history, research, travel, Uncategorized

Peeling Back History’s Layers

Recently, I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. A transcendent, awe-inspiring, utterly magnificent experience.

An orgy.

No, not that kind of orgy, you naughty thing. Rather, an orgy of artistic and historic wonder. A plethora of beauty and splendor as can only be seen in Italy. Rome, in particular. My husband and I celebrated a significant anniversary in La Bella Italia. We’d been a number of years ago, but it is Italy – one could spend years discovering its treasures. More than 2,000 years of history leaves lots of remnants behind. During this trip we concentrated on places and experiences we had missed during the last one. So we visited innumerable churches, cathedrals, quaint hilltop villages, and packed-to-the-gills museums.

One church in Rome stands out among the others. It lacks the gold- and jewel-bedecked opulence of others such as St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica, but has something in abundance that the others lack: mystery.

Here it is, the Basilica of San Clemente, a rather non-descript spot, though quintessential what with the cigarette-smoking Italian out front. It sits near the Colosseum.

Front of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome, Italy Roma
By Berthold Werner via (Wikimedia Commons)

Inside this 12th century church you will find incredible mosaics well worth a visit. The Official Site provides a virtual tour.This drawing gives you an idea of its insides.

Basilica of St. Clemente 12th century Rome Roma Italy

In 392 AD, St. Jerome spoke of a church in Rome that preserved St. Clemente’s memory, and this was thought to be that church. In 1857, Father Joseph Mullooly decided to see whether that was true. Down he dug, and was rewarded greatly for his efforts. He discovered the original basilica underneath the current church.


Statues, marble columns, Roman brickwork, fantastic frescoes, and a bubbling spring were all revealed to him.

But. What if? What if there was something beneath this lovely original basilica? The digging began again. And again, the effort was rewarded. This time with a 1st century sanctuary to Mithras, a mystery cult, about which little is known.

1st century building underneath Basilica of San Clemente Rome Roma Italy

Here you will find a plainer, more ancient structure, with close hallways and small rooms, arches, and concrete. And that spring, bubbling and cascading, refreshing. Before it was a sanctuary, the structure is thought to have been a private home, or perhaps a mint.

Down, down, down. Modern-day Rome bustles on the surface of the city, and rises into the blue Italian sky. But, oh, what lies underneath it all. Much more just waiting to be discovered.


This post lacks images, I know, partly due to a lack on my part to find decent ones of the magnificent mosaics, and part of which because the church prohibits photography in the lower reaches. But there is one remedy for that, dear reader.

Visit Rome yourself. The Eternal City beckons. Will you heed the call? I have done so long before actually physically going there, through reading and writing. Such influences saturate my fiction, in some pieces more than others.

challenge, hiking, photography, travel, Uncategorized

Dreams of Rome – 27-29/100 Camino Photos

What is so great about this picture of a bridge? Nothing much, except that the road in the foreground was built in Roman times.

roman road1


And this road leads to a bridge also constructed in Roman times. Travel these ancient paths directly outside of Cirauqui.



And another view.

another view


Intrigued about the techniques the Romans used to build roads that lasted for thousands of years? Take a look at this 42 minute documentary for answers.

photography, travel, Weekly Travel Theme, writing

Travel Theme: Ancient

The ancient world has long been an obsession of mine. It’s so far away from us, but remnants still exist, like the 360° circle which originated with the Babylonians, and the tumbled remains of blocks in the Roman Forum, which is where the below photo was taken. It really resonated with me because “Sena” is the way that the Italians pronounced my first name, Xina. And indeed, I do love Rome. If you, too, love the ancient world, consider checking out my fantasy adventure Necropolis, which has been my piece of fiction which was most inspired by those long ago cultures around the Mediterranean.

Tumbled columns in Roman Forum


Would you like to participate in this photography challenge? Visit Wheresmybackpack to learn more or view other photos.

history, writing

A Visit to Dark Ages Rome

I realize that I’ve been rather miserly with the “history” portion of this blog, instead focusing on travel and cats and so forth, so consider this a mea culpa of sorts. I just discovered this wonderful weekly blogging event hosted by K.L. Schwengel called WIP Wednesday (Work in Progress, for you non-writers), which encourages bloggers to post a snippet of the project they are working on. The snippet should have something to do with the date, 11/20. As such …

On this day in history (November 20, 269 AD), according to Today in History, Diocletian was proclaimed emperor of Rome by his soldiers. He had previously been commander of the emperor’s bodyguard. How does this relate to my WIP? The hero in my historical novel is both a commander and a bodyguard, and in this piece he and the woman he has sworn to lead to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage are visiting Rome. However, they are about four centuries after Diocletian.

The moon shone luminous upon the ruined buildings and tumbled columns, lying this way and that, broken, abandoned, and lost. Justus left Richende seated on an upright stone drum as he made his way around the area, wondering about the many festivals and law proceedings and parades that had taken place here, and reading the engraved letters on the marble everywhere. The words shouted their messages, clear and bold, to eternity: justice triumphs here; may this flame burn eternally; hush and hear the sacred words spoken.

Little gatherings of some farmer’s cattle stood huddled together just beyond the Forum, evidence anew of the way rural life was creeping back into the capital after it had been sacked by the barbarian hordes one too many times. Justus noticed, then, that Richende had not moved from her seated place, so he made his way back to her. She sat, back erect but chin tucked low, silvery tears tracking down her cheeks.

“My lady?” he asked, his heart clenching. “What is wrong?”

