Romans often say that the beaches near Rome just aren’t that nice. Maybe it’s the New Englander in me, but after visiting Santa Marinella, I beg to differ.
The beach at Santa Marinella, a seaside comune just outside the city, has a couple of things going for it. First off, it’s free. Although that might sound odd if you haven’t sunbathed in Italy before, most other beaches cost you. Stretches of sand are covered in cabanas and chairs, the use of which costs some €10 to €15 for the day — and no, you can’t just park yourself on a towel nearby the chairs and hope nobody will notice. (Che brutta figura!).
Secondly, Santa Marinella’s beach is convenient. Really convenient. You don’t need a car to get there, or to take a train and then a bus, like you do to get to the (admittedly prettier) beach of Sperlonga. Instead, you just hop on the train in Rome from Termini, Ostiense, Trastevere, or San Pietro; 45 minutes and €3.60 land you in Santa Marinella. From there, you can follow the crowds on the 5-minute walk to the beach.
All that could mean that Santa Marinella, like other city beaches, would be grungy. And it may have been, once. But now, the beach is all soft sand and clear Mediterranean water. And, aside from the odd water bottle left behind after the hordes had departed last Sunday evening, it seemed pretty clean to me.
Just keep in mind that, since the beach is so convenient to Rome, lots of locals go here. So if secluded sunbathing is what you’re after, forget about it, at least on the weekend. And bring your cutest suit — if you live in Rome, it’s all but inevitable that you’ll run into someone you know.
If you’re making a day of it, don’t miss lunch at one of Santa Marinella’s best seafood restaurants: L’Acqua Marina (above). A 10-minute walk from the beach at Piazza Trieste 8, the restaurant is elegant and lovely, the kind of place you could see Ingrid Bergman, who bought a house in town, going for lunch. It’s got plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. Sit on the patio for the view over the blue, blue Mediterranean.
While one of the seemingly-pricier eateries in town, costing about 50 euros for lunch for two (including a half-bottle of wine, the shared seafood antipasto, two primi of pasta, and water), it was worth it. And definitely cheaper than a seafood place of the same quality would be back in Rome.
Also, it was just darn good.
Santa Marinella: Weekend crowds, yes… but also seafood, sun, and sand. What more could you want within 45 minutes of Rome?
Want more local secrets on Rome’s best food, sights, and more? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, now available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!
Martedi in Arte — that fantastic tradition where, on the last Tuesday of each month, major state museums in Italy are open and free from 7pm-11pm — is a hit. Such a hit, it's going on all year long.
Here in Rome, participating sites include the Palazzo Massimo (a savings of €10!), a treasure trove of ancient art and sculpture; the often-overlooked, but useful, Crypta Balbi; the Pantheon (always free, but only open so late for occasions like this one); the Palazzo Barberini, filled with gems by Raphael, Caravaggio and more; Castel Sant'Angelo, the papal castle; and the Galleria Borghese, that world-renowned collection of pieces by everyone from Bernini, Raphael, and others.
So mark your calendar: The next Martedi in Arte is May 31. But if you miss it, don't worry. You've got more shots… on June 28, July 26, August 30, September 27, October 25, November 29, and December 27. Phew!
From now until April 17, Italy's state-run museums and sites are free. (Yay!) In Rome, that includes the Colosseum, Forum, Palazzo Massimo, Galleria Borghese (where you can find Raphael's beautiful "Entombment," above) and Baths of Caracalla… to name a few. Take advantage!
Yes, there might be sexism in Italy — even up to the highest levels of government. Yes, it might be so bad that primetime news shows routinely show half-naked women, that the country lags behind in every statistic from the gender gap in wages to the number of female politicians, and that a million women protested in a nationwide demonstration last month.
But at least this Tuesday, March 8, women get a break: For Festa della Donna, the traditional Italian holiday for women, all nationally-run monuments and museums will be free for females only. In Rome, that includes sites like the Colosseum and Palazzo Massimo.
Italian American food can be delicious. It can also be extremely confusing for travelers to Italy. That’s because it’s different — often very different — from Italian food.
