Now more than ever, in all but deepest winter, Rome is a city creaking under the weight of the tourist surge. But it must be seen to be believed - this magical capital has more to it than the colosseum and the Vatican. On our second trip to Rome we discovered a new side to the city. Hidden away just streets from the main attractions, in glorious contrast to the maddening crowds and selfie sticks, we found slow Rome.
I always thought they called Rome ‘the eternal city’ because of how ancient it is. I thought it was invented by one of the English Romantic poets to express the enduring majesty of a city whose skyline still follows the curves of its centuries-old duomos. But it’s more than that. Rome has been known as ‘the eternal city’ since the days of Ovid and Virgil - since before its landmarks were even landmarks. So it would seem that the epithet is less a comment on the durability of Rome’s architecture than it is an expression of the Roman state of mind.
We’ve visited Rome twice now and ‘eternal’ is the most fitting of adjectives I can think of to describe it. It is ancient, but it’s also modern, new, living. It exudes a kind of timelessness that’s beyond the usual sense of that word. Even its famous landmarks aren’t mere relics of the past. Having played host to some of Hollywood’s most romantic and exhilarating scenes (speedy Mini Coopers spring to mind), Rome’s streets are saturated with cultural and classical references.
And it’s this that makes each person’s experience of the eternal city unique; when gazing up at its obelisks or wandering through its cobbled streets, Rome at once affirms and subverts your idea of it and of yourself within it. Venturing off the beaten track affords further opportunity for discovery. This time around, we tried our best to explore the slightly less well trodden areas of the city.
Rome is a poem pressed into service as a city; It's true. It's romantic and full of wonder but it has a frenzied and frantic line running through it. It's ancient and alive like it's always been. Italy has changed, but Rome hasn't.
The city's true beauty lies not in its domes, columns or fountains, but in its willingness to be explored; its streets are an open book. To know Rome truly, you must get lost. Walk everywhere, always. Live in the streets and take the unlikely looking alleyways - your rewards will be plenty. Cavernous piazzas and grand palazzos play host to rich and varied scenes unfolding around every corner. Eschew the tourist trails and guided walks and disappear down the winding backstreets beneath billowing sheets and overhanging vines - the back streets of Rome tell tale of a city that is truly alive; transient but timeless.
The eternal city is more than the sum of it's parts, there is an intangible quality to it - one best observed in the early hours of the morning with only the fruit sellers and street sweepers for company. To be the only living soul stood before the Trevi Fountain in all its glory or to climb the Spanish Steps unimpeded and alone are things that you simply must experience.
"Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone mother of dead empires! and control
In their shut breasts their petty misery.
What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way O’er steps of broken thrones and temples, ye! Whose agonies are evils of a day—
A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay."
- from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron.
If you're looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown Rome, follow the river south from Rione VII Regola, towards the Colosseum and break left after the second Tiber Island bridge towards the Aventine Hill. From there cross the open plain of the Circus Maximus and exit on the right hand side for the Roman Rose garden on Via di Valle Murcia - Established in 1931, it’s home to over 1100 varieties of roses from all over the world.
Pass through the rose garden and climb Via di Santa Sabina until you reach the walled orange garden on your right in Piazza Pietro D'Illiria. The garden offers welcome shade and unbeatable views of all of Rome, from the Vittorio Emanuele monument across the Rive Tiber to the Vatican. After enjoying the Giardino degli Aranci and its views. Press on along Via di Santa Sabina until you reach the Keyhole of the Knights of Malta or Il Buco Della Serratura. This keyhole, mounted in a well-worn door, guards the entrance to the Villa del Priorato di Malta. Peering through the keyhole gives you an almost telescopic line of sight view to the dome of St Peter's Basilica.
If you're in the mood for more adventure, turn 180 degrees from the keyhole and cross Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. Make your way off the Aventine hill by following Via di Porto Lavernale downhill until you reach the Tram Depot coffee shop by a busy intersection. Stop here for a light lunch, fresh juices and a cappuccino to keep you sharp. From here you can follow Via Mamorta towards the Pyramid of Cestius but before you reach it, turn down Via Caio Cestio on your right to call in at the Protestant cemetery.
"Go thou to Rome,—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread"
- from Adonais by Percy Bysshe Shelly
Rome’s Protestant Cemetery is unlike any other. A far cry from the gilded columns and heavy incense of Vatican City, this is an uncrowded, tranquil space where cypress trees shade the tombs of the foreign artists, poets and aristocrats buried inside its high walls.
