Prone to Wander

Roman Holiday

Rome gets a bad rap sometimes. Sure, it’s big, it’s full of tourists and tourist traps, and it can be hard to find your way around. However, if you’re armed with a solid pair of walking shoes and a little bit of common sense, you can learn to love Rome.

The Coliseum in Rome

The thing about Rome is that literally around every corner is something ridiculously ancient and interesting. It can be overwhelming for those of us who have grown up in a country where a 100 year-old structure is considered a historic relic. Rome laughs at things that are 100 years old, and says (probably in some kind of thick Italian accent): “Nice try, cute little baby country. Why don’t you call me when you’ve got some things lying around that are over 2,500 years old, mmmkay?”

Anyway, Rome is old… ridiculously old. As a tourist, it’s hard not to take pictures of pretty much everything you walk by. Just thinking about the people who have walked the streets of Rome before you is mind-boggling. Emperors, Caesars, kings, philosophers, gladiators, the Apostle Paul, and a bunch of Popes, not to mention insanely famous artists and architects, like Michaelangelo, Bernini, and Caravaggio, to name a few. It’s enough to make your head spin.

The Ancient Forum in Rome

But keep that head on straight, or you’ll get into trouble. You could be pickpocketed, or worse: you could momentarily suspend all rational thought and allow some guy on the street sell you really ugly fake leather gloves for three times their worth. Keep a level head, and approach the city in sizable chunks. Try to go for it all at once, and you’ll overdose for sure.

If you’re planning a trip to Rome, you’ve probably got a list of “sights” on your list, like the Coliseum, the Forum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps, etc. I’m not going to talk about those things – you can figure that out on your own pretty easily with a good guidebook. (By the way, I swear by the Eyewitness Guides by DK Publishing– they’ve got plenty of helpful pictures to give me a sense of a place. The only downside is that they seem to weigh a ton in your bag.) Anyway, without further ado, here are three things that I highly recommend doing in Rome that might not be quite so obvious in your garden-variety guidebook:

1) Stroll through each of the major Piazzas in Central Rome, stopping at as many cafés as you can handle.

All of the beautiful piazzas are relatively near to one another and you can reach them on foot. Start out at a fairly decent time in the morning at Campo de’ Fiori so that you can catch the morning flower and fruit market. Find a café and people-watch and enjoy that peculiar slant of the sun that only happens in the morning.

Cappuchino at a Campo de' Fiori Market Cafe

From there, wander toward the Piazza Navona, and admire Bernini’s masterpiece, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, in the center of the piazza. There happened to be a carnival of sorts set up for New Year’s when we were there, and there were several good street musicians.

Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, Rome

From there, go in the direction of the Pantheon, passing some smaller piazzas along the way. The Pantheon is an incredible feat of architecture for it’s time – definitely check it out.

The Piazza near the Pantheon

You’ll probably want to end up at the Fontana de’ Trevi (Trevi Fountain), which is not too far from the Barberini metro stop. The fountain is most beautiful at sunset or twilight when the lights on the statues and the water seem to glow, and people are just strolling around in the evening. However, beware of pickpockets and crowds in this area, it’s highly touristy.

Fontana de' Trevi at Night

Side Street Near Piazza Navona

In general, if you are ever in doubt on your piazza-to-piazza stroll, follow the crowds. They’ll usually be wandering along the prettiest streets through the most interesting smaller piazzas, so if you’re worried about getting lost, you can follow the herd. However, that said, all of the side streets and areas around these plazas are interesting, so try to suppress your American sense of efficiency and allow yourself to get lost on your way from piazza to piazza. You never know what you’ll turn the corner to find. And if you get tired, you’re probably never ay further than 100 yards of a good café. The cappuccinos are expensive (hey, it’s central Rome), but they’re small. Why not have two or three over the course of an afternoon from different people-watching vantage points throughout the city? If you’re tired of cappuccinos or coffee, order a Lemon Soda. Seriously. If you like lemon stuff, it’s life-changing.

2) Go to the Borghese Gallery.

