Crowds expected for papal beatification in Rome

You may need a miracle to find an affordable room in Rome the weekend of Pope John Paul II's beatification ceremony.

Or maybe there's a miracle in the making.

The Vatican travel agency for pilgrimages said prices on rooms might tumble in the coming weeks because predictions of upward of 1 million people pouring into this city for the May 1 event could scare off potential hotel guests.

Others might resist the temptation to take a Roman holiday after complaints about sixfold increases in hotel prices and Vatican warnings about unscrupulous agents hawking services on the Internet to procure "tickets" for the beatification.

There are no tickets. The Vatican decided it will be first come, first served, for visitors securing a place in St. Peter's Square for the elaborate ceremony to mark the last formal step before possible sainthood for the beloved pontiff.

Those who persevere and do come will find Rome in spring can be heavenly, with wisteria sensually winding down the facades of Renaissance palaces and trattorie moving their tables outside for dining al fresco. And to duck the hordes of pilgrims and students on spring trips, just turn a few corners and you can unveil layers of history many tourists never see.

But first you need to check in. The rector of Santa Susanna church, home to many U.S. expat Catholics in Rome, says emails and phone calls from as far away as Australia started arriving in January, when John Paul's successor, Benedict, approved the miracle needed for beatification, setting Sunday, May 1 — exactly a week after Easter, when Rome is already swamped with tourists — as the date.

"People want a place for 80 euros ($115)," said the rector, the Rev. Gregory Apparcel. But the convents listed by Santa Susanna on a popular link on its website are already booked solid, he said. The last few years have seen soaring demand for rooms rented out by nuns in this city chock full of convents as safe, clean and economical alternatives to the nondescript hotels that often charge upward of 150 euros ($210) nightly for claustrophobic rooms.

"At this point, if you don't have a hotel room, don't come," advised Apparcel.

But the Vatican says have faith. "Today you stand a better chance of finding a room than a month ago," ventured the Rev. Caesar Atuire, CEO of the Vatican's tourist agency for pilgrims, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.

Forty days before the beatification, "brokers" — others might call them speculators — who bought up big blocks of hotel rooms in hopes of booking them out at a tidy profit contacted his agency, asking it to take the rooms off their hands, Atuire said in an interview.

Hotel rooms can be booked by the general public — Catholic or not — through a link on the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi site, "I try to negotiate real hard to obtain the best for my pilgrims. I have a moral duty" to them, said the priest, who is from Ghana.

Lower prices might be welcome after what Italian consumer group Codacons found sampling a half-dozen hotels near St. John Lateran Basilica. Suspecting price-fixing, it lodged a complaint with Italy's antitrust authority about room prices soaring from 170 euros ($240) to more than 1,000 euros (nearly $1,500) for the beatification weekend.

"Only the rich are going to be able to come to this beatification," fretted Codacons spokesman Stefano Zerbi.

Some Italians will try to beat Rome's steep hotel prices by lodging as far as 200 kilometers (125 miles) away in Pescara, on the Adriatic coast, and taking chartered buses to the beatification. Pilgrims from John Paul's homeland, Poland, "will hardly sleep a night in Rome," opting for outlying towns, Atuire said.

Italy's high-speed train service between the capital and Naples or Florence can shave commute time to less than 90 minutes, but steep ticket prices will erode any savings on hotels.

One off-the-tourist track option is Ostia, a modern, seaside town near the highly recommended ancient Roman ruins of Ostia Antica. Long considered an unremarkable bedroom community, Ostia is now where many Romans go on weekends for a leisurely lunch of spaghetti alle vongole (white clam sauce) and oven-baked fish in some simple eatery at the sea or to soak up some rays on rented lettini (lounge chairs) at "stabilimenti" (establishments) along private beaches eating up all but a sliver of Mediterranean shoreline. Commuter trains, linking with Rome's subway system, run to Ostia.

Renting a car in Rome is pointless unless you like traffic jams and tangling with aggressive, undisciplined Roman drivers. Rome is very walkable, but when the cobblestones are hard on your supple-soled, new leather Italian sandals, you can take hop-on, hop-off open air buses dubbed Roma Cristiana and painted yellow-and-white, the Vatican's colors. The popular double-decker bus stops include the boulevard ending in St. Peter's Square, the Termini stations and locations near the Colosseum, Pantheon and Rome's many churches.

