THIS STORY WON 1ST PRIZE IN THE ‘MAGAZINE’ CATEGORY AT THE ITALIAN TOURIST BOARD TRAVEL WRITING AWARDS 2014. IT ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SEPTEMBER 2014 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER (lonelyplanet.com/magazine)
Vespas in Rome
RIDE A VESPA
Ancient Rome may have been built on the principle of straight roads, but all that went out the window long ago. This is a city where alleyways zig-zag manically up the hillsides and where everything from the ice-cream van to the hearse gets driven like a dodgem. According to Claudio Serra, there is only one way to navigate this pandemonium.
‘In Rome our streets are crazy – the only way to reach everywhere is on a Vespa,’ he insists. ‘You can park a Vespa outside the Pantheon; you can drive it along the motorway. It means freedom.’
In addition to running a small Vespa museum, Claudio offers Vespa-back tours of Rome and private scooter hire from his store near the Colosseum. Riders whoosh through the many species of roads in Rome: the multi-lane highways that squeeze through gaps in ancient city walls; back streets where laundry lines flaps overhead; and the confusing roads that end at a piazza – before re-emerging on the other side, as if regaining a lost train of thought.
Vespa drivers stay eerily composed as they weave through the traffic – perhaps because, as Claudio points out, they are sitting, ‘as comfortably as if they are in their own living room’.
Rates for scooter hire at Bici & Baci begin at £12 per hour; bicibaci.com
Cycling along the Appian Way
CYCLE OVER ROMAN COBBLES ON THE APPIAN WAY
All roads lead to Rome, but none do so more gracefully than the Appian Way. Built as the king of all Roman highways in 312BC, it is a road more storied than any other in history. Olympic sprinters have raced down it, armies fought along it in WWII, 6,000 followers of Spartacus were crucified by the roadside and St Peter heard Christ’s footsteps beside his own on its cobbles. These days, divine apparitions in the lay-bys are uncommon – although this doesn’t stop modern Roman cyclists pedalling the nine-milelong stretch closest to the city.
Bearing south from the gridlocked streets of southern Rome, the blaring of car horns soon recedes to a distant toot as cyclists enter a pocket of Lazio countryside miraculously preserved at the heart of the city. The scent of wild mint hangs in the air as the road passes crumbling Roman villas and medieval towers. Technically the Appian Way is open to all traffic – very occasionally a car passes with the driver jabbing at his satnav in confusion. But much of the time cyclists find themselves alone but for the ghosts of wayfarers past.
Bike hire is available from the office at Via Appia Antica 58/60 from £2.50 per hour; parcoappiaantica.it
DRINK FROM A ‘BIG NOSE’
On roasting hot summer days, the saviour of every Roman citizen is the nasone or ‘big nose’. This is no genetic quirk, but a nickname for the 2,500 drinking fountains dotted about the city: from the one gurgling quietly beside the roaring fountains of the Piazza Navona, to the pump on the Aventine hill which spurts out water from a tap the shape of a wolf’s mouth.
So called because of the shape of the spout, the fountains were first installed in the late 19th century, but are part of a proud Roman tradition dating back to the great aqueducts of ancient Rome (it’s rumoured some nasoni use millennia-old plumbing systems). Nasoni are used variously by locals, thirsty sparrows, bathing dogs, kids starting water fights and curiously few tourists – and though the iron spout can get very hot, the water is always clean and miraculously cool.
To find your nearest fountain in Rome, download the I Nasoni di Roma app from the Apple iTunes store; free
VISIT A FASCIST SWIMMING POOL
Rising mightily over the northwest bank of the Tiber, far from the itineraries of wandering tourists, the Foro Italico sports complex is one of the city’s unsung wonders – a monolithic park inspired by the glories of ancient Rome. It underwent some tactful rebranding some 70 years ago: upon construction in the 1930s it was known as the Foro Mussolini after its founder.
The Fascist leader envisaged it as a factory for a new, all-conquering Italian master race, and lined the athletics track with statues of muscular signors looking condescendingly down on competitors. The ideology went long ago – but Mussolini’s impressive if questionable artistic taste remains: nowhere more so than the swimming pool, where visitors can splash about beneath soaring ceilings and marble surfaces. Lining the walls are epic mosaic depictions of sea horses and nude Fascist Adonises (flexing their guns and looking like they might at any moment go skinny-dipping in the shallow end).