And that adds confusion on top of confusion, because food culture in Italy already is extraordinarily regional. So, particularly at local, non-touristy restaurants, you won’t find the same cuisine in Rome that you would in Bologna, Florence, or Venice. In Rome — or at least at Roman restaurants — you won’t find risotto (Milan and the north) or thick-crust pizza (Naples and the south), for example. (Yes, that means that pizza as good as the one in the picture above won’t exist just anywhere in Italy!).
But on top of that, there are some foods that you could comb all of Italy for and still not find. Except, of course, in the kinds of restaurants that dish up mediocre, microwaved food at inflated prices… to tourists and tourists alone.
Why? Because these foods aren’t Italian. They’re Italian-American.
What dishes do I mean? Here’s a list of five dishes that people expect, but will find much more easily in Chicago or New York than Italy — because they’re Italian American food, not Italian food.
Italian American food #1: Lobster fra’ diavolo
Lobster fra’ diavolo was served for the first time in New York City in 1908 — and using Maine lobsters! Don’t expect to find the dish, which features lobster in a red sauce (sometimes spicy, sometimes not), while you’re in Italy.
Instead try: pastaall’arrabbiata, pasta with a Roman sauce of tomatoes and red chili peppers that make it “angry” (hence the name arrabbiata).
Italian American food #2: Chicken (or veal) parmesan
Nope, not Italian. What is Italian, or at least southern Italian, is melanzane alla parmigiana, or what we know (roughly) as “eggplant parm” — eggplant fried and layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan, then baked. Using meat instead, and throwing it on top of pasta, was an invention of Italian immigrants in the United States and Canada.
As with most Italian-American cuisine, chicken and veal parm probably came about as a way to show how much more Italian immigrants could suddenly afford in the New Country. Back home, most subsisted on cheap foods like polenta and black bread in brine. (Have you seen that at your local Olive Garden? Didn’t think so.)
After all, meat and pasta were expensive. But now, with their newfound American wealth, these same peasants and laborers could write back home and say Hey, guess what we cooked, parmigiana made with veal! And served with pasta! Thus, chicken and veal “parmesan” — and lots of other meat-and-pasta dishes besides — were born.
Instead try: If you’re in Sicily or the south, melanzane alla parmigiana.
Italian American food #3: Spaghetti and meatballs
This, of course, is the Big Daddy of all Italian-American dishes. It comes from the same idea you saw with chicken parm: two symbols of prosperity, together in one dish. This was also a dish that, as early as the 1920s, was specifically — and erroneously — marketed to Americans as Italian. (So if you thought it was authentic Italian, you’re in good company!)
Warning: In Italy, this (delicious!) dish is probably as close as you’ll get to spaghetti and meatballs.
Instead try:Hitting your meat and pasta notes separately, such as by ordering a pasta all’amatriciana (a Roman pasta with a red sauce of tomatoes and guanciale) and, if you can find them, separate polpettine di carne (meatballs).
Bent on combining lots of meat with lots of pasta? Your best bet will be a Tuscan or Umbrian ragù — but, with very little or no tomato and lots of minced-up meat, onion, celery, and carrot, it’s not the sauce you’re probably thinking of! If you’re in Bologna, definitely try pasta alla bolognese.But steel yourself here, too: It may be redder than an Umbrian ragù, but still uses lots of meat and only a little bit of tomato paste. (In other words, it ain’t like the bolognese back home).
The whole idea of smothering bread in either olive oil or butter with lots of garlic was invented in the U.S. in the 1940s, if not before. A similar version is known in Europe, too… in Romania.
Instead try: bruschetta al pomodoro, toasted bread, often rubbed with a bit of garlic (but not nearly what you see with garlic bread!), then piled with tomatoes and some extra virgin olive oil.
Italian American food #5: Penne alla vodka
You’ll be hard-pressed to find cream sauces far south of Milan, including in Rome. So if you’re looking for a dish like penne alla vodka — which includes a heavy cream sauce — at a Roman trattoria, you’re already off-base. But add vodka on top of that, and many Italians will think you’re frankly off your head (unless, that is, they’re aware of the American dish).
It’s true that some histories of the dish claim it was first invented in Italy before becoming popular in the US. I’m very skeptical. Regardless, it remains difficult to find at authentic restaurants in Italy today.
