Rome – A Winter Road Less Travelled

Trish Clark's picture

Visiting Rome in winter certainly has its compensations.  It is only 10 degrees, a temperature which could probably be called 'mild’ at the beginning of a European winter, but what a treat it is not to have to queue to get into the Vatican, to sit almost alone with Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel and to wander around a deserted Colosseum. Things are more lively in the Piazza Navona where a large Christmas market is in full swing with traders selling roasted chestnuts, toys, decorations and other Christmas knick-knacks. A central nativity scene is being erected and Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) is not far away.

Evening Christmas market on the Piazza Navona

Evening Christmas market on the Piazza Navona

Tables and chairs still spill out on to the footpaths, but the usual flotilla of colourful café umbrellas are almost outnumbered by portable gas heaters. It’s too cold for gelato, but in the Pantheon area near where our rented Roman apartment is situated, the warmth and conviviality in the local street cafés entice lingering. However, we don’t have to walk too far for our first taste of ancient Rome.

Spanish steps in winter

Spanish steps in winter

Next door to where we are staying in the Via Pie' di Marmo, is a 13th century Basilica and within few minutes’ walk are a dozen or so equally impressive churches.  I have always been keen on ancient churches – their shape, spires and turrets, their thick wooden doors hanging on gigantic lead hinges and their calm, meditative interiors rich with artistic treasures and centuries of history.

Being in Rome is like stepping into my very own cioccolateria of churches, including the Gothic Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where, if the walls could talk would reveal a timeline of the Dominican religious order, (Order of Preachers) from when the first bricks were laid by Dominican monks Sisti and Ristoro in 1280, on the site of a pagan temple to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.

Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Inside are shrines and tombs, mosaics and chapels, immense stone columns and colourful frescoes and a soaring, vaulted ceiling which could have been inspired by Van Gogh’s acclaimed painting, The Starry Night.

Friars of the Dominican Order in Rome have been in control of the church from the time of Sisti and Ristoro to the present.  The Dominican Pope, Paul IV is buried here. He is often remembered for ordering artist Michelangelo to cover up the naked women painted on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangleo refused this request and subsequently his weekly stipend from the Vatican was withdrawn.  Leo X is thought to have been Pope for just 30 days some time in the 10th century and his relics lie here near the tomb of fellow Dominican, Pope Clement VII (1478-1534). Before entering the priesthood both Popes were princes from the influential de’ Medici family. The great Dominican friar and painter, Blessed Fra Angelico (Beato Angelico) died in the monastery next door and is buried in the gloriously named Frangipane Chapel, forever separated from his most famous works, which are now in galleries in Madrid, Texas, Florence, Cortona and in the church of the Convento di Santo Domenico in Fiesole, on the outskirts of Florence, the Dominican monastery where he studied for the priesthood.

The body of St. Catherine of Siena, a Dominican nun (1347-1380), lies under the main altar. In a slightly macabre twist the head of Saint Catherine is kept in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena.

In contrast to the solemn interior of the basilica, outside, on the Piazza della Minerva stands a playful  baby elephant carrying a stone Egyptian obelisk which was sculptured by the renowned Italian artist Bernini (1598 - 1680) the architect of St Peter’s.  Across the piazza the imposing stone walls of the Pantheon stand tall – but then that’s another story!

apartment near Pantheon

our apartment near Pantheon



Apartments in Rome:
Can recommend the Pantheon Stylish Apartment for 4 people.



Trish Clark is author of Good Night and God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe, Vols I and II, both published by Hidden Spring, an imprint of Paulist Press NJ. She writes a monthly column for as the Travel with a Spiritual Twist Editor.

You can find her at