Senator Marcus Valerius Messala Barbatus – real name Pietro Giusto
LEARN TO BE A GLADIATOR
To any gladiator facing the prospect of meeting the gods via a lively and heated encounter with a bear or lion, the idea that someone more than 2,000 years later would pay for a similar experience might seem perverse. Still, for 20 years the Gruppo Storico Romano has been hosting gladiator training classes at its ‘1st-century AD barracks’ on the Appian Way. There are no half measures: imperial flags fly overhead, classical statues are dotted about the camp and the whole operation is overseen by a man named Nero (‘Like the Emperor, but nicer,’ he says) who occupies a curious office full of imperial bugles, Filofaxes, stationery and spears.
‘For our students it is about discipline, order and respect,’ explains Senator Marcus Valerius Messala Barbatus – real name Pietro Giusto – a gladiator trainer. ‘Unfortunately, if you do not pay attention you may be food for the lions.’
He begins the task of uniting students with their inner Russell Crowe: studying the craft of killing tall Germanic hordes (by sneaking between their legs and slitting their femoral artery) and using a tribulus: spikes hidden in the grass to injure enemies too uncivilised to wear sandals. Before going outside to fight, Marcus schools his students in Roman honour:
‘Rome means culture, Rome means art. It’s an ideal by which people across our Empire live and die – even if they have never been here. Rome is not a city, it is a state of mind.’
‘Gladiator for a day’ classes from £45; gruppostoricoromano.it
The Non-Catholic Cemetary
VISIT KEATS AND SHELLEY IN THE NON-CATHOLIC CEMETERY
Dating to the 18th century, Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery is a leafy plot of land most famous as the resting place of John Keats. He died in Rome aged 25, and lies beside the ashes of his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. A steady trickle of pilgrims potter among the wisteria-lined pathways to pay their respects to the poets. But they are only part of the story: lying around are a cast of characters from across the world who breathed their last in Rome.
One volunteer who has researched the lives of all buried here is New Zealander Geoff Spedding. He recounts the story of Margaret Graves Mather – a woman who survived the Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937 (with bits of molten metal in her coat). And close by lies Beatrice O’Brien Marconi: a passenger booked on a transatlantic crossing from England in April 1912. Her baby son caught a fever, and she cancelled her trip on the Titanic at the last minute.
‘It’s never just a case of your name, the date you’re born and the date you die,’ says Geoff. ‘There’s always more to the story than that.’
Suggested donation £3; cemeteryrome.it
Rowing at the Villa Borghese gardens
GO ROWING AT THE VILLA BORGHESE GARDENS
At clocking-off time, the Villa Borghese Gardens are Rome’s rallying point: a hilltop refuge of cypress-lined colonnades, and a serene spot from which to marvel at the mayhem of the city below. Perhaps its quietest corner is the boating lake in the north of the park. Here visitors and locals cast off in rowing boats, navigating the still waters among paddling terrapins, falling leaves and quacking ducks. It pays not to be in a hurry (you could row from one side to the other in a few seconds), so many are content to rest their oars, lie back in the hull and let their boats be carried by the cooling hilltop breeze.
Presiding regally over the lake is the Temple of Aesculapius: an 18th-century recreation of an ancient Roman temple that once stood on the Tiberina Island, two miles to the south. In a strange twist of fate, the boating lake was said to have been influenced by the gardens in Stourhead, Wiltshire, some 950 miles to the northwest.
Boat hire is available from 9.30am to sunset daily; from £4 for 20 minutes
A Vatican coin
FIND A VATICAN EURO COIN
Some come to the Vatican for spiritual enlightenment, others to step into the cool colossus of St Peter’s on a hot summer’s day, and see mortals and immortals meeting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But for a few, crossing into the Holy See is the chance to go in search of a chunk of metal with a maximum face value of £1.61 (for the two-euro coin, the biggest in the set).
Among collectors, a Vatican euro coin is a Wonka’s golden ticket of currency: a cherished oddity from the smallest nation on Earth. The Vatican minted its first euros a decade ago, but only in recent years have they entered circulation. Admittedly the odds of finding one in a handful of change from the Vatican Post Office aren’t huge. But if you happen to see Popes Benedict XVI, John Paul II or Francis looking up at you benignly from your palm, don’t spend it – a rarer coin might fetch as much as £60 from a collector.
If you’re happy to cheat, buy a euro coin for £10 from the Holy See’s Numismatic Office. Admission to St Peter’s is free (vaticanstate.va)
EAT A GRATTACHECCA
Ice cream is everywhere in Rome: flavoured with every possible ingredient and served in Pavarotti-sized portions. But curiously the capital claims a different frozen dessert all of its own – grattachecca. Translated as ‘shaved ice’, the recipe isn’t an awful lot more complicated than the name would suggest, with chunks of ice coated in syrup and topped with fresh fruit.
