It’s midnight, the church bell just rang. The moon is a day past full. I am eating gelato while sitting on the steps of the fountain in the middle of Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome. I’m between a drunk and a young couple kissing with gusto. Other people are buzzing around me. I’m deep into an experiment that is proving to be a pretty good idea.
I’ve visited Rome before. I’ve stayed at high-end hotels, at family-run pensioni and in private apartments, and in each instance I’ve gotten a different feeling for the city. But this time I’ve decided to combine all three types of accommodation in one trip. I will start out living in opulence, ratchet down to living reasonably, and proceed to living cheaply — in three very distinct neighbourhoods.
I want to see how different locations and accommodations affect my experience. I’ve relieved myself of the obligation to see anything in particular; I’m here to discover the rhythms and quirks of each neighbourhood and maybe a few of its secrets.
So I start at the top. “Welcome, sir,” says the well-tanned man behind the counter. Then he squints. “Or should I say… welcome back. I think so. No?”
Does he remember me from 10 years earlier? “I’m good with faces,” Emanuele Minuz says, reading my mind and smiling. Arriving at a grand hotel is one of the more pleasurable sensations in travel. And when one is not only welcomed but received, the feeling touches something primal.
The Hotel Hassler is among the world’s great addresses. Trends come and go, but the Hassler abides. I couldn’t ask for a softer landing. Step out through the revolving door, however, and it’s a different world. The famed Spanish Steps, all 138 of them, tumble down from the Hassler into the chaos below in Piazza di Spagna. Designed by an Italian, paid for by the French and named for the nearby Spanish Embassy, these marble stairs are a meeting place for Italians and tourists alike, part Prada and part rucksack — a singular spot both thrilling and exhausting, often simultaneously.
It doesn’t take me long to seek refuge in the historic Antico Caffè Greco on Via Condotti. All hued walls, marble-topped tables and pastoral paintings beneath arched doorways and tinted mirrors, this cafe in its time was the stomping ground of writers like Goethe, Stendhal and Byron, and it still captivates. Yes, my hotel is sumptuous, but I only feel myself arrived in Rome once I enter the Greco. It’s a place I always return to, sometimes taking a table, sometimes pounding an espresso at the bar with the locals for a quarter of the price.
It’s safe to say that things in the neighbourhood have changed a good deal since poet John Keats died in a residence beside the Spanish Steps in 1821. His former home is now the Keats-Shelley House, a discreet shrine to the Romantics. From his bedroom in the small, lightly visited museum, the poet, dying of consumption, gazed out on flocks of goats and the workshops of engravers and mosaic makers. Today, from the very same window, I peer out on Dior and Yves Saint Laurent stores, and at a shaved-headed man posing for a photo as he dunks himself into Pietro Bernini’s boat-shaped fountain.
Safely back in the refined ambience of the Hassler’s rooftop restaurant, I absently drink in my view over Rome as the sun sets behind the Vatican. Savouring my seaweed fritter in apple sauce and caviar, I’m finding it difficult to imagine wanting much more out of life. But by my third dessert course I am ready again to rub a little elbow with the man on the street. And rub you do at the Fontana di Trevi. Swarming at all hours, Rome’s largest and most famous fountain can seem like a crass and sweaty chore of obligation for visitors. Come here at night, however, and the experience transforms into a sensuous delight — a real pleasure of shared community.
I find a spot beside two people eating ice cream, one very young, one very old, both content. Lovers in different shapes and sizes thrust cameras at me to take their photos. I hear Italian and English, of course, and Korean, Portuguese, German and Spanish. No one seems a stranger. There is a playful confidence in the crowd. Sculptor Nicola Salvi’s monumental depiction of the chariot of the Greek god Oceanus being led by seahorses reined by brawny Tritons is a place to celebrate life — Roman life. Eventually everyone heads to the fountain’s edge, turns, pauses, and in a moment of vulnerability that makes equals of all, tosses a coin over a shoulder to ensure a return trip to Rome.
My late-night walk back through cobbled streets soon finds me on a quiet block, experiencing one of those rare moments of tranquility only possible in a bustling city waiting to inhale again. Even at this late hour there is someone to hold the door for me at the Hassler. I find myself wishing he were home asleep — and from the look on his face, so does he.
While my time at the Hassler is lush, it offers only a veiled experience of Rome. My whims are indulged, but I find that whenever I leave the hotel, I do so with the tentativeness of an over-attended child. Eventually I rebel against my surroundings. Like an adolescent going off to college, I tromp down the Spanish Steps and make my way along Via Condotti to Rome’s centro storico — the historic centre.
