A week in Rome

Rome, the Eternal City.  And eternally magnificent. So little has changed since the last time I was here. Sure a couple of new shops, different looks in the windows, maybe a few menus updated according to modern tastes, and probably more tourists. But for the most part, Rome has remained her same lovely self, a realm of sensory delights. A brilliant cohabitation of the ancient and the modern. If there is a sense that doesn’t get gratified here, I don’t have it. 

What follows is a highly discursive run-down of a week in Rome, spent mostly meandering with an occasional plunge into a museum. Here are the fruits of my peregrinations (from the Latin: peregrinare) and a slide show of some of the wonderful characters I saw on the streets Rome. Because above and beyond everything else, Rome is about the Romans.

As I was staying in the Parioli district - a lovely residential area abutting the northern end of the Villa Borghese, I decided for my first morning to explore Rome’s huge fantastic park. Arriving at the perimeter, I noticed a sign for the Bioparco and ventured deeper along a main road until I found the entrance - in fact the Giardino Zoologico, the Rome Zoo. They have some fine beasts, and while it isn’t the state of the art zoo that San Diego has, it has an old world charm. Their cappuccino isn’t bad either.

In the Villa Borghese, you can find for rent quaintly designed pedal cars that hold four, or just hoof it into areas that seem untouched since the days of the Emperors.

The Palatine - Part of the whole Forum/Colosseum complex, all of which is essential to experience, the Palatine is the original hill on which the early Romans chose to build their residences. This is the place in Rome to really get a feel for the grandeur of what was.  Arches, foundation stones and the occasional column mark out palatial spaces. In May, covered in green down and dappled with cypresses and the occasional cherry tree, I found this a perfect place to reflect upon the passing of time.


Near the Piazza Venezia, wandering around without a guide and finding all the restaurants too touristy, I asked a handsome Roman woman for advice. She quickly said ‘Da Benito’, commenting that it wasn’t fancy, but that their food was fabulous. We walked back to a small hosteria we’d passed earlier, but which had seemed packed with guys in suits (which in Italy can be a good looking affair but there is such a thing of too many Italian men in one room.) I wound up having the best Pasta with Cacio and Pepe, and a killer hazelnut chocolate torte. Da Benito (Via dei Falegnami, 14)

Just in passing, thinking about that great meal, I must say that Via Veneto seemed to me in general quite stuffy, overpriced and overrated, restaurants apparently pandering to silly tourists. I had the only so-so meal in town there. But Harry’s Bar, looking out at the ruin of an old Roman wall, is an excellent hang for a slow cappucino.

Fontana di Trevi  - absolutely lovely, with the charging horses and cascading pale green waters. But go either at 6 AM or midnight.  The place is JAMMED.

Trastevere - Dotted with adorable outdoor cafes and ristorantes, Trastevere is the more bohemian quarter of Rome. Ideal to wander without a plan. I wound up on the bending edge of a thunderstorm at this marvellous outdoor cafe and restaurant. As it poured for an hour, I sat absorbing the sweet mist and dining on a plate of divine grilled vegetables and mozzarella. When an umbrella salesman passed by, I gave in and bought a yellow umbrella, but by the time my plate was clean, the rain had stopped. Miracoli. (Grazia and Graziella, Fumasoni Biondi, 5)

Monti - This area is the new boho part of town.  Not too far west of the Stazione, Monti was the home of artisans, woodworkers etc. Its scale and tiny streets are similar to Trastevere - a bit less antique, but eminently charming and liveable. Cute shops on Via Panisperna: such as an adorable tiny housewares shop Dispensabile (Via Panisperna, 55) and an awesome little antique shop next door. A jewelry shop full of one woman’s striking modern and inventive designs: Perlei (Via del Boschetto, 35)

L’Asino Doro (The Golden Ass) (Via el Boschetto, 73) A restaurant whose menu was so original and rustic it set my mouth to watering. Alas, they weren’t open that day.

Hotel Antica Locanda, (Via del Boschetto, 84) White-washed rooms with handsome antique mirrors and chests and classic roman fabrics. It also has a darling cafe on the first floor and an outdoor terrace for residents. Prices quite reasonable and a quiet mostly walking neighborhood.

And there are several great outdoor cafes, appealing especially due to the lack of traffic.

Spanish Steps - Of course this is THE destination for tourists and is always frothing with them. And all the high-end boutiques spill forth from the steps. One of the outstanding attractions there, and an easy way to escape the rabble, is to ascend the stairs of the first house to the right of the Steps - the Keats/Bryon house. Almost immediately you are steeped in the authentic air of the late 19th century Romantics, a world that seems eons away from our own.

If you decide to go on a shopping bender, you’ll definitely want to escape again to Caffé Greco, a landmark of its own. Apparently operating since 1760, with probably very few updates, it may be a pricey ‘cappucio’, but it’s like hanging in a ducal salon. (Via Condotti, 86)

Or you might skip the shopping and head toward the Pantheon by way of the Via Margutta, where Fellini and his wife, the adorable Guilietta Masina lived.

Oh well, there is one set of boutiques along the way. Owned by the same woman, one is on the very hip, younger side and the other is skewed toward a more elegant, artistic crowd. Both with European lines you’ve never heard of. Both sensational. Nia (Vie Vittoria 48 and 30.) If you go, tell them Realize Magazine sent you.  Soon you will arrive alongside the Pantheon, but you really have to walk to the center of the Piazza to get the full view.  An imposing work of architecture, now having stood the time of two millennia, it is a delightful sanctuary from the madding crowd. Possessed of some fascinating mosaics and the coffin of the wonderful painter Raphael.  The dome is a marvel.

The Pantheon is at the head of the vast Piazza della Rotunda and is flanked by Rome’s most celebrated cafes, the Tazza D’Oro and the Caffè San’Eustachio. Some serious people watching.