Instead try: a simple pasta al pomodoro — it’s basically all the good bits of penne alla vodka (namely, the pasta and tomatoes), minus the cream and vodka. Want to pay it a little more of an homage? Finish it up with a grappa after your meal (particularly when in the north), a popular (and very strong) clear digestivo.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.
From now until May 30, some of Naples' top museums will be free. The fantastic Archaeological Museum, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be included, but the museum at Capodimonte (remember, the one with all of those famous pieces by artists from Botticelli to Caravaggio) is. That's €7.50 saved. You can buy two whole pizzas with that kind of change.
The Capodimonte, as well as the museum at Castel Sant'Elmo and the Certosa and Museum of San Martino, are free from 8:30am-10am and 4pm-7:30 through May. The museum Duca di Martina is free all day (8:30am-2pm). Click here for information on Naples' free museums from Pierreci.
When it comes to Naples, normally-rational people become extreme. They either love the lively atmosphere, the incredible pizza, the zany streets, the faded-glory architecture. Or they hate the graffiti, the grunge, the garbage, the crime.
But here's a thought: Instead of taking everyone else's word for it, check it out for yourself.
Naples is an easy day trip from Rome, and if you're visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum or the Amalfi coast anyway, a stop there makes a lot of sense (especially because, if you're visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum, you can't miss the Naples Archaeological Museum). And — even if you wind up being one of those people in the "hate" camp — it has some gems that really can't be missed.
The city itself is sprawling and maze-like. Its history is just as, well, confusing. The short version: It was founded by Greeks in the 8th century B.C. as "Neapolis," taken by Romans, and then passed like a hot potato between barbarians, Byzantines, barbarians, Byzantines…and finally to the Normans in the 12th century. Until the 19th century, other rulers included the kingdom of Aragon, the French, Hapsburg Spain, the Austrians, Bourbon Spain, and the Napoleons. (Under the Bourbons, Naples became Europe's largest city — second only to Paris). Finally, in 1861, Naples was made part of unified Italy.
As if that weren't enough to make the city's layout, and its culture, somewhat baffling to outsiders, you then have to consider all the problems it's faced. It was the most-bombed Italian city in World War II. Today, it's home to Italy's cruelest and most powerful Mafia organizations, a huge trash-collection problem that means bags of garbage continue to heap the streets, and some of the highest unemployment in Italy.
But it's also home to things like, I don't know, not one, but two different medieval castles — Castel Nuovo and Castel Sant'Elmo. Or the oldest baptistery in the entire western world, a 4th-century building decorated with 5th-century mosaics, the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte. Or Caravaggio's famous Seven Acts of Mercy, located in Pio Monte della Misericordia — among Caravaggio's other works in Naples. Or the Cappella Sansevero, with its famous and extraordinary sculpture of a veiled, dead Christ. Or this 19th-century arcade, the Galleria Umberto I (below), built to look like the famous gallery in Milan.
Then there's the National Archaeological Museum. I can't stress it strongly enough: Even with many of the wings closed to renovations, this is a must-see. It's where all that stuff from Pompeii and Herculaneum actually wound up.Here's where you'll find dozens of incredibly-preserved ancient Roman frescoes (like the one below), everyday items like vases and tableware, and ancient statues that make the Vatican's collection look like a cheap souvenir shop, including the incredible Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull taken from the Baths of Caracalla.
If you have time, you also should make it up to the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte. Once Bourbon King Charles III's royal palace, it now houses a world-class museum — one rivaled by few other art collections in Italy. It includes masterpieces by Artemesia Gentileschi, Brueghel, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Titian… among many others.
Then there are all the aspects of Naples that don't fit so cleanly into the guidebooks. The atmosphere. The maze-like streets. The young people congregating at coffee bars and bookstores in the university quarter. The shock you'll get the first time you see an entire family of four crammed onto a scooter, all without helmets, gunning it in the direction of an oncoming car.
And we haven't even gotten to the pizza!
But don't worry: For that, I think a picture alone will suffice.
So: You might be a Naples-lover or a Naples-hater. But until you go, you'll have no idea.
