A lifetime is not enough to explore Rome – make that several lifetimes. The ancient ruins are still being excavated, restored, and preserved for the next millennium of those who seek the wonders of the Eternal City. On my last of many trips to Rome, I was not surprised to make new discoveries and to find better ways to enjoy my favorite places and flavors. This trip, I took my daughter and grandson..
Two of Rome’s most beautiful piazzas, Piazza Navona with its glorious fountains and Piazza della Rotonda where the Pantheon sits are usually packed with large tour groups and opportunistic beggars. Just getting into the Pantheon is often an experience best reserved for sardines. However, we discovered that early risers know the secret. At 8 a.m. both piazzas are nearly deserted, so empty that an exercise class was in progress in Piazza Navona. We enjoyed cappuccino and croissants at an outdoor café in Piazza della Rotunda while admiring the Pantheon’s closed, bronze doors. Our light breakfast was pricey, but we were paying for an unobstructed view of a 2,000 year-old architectural wonder. The doors opened at 8:30, and less than 20 people joined us as we tried to tell time by the oculus, admired the marble statues, and whispered a few words of gratitude at Raphael’s tomb.
Another early bird secret is St. Peter’s. Here, the lines are daunting. But we left our apartment at 7:30 a.m. for a pleasant 20-minute walk to Vatican City and breezed right in – through metal detectors and Swiss guards checking to see that shoulders and knees were respectably covered. The barrier around Michelangelo’s Pieta is farther out than ever before. Days of a close view of the Pieta are over. Masses were being said in several side chapels, closed to casual visitors. The main portion of the church was open, and there was no line to enter the treasury. Here, for a small fee, we saw centuries-old religious relics and vestments and some used by Pope John Paul II. When we left the church about 9:30, the line wrapped around the colonnade – a wait time of over an hour on a hot, humid morning.
Long a fan of pensiones in the city center, my old favorites were booked seven months in advance. I contacted Doorways and rented an apartment that was not much more costly than a pensione for three people. The apartment was a block away from Piazza Navona and completely equipped with linens, kitchen appliances and gadgets, washing machine, guide books, WiFi, and TV.
After the frenzy of Rome, it was refreshing to come home to a real apartment with shopping bags of fresh pasta, cheese, and produce – a money saver with very little effort. The food is so fresh, it is a delight to prepare and eat. Shopping at outdoor markets is part of the Italian experience, and it is true that the vendors want to select their best for you. Don’t touch the produce; trust the vendors.
A gelato a day is an unwritten expectation in Italy, and Rome does not disappoint in its artisan gelato. Avoid gelaterias displaying large cardboard cones with multi-colored scoops. You won’t find delicious gelato there. Check out the shops that make their own gelato from fresh ingredients. Giolitti’s near the Pantheon is perhaps the most famous. Michele Obama took her daughters there. Considering the lines, everyone else goes there, too. We found a far less crowded artisan gelateria also near the Pantheon: Don Nino Gelateria & Pasticceria, Via Borgognona, 11. In addition to many flavors of gelato, the shop has freshly made Sicilian pastries. We took several cannolis home for “later”, which turned out to be about two minutes after we returned to our apartment.
The Coliseum is an ancient wonder every Rome visitor wants to explore. The lines to get into the Coliseum look like the population of Montana, so guided tours that skip the line are a sensible choice. Selecting a tour company is the problem. Some offer multilingual tours of up to three languages, so more time is spent in translation than in imparting information you can understand. Some have such large groups, it is difficult to ask questions or linger at interesting places.
The Roman Guy offers individual and small group (12 maximum) tours all around Italy, and its three-hour, no lines, tour of the Coliseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill is outstanding. The guide was a font of knowledge about this area of ancient Rome and surpassed the guide books in information. We explored restricted areas of the Coliseum including the dungeons where wild animals were once kept and saw a construction project that re-creates elevators that raised the ravenous animals to the arena. We retraced the steps of gladiators by walking out onto the arena floor. After that, we climbed to the third tier for a magnificent view of Rome and learned that vomitorium is not a room for overstuffed Romans, but a design feature that allowed 50,000 spectators to spew out of the Coliseum in three minutes. The tour ends in the Forum where participants may stay until it closes.
Like Paris, Rome is a moveable feast. A great find one year may have “gone tourist” the next with inferior food and a wait staff that moves patrons in and out like U.S chain restaurants. An Italian dinner is a three to four hour event. Your table is your table for the evening. Thanks to a Roman friend, we discovered Il Bocconcino, Via Ostilia 23, a neighborhood trattoria a few blocks behind the Coliseum, address. With inside and outside dining options and no music to interfere with conversation, Il Bocconcino is an authentic Roman experience. The pasta is made in their kitchen, ingredients are purchased daily from local markets, and desserts are imaginative and house made. Their pasta carbonara is rich and creamy and the best I’ve had in Rome in twenty years.
We had no room for dessert. The waiter assured us the 20 minute wait for an off-menu chocolate and cream dish prepared just for us would give us an excuse to walk home slowly and enjoy Rome’s monuments and piazzas lit beneath a starry sky.
He poured us complimentary glasses of limoncello while we waited. Both the dessert and the stroll home convinced us that we would not have to throw a coin in Trevi Fountain to assure our return to Rome.
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