What can one say about this ageless, incredibly beautiful Imperial City that has not been already said? Tours usually just let you hit a few of the most beautiful (and most crowded) places, see the Vatican Museum, some of the fountains, St. Peter’s overwhelming Basilica, enjoy a few meals, and move on. Because we enjoy history and art so much we decided to take ten days to do ONLY Rome, and to spend our time as if we lived there for real, seeing Rome as the Romans do.
For the first part of our stay we chose a moderately priced three-star apartment hotel just a short distance beyond the Vatican, Hotel Aurelia Antica, where we found our pleasant accommodations in a completely private and quiet park, set back about a block from the busy thoroughfare. Although the furnishings are dated, the apartments are comfortable: a small living room with fireplace and dining area, and a small, full kitchen. (If you intend to cook, you must bring your own utensils and dishes.) We had two separate private porches overlooking a grassy field of flowers and trees, a very restful and lovely reprieve from the noisy city. Our bedroom and bathroom were nothing fancy, but very adequate and clean, with nice closet space and TV and phone and downstairs is Internet access. Outdoors are four tennis courts and swimming pool . We went to the dining room for a large continental breakfast, which was included in the price, but there was no other food service available except in vending machines. We were in walking distance (along a very busy street) to little shops that had anything we needed. And we could find a restaurant at the Crown Plaza next door. The cost was about half of any other hotel in Rome! A nice find!
Although perfect for our intentions of doing as the Romans do for that week, the drawback for some travelers was that we were not near a Metro line, had no car, and taxis were exorbitant! The hotel clerks provided us with very good instructions about how to take the bus to anywhere and how to interpret the clearly marked signs which are at all bus stops. The bus stop was at the end of the long driveway and buses stopped about every fifteen minutes, so the wait was minimal.
With our ATAC bus/metro week-long pass, we could go anywhere in the city. A little nervous at first about understanding the signs and maps when we knew no Italian, we soon discovered everything was very well marked and we had fun finding our own way around Rome each day. We recommend taking a map everywhere, so you can point and ask where you wish to go. Buses are numbered and the signs at bus stops give bus numbers and times. Take your hotel card with you also and ask before you leave which bus to return on and what time is the last bus. Most run till about midnight.
The same ATAC pass works on the Metro and the maps are on the wall and are easy to understand. Because the River Tiber splits the city the Metro system is not as extensive as Romans and visitors wish. The other problem with building more Metro lines is that everywhere people excavate they discover historic ruins, and so the digging must stop! But using a combination of bus and metro we could get anywhere easily. Having no particular schedule we did not have to hurry and we enjoyed the exposure to the friendly, polite people we saw everywhere! Everything is clean and people are very nice,friendly and well-mannered. (None of the bottom-pinching and smells for which Italy was infamous in former years.) As in any city today, we had to be aware of pick-pockets who frequent buses and metros, but we never felt threatened. Just be smart about carrying your possessions or trusting strangers.
The main Tourism Office/Visitor Center on Via Paring 11 (phone: 06-488991, FX 06/48899238) is located very near Termini, the central station for all trains, buses, and metro for Rome. It is the place to start your visit, as the employees speak many languages and will give you maps and tour information and offer many ways to make your trip enjoyable. You can get your ATAC passes for transportation throughout the city at the ATAC kiosk in front of Termini at Piazza dei Cinquecento, or with cash when you get on the bus, or at the metro stops. The ATAC #110 open-top tour bus is a separate ticket (13EU) which allows you to get on and off at 10 well-located stops along the route, which includes 80 of the major sights to see in Rome. It’s a great way to get your first overview and figure where you want to return and spend more time.
In order to enhance your appreciation of all the archeological ruins and the various architecture throughout the Imperial City, begin your sightseeing at the new museum, which has been twenty years in planning and creating. It is Crypta Balbi, on Via Botteghe Oscure 31 near Piazza Venezia. Your ticket includes a three-day pass to the archeological sites and other museums in Rome, or you can purchase a seven-day all inclusive Archeologia Card for 20 EU. And the Archeobus makes it easy to go to each of these, with a one-day ride pass for 8EU. You can also get on and off this bus at will. (Phone 0039-06-46952252) Departures are from Termini each morning.