The easiest way to get there is to take a train from Rome Termini to the central Naples station. The 1hr, 10 mins train costs €44 one way; the 2hr, 5 min train costs €22. Check Trenitalia for times and fares.
Forget losing 5 pounds or flossing. Well, you can do those too. But if you're already looking forward to taking a trip to Italy sometime in the New Year, there are some other resolutions to consider making.
Three New Year's resolutions for before you go:
1. Get in good walking shape. I'm constantly surprised by the constant surprise of travelers who, coming to Rome, don't expect to walk very much. For those of us who only log steps from home to car, car to office, there's much more required of your feet — and heart — in Rome than home.
But that's not a bad thing. Walking is one of the best ways to see any Italian city; while you can take cabs, buses and metros, sometimes the only way to get a sense of the winding streets, or even to get to certain sites (hello, Forum and Palatine Hill), is on foot. So if the only thing between you and strolling for 8 hours straight is aerobic endurance, start changing it now. Your body — and wallet, and travel companions — will thank you.
Walk away, sister.
2. Have a plan for the practicals. Make sure you have an idea of not just what you'll see where, but also how you'll do things like get from the airport to your hotel or avoid long lines for popular sites. Also make sure you know how you'll access money (hint: many places don't accept credit cards, your account can be shut down by your bank unless you tell them you're traveling abroad first, and withdrawing from an ATM is generally far more cost-effective than exchanging hard currency).
No, your trip won't be a complete disaster if you don't think some of the more practical issues through. But you might wind up spending way more money, and having more of a headache, than necessary.
3. Not let the hype get to you… too much. Yes, Italy is fantastic. But depending on when and where you're going, it can also be chaotic, hot, crowded, disorganized, unreliable, and expensive. (A lot of that can be avoided or mitigated with a bit of planning, but sometimes things just, well, happen).
It's unlikely that you'll be disappointed — but don't go into it imagining the picture-perfect scenes and stereotypes of a movie like Eat, Pray, Love, either. Will a lot of your trip replicate the magic of Julia Roberts' (er, Liz Gilbert's) experience? Probably. But as long as you don't expect perfection, the little misperfections won't "ruin" the whole shebang.
Three New Year's resolutions for once you're there:
1. Go off the beaten path. Especially if it's your first trip to Italy, you'll probably want to hit up the greats: Rome, Florence, Venice. But if you can, consider adding in a daytrip out to the countryside or to a smaller city — some of my favorites from Rome are Spoleto and Orvieto. It'll help you not only to get away from the crowds, but get a sense of what Italy means for the millions here who aren't city dwellers.
2. Travel ethically. The impact of millions of visitors on Italy isn't benign — at its worst, it contributes to pollution, ruination of art and architecture, and weakened or overcommercialized local economies. Luckily, though, there are lots of ways you can help, from eating in-season foods to avoiding plastic water bottles. Click here for five more tips for how to travel ethically in Italy.
3. Get out from behind the camera. Okay, so maybe your neighbor, sister and Great Aunt Linda have all said they want you to take lots and lots of photos while you're in Italy because they want to see them all. But let's be serious. Nobody actually wants to see 38 photos in a row of the Trevi Fountain, even if some are of you with the Trevi Fountain, some are of you and your hubby with the Trevi Fountain, and some have a pretty clear view of the Trevi Fountain while others show the crowds, the mayhem and even that Bangladeshi guy who's trying to sell those ever-so-interesting flying spinning lit-up plastic discs.
And while you want to take photos so you can remember the Trevi Fountain, do you really need 38 to spark one memory… especially when you can just Google what the heck it looks like?
So: Unless photography's a big hobby, get out from behind the camera lens. Trying to enjoy your trip while also zooming in and out, playing with your different settings, forcing your subjects to smile until their faces freeze (and suffering their decreasing level of amenability), and sending silent death vibes to that random idiot who just will not get out of the frame — well, it's hard. And you know what? It doesn't help you remember the flavor of that killer pasta amatriciana or the feeling you had while standing in front of the Pieta for the first time all that much better.
