ROMANCING ROME – Artistic allure, museum mooching and fantastic food

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romancin rome

When in Rome… eat lots of Fettuccine Alfredo. At least that’s the mantra I adopted. After a brief stint in this beautiful capital, experiencing the astonishing artistic allure of the city and eating my bodyweight in carbs, I came away with a renewed love for all things Rome.

It is a city of art, where anything could happen. Centurion guards could come pouring out from under one of the ancient, crumbling archways; Michelangelo could be up in his studio perfecting his latest classic, and Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck could come cruising past you through the uncongested streets of Rome aboard an old tin-green Vespa.

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_068_Image_0001History

Located in the centre of the Italian peninsula, this sprawling city influenced the world with their archaic local language – Latin, their art and their philosophy. They soon took on the nickname Caput Mundi, which literally translates to ‘Head of the World’ – and for good reason.

Legend has it that Rome was founded in 753 BC by one of two twin brothers. As the story goes, their mother betrayed her Vestal Virgin vows of celibacy (although after reading the story, I don’t think she had much say in the matter) and Romulus and Remus were to be thrown into the Tiber. As it turns out, they weren’t so much thrown in as they were placed into a basket and pushed gently down the river, coming to rest in the roots of a nearby fig tree. Supposedly, a she-wolf (Lupa) came across the boys and suckled them, while a woodpecker (Picus) fed them. Long story short, they grew up, quarrelled, Remus died and Romulus tended to the foundation of his city on Palatine Hill.

Rome progressed from being a Republic to eventually become the Roman Empire – the most extensive political and social structure in Western civilization at the time. The birthplace of Cesar, home of the Catholic Church and, for a while, considered to be the very centre of the world, Rome’s history is brightly coloured and painted with many different strokes.

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_068_Image_0004Places to visit

I don’t think you could get away with going on a Roman holiday without a trip to the Vatican or indeed, the Colosseum, and you must, of course, lob a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi fountain before you go, but this is a given so I won’t say anything other than: go. Oh, and keep a safe distance away from the ‘gladiators’ outside the Colosseum, unless you want to fork out a colossal price for a photo with them. 

Now accessible to locals and tourists is a vast, 2000 year old underground passageway named Rampa Imperiale di Domiziano – the ‘Imperial Ramp’. Comprised of a series of covered zig-zagged walkways, this route (only made open to the public in October of last year) allows you to physically tread in the footsteps of past emperors. If you use your imagination and squint hard enough, you can almost see the Romans trotting past the flickering lights that lined each walkway, passing unseen from their palaces atop Palatine Hill down to the marketplaces below and on to Il Foro, the heart of politics in Ancient Rome.

As you eventually reach the highest point through the arched walkway and back out into daylight, you’re greeted with a panoramic view of ruined temples, marble columns and the ancient streets of the Roman Forum.

To access some of the city’s most popular sites, your best bet is to get yourself a ‘Rome Archaeological Card’. This card grants you entry to ten notable archaeological attractions (including the Colosseum) without queueing – hurrah! Alternatively, you can simply buy yourself a Colosseum ticket or the popular ‘Romapass’. Entry to the Imperial Ramp is included in both; the cost of the card and ticket. While you’re at it, buy a Travelcard to beat the heat during summer months.

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_069_Image_0001Did you know there is a bonafide, ancient pyramid in Rome? Nor did I. But there is! The Pyramid of Cestius stands at a fork between two ancient roads, and is one of the city’s best-preserved structures. What’s more, this wasn’t even the first pyramid in Rome. During the Middle Ages another existed, known as the ‘Pyramid of Romulus’; the Cestius was known as the ‘Pyramid of Remus’ and it was believed that these two structures were the brothers’ resting places. However, the Romulus is no more as it was dismantled in the 16th century so that its marble facade could be used for the construction of the stairs at St Peter’s Basilica. 