At Crypta Balbi we saw pieces representative of each period of Roman history and excavations. It is on the site of an ancient market center. Perhaps most valuable to us were the examples of various periods of architecture, demonstrated by the appearance of the stones and bricks. This helped us at each archeological site we visited throughout our stay and gave us immediate identification of the period of history we were seeing.
We did not listen to the locals who said to skip the Catacombs because they are not worth the visit now, but these people were right. All the bones have been removed, and there is really nothing to see. However, if you are searching for bones, do not miss the Cappucin Crypt, which is in the side entrance to the church Sta. Maria dei Imaculati Concepcion on Via Veneto.
It is fascinatingly gruesome to see the bones of 4,000 monks arranged centuries ago to make pictures and Biblical scenes, using human bones as the artist’s medium. The plaque at the last scene, written in Latin, warns, “We were once as you are, and you will be as we are.” The Crypt has just re-opened after years of cleaning. Entrance is free and donations are requested.
There are so many beautiful places to see in Rome. We were quite tired from walking by lunchtime each day, so we planned long lunches in neighborhood Trattorias, just as many of the natives do. In these places you’ll find excellent food, no tourists, many local residents enjoying family time or business lunches, and you’ll find the best prices. These are nearly always family operated in small, quaint buildings which have been in business for generations, perfecting their recipes and service. Although most have only Italian on the menu and waiters don’t speak your language, it’s fun to point and guess at what you’ll be enjoying a few minutes later. I think it is impossible to order anything but delicious food in Italy (with the exception of very expensive, very un-delicious pizza on the street at the Colloseum, but we were famished!) We found it amusing that no matter what we ordered for lunch and no matter where we ate, from street pizza to four course meals in Trattorias, the cost was always about 30 EU for two people for lunch, which we had as our main meal and just snacked in our apartment most nights…a great way to save money! Anyway, after treking and sight-seeing all day we were too tired to dress for dinner most nights.
After enjoying people-watching, mixing with the Romans, seeing exquisite statuary and art everywhere during the day, we found music to be our most enjoyable way to spend our evenings in this city which embraces the arts. We saw three exquisite opera performances during the week. We discovered two of the Anglican churches, which are used regularly on week-day evenings for opera performances at affordable prices: Tuesday and Friday evenings performances are at Chiesa Anglicana All Saints near Spagna (VIa del Babuino, 153; Phone: 06/7842702) the Philharmonic Opera Orchestra of Rome and various opera artists perform on different nights, depending on the month. These performances are always excellent professional performers in full costume and professional orchestras. Tickets are affordably priced from 15 – 30 EU. The churches are exquisite settings with wonderful acoustics, and the programs vary throughout the season.
If you can afford to splurge and do as the wealthy Romans do, see a performance at the beautiful Teatro dell’Opera di Roma . It is a dress-up, exquisite evening of opulent and historic surroundings and a musical experience you’ll never forget. (Phone 06-37514408. Tickets. at Piazza Beniamino Gigli,1)
Another day for wonderful views of Rome, we took a magical hot-air balloon ride on the Galoppatolo Di Villa Borghese, which is located in Borghese Park.
Balloon rides in other places are exhorbitant in price, but this one is different and costs only a few EU. The huge balloon is attached to wires and goes up 150 meters. The platform holds up to 30 people, and the event lasts about a half hour. If you are not afraid of heights, this is a thrilling experience. Best photographs are just before sunset.
When we were very tired from exploring for hours on foot, we found a delightful way to rest for a few hours. Beneath the bridge at Hadrian’s Tomb, or Castille de San Angelo, we bought tickets to ride on the Tiber River for a different view of Rome. We did not select the pricey tourist tour which has a monologue, because we knew seeing the city from so far below ground-level is not the best way for photographs. Instead we paid 1 EU each way to ride the government-owned boat, which is part of the mass transit system for Romans. We got a two-hour rest and really enjoyed the ride. The workers on the ferry speak good English and were quite willing to answer our questions. We ended at the Isle at Anguillara near Trastavere, where Rome was founded as a point of trade on this important river.