This isn’t a place of death. Where the statues and mausoleums might seem austere in any other graveyard, visitors of this cemetery are saved from their melancholia by the sheer verdancy of their surroundings (not to mention the cats that are to be found around each corner). Even the famous weeping angel elicits more empathy than awe, dwarfed as she is by the umbrella pines that tower above. Shelley’s grave (the thing most visitors come to see) is even more unassuming: a stone slab laid horizontally upon a low wall, engraved with lines from The Tempest which seem to deny the presence of death altogether: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.’
Leave the cemetery and turn left to lead on to Via Nicola Zabaglia Passing under an original Roman viaduct, past walls adorned with fresh street art, in Rome's up-and-coming Testaccio district you will find Porto Fluviale - a popular spot with Rome's new generation of creatives and entrepreneurs. This relaxed and unconventionally Roman bar-come-trattoria serves up some of the best Pizza and Arancini in Rome. Couple them up with a Campari spritz. Perfect after a long day exploring the other side of the city. Head back North along Via Nicola Zabiglia, past the War Cemetery and walk the slow mile through Testaccio back to the River Tiber.
Pantheon! - pride of Rome!
Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
Despoil'd yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
A holiness appealing to all hearts --
To art a model; and to him who treads
Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
Her light through thy sole aperture;
from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron.
If you're in search of creative community, cross the river and make for Trastevere. This cultural hub winds through shady alleys and modest piazzas where you can take a rest and enjoy some people watching. Here, in contrast to Rome's busy central districts, artisan's workshops and galleries spill out onto the streets and bicycles rattle along the cobbles just that little bit slower.
Places to eat and drink aren't scarce in Rome but finding the best eateries in a sea of tourist laden tables isn't easy. The city's best kept secret may be well be Francesco Deangelis' unnamed wine bar and deli. Shuttered away until late afternoon, this cosy spot offers an incredible selection of regional wines, cheeses and meats. Located on Via dei Sediari at the midpoint between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, it's easy to pass by if you aren't looking for it. We heartily recommend the Chianti Classico and one of Francesco's speciality Tiramisus. Perfetto!
Things worth knowing:
1. Get out early. Beat the maddening crowds and hit the streets as the sun rises for the best photos and easy access to the busiest sites - The Vatican, The Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.
2. Be local. Taking a seat to enjoy your cappuccino will attract a hefty Servizo or Coperto charge. Don't order a coffee to your table. Stand at the bar and drink it with the locals - it's the done thing. Make sure you pay at the till and get your ticket before you order though.
3. Be bold. Like any capital city, Rome is congested. For the uninitiated, the traffic can look like a mix of Group B Rally and Whacky Races. Its a different system to what we're used to - drivers don't have to stop at zebra crossings so don't expect them to - state your intention to cross by stepping out into the road, you'll be waiting all day if you don't. Get across or die tryin'.
4. Get off the tourist trail. The Colonna, Trevi and Regola districts are a hive of tourists and selfie sticks. Head north or cross the river to break away from the crowds. Ditch the map and get lost - see the real Rome.
5. Learn the language. While most Romans speak some degree of English, a little Italian goes a long way to getting you the best table and wine recommendations. Allora, imparare la lingua.
6. Tip smart. There's no expectation to tip in Italy. There's normally a Coperto (cover charge) or Servizo (service charge) on your bill if you have sat down at a restaurant, no tip is required if this is the case. If there is no charge, the best thing to do is just round the bill up unless the service was outstanding. Large tips can be seen as insult to waiters, so don't go overboard.
7. Stay hydrated. The drinking fountains you see on street corners and in parks supply clean drinking water. There's no need to keep buying bottled water - simply use them to fill up.
8. Eat well - It's expensive to eat in the hot spots. Turn down the side streets for the family-run osterias and trattorias. Remember, Italians eat their evening meal much later than us. Seek out Hosteria del mercato, and enjoy good wine and incredible food while the world passes you by. However...
9. When in Rome - Ignore tip 8. Enjoy your lunch with an Aperol Spritz in Piazza San Lorenzo, Share a bottle of Chianti Classico over pasta in the shadow of the Pantheon or cool down with a Gelato in Campo di Fiori. You only live once.
And on that note...
10. Negronis. All day. Every day.
Thanks for making it through this epic post. Hopefully you found it interesting if not intriguing. We'd love to know you favourite places and spaces in Rome. Let us know below in the comments.