Empire by the palace of the gens Laterani who served as administrators for several emperors; the Lateran Palace was eventually given to the Bishop of Rome by Constantine. The palace basilica was converted and extended, eventually becoming the cathedral of Rome, the seat of the popes as bishops of Rome.

Basilica of St. John in Lateran, Rome

Basilica of St. John in Lateran, Rome

Saint John Lateran was the permanent residence of the Pope since Constantine until 1304, when the Pope escaped from the chaos reigning in the town and the Pope’s States. When the Popes returned to Rome in 1376, the Vatican was selected as the new permanent residence for the Pontificate.

On the Basilica’s facade, there are 15 statues, 7 meters high. The one in the center represents Christ, with Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist on each side. The other statues represent the Doctors of the Greek and Latin Churches.

The history of the Basilica is very complex. Due to the many earthquakes and fires it has suffered, the original construction has been rebuilt several times throughout the centuries.

There is very little left of the ancient Basilica, built by Emperor Constantine in the IV century. Today, whoever enters Saint John Lateran, will see the Basilica in its five naves with an ample crossing and a huge apse, restored in XIX, during the reign of Pope Leo XIII. The interior design and the interior architecture were completed in the XVI century by Francesco Borromini, one of the most prolific Roman artists and architects.

The basilica is very interesting architecturally and inspires a sense of awe.

  • Catacombs of St. Callixtus

The Catacombs of St Callixtus are located just outside Rome on the Appian Way. You can reach them from the square facing St. John in Lateran by riding bus line number 218 to the Fosse Ardeatine stop. Buy the bus ticket at a nearby news-stand, the ticket costs Euro 1.50 and can be used for 100 minutes (however only once in the Underground).

The area of the catacombs began to be used for burials in the second century AD, when some of the local proprietors, who must have been Christians, allowed the bodies of their brethren in the faith to be buried there too.

This was the first cemetery to be owned by the Church at Rome, and by the following century it housed the remains of sixteen popes, almost all of whom had been martyred. Callixtus worked as administrator of the catacombs for the best part of twenty years, before himself being elected pope, thus the catacombs were named after him.

It has been calculated that the number of Christian graves in the Catacombs of St Callixtus is around 500,000, 40% 0f whom were children. Most of them are quite plain tombs, marked only by a simple carved image. From the fourth century onward, once the persecutions had ended, inscriptions become much more common.

There are 4 layers of catacombs superimposed to one another, the tunnels are about 13 miles long, the visit takes about 30-40 minutes, is extremely interesting and leaves you wanting for more!

  • The Ancient Appian Way and the tomb of Cecilia Metella

Along the Ancient Appian Way the tomb of Cecilia Metella is a large funerary monument, built in the 1st century B.C., located about 3 miles outside of the city borders. The mausoleum’s location, on top of a hill, made it an important landmark for people traveling to Rome from the south.

Tomb of Cecilia Metella, Rome

Tomb of Cecilia Metella, Rome

The tomb bears an inscription saying it was constructed for Cecilia Metella, daughter of the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus and wife of  Marcus Licinius Crassus, who governed with Julius Caesar. The tomb is raised on a square pedestal and is round in shape as it was inspired to the Etruscan  graves. It is covered with travertine marble.

During the Middle Ages (11th century) the tomb was transformed into the main tower of a fortress defending the southern access road into Rome. Later that the tomb was equipped with merlons.

The tomb is impressive and moving, still bearing witness to the love and grief of a father and a husband who lost their beloved daughter and wife about 2000 years ago.

If you have time, spend an afternoon walking or biking along the Ancient Appian Way, which has been transformed into a park dotted with monument ruins and the remains of ancient villas. You can still see fragments of the old road, with grooves markings of ancient Roman carts and wheels.

Emperor Nero in Rome: restored house opens

The restoration work site of Nero’s house in Rome, the Domus Aurea, now open to the public. You can visit upon appointment for a limited period of time.

After the fire of 64 a.D., which destroyed the greater part of the center of Rome, Emperor Nero had a new residence built with walls covered by rare varieties of marble and vaults decorated with gold and precious stones. The house was so glittering so as to earn the name of Domus Aurea (Golden House).

Frescoes in the Domus Aurea from Wikipedia

Frescoes in the Domus Aurea from Wikipedia

Built of brick and concrete, the extensive gold leaf that gave the villa its name was not the only extravagant element of its decor: stuccoed ceilings were faced with semi-precious     stones and ivory veneers, while the walls were frescoed, coordinating the decoration into different themes in each major group of rooms.

Nero's Domus Aurea from Wikipedia

Nero’s Domus Aurea from Wikipedia

  The Golden House was designed as a place of entertainment: there were 300 rooms but no sleeping quarter.

No kitchens or latrines have been  discovered.

The enormous complex included vast vineyards, pastures and woods, an artificial lake, treasures  looted from the Orient.

It was embellished by precious ornaments, such as a gigantic statue of the Emperor in the  robes of the Sun God.  At the death of Nero, his successors tried to bury every trace of the Palace.

The luxurious halls were spoiled of  the marbles and of of the sculptures and were filled with earth up to the the vaults; upon them the large Baths of  Titus and Baths of Trajan were built and in the underlying valley the Colosseum was erected.

The lavish fresco and stucco decorations of the Domus Aureas remained hidden until the Renaissance when some artists passionate about antiquities, including Raphael, entered into what they thought were caves and began to copy the ornamental motifs of the vaults; thus the decorations were called grotesques (from the Italian word grottesca, grotta being the Italian for cave).

Recently the Domus Aurea work site was reopened to the public after many years of being closed because of collapsed structures.

Visiting the work site will be possible on weekends  from 9:15 am to 3:45 pm upon appointment: call 01139 06 3996 7700 or visit:

The restoration is still in progress, paid for – in part – by the Italian company Sky Arte HD, which is also trying to raise more money for the works through crowdfunding. They need about 31 million Euro to restore the garden above the structure, which has been damaged by water infiltration.

In my opinion, visiting the Domus Aurea alone is worth a trip to Rome.


Statue in the Domus Aurea

Statue in the Domus Aurea from Wikipedia