Italian road trip: Rome - something old, something new

by Jeanette.Scott

There's something about Italy's Eternal City that draws me back again and again. But how to do the city differently?

“We need to see a different Rome”.

The challenge was set.

We’d “done” Rome before: the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Vatican City. Been there, done it. But we (my fiancé and I) had never visited the Italian capital together, and we were confronted with the eternal question of how to visit the Eternal City for the collective second/third/fourth time – and discover something new.

The old: Colosseum by day
The new: Colosseum by night

We’d both visited Rome before so, naturally, we’d both visited the Colosseum before: it’s a first-timer’s essential attraction. But it was top of our must-do list on this holiday – a city break that would kick off a 15-night road trip around Italy. Doing it differently was the biggest challenge; thousands of people mill around the arena and soak up the gruesome history of the monument every day. In summer, 6pm arrives and the doors shut. But on Saturday August 21 2010 – the first day of our holiday – something different was happening. Following previous success with special night openings of the Colosseum in 2009, the powers-that-be were doing it again. Every Saturday, for seven weeks only (it ran until October 2 2010), groups of 40 would be granted access with an archaeologist as a guide. Tickets cost only 15 euros, a bargain at only a couple of euros over the standard entrance fee. When I landed the final two tickets for the opening evening of this spectacular event, it really did feel like the Gods of Fate were conspiring to help us succeed in our challenge.

As spectacular as the Colosseum is by day, by night, it takes on a different atmosphere altogether. An amber glow emanates from every archway of the exterior and the still night air – and occasional moments of quiet – offer a chance to let the history really seep into your bones.

Citronella candles showed the way to the night-time entrance and despite the slight hint of first-night-organisational-chaos, there were no queues! Quite a rarity for this attraction. Forty might sound like a big group, but compared to jostling with hundreds of other visitors we felt like marbles rolling around in a large bowl; what a bowl… and what privileged marbles! Leaving the Colosseum after the hour tour, the word “privileged” came to mind again and again. I felt hugely privileged to have seen this amazing and iconic monument under a blanket of darkness and – at times – with only moonlight to guide the way.

Keep an eye on the official website – www.pierreci.it - to discover if the night tours will take place in 2011. If so, you’ll find a telephone number to call and reserve your tickets. Do so as soon as you can.

The old: pizza
The new: pasta

Many of my memories of travel revolve around a plate of food – and Italy knows its foodstuffs. I remembered a great pizza and I vaguely remembered the location of the restaurant. Thankfully I had the Colosseum as a point of reference on the map (you don’t get many better) and a short stroll delivered us to a table at the restaurant I’d eaten at two years previously.

I’m cheating here, I know. There’s nothing new about going to the same restaurant but: a) we needed a quick bite before the night tour of the Colosseum, and b) I had pasta not pizza this time! A delightful pasta dish actually: fresh spaghetti with cacio (pecorino) cheese and black pepper. Simple, tasty, hot and reasonably priced at around 10 euros. Visit Pasqualino Al Colosseo in Via dei Strada Statale 4 (06 700 4576).

The old: The Spanish Steps
The new: Janiculum (Gianicolo)

There’s nothing like getting high to see a city in a new way. When I first visited Rome I scaled the flight of the 18th-century Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti) to get a new perspective; watching the people who were people watching on the steps. The scene was pretty spectacular, despite the January downpour.

This time, the second-tallest hill in Rome would provide the breathtaking vista. Rome might be known as the city of seven hills, but this beauty doesn’t count among them, being outside the ancient city. It’s worth the fairly taxing schlep; take yourself to the top, take a seat, take a breather and take in the amazing view laid out before you, letting your eyes wander from the Colosseum, to the Pantheon to “the typewriter” - the white marble Vittoriano (from the top of which are particularly fine views also).

The old: guidebooks
The new: Simonseeks

Ok, so this might seem like a bit of promotion for the website I am passionate about, but Simonseeks is a valuable resource for travellers like me who love to go their own way. I imagine myself in a map, happily drifting wherever I please. Simonseeks is the hand that sweeps over the map, pointing me in the direction of a cool little café when I’m struggling, or guiding me towards an attraction I might have dismissed because it was buried in a huge guidebook entry. Lee Marshall’s expert content gently shoved me across the Tiber to buzzy Trastevere, the Rome neighbourhood of dreams: narrow lanes punctuated by the occasional hum of a scooter, the chatter of diners on the pavements and stunning architecture. Plus, if you can find it (we spent an hour looking), the most incredible pizza at Dar Poeta (Vicolo del Bologna 45; 06 588 0516; www.darpoeta.com). The place isn’t much to look at, but the pizza (I had potato and pesto!) is divine, and, if you’ve the room, the ricotta and Nutella calzone is a real treat.

Lee also inspired me to visit the Knights of Malta HQ (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta) just to look through a keyhole! Yes, really. Forget about looking silly (and probably wait your turn in the queue) to bend your knees and spy through the hole where you can spy St Peter’s, perfectly framed by an arch of greenery. So that’s Italy, Vatican City and Malta (technically) all through one keyhole, amazing!