You don't have to be a believer to purchase the "JPII Special Pass," featuring the image of an aging John Paul and providing unlimited use, for three days, of Rome's public transport, as well as the Roma Cristiana double-decker and the trains running to Ostia. At 18 euros (about $25) it's a good deal (free for kids under 10), but must be purchased through the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi website and then picked up at any of several locations in Rome. Usually a similar pass without John Paul's image costs 25 euros ($35).

Certified believers get a price break and special nighttime access to the Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling. To mark the beatification, the museums will be open April 26-29 and May 2, 7 p.m. to midnight (last entrance at 10 p.m.), but only to those bearing letters from their parish, diocese or some religious institution. Admission for them will be 8 euros ($11.25) instead of the usual 15 euros ($21). But there are no reservations for the evening visits, and lines can stretch for hours. Those lacking Catholic credentials can visit the museums during daytime hours, and for a 4 euro ($5.60) booking fee, buy a ticket online and avoid long waits.

The Colosseum is again offering special tours of the ancient entertainment venue's underground, where gladiators once prepared for fights and tigers and lions were caged. The tours, in English, Spanish or Italian, for those with sturdy shoes and sturdy constitution, include a visit to the Colosseum's third tier for spectacular views and run through June 30. To book, call 011-39-06-399-67-700.

You'll need to crane your neck to see the glassed-in display of Michelangelo's "Pieta" in St. Peter's Basilica, but many tourists barely notice the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva church near the Pantheon, which houses the artist's "Christ Bearing the Cross." (Crowds outside the church are busy photographing Bernini's sculpture of an elephant holding an obelisk.) In the Santa Maria chapel, you'll also find angelic faces by Melozzo da Forli', known for his dreamy blue palette. His cherubs star in the Vatican Museums painting gallery.

For a more condensed version of the history of Christian Rome than the Vatican offers, wander a few blocks past the Colosseum to San Clemente Basilica. The church has been described as a triple-deck sandwich of history: medieval at street level, with layers from Rome's pagan and early Christian eras below. Friendly Irish Dominicans who care for the church can answer questions.

At the far end of the Colosseum neighborhood, with vegetable and flower stands in the streets, is Rome's only medieval abbey, Santi Quattro Coronati (the four crowned saints). It's an oasis of peace amid the city's cheerful chaos. Pass through a couple of portals, ring a bell, and a nun from the cloistered religious community appears from behind a grating, puts a key on a turntable and turns it toward you. The key opens the door to a tiny chapel whose 13th-century frescoes illustrate the story of Emperor Constantine's cure from leprosy and his conversion to Christianity.

For a central Rome neighborhood not heavily frequented by tourists, try the Pigna (pine cone) district near the Pantheon, whose streets include Via Pie' di Marmo, an alley made even narrower by a marble sculpture of a giant foot. Jewelry stores and boutiques with unusual knit tops and dresses, handmade colorful handbags in buttery-soft leather or made-to-order robust leather satchels dot the streets.

Neighborhood haunts for dining include Ristorante Pigna, run by a friendly family and frequented by lawmakers from nearby Parliament, in Piazza della Pigna. Corsi, on Via del Gesu, a wine shop, offers home cooking of hearty Roman dishes including bean soups, "spezzatino" (stew) and "polpettone" (meatloaf).

To enjoy Rome as Audrey Hepburn did in "Roman Holiday," book a chauffeured Vespa from the 1950s or '60s — though there's no guarantee your driver will look like Gregory Peck — through Eco Move Rent — — 140 euros (nearly $200) for four hours. It's cheaper to tour on your own in a non-vintage scooter ("motorini"), but even the most experienced Roman fears skids on slick cobblestones, so beware.

If you hate to rise early or have crowd phobia, take the Rev. Apparcel's advice and watch the beatification on your hotel TV. The ceremony, led by Benedict XVI, begins at 10 a.m. Spectators can then file inside St. Peter's Basilica past John Paul's closed coffin, which will be brought up from its grotto tomb below the basilica.

The Saturday evening before the ceremony will see hundreds of thousands of the pope's admirers jam the sprawling, dusty field of Circus Maximus for a prayer vigil. Benedict won't be there but will make a video screen appearance.

The weekend holds one additional large gathering. May 1, Labor Day across Europe, traditionally draws huge crowds of young people to Rome when the city throws a free rock concert near St. John Lateran Basilica.



Convent lodging and other information: Rome

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AP reporter Alba Tobella contributed to this report.