Rome is an amazing city. It is simply confounding, at least for this American, to walk in the midst of such history and not be separated by plexiglass or rope from the antiquity on which it was built. That’s not to say there wasn’t any protection for those priceless treasures and insights into the past, but the ability to simply wander into the Pantheon, was almost as awe inspiring as the structure itself. The same goes for the churches, half the fun was walking into seemingly nondescript churches and be confronted by amazing frescos that simply took one’s breath away. While we were awestruck, the Romans appeared to take living in this history in stride. I recall admiring a mural of a Madonna and Child over an archway only to look down and see that the structure now housed a comedy club.
and truly one amazing building…..
Indeed they had a sense of humor, and I discovered these mosics which popped up on buildings all over the city, and I have yet to discover the story behind them:
Throughout Rome, signs abound with the letters S-P-Q-R which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”) and harkens back to the foundation of Roman rule. Siena has a similar acronym, SPQS, and other Italian towns with similar government probably did as well.
San Francisco, claims to be part of the same elite club of cities such as Rome, Tehran, Istanbul, Budapest, Brussels and St. Paul, Minnesota as a city built on seven hills. The accuracy of that claim, at least for San Francisco seems to be in question, or at least what constitutes a hill. For Rome there is certainity that all seven hills are accounted for: the Capitoline, Palatine, Celium, Aventine, Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline.
We walked most every where in this city and that option is certainly not for everyone. Rome has buses, trams and a limited subway (think about the cost of excavation in this city). They are not always the most convenient, but they get the job done. Comfortable shoes are de rigeur as the cobblestones will have you obsessed with your feet in no time.
WEST OF THE TIBER
The Vatican/ Borgo – Located across the Tiber from Ancient Rome is the Vatican, a small city-state who’s power extends far beyond its physical location. Ratified in 1929 as an independent state, the Vatican City houses St Peter’s basilica, the largest church in the world and a Renaissance architectural masterpiece. Popes have lived here for six centuries. This section of Rome is all about the museums and culture, when the sun goes down, its quiet. Given the popularity of this area as a tourist destination, this is a relatively easy place to get to, getting into the tours and buildings is another matter entirely. Friends that have lived in Rome for years told us to get in line and when people walked by promising private tours to take them up on this offer. The extra amount they charge is more than worth it, as you can skip much of the lines and these guides are frequently retired Vatican tour guides, art historians and the like looking to supplement their incomes. They “know people” which is how they are able to get you around the lines.
Prati – This little-known district is a middle-class suburb north of the Vatican. It’s more affordable than other sections of town, and I liked the broader boulevards, that provide some evidence that this is one of the wealthier neighborhoods of Rome. It is a bit awkward to get to, and the prices here reflected this fact. This is a quiet place to escape the hustle of the rest of the city.
Trastevere – Trastevere‘s residents call themselves the ” real Romans.” The area still centers on the ancient churches of Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere. It remains one of Rome’s most colorful quarters, even if it is a bit overrun. Known as a “city within a city,” it is certainly a village within a city. This part of the city has dual personalities, like a mullet hairstyle, family focused by day, and party at night as people spill out on to the streets from the restaurants and bars. It used to be a working class neighborhood until it was gentrified (in the 1970s) and now it is a true destination in Rome. When researching places to stay, this neighborhood racked up the most suggestions. We stayed just to the south of this neighborhood and we looked forward to walking through this section of town as part of our daily ritual. As I mentioned in that last post, the cheese store selling fresh ricotta was a highlight for my husband.
At dusk the birds of Rome put on an incredible aerial show with amazing acrobatic performances. If you get the opportunity, find yourself on a bridge crossing the Tiber about this time and take it in.
EAST OF THE TIBER
Ancient Rome – When people think of Rome, this is most likely what they have in mind: the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Imperial Forums, and Circus Maximus. The Historical Center (Centro Storico) encompasses only about 4% of that which is Rome. The area within the Aurelian walls is considered the historic center. Masterpieces of the 16th and 17th Century by Bernini, Michelangelo and Caravaggio can be found here, along with such landmarks of the Spanish Steps, Piazza Venezia, Pantheon and Piazza Navona.
The Aventine and Testacio – The Aventine is one of the most elegant areas in Rome with the Basilica of Santa Sabina and the church of Sant’Alessio nestled near the orange gardens. Testaccio, between the Tiber river and the Aventine, is where Caius Cestius’ Pyramid and the Protestant Cemetery (Keats & Shelley’s tombs) can be found. Mt. Testaccio is a hill made of the broken amphorae deposited between 140 and 255 A.D. Testaccio is also a good area for finding traditional Roman cuisine.
The Jewish Ghetto – Across the river Tiber from Trastevere, towards the Rome’s historical center lies the Jewish Ghetto that houses one of the oldest surviving Jewish communities in Europe. The Via del Portico d’Ottavia with Renaissance and Medieval architecture is ground zero of Jewish life. Here restaurants far outnumber hotels, and your stomach is guaranteed to start rumbling soon after arriving. In 1556, Pope Paul IV ordered the Jews, about 8,000 at the time, to move into this area. The walls remained until 1849 when they were finally torn down.