A dubious legend tells that the Emperor Nero invented grattachecca, ordering his grunts to fetch ice from the mountains around Rome and consuming it to cool his angry moods. Though sadly something of an endangered species today, grattachecca is a traditional accompaniment to an evening stroll: bought from a stall, and ideally slurped on a bench overlooking the sluggish current of the Tiber as the city stirs with early evening life.
One of the oldest grattachecca stands in Rome is Sora Mirella: occupying a handsome racing-green stall beside the Tiber since 1915, serving ices cold enough to appease any overheating emperor.
Sora Mirella stands close to Ponte Celsio in Trastevere; grattachecca from £2
Villa Barberini Gardens
VISIT THE POPE’S PRIVATE GARDENS
As holiday homes go, Castel Gandolfo is not the most discreet: a 17th-century pile the size of a football field outside Rome, with a magnificent garden overlooking the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is precisely this grandeur that meant its lawful resident (the humble Pope Francis) chose not to spend his summer holidays here as his predecessors did – instead opening his gardens to the public for the first time this summer.
Visitor numbers are strictly limited, so stepping through the grand wrought-iron gates can feel a little like entering a secret garden. Secret it may seem, but modest it is not: statues of classical gods swagger about the fountains, rows of flower beds stretch into the distance, while a small army of gardeners clip the holy hedgerows and lap huge lawns on ride-on mowers. The quieter corners of the gardens are just as captivating, especially a little statue of the Virgin watching over a fishpond. It was here that Pope Benedict XVI reputedly used to come on summer mornings to pray – and to feed a pair of koi carp given to him as a gift by the Emperor of Japan. Pope Benedict no longer visits, but the fish still look very well fed.
Mandatory guided tours to the Villa Barberini gardens take place daily except Sundays. From £21; biglietteriamusei.vatican.va
A mosaic in-progress
MAKE YOUR OWN ROMAN MOSAIC
Requiring the patience of a saint and the critical eye of a master jigsaw-puzzle solver, mosaics have been part of Roman interior design for more than two millennia, ever since craftsmen adorned the floors of villas. Nowhere is this legacy upheld more proudly than Studio Cassio – a workshop in the butterscotch-yellow streets of the Monti neighbourhood, and a place that offers mosaicmaking classes to novices.
‘The best thing about being a mosaicist is always touching and feeling your materials,’ explains Giuliana, part of the third generation of the Cassio family to work in mosaics.
The dynasty has restored ancient artwork in places like Pompeii, and created new designs, such as the John Lennon memorial mosaic in New York’s Central Park. Surrounded by a motley assortment of mosaic centaurs, clock faces and saints, Giuliana helps students piece together their own creations, while also explaining the art of restoring ancient Roman mosaics – handling marble put in place by a fellow craftsman 2,000 years ago, and filling in missing chunks (by chopping in half existing pieces and rearranging them).
‘When you’ve restored an ancient mosaic, you can walk past it and think to yourself, I put that tiny piece in there,’ she says.
Day courses from £40 per person (minimum two people); studiocassio.com
The view through the keyhole
PEEK THROUGH A SECRET KEYHOLE
Walking around Rome and peering through keyholes will typically result in concerned phone calls to the local carabinieri. One exception to this rule is the Villa del Priorato di Malta – a building whose metal gate contains a tiny keyhole framing one of the finest views in the city. Those who press their eyes to the metal witness a perfectly composed scene: a path shaded by trimmed cypress trees and rosebushes, the tower of Santa Maria in Trastevere rising on the far bank of the Tiber and the hulking dome of St Peter’s at the centre. It’s a composition so perfect, no-one can say for sure whether the locksmith (or the gardener) intended it or whether it was a happy accident.
Strangely, the view overlooks three separate countries (sort of): St Peter’s is in the Vatican, Santa Maria is in Italy and the foreground is under the jurisdiction of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta. Though not technically running their own independent state, they are territorially autonomous from Italy, issuing their own passports and postage stamps. The villa’s gardens are open to the public by appointment (though this may mean someone needs to insert a key in the lock and temporarily spoil the view).
The Villa del Priorato di Malta stands on the Aventine Hill, southwest of the Circus Maximus (ordinedimaltaitalia.org)
PHOTOGRAPHY: SUSAN WRIGHT