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Big Sur - Hiking Andrew Molera State Park

One of the great delights of living in the Bay Area is the proximity to the natural beauty of California and it's hard to beat the stunning drive down Highway One to Big Sur. This is certainly one of the iconic American road trips, but for me the joy of being in the area is getting out of your car and hitting a trail, so you can be "in" the landscape rather than just looking at it from the asphalt. 

Macabre Rome

Just as you come upon beauty in Rome you also come upon the macabre. Indeed there have been several articles in the New York Times  including this one from 2003  and another on Gothic Italy from 2011, which detail when and were you can find this side of Rome. I hadn't been looking for images of death when I came upon the following in various religious settings. The picture above comes from a church dedicated to the burial of the poor behind the Palazzo Farnese on Via Giulia. Unfortunately it is currently under restoration and closed to visitors.

I saw the following two images come from San Pietro in Vincoli in Monti. The contrast between the portrait and the skeletons holding it up could not be more direct, death waits us all.
Here the angel of death stands above the coffin. There is no denying death when its time comes.
However, the most startlingly macabre sight in Rome has to be the Capuchin crypt near the Palazzo Barberini. There are no pictures on the website but there are lots posted on Tripadviser. I don't have any for the blog because they were quite clear this is a sacred site and photography is not allowed. It's an extraordinary place, there are a series of small chapels decorated entirely with human bones. The design is highly decorative, part baroque and part gothic horror. It is mesmerizing in both the repetition of the design and the sheer number of skulls, vertebrae, pelvises and other parts of our earthly remains. In fact it's quite humbling to see so much death in one place and it has far more impact than a regular cemetery, where the physicality of the dead is displaced in favor of memorials which are far more culturally palatable. In the Capuchin Crypt death is undeniable and I was left feeling my own skull thankfully, at least for now.
The Catacombs are one of the most popular macabre sights in Rome and you can tour various Christian catacombs on the Appia Antica. We went a few weeks ago but I don't have photos at they don't allow  cameras on the guided tour.

However, overall I would recommend the Scavi tour at the Vatican far beyond any visit to the catacombs. The catacombs show you how the Christians buried their dead in underground burial chambers several stories deep, but the sites were raided and desecrated over the centuries and there is very little decoration remaining. In contrast the Scavi tour at the Vatican guides you through an excavated area under the altar at St Peter's believed to be the burial ground of St Peter himself. This is an area where the  necropolis show a fascinating combination of both Christian symbols and Roman iconography right next to each other. It reflects a transitional period before Christianity took complete hold of Rome. We also found because it was an excavated area it was in far better condition than the catacombs. The tour was also very well done and it was also a privilege to get "behind the scenes" at the Vatican. I highly recommend it.

Tip: You'll need to book tickets in advance by emailing the Vatican and you can find further information here.