This little museum in the middle of a HUGE central park just to the north of Central Rome is home to what I consider to be the most incredible marble sculptures in the world. Gian Lorenzo Bernini may not be one of those top 10 artists you learn about in elementary school, like Michelangelo or Da Vinci, but he certainly should be. Bernini was, for all intents and purposes, the successor of Michelangelo as the leading artist of his day, and was a master sculptor, architect, and painter. He completed many of the grand decorative elements in St. Peters and the Vatican that Michelangelo had begun, including the baldacchino, scuptures, and the collonade, and created some incredible fountains and sculptures.

Bernini's "Apollo & Daphne" at the Borghese Gallery, Rome

My favorite Bernini sculpture has to be Apollo and Daphne. So the mythological story goes, Apollo was bewitched by one of Eros’s arrows and fell in love with Daphne, a wood nymph and daughter of the river god Peneus. Because Eros wanted to get back at Apollo for being a jerk, he also bewitched Daphne so that she would never love Apollo, so he basically went crazy chasing her around the country while Daphne fled from him and didn’t want anything to do with him. Just at the moment that Apollo catches up to her, Daphne cries out to her father for help, and he turns her into a laurel tree to escape Apollo once and for all. I love this sculpture because Bernini decided to capture that exact moment of active transformation, as Daphne’s legs are turning into a tree trunk, her toes are putting down roots, and her hands begin sprouting into branches and leaves, her hair flying as she transforms, twisting and turning to escape Apollo. Looking at this piece, it’s hard to believe it’s made out of marble. It is so realistic and full of momentum and almost kinetic energy that you watch in expectation as if in the next second she will complete the transformation before your eyes.

Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" in the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome

In addition to a really great collection of these Bernini sculptures, the Borghese Gallery also has some great paintings by another one of my favorite artists, Caravaggio. Caravaggio was one of the first to truly exploit a dramatic contrast between light and darkness in paintings, called chiaroscuro, and he used it to his full advantage for striking dramatic emotional effect.

If you’re planning to visit the Borghese, you should plan ahead. Due to its increasing popularity, I found out that you now have to “reserve” tickets days or weeks in advance in the off-season, and perhaps months in advance in the busy season. Also, make sure you consider the giant size of this park if your feet are feeling a little tender after a long day of walking. You may want to make reservations in the morning, since it’s not that easy to get to. But it’s well worth it, I promise!

3) Wander the Maze-Like streets of the old Jewish Ghetto in Rome.

I highly recommend this beautiful area for a late afternoon stroll and lunch or dinner. The streets there are narrow, winding, and mazelike, and mostly pedestrian. It feels like a treasure-hunt since you’re not quite sure what will appear around each corner: maybe a beautiful fountain, tiny piazza, street art, a tantalizing bakery, or a little boutique shop.

A picturesque street in the old Jewish Ghetto area in Rome

A picturesque street in the old Jewish Ghetto area in Rome

Fried Artichoke, Fried Zucchini Flower, and Fried Cheese - Traditional Roman-Jewish Cuisine

For dinner or lunch, the restaurants in the area specialize in Roman-Jewish cuisine, and there are some unique (and delicious) specialties that you will definitely need to try, like whole fried asparagus and fried zucchini flowers. The best meal we ate in Rome was at one of the restaurants in this area, called Nonna Betta Cucina Kosher. We tried the above mentioned traditional starters, a ravioli with an orange sauce (yes, orange, as in the fruit) and a really unique polenta dessert with honey, lemons, raisins and coconut. Of course, don’t forget the house wine – it’s sometimes the cheapest beverage option in Rome. The house wine is typically a weaker or more watery wine, but you can buy a half-liter for about the price of a coke!

A beautiful fountain in the old Jewish Ghetto area in Rome

In general, approach Rome in manageable chunks, one afternoon, or one morning, at a time. Make a plan to do one or two things that you really want to do each day, and then fill in the gaps by wandering around and seeing what you find. Usually you’ll run across the things you were “looking for” anyway.

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