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Rome: A few hidden delights

4th January 2012

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Boating lake at Villa Borghese, Rome

I’ve just got back from three months in Rome, where I spent most of my time exploring cobbled backstreets for second hand books, attempting to educate a couple of temperamental five year olds about the English language, and generally loitering around art galleries, looking for material to write about for the various online magazines that I contribute to.

Predictably, I’ve eaten a lot of pasta (although the National Museum of Carb Overindulgence and Waistline Expansion was closed for refurbishment for the entirety of my time in Rome; gutted). I’ve survived lecherous grease-ball Italian men and the crush of the Sunday morning Porta Portese flea market and endless buckets of minestrone at the dinner table of my perma-dieting hosts. For anyone who may be considering a sojourn in the Italian capital, here is what I discovered during my very own Vacance Romane.

The Rome Metro is a whole new level of vile. I frequently stepped off it feeling the desperate need for a shower, despite only having had one an hour before.  My solution was to walk everywhere, which is easier than it first appears. Ditto Roman buses, although the nonsensical nature of the Italian transport system means that 99% of the time I never needed to pay for my bus journeys anyway. Avoid the metro if you can. It smells like sweat and homelessness. I’ve never before felt such longing for a Northern Line tube train.

Arte5. Book/ art shop, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, just up from Largo di Torre Argentina. One of my favourite places. Full of photography books, retro fashion tomes, beautiful notebooks and other such things that I’m generally obsessed with. Sometimes it has exhibitions in the side room, just off the main shop. Don’t miss the room full of canvases upstairs. I love Arte5. If I ever return to Rome, it will probably be because I’m craving a trip to Arte5.

Sora Margherita, Piazza del Cinque Scole 30. I stumbled upon this tiny, crowded restaurant in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto whilst walking with my American friend one lunchtime. We ordered the agnalotti (meat ravioli) with formaggio and black pepper. When in Rome, I recommend you do the same. Your tastebuds will thank you for all eternity.

Orto Botanico, Trastevere. Go right to the top of the garden for hands down the best view of Rome you’ll ever find. The botanic garden, just behind the Palazzo Corsini in beautiful Trastevere, is an unexpected haven of peace, freshness and air in an otherwise overly crowded, fairly dirty city. Entrance six euros.

If visiting Villa Borghese, make sure you check out the smallest functioning public cinema in the world, even if it’s just so you can say you’ve seen it. The Cinema dei Piccoli is at the top of the park, on the side of Spagna metro station, close to the statue of Byron.

For supreme levels of calorific delight, order the pistachio cake from Café Greco, Via Condotti. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s green, or that a fairly large slice will set you back ten euros. These small concerns will probably vanish from your mind anyway, as soon as you taste it. Don’t think about the cost. Eat the cake, savour the pistachio cream, and then look out of the window and remind yourself that you are sat opposite Keats’ House and the Spanish Steps, on the most exclusive street in the whole city.

If there was only one thing I could tell visitors to the Eternal City, it’s this: there is more to Rome than the Colloseum. Sacrilege? I don’t care. It’s a great big pile of ruinous rock. I lived a ten minute walk away; I’ve been inside it twice. It was impressive, the first time. For about five minutes. And then I was bored.

In a similar vein, I will add that there is more to Italy than Rome. Rome has some interesting things to offer, I’m not denying this. I won’t list the museums here – there are too many and every one I visited deserves a mention. In Largo di Torre Argentina, near the Pantheon, the plinth where Caesar was killed (half of it at least) can still be seen. It is things like that that give Rome its reputation as a home of the antiquities. However, I personally preferred Florence and Siena. They are more picturesque, more arty, more unique – and massively overlooked by their more famous neighbour. Florence is four hours away from Rome by train; Siena is three hours. Visit them, if you can. Be bowled over by the fairytale spires, the view from the top of the cathedrals, the winding streets of Siena and the imposing beauty of Florence’s Santa Maria di Fiore. The interior of Siena’s Duomo is a sight to behold; in Florence make sure you pay a visit to Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria Accademia, and Ponte Vecchio, and the Uffizi...

I apologise for getting carried away reminiscing about Tuscany in an article that was supposed to be about Rome. My advice would be to visit all three of these cities, if time permits. Last words: avoid tourist traps, avoid Italian men, avoid Japanese schoolchildren playing tag at the top of spindly cathedrals. Leave your guidebook where it belongs, in the suitcase. And you might just be bowled over by what you find.

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