I just wrote a piece on the Colosseum's swimming pool for the Guardian's travel section. Suffice it to say that this was some of the best research I've ever done for a story. Check it out!
When the temperature’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit (as it already is in Rome) and you need to get somewhere, the thought of taking the sticky, crowded, sometimes-completely-unventilated metro or bus is just unbearable. And a cab’s just cheating.
From best to worst, 6 alternative ways to get around Rome — while staying cool. (And no, not necessarily the “wow, you’re really awesome” kind of cool).
6. Walking. Sometimes, the simplest solution is the best. Rome is not that big. So. Just. Walk. Bring a big bottle of water (you can refill it at any of the nasoni, or little fountains, around the city). And please forget the backpack: It’s hot, bulky, hot, and really, when was the last time you were in a city and so far from civilization that you actually needed that emergency pack of granola bars? Also, it’s hot.
5. The scooter, or as the Italians say, motorino. Zipping around on a motorino with the wind whipping your face is pretty much meant for warm days. You can help your local-cool factor by donning big, dark sunglasses, unnecessarily revving up the engine at brief stops, and saying “Ciaooo, ciaoooo” to local passersby.
There are, however, numerous downsides. Like the scary, scary Rome traffic, which means that I do not recommend this for those who have just arrived in Rome and are still having trouble timing how to cross the street. (Seriously. I am not liable for any accidents you or your loved ones may have if you don’t heed this advice. My lawyer agrees). Also problematic is the difficulty, for women, of wearing a skirt or dress and not blinding every poor person we pass, not that Roman men really seem to mind. If you feel like you are mature, cautious, skilled, sober, and insurance-policy-protected enough to rent a motorino, check out Bici & Baci or Treno e Scooter for rentals.
4. Biking. It’s easy to get a bike in Rome: You can either rent one from a shop, or take advantage of the city’s new bikesharing program. There are 19 kiosks around the city, and the price is just €.50/hour. Just stop by a ticket office at a major metro stop, like Termini, for a bikesharing card. It’ll cost you €5, but it’s good for 10 hours of riding. Pass that card over the post that your desired bike is locked to, and presto! Your bike is released. It’s like magic. There isn’t any magic, though, that will save you from the aggression of Roman drivers, so please reread my caveat to #3. Seriously.
3. Hop-on, hop-off boat ride. Those who do this seem to think they’ll be getting a tour of the city. While I haven’t done one myself, I can’t imagine that would be the case; not only are the tours taped, but the Tiber is walled–meaning you can’t see hardly anything. So why do it? Well, solely for the purposes of getting from Point A (like Ponte Castel Sant’Angelo) to Point B (Ponte Risorgimento). The vessels for some of the boat lines even have air-conditioning. Woo! Check out the Hop-On, Hop-Off Cruise in Rome for information.
2. Walking… with your own personal cooling system. I wasn’t aware until Googling “personal cooling system” just how many of these there are. There are water-filled neckbands. Cooling shirts. A hand-held electronic cooling device. Even something known as a “belt mister,” which promises to envelop you in a mist that will drop the temperature around you by 30 degrees. This belt also promises to be “inconspicuous”…because oh, yeah, walking in your own cloud of cold mist is just something you were born with.
1. The Segway. You don’t get up to speed on these things, which eliminates the speed-equals-breeze quality of #5, or really get to go that many places, which you can with #2, 4, 5 or 6. When you’re on the street, you’re a slow-moving traffic menace, and when you’re on the sidewalk, you’re a complete annoyance to every pedestrian trying to get somewhere. (I dub you “speed bumpkin.”) Also, don’t buy it when people say how safe it is: I met a woman the other day who’d twisted her ankle when she briefly forgot how to stop it, the Segway went faster, and rammed her into a car. (Okay, okay, I guess nothing can be completely fool-proof). While on the Segway, though, you are, at least, able to stand completely still and still toodle through the city. In terms of laziness, it’s like one step away from armchair traveling. To really “up” the cool factor, bring along your personal cooling system. For more information, Google this on your own. That’s how against Segways I am.
I'm doing some research for an upcoming story, and this research includes finding Rome's best gelato. (There could be worse things).
Thus far, I've been pretty good: Ordering a "coppa piccola" of gelato, tasting, and throwing half out.
But at the gelateria Ciampini, even though I'd already had two frozen treats, I couldn't keep myself from gobbling the whole gelato down. I tried chestnut, mixed berry, and peach with pinenuts. Each one was super-creamy, but with bits of their namesakes mixed in (including actual, chewy bits of chestnut, and whole pinenuts). Yum, yum, yum. I had a stomachache afterwards, but it was so worth it.
(Since then, I've been back to Ciampini a number of times — and I still think their gelato is some of the best in Rome).
Ciampini. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina 29, in between the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. Click here for a map.
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I'm so glad to have just discovered Roma Sparita, a bustling restaurant and pizzeria in the heart of Trastevere. Like other tourist spots in Rome, Trastevere is packed with poor culinary choices. Roma Sparita, however, is not one of them.