She looked at Justus as though seeing him for the first time, and gave a little shudder. She sniffed, and hiccupped, and spoke only after working to regain her composure for a moment. “Oh, Justus. I have dreamed of coming to this place, so filled with glory and power. How wondrous and terrible it is to know that thousands once flocked here, that they lived and suffered and loved, that they created such grandeur. And all that effort and work, all that passion and purpose and lawful attention has now fallen into this. Ruin.”

Her hair gleamed straight and golden under Hera’s glowing moon; her cheeks were smooth and unlined, her eyes dark and shadowed, but beckoning nonetheless. He did not think. In one motion his calloused, overlarge palm cupped her soft cheek. How like a sculpture she was at that moment, perfectly formed and unutterably beautiful. She inclined her face into his touch. Her tears felt cool and thin on his skin.

The chanting of the procession, now receding into the distance, carried the words of blessing clear on the night breeze. Somewhere, a dog howled in strange accompaniment.

Comments, reactions, impressions, constructive criticisms – all are treasured, should you choose to provide them. Visit my fellow WIPpet participants here:

cats, humor, travel memories, writing

Traveling With Cats

Okay, the subject line of this post is perhaps a little misleading. The only traveling WITH cats I’ve done is short jaunts from home to the vet’s office, which invariably results in an unhappy moaning type noise coming from the cat carrier both there and back. Although, before we actually owned a plastic cat carrier, our vet advised us to stuff poor kitty in a pillowcase and carry her that way. That actually worked better than the carrier – it was quieter, in any case. The vet said they tend to feel safer that way. More secure, I suppose? But, I digress.

These two really bear little resemblance to Uncle Joe and Aunt Gladys, so I have no actual excuse for putting this picture in here except that I’m twisted that way.

The title of this post should more accurately be “Traveling AND Cats.” The first travel adventures I can recall which involved cats occurred when our family took one of several jaunts in the family Datsun (complete with an outrageously huge overhead camper), from Arizona to Wisconsin, at the home of Uncle Joe and Aunt Gladys, two sturdy Mennonite dairy farmers. They lived in a rambling wooden house shaded by huge oaks. Across the yard stood the Barn (yes, it has to be capitalized. I was a little kid – the Barn was a humongous, utterly fascinating, rather odoriferous place), where the dairy cows spent their evenings mooing away in contentment. Or whatever they were doing – to be honest I really didn’t pay that much attention to them. Why? Because there was always – and I do mean ALWAYS – a litter of kittens in the barn. My brother and I delighted in spending hours playing with the kitties, giggling and running around and accidentally dropping a kitty or two into the running channel of water that flowed into the barn, attached to some mysterious milking apparatus. Every time we visited the farm we ran for the cats, and spent many happy hours amusing ourselves with them. I have vague memories of clambering all over tractors and seeing goats standing atop the roofs of storage sheds, and shelling peas in the yard when we were there as well, but the cats stand out above all else.

Farmers and cats – a smooth, well-milked machine since the dawn of time.

Barn cats were a necessity on farms, to keep the rodents at bay. Hardy, intrepid souls, the last barn cat I saw was a few years ago on a horse ranch in Southern California. It ran by me with a loudly shrieking baby bunny clamped in its jaws. Ah, nature. How you suck sometimes.

As is to be expected by someone who wrote a book entitled The Cat’s Guide to Human Behavior, I tend to notice cats where ever I go.

Cats are everywhere in Rome – running along the sidewalks, jumping in and out of trash cans, sleeping in view of ancient buildings, kicking back on the seats of motorbikes; like I said, everywhere. People usually just ignore them and that seems to be fine with the cats, who are naturally independent anyways.

Forum of Caesar, site of Caesar's murder.
Site of the cat sanctuary … er, I mean, Forum of Caesar.

When our family visited Rome a few years back, my daughter was 12 years old. We, of course, dragged her around to museum after museum, but we also made sure to do some activities that she found interesting. The main one seemed to be eating gelato every day, but in addition to that, we visited a cat sanctuary located in the heart of Rome.

It turns out that Rome is home to around 300,000 feral cats. Because the archaeological sites are occupied, people who find themselves wanting to rid themselves of cats often dump them at such sites. At one of those sites, the forum at which Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, volunteers established a sanctuary to care for homeless cats. Called Torre Argentina, it is sunken beneath the street level. At first, when approaching the ruins, you see nothing but columns and tumbled stones and weeds sprouting, as weeds do, where ever they please. However, looking closer, you begin to see the cats roaming among the columns, sitting on stairs, sleeping and playing and doing miscellaneous feline things. Quite a lot of cats, actually. At least several dozen. The sanctuary itself is located down a set of stairs and inside a small underground area filled with medical facilities, cages, and storerooms for food. Dedicated Gattare – Italian for “crazy cat women” – see that injured and sick animals are helped and spayed and neutered whenever possible. Volunteers sell shirts such as the one my daughter is wearing in the photo to support the organization.

Girl with Roman cat sanctuary shirt.
Photo of young Brandy taken with a slightly defective but beloved Canon AE-1.

You can visit the sanctuary yourself by watching this video. In recent days the sanctuary has been threatened with closure, as detailed here. If you’re interested in a visit yourself, learn more about the sanctuary and the plight of Roman cats here.

We did not spend a lot of time at Torre Argentina, but it was a memorable visit nonetheless. In Rome there is always something to do, some other centuries-old architectural wonder to behold. Perhaps sometime I will be able to live in Rome and explore its many nooks and crannies. What was my daughter Brandy’s verdict about the visit to the cat sanctuary? “Awesome!” she enthused, in no uncertain terms.

Since that trip to Rome, we’ve seen cats in Turkey, and Greece, and Spain, and the Caribbean. I don’t doubt that I will also look for them at our next destination, where ever that might be.