I’m just finishing up in Rome. The city is remarkably stable and organized. If you dropped in for your first time, you’d likely think the opposite. But my first 20 years of traveling in Rome (in the 1970s and 1980s) left me with an indelible impression of chaos that I am only now realizing is very dated. The city enthralls and seduces me like never before. I thought the attraction had something to do with the persistent chaos, but the charm is strong as ever as the chaos ebbs. Two of the few Italian phrases I know (and use all the time) are appropriate for Rome: Complimenti (My compliments) and Buon Lavoro (Enjoy your work).
Here is a rough and candid sampling of the kinds of things I’m finding for the new editions of our Rome and Italy guidebooks:
Via dei Fori Imperiali: On Sunday afternoons, Via dei Fori Imperiali is closed to traffic from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum, and a delight to stroll.
Discounts: While discounts are technically only for EU residents, American seniors who ask will often get the same deal.
Orvieto: Let’s remind people to consider Orvieto for day trip from Rome. It’s just 90 minutes away by train.
Palazzo del Quirinale: The presidential palace and former home of popes feels like a combination White House and Versailles. It’s open Sunday mornings (free, 8:30-12:00). Wandering through here, you enjoy a lavish and living extra dimension to Rome.
Gesù Church: A 17:30 ceremony lights up the tomb and altarpiece of St. Ignatius of Loyola, with music and ritual. I’ve been told that this is a very moving 20 minutes well spent.
MAXXI: Rome’s “National Museum of Art of the 21st Century” is the big news on the museum scene here – as you can imagine, after ten years and 150 million euros spent. This complex, “Italy’s first national museum dedicated to contemporary creativity,” is a playful concrete-and-steel structure filled with bizarre installations, and located inconveniently away from the center. It comes off as a second-rate Pompidou Center. While many contemporary art museums are notable more for their architecture than for their art, this scores with neither. It felt to me like Rome trying to be more than what it is – and judging by the lack of energy here, I’m not alone (€11, Tue-Sun 11:00-19:00, Thu until 22:00, closed Mon, two exhibits per year, preview at www.fondazionemaxxi.it, tram #2 from Piazza Popolo to Piazza Apollo Doro, Via Guido Reni 4a, tel. 06-322-5178).
Fausto delle Chiaie: “Fausto of the Beach” is a self-appointed part of the Arch of Peace. This eccentric (yet likely more sane then the rest of us) takes you to a different dimension with his good street art. While next to the local academy of art, he stresses there is relation. Fausto’s installation art (in English and Italian) is usually strewn along the curb that runs between the Ara Pacis and the Mausoleum of Augustus. Charming Fausto speaks English and reminds you that his “plastic secretary” (a tip box) is at the end of the curb if you are inspired. For me, he’s the MINNI – and is more entertaining than the MAXXI.
Passeggiata at Piazza del Popolo and along Via del Corso: Of course, all over the Mediterranean world, people are out strolling in the early evening. Rome’s passeggiata is both more elegant (with chic people enjoying fancy window-shopping in the grid of streets around the Spanish Steps and along Via Margutta) and a bit more rough (at Piazza del Popolo and along the Via del Corso). This is where working-class suburban youth called coatto, with little to keep them in Rome’s dreary outskirts (so lacking in public spaces), converge on the old center like American kids gather at the mall. Piazza del Popolo and Via del Corso (now pedestrians-only all day) are the places to enjoy the great struscio (literally “rubbing,” as some locals call their cruder-than-average strolling spectacle), as Romans make the scene and check each other out. While the proliferation of shopping malls is drawing many people away and creating hard times for many of the chain outlets lining Via del Corso, this remains a fine place to feel the pulse of Rome at twilight.
New Additions to our Pantheon Description: The portico is Greek in Style – logical, because Hadrian was a Grecophile. (He grew his famous beard to look like a Greek philosopher.) The portico is a visual reminder of the great debt of Roman culture to the Greeks. You cross the Greek portico to enter a purely Roman space, the Rotunda. The huge and simple columns in the portico were Egyptian, literally shipped from the Nile. They were then fitted with the leafy Corinthian capitals. They are sequoia-huge – it takes the outstretched arms of four big tourists to span one.
Piazza della Rotunda (the Square Facing the Pantheon): A gathering place for 2,000 years, its slope illustrates the “rise of Rome.” Imagine in past centuries, when there was a fish and chicken market in the portico. In a 1700s urban-beautification project, the fountain and obelisk were added. Pausing here, you feel the vibrancy of Italy’s piazza culture, which goes back to ancient Roman times.
Baroque as Propaganda: Tapping into the heart rather than the head, the Church used Baroque art to encourage emotional responses to the faith. Jesuits will burn the books those Protestants were so excited about and do the thinking for you. You can simply feel, imagine, and see the lessons via the art. St. Teresa in Ecstasy is a powerful example – emotion going directly from your eyes to your heart. Don’t reflect. Be awed, amazed, moved.
Taverna Trilussa: If dining well in Trastevere, this place – with a proud 100-year tradition – is your best bet. The spacious dining hall, strewn with eclectic Roman souvenirs, has the right mix of style and informality. The service is fun-loving (happy to let you split plates into smaller plates to enjoy a family-style meal), yet professional. The menu celebrates local classics and seasonal specials, and comes with a big wine selection. And if you want to eat outdoors, Trilussa has an actual terrace rather than tables jumbled on the sidewalk. Brothers Massimo and Maurizio offer quality and value without pretense (€15 pastas, €20 secondi, dinner only from 19:30, closed Sun, reservations very smart, Via del Politeama 23, tel. 06-581-8918).
Hotel San Francesco: Big and blocky yet welcoming, this hotel stands like a practical and efficient oasis at the edge of all the Trastevere action. Renting 24 trim rooms in this authentic district, it comes with an inviting roof terrace and a calm and helpful staff. Handy trams to Largo Argentina are just a block away (Db-€90-120 depending on the season, air-con, Via Jacopa de Settesoli 7, tel. 06-5830-0051, www.hotelsanfrancesco.net, firstname.lastname@example.org).
I Colori del Vino Enoteca: This modern wine bar – without a tourist in sight – feels like a laboratory of wine appreciation, with woody walls of bottles, a creative menu of cold cuts (meats and cheeses with different regional themes), and a great list of fine wines by the glass. Helpful and English-speaking Marco carries on a long family tradition of celebrating what we know to be the fundamentals of good nutrition: fine wine, cheese, meat, and bread. Remember Shakespeare’s sage warning – “Wine stirs the desire, but it prevents the implementation” (Mon-Fri 12:00-15:00 & 17:30-23:00, closed Sat-Sun because Marco doesn’t cater to noisy weekend drinkers, corner of Via Flavia and Via Aureliana, tel. 06-474-1745, www.icoloridelvino.it).