Monti and Via Veneto – Monti contains landmarks such as the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the Trevi fountain and Trajans Market, along with numerous ministries and the Quirinal palace. The elegant Via Veneto, made famous in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, is one of the most photographed streets in the World. Via Veneto & Piazza Barberini In the 1950s and early 1960s, Via Veneto was the swinging place to be, as the likes of Frank Sinatra and Swedish actress, Anita Ekberg paraded down the boulevard. To the south, Via Veneto ends at Piazza Barberini, dominated by the Triton Fountain (Fontana del Tritone), a baroque celebration with four dolphins holding up an open scallop shell in which a triton sits blowing into a conch. Overlooking the square is the Palazzo Barberini.
EUR – EUR was designed for the 1942 World’s fair which never took place as World War II happened. Bonito Mussolini intended it to showcase twenty years of Fascism. EUR stands for Esposizion Universale Roma. Fascist inspired buildings include the Palazzo della Civita del Lavoro and the Palazzo dei congressi. The Italian Tourist Office has a good PDF on this often overlooked part of the city, and here is a great site with more pictures and information to pique curiosity.
Piazza Navona & the Pantheon One of the most desirable areas of Rome, this district is a maze of narrow streets and alleys dating from the Middle Ages. It is filled with churches and palaces built during the Renaissance and baroque eras, often with materials stripped from ancient Rome. The only way to explore it is on foot. The Piazza Navona is built over Emperor Domitian’s stadium and bustling with sidewalk cafes, palazzi, street artists, and musicians. The square is exceptionally long and owes its shape to the ruin it was build on, as races were held here. This is the destination for watching people watching at one of the many cafes that line the piazza. Until the 19th century, in the horribly hot month of August, they flooded the piazza by stopping the fountain outlets, and people of all walks of life froliced in the water.
Rivaling Piazza Navona for general activity, the cafe scene, and nightlife is the area surrounding the Pantheon, which remains from ancient Roman times and is surrounded by a district built much later (this “pagan” temple was turned into a church). Before becoming a Catholic church it was a temple to all the gods of Rome, and the generic term pantheon can be applied to buildings where illustrious dead or honored or buried. Don’t take my word that this place is impressive, Michelangelo proclaimed it of “angelic and not human design”.
Piazza del Popolo and The Spanish Steps – Piazza del Popolo (Plaza of the People) was laid out by Giuseppe Valadier and is one of Rome’s largest squares. It’s characterized by an obelisk brought from Heliopolis in lower Egypt during the reign of Augustus. At the end of the square is the Porta del Popolo, the gateway in the 3rd-century Aurelian wall. In the mid-16th century, this was one of the major gateways into the old city. If you enter the piazza along Via del Corso from the south, you’ll see twin churches, Santa Maria del Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto, flanking the street. The square’s main church is Santa Maria del Popolo, considered one of the finest Renaissance churches in Rome.
Since the 17th century, the Spanish Steps have served as a meeting place, which is convenient given that some of Rome’s most swanky shopping streets, including Via Condotti, fan out from here. The Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti in Italian) is a grand staircase that connects two piazze – the Piazza di Spagna at the base and the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top. The stairway was built in the 1720s in an effort to connect the Vatican with the church, Trinita dei Monti. The steps take their name from the Spanish embassy to the Holy See. We were told that unsuspecting men (around the 1700’s) had the misfortune to be on the Spanish steps might be dragooned into the Spanish military, so a quick walk to the coffee shop with friends might turn into an odyssey of unpleasantness. Thank goodness getting one’s caffeine fix today does not carry nearly the risk.
Testaccio and the Aventine – In 55 AD, Nero ordered that Rome’s thousands of broken amphorae be stacked in a carefully designated pile to the east of the Tiber, just west of the Pyramide. Over the centuries, the mound grew to a height of around 200 feet and then was compacted to form one of the city’s most unusual working-class neighborhoods, Testaccio. Eventually, houses were built on the terra-cotta mound, and caves were dug in to store wine and food. Today this area is popular for its nightlight and active Sunday market.
Another offbeat section of Rome is Aventine Hill, south of the Palatine and close to the Tiber. In 186 BC, thousands of residents of the area were executed for joining in “midnight rituals of Dionysos and Bacchus.” The bloody orgies are passe, and the Aventine area is now very much gentrified and a rather posh residential quarter.
Parioli – One of Rome’s most elegant residential areas is framed by the green spaces of the Villa Borghese to the south and the Villa Glori and Villa Ada to the north.
Get Your Walking Shoes On
For Your Dining Pleasure:
As I did for our Dublin trip, I sought suggestions from my food loving friends, and I wanted to share their recommendations.
First and absolutely to be tried is the “Sora Margherita” in the jewish quarter: typical roman-jewish food served in a small trattoria which is cheap and the food is like as if it were prepared by a grandmother. Needs to be booked: 06-6874216, Piazza delle Cinque Scole, 30. Opening times are limited (in winter dinner is served only on Fridays and Saturdays). Wonderful carciofi alla giudea, pasta cacio e pepe, torta ricotta e amarene.
Also nice, though a bit off the beaten track is the Ostaria Piccola Roma, near the Parliament (lower chamber) and Palazzo Chigi. Nice amatriciana, carbonara, funghi porcini paste, great meats (e.g. abbacchio alla scotta dito), great starters buffet, not so great on desserts.