I have been coming to Rome for nearly half a century. Following the same route into town. Turn left onto the Aventine, drive along the perimeter of the Palatine, Circus Maximus below, right past the Bocca de Verita, past the Teatro Marcello on the left, slow down by the stairs of the Cordonata and the majestic entrance to the Campidoglio where Castor and Pollux stand guard, around to the Grand whiteness of the Vittorio Emanuel building and the Piazza Venezia and you have covered 2000 years of history. And I always smile at the thought on my mind. It never gets old. The days are too hot, for sure. Blistering sun attacking the faithful tourists who struggle over those ancient cobbled stones. Trailing behind their guides and translators. Armed with headsets and hats to ward of the suns venomous rays. Desperate for that water fountain, the grateful residual remains of roman ingenuity and baroque decoration or the shade of a statue that has been providing cover for 5 hundred years. And it all seems so hot and impossible and then the sun breaks and evening time settles in, and the colors start their magical transformation. And then you realize that the show has just begun.
I have a walk I always used to take in Rome in the evening. My first evening back for a year and a half prompts me to walk that route once more as an introduction to Rome. Start at the Pantheon. At the Piazza della Rotonda. Take an aperitive and say hi to the waiters who I have known for 30 years. The Pantheon is always a fabulous start to any walk in Rome. It begins at the start of it all. A perfectly preserved dome. Built in 125 AD and never replicated until Brunelleschi built the Duomo in Florence in 1296! Amidst this huge structure in the middle of old cobbled streets is Bernini’s elephant in the Piazza Minerva. And the gentle color on the sandstone buildings starts the evening walk. Ahead Bernini fountains and Borromini churches. The superstars of Baroque. Ronaldo and Messi of their day! Piazza Navona and the Campo di Fiori and Piazza Farnese. History jammed into three squares. Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Ancient. And in between ice cream, espresso and an aperitivo. Not necessarily in that order.
It’s the sunset that so attracted me to Rome all those years ago. I usually start at the Temple of Cats and make my way to the Campidoglio via the Piazza Venezia. The colors of a Roman evening are quite extraordinary. There is the Vittorio Manuel monument. Awkward and towering with its white marble uncomfortable in between the Baroque Domes and Medieval Church of the Aracoeli but it’s a vital landmark for those unfamiliar with Rome. The Cordonata provides a gracious entrance to the Piazza Campidoglio with Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, a copy, marking the center of Michelangelo’s square. The Capitoline Museum, a treasure trove of Ancient Rome on the right but beyond and around the corner lies the real treasure. And I had forgotten how impactful that first sight of ancient times is. Breathtaking. The Palatine on the right. Oleander, Cyprus and umbrella pine all around and there is the Forum. The columns and arches, the Senate, and the path to the Coliseum. I first brought my parents here 30 years ago. I think of them and the memories of Rome and everything in between. At sunset.
My Roman friend has a system for crossing the road. I thought of this while trying to cross along the busy road opposite the Campidoglio. There is no zebra crossing. No traffic lights. Just a steady stream of unrelenting traffic both ways. There is no gap. No opportunity to cross. So, I did what he had suggested. I just walked out into the road slowly but confidently and amazingly the traffic simply parted. He always told me never to hesitate. Keep a straight line and keep walking. I must confess it took some adjustments. And of course, I always wave to the cars and scooters as a thanks as they slow down or maneuver to avoid me. They think I’m mad. Not to cross under their noses but to thank them! Very, very unItalian. It’s been a while. Feels good to be back.
There is a name in Roman for the guy who stands in the middle of the traffic intersection at the Piazza Venezia. I had not seen him for a while but this time, as if to greet us all back, there he was. The Pizzardone. It’s an art. He is a conductor. His white gloves holding the craziness of motorists, busses, and cars. It is dramatic. He has this immense power. A rotary like the Piazza Venezia and four streams of congested moving anxious Romans on bikes, scooters and in cars would seem no match for the Pizzardone. But Romans become extraordinarily compliant. Obedient. Nobody moves without his assent. The hands are all drama. His whistle ready to pounce on anyone who breaks the rules. And fantastically nobody does. It is a play. A performance. There is a special school that trains Pizzardones. It requires incredible organizational skills, judgement and flexibility. It is knowing how to work on the fly. In the moment. Moving traffic along and avoiding bottlenecks. His orchestra is the sea of traffic. His baton is his hands. It is quintessentially Italian and more importantly its timeless. Traditions are held sacred in this ancient crazy city. Green lights. Red lights. Sophisticated computer algorithms. Not in the main piazza. Not in the center of Rome. The show must go on!