As the summer sun sets behind the Roman skyline, the sky morphs into a grand hue of pinky orange and casts an orange light across the city, the warm colours creeping up the sides of the buildings and reflecting off the glass windows. The afternoon lull is replaced by a gradually increasing and expectant buzz as people head out for the evening, and where better than the banks of the Tiber? During summer, a string of temporary bars and cafes line either side of the Tiber river, easily spotted by their white tent-like structures. Grab a glass and say ‘bottoms up!’ as the sun goes down, preparing itself for a brand new day.

If you find yourself in Rome during a busy period, there is nothing better than to see the sights of Rome by night. The Trevi fountain, if possible, is even more beautiful at night as the lights illuminate its baroque exterior, and the Spanish Steps more mystical. At the foot of the steps sits the Fontana della Barcaccia, Fountain of the Old Boat. It’s said to be inspired by a fishing boat that found its way into that exact spot after the Tiber flooded in 1598.

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_069_Image_0002Hidden Rome

Many people who flock to Rome do so to experience its rich tapestry of culture, cuisine and iconic monuments. Understandably, tourists want that stereotypical Italian experience found around the city’s most influential buildings. But what about the locals? Here is a list of things to take you off the beaten track and into the heart of the city alongside the true Romani.

Romeow Cat Bistrot

With a name like that, it doesn’t take much convincing to draw people in. This vegan cat cafe is decked out with a trendy, artsy interior. There are mismatched wooden seats, floating shelves that look like novels (with the occasional cat perched on top), an indoor tree trunk and some modern light fixtures. If you don’t come here for the feline fun (and why not?!) you must come for the food. Some of the most delicately prepared gourmet-style plates and most sumptuous I-can’t-believe-this-is-vegan cakes are on offer at Romeow’s. Food for the belly and cats for the soul. Purrfect.

Street Art

I love a bit of well-placed, interesting graffiti. I think it brings a city to life. This is especially true for Rome, as it is not an overtly colourful city. It’s not too surprising that some are opposed to the street art scene, not accepting it as a true form of art – but I think, it is this juxtapositioning of marble facades and stone structures against the raw, urban art that makes it something quite special. Others, however, have embraced this alternative form of renewal and ‘legal walls’ are popping up more frequently. If you want to catch a glimpse of some art by Rome’s only slightly lesser-known artists, head to the Ostiense district. Originally edified for industrial purposes, this historical, southern area of Rome has several popular examples of street art adorning its walls. Pigneto also has something to offer; a hip neighbourhood on the rise, loved not only for its diverse street art, but also its street food.

Casina delle Civette

The ‘House of the Owls’ was constructed in 1840 with the purpose of being a refuge from the neo-classical villa also occupying the Torlonia family’s estate: Villa Torlonia. Over time, the originally ‘Swiss chalet’-looking  building acquired some new features in the form of turrets, porticos and stained glass windows (keep an eye out for the one depicting two owls), each one completely unique. The attention is in the detail; intricate brickwork and motifs form the exterior of the building, supposedly in homage to Giovanni Torlonia, a mysterious man with a love for equally mysterious symbols. The overall effect is one of a surreal, fairytale structure that wouldn’t look too out of place on the grounds of Disney World.

New Rome

Rome isn’t all pockets of history and ancient buildings; it has, in parts, been dragged into the 21st century. Some of it is even being referred to by Italians as, dare I say it, ‘hipster’. Step foot in a nearby souvenir shop and you’re likely to be met with sexy priest calendars, Pope Francis lollipops and Michelangelo’s David’s genitalia in various souvenir forms. Even the Gelato has had an update in the form  of a shaved ice cone with fruit on top. (Grab one from Grattachecca Sora Mirella  at one end of the Ponte Cestio bridge.) 

There is a lot written about sexuality in Rome and, unsurprisingly, given its history, it’s hugely gay-friendly. Some of the best parties are on ‘Gay Street’, a 300 metre long shopping and bar area leading to the east flank of the Colosseum. The most revered bar on this strip is ‘Coming Out’; the staff are lovely, the atmosphere welcoming, and you can dine while overlooking the Colosseum. That’s all my boxes ticked.