Resolve to snap once, snap twice, snap three times (and please: keep your flash off in the Vatican's gallery of tapestries!)… and then put it away. Your travel companions will thank you. (Below, a true-to-life example of forcing the unwilling into photos).
Orvieto was my first real day trip from Rome. I’ve been partial to it ever since.
But that’s not the only reason why I love Orvieto.
Orvieto is one of Umbria’s many excellent offerings, with the added advantage of being just an hour’s drive or train ride from Rome. It boasts an Etruscan museum, underground tunnels, gorgeous views, great food, and a gorgeous duomo with game-changing frescoes (yes, I just said “game-changing” to refer to Renaissance art). Oh, and those little winding streets, hidden churches and medieval-hilltop-town character that, if you’ve traveled in Umbria before, are ho-hum to you by now.
(Just kidding. This stuff never gets ho-hum. I don’t think).
Part of Orvieto’s unique character comes from its history. Etruscans lived here as early as the 8th century B.C., and you can still see — even touch — the remnants they left behind. Like the tunnels and chambers that they dug into the soft tufa underneath the current city. This underground, which includes some 1,200 caves, passages and chambers, is a labyrinth that reaches several stories deep.
You can explore Orvieto’s underground either by taking a tour of a section of it (tours leave from the piazza of the Duomo, and take you through chambers with wells and olive mills built by the Etruscans), or simply by stumbling onto a section. Like at lunch. Below, the Grotte del Funaro, a restaurant that’s built into underground caverns where locals made rope in the Middle Ages.
Don’t miss, either, Orvieto’s two archaeological museums. The National Archaeological Museum, right next to the duomo, boasts delicate bronze hand mirrors, sculpture with the paint traces remaining, and even a full suit of armor. All, you know, about 2,300 years old. The most exciting part, though, is the museum’s two chambers with frescoes taken from 5th century B.C. necropoli discovered nearby. If the rooms aren’t open, ask the guard to let you in. The other archaeological museum, meanwhile, is across from the duomo and has more finds from Orvieto’s prehistoric, Etruscan, and Roman eras.
Then there’s the duomo itself. It’s… well, it’s a masterpiece. Begun in 1290, it’s the epitome of the Italian Gothic style, its exterior elaborate with mosaics, stonework and detailed carvings.
Inside, though, the duomo is something else entirely. For worshipers, it’s most famous for an event said to take place not far from here in 1263: A priest traveling to Rome stopped at Bolsena to pray, and blood started to seep from the consecrated host. The bloodstained linen is still enshrined at the duomo of Orvieto, where it had been brought that year. It’s in the last chapel on the left, with 14th-century frescoes.
But don’t miss, either, the last chapel on the right-hand side, which is where Luca Signorelli painted his Last Judgment in 1499. That’s thirty-six years before Michelangelo would start his own version, and you can see the inspiration Michelangelo took from the older artist: The vibrant, muscular, tortured-looking figures of Signorelli’s frescoes aren’t that far off from what you see in the Sistine Chapel today. Below, his image of the damned, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.Etruscan tunnels, medieval duomo, Renaissance frescoes — but there’s more to do in Orvieto, too, whether exploring its myriad other churches or simply wandering through its streets. Don’t miss it.
Orvieto is easy to get to; you can either drive (it’s a straight shot on the highway) or take the train, which takes from 45 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, depending on the price. Check train times at www.trenitalia.com. Be aware that the train station is at the bottom of the hill, so you will have to take the funicular up to the city.
To anyone spending time in Italy this week, a heads-up: Massive, nationwide student protests might snarl up your sightseeing.
Students have taken to the streets — for the most part, peacefully — to condemn a bill that would cut some €9 billion and 130,000 jobs from education. They are, of course, just the latest to register their angry against the Berlusconi government, but their protests are creating problems for tourists even more than most: Among other things, they prevented trains from entering and leaving Siena by camping out on the tracks yesterday and kept tourists from entering the Leaning Tower of Pisa after they took it over. That's on top of the usual problems with traffic that any manifestazione causes.
And it seems like the demonstrations are only growing. So if you're traveling to Italy, be prepared: Count on taking a little longer to get to your destination, and always have a Plan B if a particular site you really want to see has, you know, been taken over.