Roaming around in Rome – but with a plan
Do you ever get the feeling that you owe it to yourself to give your life an injection of invigorating knowledge and culture to enrich the daily endurance of simply existing – if you could just be bothered to put in the effort to find it? There’s that nagging feeling that everyone else probably knows more about everything than you do and that it’s about time to take on board something really worthwhile so that you can impress at dinner parties or Trivial Pursuits or…forgetting the trivial, just enjoy the beauty of a world undiscovered.
Long weekends away are always a pleasant distraction for us but often involve little more than fine dining, fine sleeping and fine sights; but other than the simply hedonistic there’s often a feeling that had we taken the trouble to plan it a little more, the journey and the memory could have been that much more rewarding.
Although both Cherrie and I had been to Rome many years ago, we’d never been together, nor really done much other than traipse around as tourists. We decided we’d like to really immerse ourselves in the city, see some of the more important sites but also learn a lot more about the history of this wonderful place. Where to start?
We did a fair amount of Googling before discovering a website ‘Rome Sweet Rome’ that offered luxury apartments all over Rome. We weren’t going to do any self-catering but wanted the freedom to come and go as we pleased without being part of a crowd. After discounting numerous options and scrutinising maps of Rome for locations, we eventually plumped for an apartment on two floors in an old ‘palazzo’ overlooking Piazza Navona – so right in the heart of Rome; not necessarily the most luxurious but with enough character and private enough to avoid the nearby street hustle and bustle.
What to do and where to go?
Cherrie: We next sat down and put our thinking caps on in terms of interest and entertainment. We wanted to see and learn about much of both ancient and Baroque Rome, together with sampling some of the culinary delights and classical concerts, ballet or opera. We didn’t think we could leave the Vatican off any Rome itinerary but nor did we want to spend our weekend in queues!
We were incredibly lucky to come across Alessandra Poli, an Italian Art Historian and freelance guide who over the course of the next couple of weeks planned and structured our time in Rome to take advantage of the very best sites and sounds of Rome. Over a seemingly endless stream of emails she provided us with online links to ticketing agencies for pre-booking the Vatican and the principal sites so that we wouldn’t be hampered by time-wasting queuing; either for tickets or entry to the attractions. She recommended restaurants based on our request for authentic Italian quality cuisine, searched for the best concerts and recommended one that was close to our apartment (sadly there were no opera or ballet performances during the weekend we’d be in Rome).
Nevertheless, Alessandra was proving herself to be a gem even before we arrived in Rome.
We arrived late Thursday afternoon and a prearranged car met us at the airport in Rome, via ‘Rome Sweet Rome’ and were dropped outside Palazzo Lancellotti, an imposing building on the northern side of the beautiful Piazza Navonna. The grand entrance and attractive courtyard with sculptured busts gave way to a rickety lift that transported us upwards through slightly more decoratively tired floors to our apartment. The apartment itself was basic, if not Spartan but nonetheless attractive and full of character with its artworks and two tiered layout – more than suitable for our stay in Rome and certainly highly convenient, being in one of the loveliest Piazzas.
No sooner had we unpacked than we were off to the beautiful ex-church, Oratorio del Gonfalone, only ten minutes from Palazzo Lancellotti by taxi. Built by Raphael and decorated by Renaissance artists we attended a ‘baroque concert’ of Bach, Cimarosa and Salieri. The Oratorio itself is an incredible site with superb and ornate decoration, whilst the concert oscillated between serious recital and comic opera – a thoroughly enjoyable evening, not too highbrow for us ‘novices’ and an excellent introduction to Rome.
Cherrie: We met Alessandra on the Friday morning and she already had a half day of walking planned to cover the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine hill, Capitol Hill and the church of San Clemente. We managed to squeeze a lunch into the middle of this at Ristorante Al Girarrosto Toscano on the Via Campania, near Villa Borghese gardens. We hadn’t planned this but on passing the restaurant were intrigued by the collection of little metal engraved name tags glinting in the sun on one table. We asked a waiter what they were for and he informed us that regular customers have them engraved in order to have specific tables reserved when they visit. With the belief that people returning with that commitment must be a good sign we sat down for what turned out to be a really pleasant meal in the sunshine. We’ve since realised that the restaurant has a generally very good reputation with travellers and locals alike.