Travel life between countries is a series of Covid tests and passenger locator forms. The rapid types. Antigen. Results in 15 minutes. The journey from Mallorca to Rome was fairly smooth. Two flights, masked up, and the usual endless wait at Fiumicino for the bags to land on the carousel. I have a theory about Rome airport waiting. The baggage handlers clearly wait and then give the carousel a whirl to get everyone’s hopes up. And then the great “nothing.” More waiting and an occasional sporadic whirl again. This goes on for half an hour. At some point the bags did arrive. And then we were out and into the night air of Fiumicino, Italy. A year and a half. And then it came back.
The drive into the city. There is no skyline to illuminate the skies. Simply an expectation and a longing for the familiar that has been part of my life for 40 years. The Aventine with its views across its neighbor hill the Palatine. The breathtaking ancient villas that sit above the Circus Maximus. The crazy traffic as we wind around by Teatro Marcello that sits on the outskirts of the ghetto. And then the Campidoglio with castor and Pollux atop the beautiful and graceful staircase of the Cordonata Capitolina and we are in the city. And I disappear into Rome.
Riding around on a red Vespa in the center of Rome is a way to see the city. Not necessarily the safest, but a way. So, I had the pleasure of riding on the back of my friends scooter so I could take in the sights and film the chaos while he focused on the road. Rome makes its claim on being built on seven hills but ironically the two hills that afford the most spectacular views of the city are not on the coveted list of the magnificent seven! So, off we went!
The Pincio is the hill that sits high above the Spanish steps. It backs onto the Borghese Gardens and always in my mind belongs to Sundays. Sunday walks, Sunday picnics and strolls from the Piazza del Popolo through the chic and glitzy streets that lead to Keats house and the Babington’s Tea Rooms. One of my favorite cafes is on the via Condotti, the Main Street that showcases the Spanish Steps. Antico Caffe Greco. The oldest bar in Rome and second oldest in Italy. Cafe Florian in Venice has that title. The tiny sandwiches at cafe Greco are simply like no other!
The other hill is the Gianicolo. This is the hill that winds its way out of St. Peters and descends back again past the Spanish Embassy into Trastevere. Most notable for Punch and Judy shows on Sundays and the classic view of Rome stretching from the wedding cake building far beyond to St. John’s in Lateran. It’s Garibaldi’s hill. His statue dominates the top of the hill. The revolutionary who became the catalyst that united Italy and ended Vatican and French dominance. The Gianicolo was a battleground, and now is probably the most peaceful place on earth to take in this magnificent city.
A tale of two hills. Neither on the list of seven, but both significant and meaningful to the tourist for the classic view of Rome.
Oh, and I survived the Vespa experience too!
Watch the video tour here: RomeVespaTour2021
There is one question that I keep asking myself…when the world opens up once more, where should we go first?!
Will it be Rome? Will it be London? Will it be Paris?
For me, the answer would absolutely be to go to Rome. But what would that first day look like?
Well, arrival day in Rome is always filled with both confusion and amazement. During the cab ride into the city, you pass flat fields on either side and through a modern suburb that houses a replica of the Pantheon of the ancient city that I am heading to. And then suddenly you take a left turn and up the Aventine Hill. Now I am on one of the most beautiful of the seven hills. Time to visit the orange orchard and look through the key hole from which you can see the dome of St Peter’s. Fairly dramatically across the road sits the villas of Ancient Rome along the Palatine embankment. And just below, there are the remnants of the great circus Maximus. Dogs walk where great chariots once raced.
The ride becomes breathtaking now – there’s the Mouth of Truth, two ancient temples along the river, the theatre of Marcello, and then the great Cordonata Capitalina leading to the Campidoglio. Next to that are the medieval stairs of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli and underneath are some Roman houses that provided a foundation for the 19th century Vittorio Emmanuel II “wedding cake” monument. It’s a sightseeing and tourist landmark but not much else! But now we are in the Piazza Venezia. Down one end through the myriad of streets is the Pantheon and down the other end, the Colosseum. And then we have disappeared into Rome.
Rome is truly an open-air museum in itself. My favorite Roman walk begins in the medieval square in Trastevere, heads across the ancient Roman bridge, and continues through the piazzas that tumble like centuries before arriving in Bernini’s Piazza Navona. To get there, you first pass through the Piazza Farnese with its beautiful Palazzo, now the French Embassy, and the two bathtubs from Caracalla that anchor the square. The Campo di Fiori is next with its exciting bars and marketplace. Here the statue of Giordano Bruno marks the square. The best pizza and the best pasta carbonara are available here! Also this is not far from what once was Teatro di Pompeo, precisely where Julius Caesar was assassinated.
