We started off at Santa Maria Maggiore, which is right by our hotel.
The church dates from about 430, though it was altered in the 18th century and the bell tower (the tallest in Rome, 75m) was built in 1377. The original site was a temple to Cybele, and Pope Liberius allegedly had a visitation from the Virgin Mary telling him to build a church on the Esquiline Hill – the next morning, the floor plan was outlined by a miraculous snowfall.
Some of the gilded ceiling is meant to be the first gold that arrived from the New World.
We also really liked the tomb of Pope Sixtus V.
From there we walked down the Via Panisperna, past the Italian Ministry of the Interior, and headed for Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
The church was built in the 8th century on the ruins of a temple to Minerva, though the present basilica dates from 1280. Outside, there's a statue of an elephant (designed by Bernini in 1667) holding an Egyptian obelisk from the 6th century BC - it's known as Minerva's Chick, but it’s meant to represent Pope Alexander VII, with strength supporting wisdom.
We loved the ceilings here.
From there we went to the Pantheon - another of Hadrian's building works, 118-128 AD, replacing a temple of Marcus Agrippa (though Hadrian, being modest, credits Agrippa with his own building). From the back, it looks a bit dingy.
From the front - wow.
Allegedly these are the original Roman doors, though much restored.
Just to give a bit of perspective... Chris is about 5 ft 9.
And you can even see how the hinges work.
Inside, it's amazing - what a feat of engineering. (There was much nerdy conversation at this point and we thought the wow factor was as great as the Colosseum.) The Pantheon was the world's largest dome until Buxton Spa was built in 1882; its diameter is 43m, the same as its height from the floor. (There are eight barrel vaults hidden in the walls to take the weight - more than 4500 tonnes of Roman concrete.) And this is nearly TWO THOUSAND YEARS OLD. (Um, yes, we were rather blown away by it.)
The central opening is 9m wide. It's left unglazed (though we spotted quite a few copies of this ceiling in other buildings, all of which are glazed). Allegedly it's so people can meditate, but practically it's the only light source when the doors are closed.
There's a drain in the marble floor (central ochre-coloured square).
Raphael is buried here, and I found his tomb rather moving - especially Bembo's epigraph, "Here lies Raphael, by whom the mother of all things (Nature) feared to be overcome while he was living, and while he was dying, herself to die."
The fountain in the piazza is lovely and we were stunned by how clear the water is.
From there we went to Piazza Navona - an elliptical-shaped square which betrays its origins as Domitian's race track.
There's still a fragment remaining at one end.
There are three fountains there - all quite big. The first, from the Pantheon end, is Giacomo della Porta's Fontana del Moro (the figure of the Moor is by Bernini).
The middle, Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi).
The third, at the end near the racetrack fragments, is the Fontana del Nettuno, also by Giacomo della Porta.
We had planned to have lunch in the piazza, but there was a VERY noisy protest going on, so we bought a picture from one of the artists and headed for the River Tiber instead.