This isn’t the place to extol either the virtues of the various sites we saw, or their magnificence; it’s more a homage to Alessandra. Without her we would have; queued endlessly, been more at the mercy of staggered opening times, been frustrated by crowds of festival celebrants during the weekend we were there, been at the inevitable mercy of tourist oriented establishments/ticket agencies etc. and missed the very personal recommendations for places to visit and dine at, which we might only have stumbled across by chance – including one that she told us to enter at our own risk, which was an excellent fish restaurant run by the local mafia; where it would pay not to stare at anyone for too long – or presumably query the bill!
Another restaurant that Alessandra recommended was the family-run Ristorante Mario Roma on the Via della Vite, not far from the Spanish Steps. We’d specifically briefed Alessandra to keep us away from tourist trap restaurants and to suggest quality Italian fayre, where we’d be more likely to encounter local people and a problem with the language than somewhere fluent both in English and highway robbery. She excelled every time. Ristorante Mario provided excellent variety, including wild boar, on its Tuscan menu and an even better wine list – we always believe that the mark of a good restaurant is the standard of its House Wine and Mario’s Chianti Classico set the scene for the rest of our meal – well worth the visit but you need to reserve your table a few days in advance.
We found plenty of time to do our own thing including a buzz around the Pincio Gardens near the Piazza del Popolo on Segways – great fun even if not a little hazardous for passers-by! Cherrie didn’t lose her head, as the picture suggests – just click on it to get her full length!
Our pre-booked ticket for the Vatican and Sistine Chapel proved to be a godsend in more than one way – in that it bypassed a queue of literally about half a mile long that was waiting to purchase tickets in the baking sun. As we walked the full length of this string of forlorn individuals we couldn’t help but gain more of a spring in our step with every metre travelled, until we simply floated through the barrier with a huge grin on our faces and Alessandra at the front to steer us.
We’re generally capable of sorting our own lives out but I’m sure it would have taken us an eternity to reach the front of the queue, even assuming we knew which one to join, so the smoothness of our visit to Rome wasn’t simply down to prepaid tickets – it was down to a combination of excellent guide, excellent advice and planning ahead.
Too often we’ve only done the most rudimentary planning assuming that we’d adapt to surroundings as we travel. This works in many far flung places where even the locals seem to wing-it but in a city like Rome, where every path is well trodden and strict routines are in place to keep people in line (in all senses of the word) it pays to have someone with local knowledge who knows the wrinkles and can smooth them out – after all – if you’re only visiting for a long weekend you don’t want to waste half of it.
We left Rome feeling fulfilled; in terms of time-well-spent, participation with local people and overall comprehension of what we’d seen and done – so much more so than if we’d flitted like a skimming stone across this magnificent city. We couldn’t recommend this choice enough for any luxury couples or small groups of companions.
Our Guide –
Our Apartment –
Palazzo Lancellotti Apartment, Piazza Navona – Rome Sweet Rome
The concert we attended –
Oratorio del Gonfalone
Ristorante Mario Roma
Ristorante Al Girarrosto Toscano
Our basic programme with Alessandra, not counting just walking the streets and visiting restaurants/bars –
ORATORIO DEL GONFALONE
ANTIQUE ROME ( Colosseum – Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Capitol Hill, The three level church of San Clemente ) Approx. morning/3 hours
BAROQUE ROME ( Spanish steps, Bernini’s Piazza Navona , Trevi Fountain, Saint Ignazio, Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, Pantheon etc) 3 hours/afternoon
VATICAN CITY ( Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s works, Raphael rooms, St Peter’s Basilica ) Morning or afternoon around 3 hours.