by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
At this time of year the shepherds came down from the hills into Rome to set up their braziers. In the evening you could find them by the flow of the embers and the rich scent of roasting chestnuts. I usually bought mine where the bridge flows over the Tiber River as a pathway to Castel Sant'Angelo. The shepherd had not changed his clothes to come into the city, and was always garbed in clothing which showed the wear of long, rough use. His hair was long, coming down past his shoulders.
The chestnuts were always so hot they would burn your hand through the newspaper cornucopia, which the shepherd rolled himself to hold them. Even through my leather gloves I could feel the heat sinking into my fingers as I handed him 50 Lire in payment along with a tip. He would always smile as I left, nodding as he said, “Buon Natale.”
As I walked into the night my eyes were drawn to the angel which sits atop Castel Sant'Angelo, lit up against the dark sky, seeming almost about to take flight. Castel Sant'Angelo means Castle of the Archangel.
The building was originally built as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian in 139 AD, it had taken sixteen years to complete. Later, it fell to the use of the popes, who built a secret corridor, called the Passetto di Borgo. Through this passage popes flee the Vatican to take refuge in the beautiful apartments maintained for their use, as happened when the army of Charles de Bourbon's sacked Rome in 1527.
When the shepherds come down they bring their bagpipes and fill the city with the sounds of their ancient instruments, too. Watching as they held them, close to their chests, the sounds swelling into the air around me, gave me a sense of reaching into the past. At first, the sound surprised me, as I had always associated bagpipes with Scots.
Walking on cobblestones, eating my cooling chestnuts, my next stop would be for Cioccolata Calda, heavy with chocolate and cream.
Rome was once the center of our world, a meeting place for diverse cultures and beliefs. It is right that walking through Rome during Christmas summons both the memory of the birth of the Prince of Peace and the winter still ahead, as on Solstice the earth begins its turn from winter toward the rebirth of spring.