Across the busy road, you make your way into the Piazza Navona. This is probably the most famous square outside of St. Peter’s. Bernini went to town here with three fountains, the most famous being the fountain of the four rivers.
You continue the long walk via the Pantheon along the Corso to the Spanish Steps and ultimately to the Piazza del Popolo. In between, I love to grab a coffee at a bar, have a Campari, and maybe do some shopping on one of the tiny streets that surround the Senate Building. If I could sneak to Rome in January with the winter sun and empty streets, it would be the start of my reconnection to travel that I have sorely missed. Roma, non basta una vita!
Let me just say, I miss Italy – the walks, the food, the friends, the light, and the myriad of personalities represented by each tiny kingdom that makes up this crazy country. Whenever I travel to Italy, I find myself in a reoccurring predicament sort of like Groundhog Day…the arrival day. There is a reassuring madness and transition that takes place every time.
In Rome, if you made the mistake of checking your bag, you are often resigned to a long wait by the carousel where I am convinced the baggage handlers gather underneath and watch us poor checkers of bags wait and wilt, teasing us with an early movement of the carousel, encouraging us to jostle to claim the best spot for a smooth departure. Mistake number one. You checked your bag! Rome’s airport is so convinced that it will be a long and possibly fruitless wait, that they have installed a children’s playground and coffee/wine bar to ease the pressure of the moment as the baggage handlers do whatever they need to do to maintain their part in this commedia dell’arte.
And then at some point, if you’re lucky, the bags show up. There is a frantic grab as everyone, except the unlucky ones, retrieve their bags and head to the uscita. And then the next round of fun begins.
Taxi? No grazie.
Metro? Dove? Bus al centro, mi dispiace! Nothing comes easy.
The signs at airports in Italy are always confusing and there are often a couple of exit points so that somebody waiting for you may be in the wrong place. It only adds to the story. By nature, Italians are overly detailed and under sourced in terms of organization. So there are rules that make no sense and rules that are deliberately confusing. And everyone in Italy think they make perfect sense – which they do if you’re Italian.
Confusion, chaos, where is the metro, how do I get a ticket, where is the motolaunch in Venice, which way do I go?! Italians almost revel in that power of perfect and complete orderly chaos. It’s their word after all – caos.
At some point, you survive the airport arrival and end up in your hotel. A little frustrated, but how bad can it be as we are talking about Italy!
Then the arrival moment…the passegiata.
Through the busy piazzas and the bits of Bernini, past the fountains and the Baroque and Roman stone, you stop and take an espresso, or a gelato, or a beer, or a Campari. And you look out onto the movie set walking by and you know something beautiful has happened without your knowledge. You have passed to the other side. You have disappeared into Italy, and have become an observer of all those things that you found frustrating and they have turned into beautiful moments. The transformation is complete.
No need to toss coins in the fountain. The spell is cast and without even a thought, but with a skip in your step, you go about your day secure in the knowledge that you will return.
My niece lives in Rome and has been there since 2001. Due to Covid-19, she has been locked down since the end of February and has only recently been able to leave the apartment to start enjoying again the beautiful city that she lives in with her husband and 9-year-old daughter, Beatrice. As part and parcel of being on lockdown, she has been tutoring Beatrice and working on all sorts of projects with the French school that her daughter attends.
This latest project was one that I was particularly struck by as it was based around a French poem from Jacques Charpentreau. The idea behind the original children’s poem, called “Paris en Vélo“, took us by bicycle through the various districts of Paris. Below is the original poem and assignment.
Beatrice’s project was to replicate the poem using her own words and taking us through her neighborhoods in Rome. Below is her final poem along with a picture of Beatrice on her bike.
It is extraordinary for me to follow Beatrice and Jessica’s adventures on WhatsApp. Most of all, it is incredible to watch the creativity of her teachers as they continue to keep the kids engaged while they were literally at home unable to even walk 100 meters outside. “Rome en Vélo” is wonderful because Beatrice was able to take her bike out for the first time in nearly three months. While she couldn’t cover all of the neighborhoods, she was able to experience life outside of the apartment en vélo.
For all of the teachers who have been teaching remote over the past 2.5 months, Chapeau Bas! Thank you on behalf of all of the parents and students. Whatever country, whatever subject, you have all done quite an amazing job of keeping the knowledge flowing and the creativity blowing our way. I wanted to share this delightful poem because it says so much about the innovation and importance of education even when things are so difficult. Of course, grazie Beatrice for being the inspiration.
I’m a lucky guy – I’m spending two weeks working in three of my favorite cities.