Later, if you want more old-world atmosphere - dine at Ristorante dal Nino which dates from 1934 and serves wonderfully classic dishes like rabbit ragu and cannelloni. Mahogany paneled walls, white-jacketed waiters and an aura of timelessness. (Via Borgognona, 11) 

Piazza Navona  - Flocked with tourists, street performers and working artists, the piazza is in some ways the throbbing heart of Rome. In the first century, long before the Piazza was built, this was the site of the stadium where Romans watched the 'agones', the games. Now it is considerd 'a highly significant example of Baroque Roman architecture' thanks to the pontificate of Innocent X, who reigned in 1644-1655 and whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faces the piazza. It is now home to three fabulous fountains, the Fontana del Moro, with a basin and four Tritons (the spouting triton heads with dolphin earmuffs are adorable), the Fountain of Neptune at the Northen end, and the most celebrated: the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, by Bernini. I was told a secret by a Roman friend - the figure below, apparently fending off an edict from the Gods, is in fact reacting in horror to the work of Bernini's competitor, Borromini, whose church of Sant'Agnese in Agone he faces.

Palazzo Altemps (The National Museum of Rome, Piazza Sant’Apollinaire 48)

The Palazzo, which from the 15th century on has been the home of Cardinals and Governors, is a now a National Museum and full of an outrageous variety of extraordinary classical statues of everyone from Bacchus, to Mars and Aphrodite to a divine Egyptian Hathor (in the shape of a black granite steer.) Notable is the chapel, whose ceilings tell the tale of Good and Evil, all in the form of Putti (Cherubim.)

 Palazzo Braschi

This museum, at the southern end of the Piazza Navona has a distinct value for a tourist looking to decompress from the action of the crowds.  To enter the Museum, you walk through a lovely arcade with a few tiny tables, part of their cafe.  Having avoided all the absurdly pricey tourist joints on the piazza, I had the cool, breezy arcade all to myself for a cappucino and a swell view of the piazza.  But on to the art.  I saw a marvelous exhibit of drawings by the fabled marble sculptor Canova, and beyond that some truly grand interior spaces and a wide variety of works of art from furniture to frescoes, to busts and paintings.  

Although I missed the show currently running - British Landscape Painters in Rome between the XVIII and XIX Century - it sounds fascinating, especially given the huge sway that Rome held over the Romantics Keats and Byron. It runs into September.

Right off the Piazza Navona, I stumbled upon the gorgeous tiny square called the Largo Febo and gasped at the cascade of wisteria tumbling down the facade of The Raphael, a 5 star hotel whose Renaissance themed interiors are set in a building designed by none other than renowned American architect Richard Meier.  The lobby’s artwork includes a collection of Picasso ceramics. Raphael. Apparently, even as an outsider, you can have a drink and enjoy a glorious sunset from the rooftop. In the center of the Largo Febo is the outdoor dining area of the ristorante Santa Lucia... Alas I arrived at the wrong time of day to eat there, but I’m definitely going back.

I did however get a meal at Maccheroni: (Piazza Delle Coppelle 44) - a wildly bustling, warm and lively restaurant with a visible kitchen, audacious waiters and phenomenal pastas. The whole place was colored a buttery yellow, and as I ate, I was being surveilled by Diabolik, the great Italian comic book anti-hero. It's clear, from the menu in his hands, that the two sisters who conceived him also loved Maccheroni.

Just to the south of the Piazza Navona, check out the shops on the Via Del Pellegrino. Arsenale was a standout. (Via del Pellegrino, 172) Fantastic clean modern designs all by the gifted Patrizia Pieroni, in mod fabrics and linen. And Retropose was showing a very cool, sort of architectural line of handbags (Via del Pellegrino, 60)

I chatted a length with the owner of Arsenale who gave me a hotel recommendation: The St George Hotel (Via Guilia, 62) Never got a chance to check it out, but from what I see online, it is a 5 star hotel worthy of the stars. Looks like a great place to decompress and shake off all that history in spaces defined by the clean, modern Italian style.

Running east from the Piazza Navona: great shops on and near Via Del Governo Vecchio: Kolby a great, reasonably priced line of linen clothing for men and women. (Via Del Governo Vecchio 63) and Roma Store Profumi (Via della Lungaretta, 63) - a parfumerie with stuff you can’t get in the Airports. Walk down Via dei Prefetti and Via della Lupa, also home to unique tiny shops.

 Just to the east of Piazza Navona is the Piazza S.Ignazio - a quiet small square with what looked like a great trattoria.

Campo dei Fiori

Of course this open air market is a treat to experience. Market’s open 7 am-1 pm every day but Sunday. Buy your truffles here. 

In the general area, Galleria Spada - (Piazza Capo di Ferro, 13) is a less visited museum but its charm lies in the fact that, hardly restored, it seems to have retained the original oxygen of the old world. Although there are works by Rubens, Durer and Gentileschi here, the star of the museum is the phenomenal trompe-l’oeil installation by Borromini - a colonnade which, starting with larger than life-size columns, appears to recede a great distance at the end of which is a garden. In fact the space it occupies is probably no more than 15 feet long.

The guide I used was a gift - The Little Black Book of Rome. It was by no means an in-depth study of Rome, but made all the major attractions a quick study. It was broken down into 8 areas, with the editor's savvy selections of key monuments and museums, shops, restaurants and hotels.  I was working from the spiral-bound version, which is a bit heavy to carry around for a day of sauntering... but you can also get the guide in paper or kindle version. Still, I hate wandering with my nose in a guide; at a certain point, you just have to close them all up and follow your nose, a damn useful appendage in Rome.

The Little Black Book of Rome at Amazon....