Adam visited Rome during a Europe backpacking trip 13 years ago and has always maintained that it was his favorite foreign city. After four days of gallivanting around – revisiting some old haunts and stumbling across new ones – I completely agree. It’s a charismatic city with a casual atmosphere and an historic awe.
Its main streets may be congested with Vespas and tour buses and its sidewalks with tourists, but there always seems to be a quiet street or an open piazza within reach. The city moves at a pace both fast and slow and is best enjoyed when you have time to put down your itinerary and and just get swept from place to place.
We walked along the high walls of the muddy and trash speckled Tiber river through the charming winding streets of the centro storico – historic center – into the Piazza Navona. There we took in an eye full: orange and yellow apartments encircling the square, art vendors, tourists, students, outdoor cafes and Baroque (if it’s not baroque don’t fix it!) style fountains created by two of the period’s greatest artists, Bernini and Borromini. Probably my favorite statue in all of Rome is the modest Fontana del Nettuno in Piazza Navona of Neptune spearing an octopus that’s entangled around his legs. What a stud.
From there we walked south to Campo Dei Fiori, another bustling square, this one with a huge farmers market overflowing with produce, olive oil and dried pasta. Here, on February 17th 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. His cosmological theories correctly proposed that the sun was just another star moving in space, and claimed that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds. The Catholic Church didn’t appreciate his use of science and observation and they burned him alive as a heretic. (He was only just pardoned by the church in 1983.) Today there’s a haunting statue of him in the center of the square.
After sharing a bottle of wine and two deliciously fresh calzones at Da Vittorio in Trastavere we continued our walk to The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore which is one of the four major basilicas of Rome, and then to the Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world.
In the afternoon we found ourselves at a bar called Fiddlers Elbow, just north of the Colosseum, where in 2001 Adam and his friend & travel companion Ben made two massive discoveries: 1) Guinness and 2) the one unwavering, timeless sanctuary for the English-speaking traveler – the Irish Pub.
Almost everywhere you look in Rome you see an interesting clash of old and new, of history and modernity – earning Rome the fitting epithet of the Eternal City. In an attempt to avoid the crowds we set off early to stroll around the Forum and shove our way through the Colosseum. The Forum was for the most part a heap of ancient rubble surrounded by open space and colorful condos. Lacking the imagination required to truly appreciate that I was standing in the city center of ancient Rome, I spent most of our stroll snapping pictures and thinking about what we were going to eat for lunch.
Spoilers, it was pizza.
From Velian Hill on the eastern edge of the Forum , we got a wonderful, solitary view of the Colosseum.
But by 10am the lines at the Colosseum were Disneyland-long with tourists and hoards of school groups in every direction. Adam (that clever bastard!) had purchased Colosseum tickets at the entrance to the Forum and we were able to whiz past the long lines with no wait. I had had this romantic vision of the Colosseum, that once inside there would be many nooks and crannies in which to cozy up to some street cats and read a book amongst ancient stones.
But instead, even to peer down to the stage, it went a little more like this.
Ah well. Very cool nonetheless. Forum, check. Colosseum, check. Finally lunch at long last!
The remainder of the day consisted of exploring the charming Trastevere neighborhood. That evening was one of our favorites – we walked around for an hour trying to find Piazza Navona where we had been the previous day but to no avail (Adam insists that I include that “we were without a map or compass”). Instead we settled on a smaller piazza off the beaten path, Piazza San Simeone, where a wine bar caught our eye. We sat outside and drank juicy Primitivo wine while one set of shutters after another started closing in the apartments surrounding the small square. We watched as dozens of people walked by – locals, tourists, students, nuns and priests – speaking half a dozen languages.
The proprietor of the bar, adorned in a green cape, would occasionally come outside to join the growing group of older men by the small fountain in the center of the square who were smoking, talking loudly and gesticulating wildly. Three hours, one plate of bruschetta and two bottles of wine later, we made our way, although I’m certain not directly, back to our hotel.
- If you’re going to go to the Forum and the Coliseum, then buy your tickets first at the Forum. The Forum is much less crowded and sells tickets to both places and after you visit the Forum you can skip the very long ticket line at the Coliseum.
- If you can, take a tour at the Forum. Adam has done this with local grad students and, for him, it illuminated all the rubble a great deal. However, it seems, in English, these are available only half the year.
- Rome is very touristy, but in our experience the tourist crowds tend to shift and move. If the farmer’s market at Campo dei Fiori is too packed one day then leave and come back in the evening. We found the Spanish steps to be way too crowded one day and the next morning to be completely empty. Don’t force these marvelous squares and landmarks, they are all within walking distance, just come back.
- Don’t want to spend the money to sit in a cafe? Many of the squares have beer and coffee stalls nearby. Grab a beer and sit in the square and enjoy the crowd.