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_070_Image_0002Food

If the rich history and art isn’t enough to draw you in to this city, the gelato certainly is. Pizza, pasta, cacio e pepe and did I mention gelato? This is a holiday where you must eschew the diet and eat until your bum falls off.

The Italians prepare themselves for a big meal in two ways: by drinking Prosecco to cleanse the palate and eating antipasto. I must admit, most of my ‘palate cleansing’ takes place after work on a Friday, so this was a nice, sophisticated change.

Don’t eat a bog standard hotel breakfast just because it was included in a reasonably priced package deal. This is not the time nor place for room-temperature scrambled egg. Head down instead to the Pigneto district for a true taste of Rome. (Rome being savoury, fatty goodness in this scenario.) A dish to add to your bucket list (because believe me, eating your way around Rome is a bucket list) is the cacio e pepe. Anthony Bourdain, world-renowned chef advises: “If you do one thing in Rome, one thing … Forget about Vatican City, all the rest, one thing: Find a place that is guaranteed by locals to make good cacio e pepe, get yourself a nice jug of wine and eat.” Well, who am I to argue with that.

No trip to Rome would be complete without sampling a locally brewed cappuccino, so get yourself over to the Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè, famed for its home-roast beans (which they blend with water from an ancient aqueduct no less!). But be warned; a true Italian never allows a cappuccino to pass his lips after 11am. 

When to go

Rome’s summers are not too dissimilar to our own, but peaks of 31 degrees mixed with throngs of excited tourists can be a recipe for sweaty disappointment. Consider instead heading over in August, when things are a lot calmer, albeit a lot more… closed. Ferragosto is a 3-5 week stretch officially starting on the 15th August when Rome shuts up shop, says vaffanculo to work commitments and heads to the coast for a seaside jaunt, leaving a short message to visitors on their shop door in their absence: “chiuso per ferie.” Closed for holidays. 

Who’s to blame for this Silent Hill-esque interval in the year? Emperor Augustus, apparently. Not only did he get a month named after himself, but he turned it into one long jolly holiday ‘to pay homage to the gods after agricultural season, in hopes of a good harvest.’ Yeah, all right Augustus. We know you just wanted a trip down the seaside. Personally, I see this as a green light to go and explore Rome without being taken off in a herd of sightseers, or losing an eye to a tour guide’s enthusiastic umbrella. That being said, tourist attractions and museums as well as many restaurants maintain usual hours of operation through the month-long period, so if you’re one of the people left behind after the 15th, fear not! There’s still plenty to keep you occupied.

Where to stay

From the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport or ‘Rome Fiumicino Airport’ (referred to more simply as Fiumicino Airport) you have three options into the city: shuttle bus, train and taxi – each mode of transport increasingly more expensive than the last. Be that as it may, if you can stretch for a taxi, do. Traffic can be unpredictable.

A double room in a hotel will set you back around €30, and a hostel dorm around €20, but I would opt for an ‘Airbnb’ room for this sort of trip; it’s better than a hotel in that it allows you to feel more a part of the city and live as the locals do. Lower-priced pensiones get snapped up pretty quickly, so book as far in advance as you can. If you’re travelling to Rome on a shoestring, you can also opt for the camping experience, which is considerably cheaper. 

It’s not a bad idea to choose a room within the Centro Historico (‘Historic Centre’). You’ll be within walking distance of all the good stuff such as the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and the Colosseum. Additionally, the Trastevere district is also a good shout, – especially for foodies. This is where you’ll find a biscottificio (biscuit factory), the city’s oldest wine cellar and a pizza oven that has been churning out these delicious doughy frisbees since 1860!

Rome was undeniably the powerhouse of its time. Its political, economic, cultural and military reach ran far and wide. Today, there are still echoes of this era in every museum, every architecturally adorned street, resonating from every building that has lived your life ten times over. Oh, if columns could talk! But take your time, soak it in. Piano piano, as the Italians say; slowly slowly. As Bourdain wisely muses: “You don’t go to see stuff, you let it slip up on you, one piazza, one fountain, one amazing structure at a time.” 

What happens when you combine Roman architecture, Italian cuisine and a Gibraltarian? It’s your turn to find out.