In Paris – my all time fave place to eat is Mediterrano at the Odeon, (http://www.la-mediterranee.com/)
in Rome, it’d be Carbonara in Campo di fiori,
and in London – yes you CAN get great food especially if you go to Sheekeys!
What are your fave places in these cities? I love to try new places!
London Rome and Paris, coming soon!
I am in two minds about graffiti.
Sometimes it is just senseless destruction of beautiful facades but more and more it gives voice to a neighborhood in change and transforms organically into art from Banksy and beyond. Graffiti stretches back through the ages. It comes from the Italian word “graffiato” which simply means scratched. It really starts like a primitive text message that hasn’t been deleted or expunged from the memory of the ages and it pops up on everything, especially Roman (usually with a clear statement and cause). It is found in Egypt, in Pompeii, in the ruins of Greece and Turkey, and in the tiny odd corners of Rome.
Recently in Rome, I took a little excursion based on an article I read in one of my favorite magazines, The World of Interiors. I headed to Testaccio which is close to the Protestant cemetery where Keats is buried and the Pyramid of Cestius by the Porta San Paolo. The pyramid is actually the only surviving Egyptian pyramid in Europe. It was built around 18 BC by some mad egomaniac who thought he was a pharaoh. Ego was in high supply during that period.
Testaccio, the Roman neighborhood that sits just behind the pyramid, is going through a bit of a Renaissance. New restaurants are popping up around what used to be the ancient Roman rubbish heap on the Eastern banks of the Tiber, now known as the Monte Testaccio. It developed some notoriety in the 1950’s when the filmmaker Paolo Pasolini sat at the top of this rubbish heap of remnants of old roman vessels that carried olive oil for a photograph. Now this area is a mix of trendy, bohemian, and authentic Roman.
My friend and fabulous Roman guide, Carlotta Boldrini, lives around the corner from here. Her hood now boasts a new painter on the block. The article was about these huge murals by Agostino Iacurci. While former markets and factories in Ostiense and Testaccio are transforming into trendy, gentrified eateries, cafes, bars, and apartments, this wonderful artist has pulled together the scruffiness and the neglect of a rundown neighborhood in the process of change and intertwined it with his sensational murals.
“As an artist, working outside deprives me of that air of sacredness that you associate with works in a museum,” he says.
Agostino takes on the role of integrating his art into the neighborhoods in spectacular fashion. His art is big and sits above everyday Rome with warts and all. His murals are as offbeat as a swimmer with cap and goggles above a fish shop. His equipment is simple: A sponge roller, a cherry picker and simple masonry paint. One day maybe some 2,000 years on, we will find some faded fresco by a huge skyscraper near a tiny pyramid and lament that Rome was once a city that you could walk around and get a decent coffee in a neighborhood bar.
I love Rome.
From the moment I jump in the cab, there is a sense of gradual transition as you journey into this incredibly beautiful city filled with dust, cracks, and occasional garbage bags. It’s all here.
For me it begins as we pass the Sheraton Hotel. Out in the distance is Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR), a 1930’s modernist vision community of how Rome should be in the new world. It didn’t really work out that well but it left us some interesting buildings and now a trendy neighborhood with parks and metro access to both the beach and the center of town. That’s the other thing about Rome – it’s a beach city. The Roman port of Ostia is connectible by metro from the beach resort through Acilia and trendy living areas of Rome to the Colosseum.
Then for me the real transition begins. The first sight of any significance is the white marble Pyramid of Cestius outside Porta San Paolo gate. Then you make that turn up the Aventine Hill with the Palatine Hill facing you. Residential palaces in pink Roman stone look down on the vast field of grass that is the Circus Maximus, one of the largest arenas in the world during roman times.
It becomes frenetic and exhausting at this point with ancient fragments popping up every second it seems. The right turn at the bottom of the hill takes you by the Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth). Opposite from that there is a Greek temple then a Roman temple and as the roads start to move around, you start to see what looks like the Colosseum but in fact is Marcello’s amphitheater, the Teatro di Marcello. Behind that is Octavia’s portal and the Jewish ghetto. On the right side lies the most glorious juxtaposition of stairways anywhere. There is the very subtle Capitoline Hill Stairs, the Cordonata, right next to the severe and steep medieval stairway that leads to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli. On the right hand side beyond the stairways is the slightly incongruous, but ever faithful tourist site for lost travelers, the 19th century wedding cake built to commemorate the unification of Italy in 1870 named the Vittorio Emanuele monument.
We are now in the Renaissance period with the Piazza Venezia with Trajan’s Forum on the right and I have disappeared into Rome before even my first cappuccino.