Here I take up residence in the 13-room Hotel Teatro di Pompeo, a family-run pensione at 8 Largo del Pallaro. My room is a garret with a dark beamed ceiling. The view from my single window is of the fading brown facade of a building across the triangular piazza, its window sills overflowing with sunburned geraniums. I watch an old man in a T-shirt lean out to open his shutters. The vista is a far cry from that of my mansion on the hill, but it is one in which I can locate myself. Its detail and human scale are both comprehensible and comforting, and I ease into a routine that gives me more of a connection to a place than when I was swaddled in luxury above the Spanish Steps.
The centro storico was the core of Renaissance and baroque Rome and its architecture owes much to rival 17th-century architects and sculptors Gian Lorenzo Bernini — who designed the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers on Piazza Navona — and Francesco Borromini, whose masterworks include the Church of Saint Agnes in Agone, also on Piazza Navona. The streets here are narrower and run at more random angles than the well-ordered avenues by the Spanish Steps.
Among the things that help anchor us in a neighbourhood are local landmarks, and our ever-changing, never-changing relation to them. Buildings or parks we relate to or ignore on a daily basis become our touchstones, our points of familiarity and departure. It doesn’t hurt that in Rome you rarely have to go far to see a ‘greatest hit’.
The landmark in the historic centre that I keep returning to, admiring and passing and admiring again — often several times a
day — is the 2,000-year-old Pantheon. A circular building with a columned portico, the Pantheon is an ancient survivor. Michelangelo came to study its dome and oculus — the eye-like hole in the dome — before designing the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica.
By living locally, I experience the Pantheon throughout the day: in the still, early morning, during afternoons when it is burdened by heavy foot traffic, and in the evening, when its romance has returned. A relationship begins to form that penetrates in a way no single visit, no matter how thrilling, can approach.
I enter into a relationship of a very different sort with an establishment next to my pensione. Trattoria der Pallaro is the localest of local haunts. From her small kitchen, Paola Fazi has been turning out meals for 46 years. A squat woman in a blue house dress under a well-worn apron, Fazi is an Italian mamma’s mamma. She wears her long black-and-silver hair pulled into a bun, which she wraps with a second apron, folded and tied around her head like a crown.
Der Pallaro has no menu. You eat what Fazi is making — and whatever it is on that particular day, she’s making a lot of it. With deep-set eyes and an aquiline nose, she patrols her sidewalk tables with authority. I dare not leave one piece of pasta uneaten.
It turns out that der Pallaro is more than a local eatery turning out cucina rustica. History, or so Fazi confides, was made on this very spot. As I take my leave, she grabs my arm and pulls me in close. I am both frightened by her attention and proud to have won her affection.
“Julius Caesar, conosci?”
“Well, not personally, but, of course.”
“É morto qui. He died right here.”
“Here? Where we’re standing?”
Her voice is hushed, her eyes narrow. “Under the kitchen.” It’s not a fact I can confirm easily, but I’d never be one to doubt mamma. Perhaps Caesar didn’t finish his pasta.
Design for life
Life in my small top-floor room is entirely pleasurable, but one morning I grab my bag and walk out. Time to go. A final espresso at my cafe on Piazza Farnese and I head down to the Tiber River and cross the pedestrians-only Ponte Sisto. The bridge is empty, save for an elderly couple strolling in the other direction holding hands. The Vatican is visible to my right.
When I step off I’m in the working-class quarter of Trastevere, which wasn’t originally part of the city. Long since swallowed up, it has transformed into a melting pot for artists and immigrants as well as workers. I first visited it 20 years ago and it holds sweet memories. I’ve longed to return.
This time I’m doing it like a real local, taking up residence in an apartment. After a few wrong turns down craggy lanes, I slip a skeleton key in a door, climb a flight of stairs, turn another key and swing open the shutters. I’m home. Instantly, I experience a sense of freedom.
There are no famous guidebook sights that need to be seen in Trastevere; it is a neighbourhood for living in. Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere centres this new world, as the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon did in my two previous neighbourhoods. From my new haunt, Caffè di Marzio, I admire the fading mosaic on the Romanesque facade of the Basilica di Santa Maria. The mosaic image has lived in my memory for two decades.
In Trastevere, my world becomes small in a way that delights me. Here details of life I rarely allow myself to focus on back home reveal a pattern of human behaviour that connects me to the broader world. I find identification with nearly all, no matter how unlikely. Early in the morning, with no one yet loitering by the square’s fountain, I watch a priest with a briefcase and a nun clutching a folded copy of the Repubblica newspaper cross paths without acknowledging each other. Next, a woman wearing a purple dress and sporting a pronounced black eye sneaks by on a Vespa. I spot an elderly man at a table near mine savouring a bowl of vanilla ice cream for breakfast. I look at him and hope that my children will do the same themselves when they reach his age.
