Due east is our next destination: the Piazza Navona Christmas festival. In between the square’s three Baroque fountains are carnival games and vendors hawking spicy sausages; small-scale nativity figures; and burlap-and-straw renditions of the witch La Befana, said to race around on a broomstick at Epiphany, dropping down chimneys to leave candy or lumps of coal. Roving Santas twist balloons into animal shapes, and a finger puppeteer makes his digits dance to Michael Jackson’s "Beat It." Tacky, but the fact that it’s mostly Italians sharing in the merriment makes it all the more fun for us. Hannah and Daniel try to outdo each other pitching balls at a pyramid of dented cans, and I buy black sweets shaped like coal. A thick sugary scent draws us to a vendor with flat doughnuts called fritelle that must be a foot across—the Italian equivalent of funnel cake. By now it’s dusk. Making one final stop, for roasted chestnuts, we stroll back to our hotel, handing around the brown paper cone of hot nuggets as we pass through streets strung with white pinpoint lights.
Although i’ve read that only 3 percent of Italians regularly attend church services these days, they do turn out for the big events on the ecclesiastical calendar—which explains the packed house for midnight mass at Santa Maria in Trastevere. At first I decide to skip the service, and burrow under the covers while Steve and the kids crunch across the courtyard pebbles to church. But the bells clang so insistently and hotel guests knock on each others’ doors so excitedly that sleep is out of the question. Dressing hastily, I make my way to the basilica, where mass is in full swing, candles dripping, incense burning, altar boys with baggy jeans and sneakers poking out from below their vestments moving hither and thither. I spot my crew on a riser to the left of the pulpit. "I’m glad you came," Steve whispers as I squeeze onto the bench between him and the kids, who are clearly zonked. Two fur coat– fattened mamas proudly offer up their babies for baptism. Practically the only word we can make out is bambino.
Christmas morning the whole city sleeps in. At breakfast, which is served late, slices of panettone—like challah with raisins, I tell Daniel—have been added to the buffet of crusty bread, honeydew, and sweet ricotta. I’d worried that Steve and the kids would miss opening presents, and though we’d all agreed that our trip would take the place of individual gifts, I’d stowed a few featherweight surprises in our bags—Hannah’s is a notice about an Italian cooking class for teens that I’ve signed her up for back home. But, miracle of miracles, Christmas ends up being a lovely, low-key day. We mosey to the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum in weather so warm and sunny we end up tying our jackets around our waists. The Colosseum is closed, so we circle the 2,000-year-old stadium where gladiators fought to their deaths. At Trattoria Quirino, a small, family-run restaurant a few blocks from our hotel, there’s a special Christmas menu. The kids and I can’t pass up the pasta—they stick with spaghetti Bolognese, and I try fettuccine in a creamy pepper sauce. Steve, the traditionalist, orders ham, which turns out to be prosciutto fanned out on the plate, and, like everything else we eat in Rome, astonishingly good.
Our culinary, not to mention spiritual, adventures continue at Casa di Santa Brigida. A convent-cum-guesthouse across the river, it’s named for a Swedish saint who died here in 1373, and whose hip bone is enshrined in a reliquary on the premises. Sister Angelina, from India, greets us wearing a charcoal-gray habit, and issues us keys to two rooms with high ceilings and parquet floors—but no flat-screens. Yes, there’s a silver crucifix and needlepoint Madonna and Child over our twin beds; a priest occupies one of the breakfast tables; and when we head to the rooftop terrace we pass the nuns’ ghostly slips hanging out to dry. But in other ways the convent is actually not so different from any number of comfortable little pensiones.
And it’s certainly well situated—just off the alluring Piazza Farnese with its Renaissance palazzo partly designed by Michelangelo. We’re a block from the Campo de’ Fiori, which has a bustling open-air market and a fabulous bakery, Antico Forno, where there’s always a lunchtime crush at the take-out pizza counter, with everyone jostling for their slice of bianco (no sauce), rosa (no cheese), or mozzarella (plenty of both). A short walk away is Da Baffetto, a popular, boisterous pizzeria named for the mustachioed owner who controls the door, opening it and shouting "Due!" or "Quattro!" to those waiting in line, after which the lucky party sails in. And we’re not far from Giolitti, the old-fashioned gelato parlor near the Piazza Colonna, where servers in white jackets with gold-braid epaulets work at lightning speed scooping cones of amaretto, mandarino, and stracciatella.
We hit the glorious Pantheon, built by Hadrian in the first century as a temple to the gods and converted to a church after the Roman Empire became Christianized. Indeed, we see plenty of church art: Michelangelo’s 1521 statue of Christ carrying his cross, at the austere Santa Maria Sopra Minerva; our first luminous Caravaggios, at Santa Maria del Popolo. The Cripta dei Cappuccini is religious art of an altogether different sort. In this spookily beautiful series of vaulted rooms, walls and ceilings are completely covered with intricate garlands, arches, and even chandeliers—all composed of deceased monks’ jaws, ribs, shoulder blades, and skulls. Wide-eyed, Daniel reads the sign in the last room: what you are now we used to be, what we are now you will be.