With so much culture and art on offer, the challenge is working out how to escape the crowds. Here’s our rundown of the Eternal City’s hidden treasures.
When Pope Francis announced 2016 as the Year of Mercy, businesses in Rome cracked open the prosecco. It was a green light for millions of pilgrims to come, pray and seek pardon from the Vatican. The Italian capital, they realised, couldn’t fail to have a bumper year.
Naturally, the optimists have been proven right; the city is busier than ever. But you don’t have to join the masses getting squished at the Sistine Chapel or queue for hours at the Colosseum. Plan ahead and, with these tips, it’s possible to have Rome all to yourself.
1. Enjoy a part of the Vatican that few people do
The Vatican’s classical statues, papal art, and fresco masterpieces are spectacularly awesome – that we all know. But such celebrity means it’s impossible to get a moment’s peace, even if you speed through the front door at opening time like a rocket. For a better chance of solitude, visit the Vatican Gardens (below), a private world of grottoes, groomed gardens and box hedges tucked away behind the palace’s imposing walls. Most people don’t know they’re open to the public but, often in Rome, the hardest places to get to are the most rewarding. Make sure to book weeks in advance.
2. See Rome in a day on the Tiber
Inspired by everything from La Dolce Vita at the Trevi Fountain to the Capitoline Wolf story, South African artist William Kentridge’s latest project Triumphs and Laments presents the greatest hits of Roman history. Using custom-made stencils, he directed a team of artists to carefully scrape dirt from the blackened travertine embankment walls with tools and palette knives. Such artistic forethought left behind a 550m-long frieze of characters, myths and Roman icons. Go soon to see it as Kentridge originally intended: With the city’s heavy pollution spoiling monuments as quickly as they are restored, his ephemeral work will disappear in four or five years.
3. Ditch the Roman Forum for Ostia Antica
Pompeii without the pomp, this preserved port city is only a 30-minute journey from Rome, yet few visitors bother giving it the attention it deserves. Start on main avenue Decumanus Maximus to see houses, shops and buildings dating back to 4th century BC, before soaking up the traders’ forum, amphitheatre and mosaics at the Baths of Neptune. All of these have been preserved by thousands of years of mud and silt. While most archaeological sites require a bit of imagination, Ostia Antica springs to life before your eyes. In the taverna, you can still clearly make out paintings above the fireplace.
4. Marvel at Rome’s unknown pyramid
Not many people – including the city’s legions of taxi drivers and Vespa riders – know the Italian capital has a 2,000-year-old pyramid hemmed in on an intersection of a busy traffic junction. Amid the rush past fountains, obelisks and columns, missing this is part of the daily grind. Still, the 36m-high Pyramid of Cestius, the city’s only surviving Egyptian-style tomb, has recently been given a spring-clean, thanks to a millionaire benefactor, and is now open for tours. Crouching through its tunnels to see its frescoed burial chambers has to be one of Rome’s most unusual experiences. Afterwards, you’ll feel like a smug Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.
5. Be treated like one of the family at Villa Spalletti Trivelli
There is little fanfare outside this 12-room boutique hotel, but push the gold-plated buzzer and, within seconds, you’ll be ushered into the villa’s secret world. The former home of one of Rome’s oldest aristocratic families, the property has corridors that are packed with handpicked historical maps, tapestries and polished vases. The decor is opulent and classic – the wood-panelled library is recognised by Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism. The price is in keeping with the riches on display but, in a city with such a weight of history on its shoulders, staying at a big chain hotel simply won’t cut it.
6. Eat cacio e pepe at a Lazio farmer’s coop
Simplicity is what la cucina Romana is all about. Its most celebrated dish, cacio e pepe (spaghetti with cracked black pepper and pecorino romano cheese; above), is a light, uncomplicated affair. So to enjoy it as the Romans do, take a table at Enoteca Regionale Palatium on Via Frattina (Via Frattina 94), a delicatessen-cum-restaurant showcasing the region’s highest quality produce. Inside, shelves are packed with artisan oils, pickle jars and hand-rolled pasta, while office workers snack on wafer-thin slices of charcuterie and cured salami at the counter. Upstairs is the restaurant proper, where business is done over succulent veal scaloppini with wild mushrooms, and chocolate-dusted mascarpone tiramisu. Understandably, it has delighted Romans-in-the-know for several years. Just don’t tell anyone else.
– TEXT BY MIKE MACEACHERAN
PHOTOS 123RF.COM / VILLA SPALLETTI TRIVELLI
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.