A block away, en route to my apartment, I pass the Museo di Roma in Trastevere, a city museum in a converted monastery. One flight up is a temporary exhibit of a late 19th-century Roman painter named Ettore Roesler Franz. Given Rome’s extraordinary collection of Renaissance and baroque art, it seems a little odd to be looking at watercolours of Roman street life in the 1800s.
Later I take an aperitivo at the very working-class Bar San Callisto. People are smoking, children orbiting. A few feet away, half a dozen day labourers cluster around a small table between parked cars to play a spirited game of Trumps. Half a dozen others hover close by, watching the cards snap down. It’s a long way from my posh days by the Spanish Steps.
It seems I’ve lived three lives while on this journey in Rome. The trip has proven to be not only an exploration of place, but, like all worthwhile travel, an illumination of self. Only by experience did I learn that the attention and fantasy fulfilment the Hassler provided would give way eventually to a feeling of want. That the lowering of my sights at the family pensione would inspire a desire for investment in place. That crossing the Tiber River to independence would cause me to discover a sense of connection I strive for.
Now, in the midnight hour in Trastevere’s Piazza di Santa Maria, hundreds of people are milling around. I’m at home in the crowd, grateful to be part of it. I finish my gelato and leave my seat at the fountain, making my way through the throng and off the piazza. I turn down my street, rummage in my pocket, pull my skeleton key out and snap open the lock.
British Airways, Alitalia, Aer Lingus, Jet2.com and EasyJet fly from various UK airports to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino, Rome’s
primary airport. Although 20 miles south-west of the city, it’s well connected by public transport. www.ba.com www.alitalia.com www.aerlingus.com www.jet2.com www.easyjet.com
Ryanair and EasyJet fly to Rome Ciampino Airport, 10 miles south-east of the city. It’s closer than Fiumicino, but has no direct train connection. www.ryanair.com
Average flight time: 2h30m from London.
Be sure to purchase a Roma Pass for €25 (£21), giving the holder three days of unlimited travel on buses, trams and the metro, plus free admission to two museums or sites of their choice and reduced entry fees for others. www.romapass.it
It’s difficult to hail cabs and they’re expensive. Tourists should pick up an official metered cab from a taxi rank, found all over the city.
Once in the centre, you’re best off on foot — the perfect way to discover endless monuments and unusual cafes and bars.
When to go
Rome can be visited year-round, but in August temperatures regularly hit 30C and many shops and restaurants are closed.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.18.
International dial code:
00 39 06.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Antico Caffè Greco, 86 Via Condotti. www.anticocaffegreco.eu
Bar San Callisto, 9 Piazza San Callisto.
Caffè di Marzio, 15 Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Trattoria der Pallaro, 15 Largo
del Pallaro. Fixed menu at a fixed price. www.trattoriaderpallaro.com
Hotel Hassler, 6 Piazza Trinità dei Monti. Double room from €350 (£296). www.hotelhassler.com
Hotel Teatro di Pompeo,
8 Largo del Pallaro. Double room from €180 (£152). www.hotelteatrodipompeo.it
The author located his rental through Rental in Rome. www.rentalinrome.com
Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. Keats-Shelley House, 26 Piazza di Spagna. www.keats-shelley-house.org
Museo di Roma in Trastevere, 1B Piazza San Egidio. http://en.museodiromaintrastevere.it
Pantheon Piazza della Rotonda.
Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi), between Via della Stamperia and Via Poli, facing Piazza di Trevi.
Bartolucci Store, 96/98 Via dei Pastini. www.bartolucci.com
How to do it
Budget: Cresta Holidays offers seven nights at the three-star Mercure Piazza Bologna on B&B basis from £586 per person, based on a June departure. It includes flights with Alitalia from Heathrow and airport transfers. www.crestaholidays.co.uk
Luxury: Cox & Kings offers three nights at the five-star Grand Hotel de la Minerve in Rome’s historic centre from £915 per person. Based on departures up to 30 June, it includes breakfast, transfers and flights. www.coxandkings.co.uk
Rome Tourist Board, 11 Via Parigi. T: 00 39 06 48 8991. www.italiantouristboard.co.uk
National Geographic Traveler: Rome. RRP: £12.99.
The Rough Guide to Rome. RRP: £12.99.
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Published in the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)