Here, we explore the trail less travelled and gain a glimpse into how the Romans live in and love their own city.
Out of season
One way to see Rome afresh is to visit out of season. Most extreme is midwinter, when official tourism drops and Romans enter into the Christmas spirit, and presepios – re-creations of the nativity scene – appear in markets in Piazza Navona, and in churches all over the city.
The other extreme is midsummer, when Italians abandon their urban abodes, usually for the coast. In Rome, an intense heat pervades. (See the film Pranzo di Ferragosto for the mood.) But for those who stay, including heat-hardy visitors, there is the upside of free entertainment.
When you consider the 100 days of it that followed the completion of the Colosseum, free entertainment has a long history in Rome. Entertainment is the antidote of the Commune of Rome to the extreme heat of July and August. As one local says: “It is given by the lord mayor, so we all say, ‘What a great guy. Let’s vote for him next election!”‘
Whatever the reason, there is plenty of it in the official Estate Romana. Most nights, you can cool down with a Roman granita, the Fonte d’Ora (try the kiosk of the same name on Piazza Belli, Trastevere) and meander down to the open-air cinema on Tiberina Island, or take in one of the many concerts held in parks and piazzas around the city. Historic buildings host events, too, such as tango dancing atop Castel Sant’Angelo.
Another Roman passion, August to May, is soccer. There are two local teams: AS Roma and SS Lazio. Join the madness for a game, held most Sundays at the Stadio Olimpico in the Foro Italico, on the north side of the city.
Afterwards, you can wander over the new Ponte della Musica, which arches over the Tiber to the Flaminio district, Rome’s latest urban renewal. The early-1930s housing estate has been reinvigorated with MAXXI, the new Zaha Hadid-designed museum of 21st-century art, and another short walk on, Renzo Piano’s grand Parco della Musica.
The sculptural form of MAXXI towers over the adjoining piazza, playground and cafe. Locals, young and old, treat the new piazza as their own, and it is lovely to visit in the late afternoon when they are using it. You can have a spumante and watch the informal Passeggiata (evening walk), which will usually involve bicycles and tricycles.
The Parco della Musica, with its three massive beetle-shaped auditoriums, has transformed more than just the lifestyle. “It has revolutionised Rome,” one Roman music lover enthuses. International concerts for performers such as Joan Baez and Philip Glass cost about €22 ($30), and there is something on every night of the week.
The neighbourhood has also witnessed a flowering of tasty restaurants and gelateries, including Neve di Latte in Via Luigi Poletti, and on Fridays there is a shabby-chic flea market. “A lot of smart people get a stall and sell bric-a-brac and old clothes,” a shopkeeper says. “We love it.”
Romans also love some of the hills that the tourists do not visit, at least not en masse. Officially, Rome has seven hills: the Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Capitoline, Palatine, Caelian and Aventine.
Testaccio is not even one of the officials but it is a hill, and it is off the tourist trail.
Testaccio is a hill made of discarded amphoras from early Rome, when the giant vessels containing olive oil were imported from Spain and North Africa. (Apparently, the oil soaked through and ruined the pots, and so they were broken and systematically discarded here.)
Today, Testaccio is still a grassy hill of pottery shards covering seven city blocks, but into its base are carved nightclubs, wine cellars (the potsherds apparently maintain a steady temperature) and restaurants. It is where many Romans go to dine, listen to music and dance in the evenings.
Next door to Testaccio is the Aventine Hill, a peaceful district dotted with consulates and homes of diplomats and the wealthy.
You can actually stay here, at the Hotel San Anselmo. It is a short taxi ride down to the historic centre, but you will have your own hilltop retreat guaranteed at day’s end.
The Aventine has several charming mediaeval churches, including the 13th-century Santa Sabina, where you can see Romans getting married – with serious rice-throwing – most days. It also has a beautiful park, Giardino degli Aranci, and the pretty Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, which was modelled on an 1800s etching.
Between the Aventine and the neighbouring Caelian Hill are the Baths of Caracalla. The ancient site hosts a summer opera season initiated by Mussolini. Romans tell about an old tunnel between Palazzo Venezia and the baths – built to deliver firewood – and how Mussolini used to drive his Alfa roadster from the villa to pop up on stage for the festival opening.
Beneath the Caracalla Baths and opened only in November is a mithraeum, a bathing site from Mithraism, a religion brought by the Romans from Persia. A similar site can be found one of the lower levels of the nearby Church of San Clemente.
The amazing San Clemente conceals four levels and corresponding eras of Roman life. The upper church has a rare mediaeval colonnaded courtyard. Inside the church, stairs lead down to two early Christian buildings (one apparently hosted clandestine meetings in the 1st century), then a mithraeum, and finally a Rome, BC, alley.
This underground world is another explorable dimension of Rome. There are companies that specialise in underground tours and there are sites such as the soon-to-be-opened Sacro di largo Argentina (which includes the actual spot where Caesar was killed). Ostia Antica, the port of ancient Rome, is a treasure trove for history-lovers, too.
Another accessible experience is to visit the catacombs and the Via Appia, the road that once ran all the way from Rome to Brindisi in Puglia.
Take a bus to the Appia Antica stop, where there is an information office with an invaluable map and a bike rental shop. The bikes are battered, but then they have long been negotiating ancient cart tracks. (See Mary Beard’s BBC production Meet the Romans for inspiration.)
If you understand Latin, you can even read the tombstones that line the street; they give voice to the ancients, how they lived in and, for the most part, loved their city.
Getting there Fly to Hong Kong and then to Rome.
Touring there For private walking tours email firstname.lastname@example.org. She has a passion for Rome and its history; for underground tours see romasotterranea.it. To visit archaeological sites usually closed to the public, make a written request with dates and fax +06 39 6689 2115.