No matter how many times you soak up in the spectacle and history of the Colosseum, the Forum and the Vatican, these ancient time-worn facades never lose their fascination. And the Eternal City’s seven hills are peppered with archaeological and artistic treasures, in the streets as well as the museums.
They range from the city’s Etruscan origins to the ancient republic and empire up to the mid-20th century Rome of Fellini and De Sica. They all have their altars and icons, ranging from Trajan’s Column to the unforgettable dolce vita image of the barefoot, black-clad Anita Ekberg and the Trevi Fountain.
But to understand the true character of the Eternal City and its people you need to stray away from the well-worn tourist paths and crowds.
One of the joys of Rome is that it is a very walkable city – which is just as well, since the traffic problem is a never-ending nightmare for the locals, never mind any visitor foolhardy enough to get behind the wheel of a car.
For many people – me included – discovering the Rome of the Renaissance is an unforgettable experience. Visiting villas, palaces and churches (both small and large), monumental fountains, statues and gardens, interrupted by long, lazy stops at restaurants to eat at tables laden with olives, dark, paper-thin ham, white bean dishes and artichokes, is what Rome is all about.
The art and architecture of the Renaissance – Raphaels, Michelangelos, da Vincis – come to life before your eyes. Then there are the gold-decorated baroque churches such as the Bernini-designed rose-marble Sant’Andrea al Quirinale and Santa Maria della Vittoria, with Bernini’s masterpiece Ecstasy Of St Teresa, which are a delight on the eye and an inspiration for the soul.
Culture and history aside, Rome is one of Europe’s greenest cities and nowhere is this more apparent than at the Villa Pamphili park, just a few minutes from the Vatican City, and in Gianicolo Park, on Via Garibaldi, where traditional Italian puppet shows delight children of all ages.
Elsewhere, the attractions of Rome’s river, the Tiber, is overlooked by many visitors. Try to take in a pink sunset along the Tiber or take a boat ride to Isola Tiberina, the island in the river. Frida Giannini, 35-year-old creative director of Gucci, was born in Rome and once said that returning to this area always fills her with emotion. Batelli di Roma offer a regular shuttle between Isola Tiberina and Ponte Duca d’Aosta for €1 a trip. They also run evening cruises with dinner or antipasti and wine.
If you fancy rummaging like a Roman, visit the Porta Portese open-air flea market On Sundays from 7am until 1pm, traders sell merchandise ranging from termite-eaten Il Duce wooden medallions, to pseudo-Etruscan hairpins, Madonna paintings by the cartload and ancient radio and TV sets. Inevitably, all this hustle, bustle and crowds attracts pickpockets. So be on your guard.
With your wallet intact and an appetite brought on by bargain-hunting, head for the Trattoria dal Cordaro, a family-run restaurant with wooden tables and vines growing in the garden, on Piazzale Portuense. The menu is ever-changing, with local specialities such as tagliolini alla gricia, homemade pasta with sheep’s cheese and guanciale (bacon made from pig’s cheek) and invotini con fagioli et scarola (rolled meat with beans and escarole, a form of endive).
For a restaurant where the food is probably eclipsed by the people-watching, go to Dal Bolognese, Rome’s most famous eatery, at the Piazza del Popolo. Signature dish is bollito misto, a rich mix of seven kinds of meat, seven vegetables, and seven condiments. As you eat, you’ll be intrigued by the cream of Rome society, film stars, footballers and politicians with their mistresses, table-hopping and gossiping. You need to book well ahead and it is closed on Mondays.
Want to stay at Rome’s most stylish retreat? Book yourself into the five-star Hotel de Russie, conveniently situated between the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo and within easy walking distance of Rome’s key attractions. Its extensive terraced gardens provide a tranquil oasis amid the bustle of central Rome, and you can dine alfresco or enjoy a peaceful stroll. There’s even a butterfly oasis, created in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund. Double rooms start at £505 a night.
Prefer something more intimate? Try the Buonanotte Garibaldi, a stylish and arty guest house in Trastevere , a working class area gone radical chic. Owned by artist Luisa Longo, it has just three rooms set around an attractive patio, with doubles priced from £154 per night.
Like most capital cities, Rome can be expensive – although some things cost nothing but remain etched in the memory for ever. Like the night I was strolling back to my hotel along narrow, deserted streets overlooking the Forum. It was late, the spotlights had been turned off, and, suddenly, there laid out in front of me in spectacular fashion were the shadowy ruins lit by moonlight.
If you want to visit the Sistine Chapel and the Scavi excavations, said to be the final resting place of St Peter, but can’t face the crowds…there is a way. Book a private visit to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece with Context Travel or Select Italy and expect to pay £320 to join a group of 16 or about £3,600 for the sheer luxury of being a solo visitor. For the Scavi tour, directly underneath St Peter’s Basilica, you can only book directly through the Vatican Excavations Office by e-mail or fax – full details can be found by typing “Scavi” into the search engine at www.vatican.va. It is imperative to book months in advance. Only 200 visitors per day are permitted.
If shopping in Rome is your bag, remember that most shops generally open from 10am until 7.30pm, with smaller stores closing from 1pm until 4pm. Almost all are closed on Sundays and Monday mornings. Restaurants and services tend to close on Sundays, too.
Taxis are plentiful but drivers are notorious for adding extras – so watch the meter. In town, the meter’s red dot should be next to the number 1. If not, the driver’s bumping up your bill.