Another of our favorite ways to do as the Romans do was to stop for coffee and pastry in mid-afternoon for another rest. Our favorite place was in front of Termini at Casina Esedra, a street café bar in the center of the convergence of streets. We discovered the local favorite “ciabatta,” a wonderful pastry not to be missed! And Italian coffee is the BEST!
Romans who can splurge for an indescribably wonderful stay in a very special hotel, discover the extreme elegance of the five-star-luxury Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi Roma, a member of Great Hotels of the World. We highly recommend a Roman splurge here for anyone who visits this Imperial City. We were escorted to our junior suite on the top floor, where our private balcony overlooked the lush, green trees and brilliant flowers of Borghese Park, where the Zoo and Aviary used to be. We could see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica from our balcony!
Our room at Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi felt like an exquisite home instead of a hotel and was plush beyond belief, with soft green carpet with pink flowers, fine silky, pale lime drapes, muted green paneled walls with gilded wood frames and raised motif decoration. The rich, solid doors were finely created with framed panels featuring three different woods, and the antique king bed was of the same three woods. Other antique furnishings included a pretty pink love seat, marble coffee table, and many ornate china lamps. Our huge marble bathroom with a giant tub and double marble sinks was also absolutely gorgeous! Our white monogrammed robes and bedroom shoes were wrapped in cellophane waiting for us. The sheets on our bed were crisp, ironed linen. Our balcony faced the former residence of the President of Italy! The neighborhood is very posh with large private homes and distinguished shops, obviously one of the best area of Rome, above Borghese Park. There is a small trolley that comes to this area from the Vatican and town center.
At Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi included with your room is breakfast in the elaborate dining room, with fresh flowers on each table. We enjoyed many selections from the full breakfast buffet: eggs, bacon, many breads & cheeses, fruit, yogurt, cereal, juices etc.
At night we dressed for dinner. First we had drinks in the bright bar and enjoyed relaxing with live piano music in the beautifully-appointed lobby, which feels like a palatial drawing room. Afterwards, we moved to the Paulina Borghese, another of the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi’s restaurants, where on any night you will see international dignitaries or stars. Round tables were set with crisp white cloths, lovely pink and yellow mums interspersed with bay leaves and baby’s breath, and candles. The menu is elegant. While we were making our selections the waiter brought complimentary champagne and delicious hors d’oeuvres made by the chef.
After hearty soup and a crisp, fresh salad big enough to share, Bill selected pork tenderloin grilled and stuffed with goat cheese with a delicious sauce. I had to try deer meat in fruit sauce, succulent and excellent, accompanied by fresh spinach and broccoli sauteed in olive oil; the best we ever tasted! For dessert we selected an amoretta and orange cake followed by coffee.
Compared to other fine dining establishments throughout the city, the Borghese Restaurant at Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi is very reasonably priced and the food is fabulous. With the logo of the elegant reclining nude lady, this restaurant is named for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, who created a scandal by posing for this famous sculpture. The original is in the Borghese Museum Gallery. She later married the Borghese heir.
DAY TRIPS FROM ROME
Just an hour by bus from Rome is Tivoli, a lovely hillside village with a castle and Hadrian’s 1st Century palace complex, “Adriana,” which is in beautiful ruins where you could wander for hours. But our favorite place was “Villa d’Este,” the 16th century mansion of Cardinal of Ferrara, Archbishop of Milan.
The villa is not furnished, but walls and ceilings are filled with fading frescoes. However, the most wonderful places are the fountain gardens. The Cardinal loved water sounds, and his vast gardens, which extend down the mountainside, have literally hundreds of fountains. The most intriguing one directs water through hydraulic pipes to play actual music on a pipe organ set at the apex of the fountain! The walkway back up the mountainside to the villa will have you huffing and puffing, but it is well worth it.
Another inspiring day trip from Rome is by train to Ostia Antica and Ostia Lido. The former was the very first Roman colony, an important Mediterranean Seaport for commerce in the first century. Today the sea has receded several kilometers, so to see it you must take the train farther to Ostia Lido, where you’ll find an elite seaside resort town with wide sandy beach and lovely restaurants.