10 ways to fall in love with Rome

By | Category: Travel destinations

A heady mix of haunting ruins, awe-inspiring art and vibrant street life, Italy’s hot-blooded capital is one of the world’s most inspiring and romantic cities. While the big-ticket monuments certainly leave their mark, you might just find yourself falling for the city’s smaller-scale charms down cobbled lanes and around hidden corners

 

Peek through a secret keyhole
Walking around Rome and peering through keyholes will typically result in concerned phone calls to the local carabinieri. One exception to this rule is the Villa del Priorato di Malta – a building with a metal gate that contains a tiny keyhole framing one of the fi nest views in the city. Those who press their eyes to the metal witness a perfectly composed scene: a path shaded by cypress trees and rosebushes, the tower of Santa Maria in Trastevere rising on the far bank of the Tiber and the hulking dome of St Peter’s at the centre. It’s a composition so perfect, no one can say for sure whether the locksmith (or the gardener) intended it or whether it was a happy accident.

View of St. Peter’s Basilica from the keyhole of the Villa del Priorato di Malta on Aventino, Rome, Italy; Shutterstock ID 521131909; STEFANO BENANTI/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Visit the Pope’s gardens
As holiday homes go, Castel Gandolfo is not the most discreet: a 17th-century pile the size of a football field outside Rome, with a magnificent garden overlooking the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is precisely this grandeur that meant its lawful resident (the humble Pope Francis) chose not to spend his summer holidays here as his predecessors did – instead opening his gardens to the public for the first time in 2016. Visitor numbers are strictly limited, so entering the grand wrought-iron gates can feel like entering a secret garden.

Drink from a ‘Big Nose’
On roasting hot summer days, the saviour of every Roman citizen is the nasone or ‘big nose’. This is no genetic quirk, but a nickname for the 2500 drinking fountains dotted about the city. So called because of the shape of the spout, the fountains were first installed in the late 19th century, but are part of a proud Roman tradition dating back to the great aqueducts of ancient Rome. Nasoni are used variously by locals, thirsty sparrows, bathing dogs, kids starting water fights and curiously few tourists – and while the iron spout can get very hot, the water is always clean and miraculously cool.

“Big Nose” fountain, a traditional free water public fountain in Rome, Italy; Shutterstock ID 395959108; MARCO RUBINO/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Swim in a fascist swimming pool
Rising mightily over the northwest bank of the Tiber, far from the itineraries of wandering tourists, the Foro Italico sports complex is one of the city’s unsung wonders – a monolithic park inspired by the glories of ancient Rome. It underwent some tactful rebranding some 70 years ago: upon construction in the 1930s it was known as the Foro Mussolini after its founder. The fascist leader envisaged it as a factory for a new, all-conquering Italian master race. The ideology went long ago – but Mussolini’s impressive if questionable artistic taste remains: nowhere more so than the swimming pool, where visitors can splash about beneath soaring ceilings and marble surfaces.

Find a Vatican Euro Coin
Some come to the Vatican for spiritual enlightenment, others to step into the cool colossus of St Peter’s on a hot summer’s day. But for a few, crossing into the Holy See is the chance to go in search of a chunk of metal with a maximum face value of €2 (the biggest coin in the set). Among collectors, a Vatican euro coin is a Wonka’s golden ticket of currency: a cherished oddity from the smallest nation on Earth. The Vatican minted its first euros a decade ago, but only in recent years have they entered circulation. Admittedly the odds of finding one in a handful of change from the Vatican Post Office aren’t huge. But if you happen upon one, don’t spend it – a rarer coin might fetch as much as €65 from a collector.

Eat Grattachecca
Ice cream is everywhere in Rome, flavoured with every possible ingredient and served in Pavarotti-sized portions. But curiously the capital claims a different frozen dessert all of its own – grattachecca. Translated as ‘shaved ice’, the recipe isn’t much more complicated than the name would suggest, with chunks of ice coated in syrup and topped with fresh fruit. A dubious legend tells that the Emperor Nero invented grattachecca, ordering his grunts to fetch ice from the mountains around Rome and consuming it to cool his angry moods. Though sadly something of an endangered species today, grattachecca is a traditional accompaniment to an evening stroll: bought from a stall, and ideally slurped on a bench overlooking the sluggish current of the Tiber as the city stirs with early evening life.

Check out Pasquino
This unassuming sculpture is Rome’s most famous ‘talking statue’. During the 16th century, when there were no safe outlets for dissent, a Vatican tailor named Pasquino began sticking notes to the statue with satirical verses lampooning the Church and aristocracy. Soon others joined in and, as the trend spread, talking statues popped up all over town. The sculpture is now off -limits to disgruntled Romans but there’s a convenient board next to it where people still leave messages, traditionally known as pasquinade.

Spend the evening in Trastevere
Nowhere is better for a night out than the picture-perfect neighbourhood of Trastevere. Over the river from the historic centre, its medieval lanes, hidden piazzas and pastel-hued palazzi harbour hundreds of bars, cafes, trattorias and restaurants catering to a nightly crowd of up-for-it Romans and besotted visitors. Locals meet up at ‘the steps’, the wide short flight of stairs leading up to the 17th-century fountain on Piazza Trilussa. For a real carnival atmosphere head to the summertime pop-up bars along Trastevere’s riverside quays between Ponte Mazzoni and Ponte Cesto and beyond.

Visit Keats and Shelley in the non-Catholic cemetery
Dating to the 18th century, Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery is a leafy plot of land most famous as the resting place of John Keats. He died in Rome aged 25, and lies beside the ashes of his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. A steady trickle of pilgrims potter around the wisteria-lined pathways to pay their respects to the poets. But they are only part of the story: lying around are a whole cast of characters from across the world who breathed their last in Rome.

Go rowing at the Villa Borghese Gardens
At clocking-off time, the Villa Borghese Gardens are Rome’s rallying point: a hilltop refuge of cypress-lined colonnades, and a serene spot from which to marvel at the mayhem of the city below. Perhaps its quietest corner is the boating lake in the north of the park. Here visitors and locals cast off in rowing boats, navigating the still waters among paddling terrapins, falling leaves and quacking ducks. It pays not to be in a hurry (you could row from one side to the other in a few seconds), so many are content to rest their oars, lie back in the hull and let their boats be carried by the cooling hilltop breeze.

Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet’s Experience Italy, © 2018 Lonely Planet

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