It was a community writer on Simonseeks who inspired me to visit the next attraction... thanks Chris Stokel-Walker! His guide, Rome without the clichés made me ditch my normal non-church-going lifestyle and head for the beautiful Baroque Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (Sant’Ignazio di Loyola) in Piazza Sant Ignazio. The exterior is fine, as Rome’s church exteriors go, but inside is the most remarkable example of ancient 3D trickery; the Tromp l’oeil ceiling is hazardous for the neck, such is its magnetism. If the astounding magic doesn’t do it for you, the respite in the cool interior from the summer heat will.

Of course, the Pantheon is worth a visit too, even if it has been done before (it’s free to enter, so why not? Plus light at different times of the day will always give a new view on one of Rome’s most incredible buildings). On the way to the Piazza della Rotonda from the church, call into the Dakota Caffe (Via del Seminario 111; 06 679 0184) for some refreshment; it feels like a grand old railway station bar has fallen beautifully into disrepair. The staff couldn’t make the drink I wanted, but they whipped me up a perfectly good substitute and didn’t charge the earth. We’d have stayed all day if it wasn’t for all those sights to see…

Where to stay

Hotel Romae bills itself as the “groovy hotel” in Rome (Via Palestro, 49). While it won’t win any design awards, it certainly gets a thumbs up from me with its spotlessly clean and affordable rooms (from 60 euros for a double room), air conditioning, free WiFi and convenient position, just a few blocks from Termini station in via Palestro. We walked to most of the big sights or hopped on the metro five minutes away. Ask for the rather large room 14. The deal at this hotel is made even sweeter by the inclusive breakfast available across the road at the Yellow Bar. For a one-euro supplement (the inclusive option is Continental) you can fuel up for the day with a huge cooked spread – a bargain in one of Europe’s most expensive cities.

The next leg

Rome was only the starting point of our Italian odyssey; from here it was on to Pompeii, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, a family wedding in Puglia, then north to Tuscany and Pisa. Phew! To get us there we’d need a reliable set of wheels so we hired a car through Avis. The guide to the next leg of our journey will be available soon!

Jeanette.Scott

As a travel writer and photographer I've contributed to the LA Times, Lonely Planet, Real Travel, The Australian, The Herald Sun (Australia) and, of course, as an editor and writer on www.simonseeks.com. Following a stint in hospitality, I started my media career in 2002 in newspaper journalism, and I've written for the Guardian, Metro, Coventry Telegraph, Coventry and Warwickshire Times and Living magazine.

According to a fairly pointless Facebook application, I've visited 24% of the planet. Good to know, although there are ten minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. I'm fascinated by our planet and whenever I visit a place that's new to me - be it Barbados, Burkina Faso or a previously unvisited corner of Britain - I want to capture it. I want to keep the confluence of smell, noise and vision; the expressions on the faces of the people; the layers of history; the unfamiliar food and drink. I fasten it in my mind's eye - but when my memory fades, I've got a stack of photographs and a thousand furiously jotted notes to remind me.

Favourite places - my home town of Chester, New Zealand's south island, Malaysia, Fiji, Melbourne, Norway's fjords, Italy (mainly the restaurants), Greek Islands, London, Edinburgh, the Lake District, and home (Chester, though my true "home" will always be Warwickshire).

My Chester

Where I always grab a hot drink: A coffee with the grand (and quite surreal) decor of Oddfellows as the backdrop is a treat; but when my sweet tooth is raging the Blue Moon Café can’t be beaten for hot chocolate with lashings of whipped cream and marshmallows.

My favourite stroll: Treading the wooden slats of the Queen’s Park Bridge is pretty unique. I cross it every morning and evening to and from Simonseeks HQ. For a look at real life in Chester, cross the bridge from the city, drop down to riverside and head away from the direction of the racecourse. You’ll find grand homes and, eventually, the meadows (the scene of a very special New Year’s Eve midnight picnic for me).

Where to be seen: At the races of course! After a day at The Roodee get your hands on one of the coveted Bedouin tents to dine/drink/people watch from in the outdoor space at Oddfellows.

The most breathtaking view: Get the lift to the fifth floor of Abode and check out the view from the Champagne Bar. It’s both unique and breathtaking. If you’re not thirsty, stand on the steps of the High Cross (the pointy monument where the four main streets – Watergate, Eastgate, Northgate and Bridge – meet). Behold The Rows and let the history of the buildings and the buzz of modern life around you slip into your memories.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Grosvenor Park is perfect in winter but the first rays of sunshine draw picnicking crowds. Act like a local and cross the Queen’s Park Bridge to find your haven in the meadows.

Shopaholics beware!: Visit any of the stores (ground and first floor level) on The Rows and shop accompanied by centuries of history.

Don’t leave without...clocking some time with the Eastgate Clock. Put your shopping bags down, take a picture if you must, but make sure you climb the steps and simply stand and watch the world go by for a while.