Roman Playground – The anti-person guide

I never really decided to take a hiatus from posting; I merely slipped into my mundane routine: getting up early, skipping breakfast, dashing to the metro, changing to a rattling bus at the Piramide stop and ploughing to work every day. I am a notorious people pleaser and, at times, I find it hard to say no. I have taken up tutoring English and Italian 1, 2, 3…4…yes… days a week, which was perhaps a tad unwise (although very handy now that I am paying for my upcoming summer vacation). To tear asunder my monotony, I have been waking up super early on weekends to, paradoxically, have peace and quiet in the centre of the city.

As I write this I am sitting at a newly opened “Signorvino” chain restaurant (it is in Milano too) that is perched at the top of Piazza Barberini. Opposite me near the Tritone fountain (sculpted by the mythic Bernini), is a hoard of tourists on a guided tour. I am genuinely happy that the tourism sector is reopening here (although I admittedly still cringe at those “hop-on-hop-off buses” – When this COVID is under control, come and visit and I will take you around); however, wandering around at midday in the city is a nightmare for romantic dreamers who want to believe they have the city to themselves. I hear smatterings of French and Spanish at present as Italy is open to the EU, but also the accent of different Italian regions as people break free from the border closure mindset. My solution: wake up early and watch the city come to life as the day progresses. For those of you already whinging that holidays mean sleep-ins, let me convert you with a few of my ideas.

TIPS TO PRETEND THAT ROME IS YOUR ROMANTIC PLAYGROUND:

  1. Get up early – Rome is a concrete and marble wonderland of meandering cobblestone roads, religious frescoes adorning buildings and marvellous fountains hidden in former nobility courtyards. My inculcated tradition is to make the pilgrimage to the city centre on foot. I live in Roma Nord (north), so it is about 4-5km to the city centre. I take a couple of different routes, but always make sure I pass by un-Colosseum attractions like Quartiere Coppede’, Villa Borghese, Piazza Barberini, Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio and so on. I peer into courtyards with fountains and manicured gardens, admire the traditional signs outside coffee shops as well as the small details in the local architecture. Once you finally arrive in the centre, you see the shops slowly awakening, flower stalls laying out their bouquets, bakeries selling their fragrant croissants…you can sit in front of the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon. Once, when I was super early, I laid down looking up at the Colosseum in all its anachronistic beauty. I was the only one there.
  2. Find alternative attractions that make your trip unique – A lot of Romans do not know Rome. That is to say, they know Zara, they know where to get a good aperitivo (all handy), but they do not make the effort to comprehend the rich historical tapestry that they are woven into. There is a plethora of Instagram pages and websites that reveal every detail and angle of the city. Romasegreta is a wonderful example that pulls apart every little monument on every street like an archaeologist unearthing gems. It is in Italian, which is exactly why I recommend it. Plug it into automated Google Translate and your knowledge of the city will broaden immensely. I often do not plan my wandering, but when I stumble across something I like, I search the street name on Roma Segreta and I find all the little pieces of info I need.
  3. Find the best viewpoints of the city to take it all in- Let’s be real: that time I went to Paris for the first time, I did everything touristy I could: I even climbed the Eifel Tower. I remember conquering my fear of falling into the abyss of Parisian morning fog, clinging to the most stable surface as I peered over the edge, and realising one thing: I had wasted my time. The most iconic views of Paris have the Eifel Tower in them and I was on it. For me, Rome needs to be imbibed from above:
    • Head to the chain store “Rinascente” in the city centre or the Prada store on Via del Corso. Yes, alcohol is expensive, but the view is worth it.
    • Alternatively, head to the Cupola of San Pietro (the Saint Peter Dome) in the Vatican. As you wind up the semi-spherical structure and brave vertigo, you do feel daunted. The view on top? Beyond description.
    • Il Gianicolo- The Janiculum hill is the second-tallest hill in Rome is an epic location for a scenic view of central Rome with its dotted domes and towers. Head there at sunset or even dawn if you are brave to see the city wake up.
    • Il Campidoglio- The Capitoline Hill is around the corner from the Altare della Patria. Head up the double ramp of stairs designed by Michelangelo and admire the monochrome geometric square. Facing the front of the statue, leave the square from the top right and head slightly downhill. There it is. The best view of the Roman Forum for free.
  4. Go to quartieri (neighbourhoods) that feel less like a theme park- When I walk through Rome when the tourists arrive, I notice that I start to feel smug as I stride by, knowing that I have had those exact locations all to myself in these COVID times. If you want to taste the quintessential real Roma, head towards areas like Garbatella in Roma Sud, where each “lotto” unit is a central garden surrounded by buildings, and where you will hear more Romanaccio (Roman dialect) than anywhere else. Not too far away is the Testaccio area where you will avoid 99% of the horrendous, worst Italian food you will eat in your life (avoid tourist menus like the Plague!) and find Italian people who are scraping the delicious leftover sauce with a “scarpetta” (bread).
  5. Speaking of parks, go to one – Rome is a marble, concrete, bronze monument to the past, but, like most people, Romans need green space to sprawl barefoot -even if they keep their shoes on. Parks are veritable villas; once palacial residences owned by the noble Italian families, they are now populated by locals working out, families on picnics and young people sprawling among the weedy daisies. While many people head to Villa Borghese or Villa Doria-Pamphilj with their sprawling manicured gardens, galleries and fountains, I would also suggest popping over to Villa Torlonia in northern Rome. Albeit the garden is smaller, but you are likely to have prime access to the museum as well as the “Casina delle Civette”, a fairytale-like house that was once the residence of Prince Giovanni Torlonia. Fun fact: Besides the Torlonia family themselves, the Villa was once the residence of dictator Mussolini. Sticking to this controversial historical figure, the bunkers in which he hid during WWII are hidden within my favourite Villa of all of Rome: Villa Ada. It is the perfect combination of history and feeling lost in the woods (if that is what you go for): It was owned originally by the super-famous royal Savoy family and passed to Count Tellfner of Switzerland who named it after his beloved wife in 1878. Nowadays, you can find a lovely lake, rambling mountain-bike paths, secluded picnic areas are stables filled with Italians prancing on ponies doing dressage.
  6. Get your Jesus on – Go church hopping for wonderful artistic discoveries: So in the Christmas lockdowns I could not go to galleries, archeological sites or restaurants. If you date (which is not me), finding someone meant skipping a few steps (if you were bold enough to violate the lockdown rules) and inviting them over to your place (too much, too soon!). So in my alleged “30-Yr-Old” crisis of “Eat, Pray, Love”, I was left with the spiritual option: Churches, as sites of worship that I did not partake in, were open! I discovered the burnished colours of the mosaics in Santa Pudenziana and Prassede Churches (TIP: go at midday as the caretakers let you into secret parts that are not open for the rest of the day. I, for one, saw the medieval frescoes tucked behind the mosaics in the chapel); the gory scenes of martyria in Santo Stefano Rotondo (round church!) and of course the motorized Rubens painting above the altar of Santa Maria in Vallicella. Oh, and then there is the Michelangelo sculpture of Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli (a little more “mainstream”). I ended up buying “111 Segreti delle Chiese di Roma che Devi Proprio Scoprire” (YES….in Italian, but there are apps for that if you need) and discovering a new church secret whenever I could. My next one is, well, secret for now!

Un bacio and photos to follow.

Skye xo

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