Situated, with plenty of outdoor seating, on the broad, quiet Piazza Santa Cecilia, the restaurant was, at 10pm on a Wednesday, completely full of Italians. (That's always a good sign). Even so, the host hustled to get our party of two seated. Another waiter asked if someone was helping us. Within three minutes, our table had been cleared, reset, and a menu brought. For a restaurant in Rome–especially a popular, not-expensive restaurant in Rome–that kind of service is rare. Believe it or not.
*[Update, Oct. 2011: In the pursuit of honesty, I have to share that, sadly, this blog post is now completely, um, incorrect. When I wrote this more than a year ago, guidebooks, tourists and (most importantly!) Anthony Bourdain had yet to discover this place. But just a couple of months after this post, Bourdain went (rightfully) gaga for Roma Sparita's cacio e pepe in "No Reservations."
If you've caught this post on my blog about Rome restaurants almost always going south with newfound fame, you know what happened next. More and more tourists started eating here… and the food quality started to slide. The cacio e pepe is still good, but no longer great, and certainly not the best in Rome. Nor is this any longer a "local's place" by any stretch of the imagination. Even worse? Roma Sparita has started taking advantage of tourists who eat here. For excellent cacio e pepe at places that don't rip you off (yet), instead, head to Flavio al Velavevodetto, Trattoria Da Danilo or even Taverna dei Quaranta at the Colosseum. They might not have a fried-parmesan bowl, but they don't rip you off with a selectively-applied service charge, either.]
The food ranged from classic cucina romana to regional variations (beef carpaccio? you don't see that much in Rome). And it more than lived up to expectations. Popping the olive ascolane, a fried mixture of green olives, veal, pork, and breadcrumbs, became tough to stop doing–even knowing a pizza and pasta were on the way.
Then came the good stuff.
The pizza alla norma (shown above), a Sicilian dish with tomato, eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata (a salted, dried ricotta grated onto the pizza), was just right. And Roma Sparita's most famous dish, its tagliolini al cacio e pepe, deserved every accolade. Presented in a fried basket of parmesan, it was the best cacio e pepe I'd ever had. Truly. (To the uninitiated: a traditional Roman dish, cacio e pepe features pecorino romano cheese and black pepper. That's it. Simple, but delicious.)
Even with a good, €15 bottle of Sardinian wine, the bill came out to a little more than €20 per person. Not bad. But it left me with one lingering question: With restaurants with that kind of value in Rome, why would you ever eat here?
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When the weather gets hot, the Romans go beaching. And those Romans with a little bit more time to spare… go to Sperlonga.
Lazio's answer to Santorini, Sperlonga is lovely. It's also a little bit blink- (or walk too fast) and-you'll-miss-it: The town itself, at least the picturesque part that most tourists frequent, is pretty small. What's there, though, is scattered with lovely squares and winding alleyways.
Ready to beach it? A 10-minute walk down a long set of stairs takes you to the beach, where, in typical Italian fashion, it's almost impossible to find the sliver that's public. Instead, make like the locals and pay for a cabana. At about €13 for a day's worth of a beach chair, roof to use once your flesh starts sizzling, and ability to have food and drinks brought to you, it's worth it.
But modern-day Italians haven't been the only ones to frequent Sperlonga. The area's most famous vacationer? Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome. He liked it so much, he built a villa here.
You can still visit the villa's "Grotto," a natural cave where the dining room was, at Sperlonga's archaeological museum (located about 3 miles away from the beach).
And in the museum itself, don't miss the stunning, ancient sculptures done by Athanadoros, Hagesandros and Polydoros of Rhodes—the same guys behind the Vatican's famous Laocoön.
If you're renting a car, Sperlonga is a 2.5-hour ride from Rome. (Traffic, though, can be a real problem, especially on summer weekends). Alternatively, you can take the train to the Fondi-Sperlonga station, where local buses are coordinated with the train arrivals to take you to Sperlonga itself (there's a stop for the archaeological museum, too). The train takes a little over an hour, while the bus is about 15 minutes.
A hassle? Slightly. But Sperlonga is worth it.
Want more local secrets on what to do in Rome? 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!
For most of history, the home of Rome’s very first emperor and Julius Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian Augustus, lay undiscovered. That changed in 1961 when Palatine excavations revealed a fragment of painted plaster. Further digging unearthed a house. But not just any house: the palace that Octavian lived in for 40 years, both before and after he became emperor.
Only in 2008, after decades of restoration, did the House of Augustus finally open to visitors. Even so, most tourists, even those who visit Palatine Hill, still don’t know about it. And that’s a shame.
The real draw of the House of Augustus isn’t its size or architecture; as Suetonius tells us, Augustus lived “in
a modest dwelling remarkable neither for size or elegance.” Instead, it’s breathtaking for its vibrant, well-preserved frescoes. Better yet, they date from a particularly poignant time in Rome’s history; they were done just a year after the Battle of Actium, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra–bringing about their demise, the seizure of Egypt, and Rome’s eventual shift from republic to empire, in one fell swoop.
If you decide to visit, know that you might have to wait. Given the frescoes’ fragility, only a handful of visitors are allowed in at a time. But it’s worth the line to get to walk through Octavian’s dining room, bedroom, and reception hall.
And the upside is that, if you linger long enough, you can get Octavian’s house to yourself. Maybe, if you squint your eyes, you can even imagine him standing in the same spot where you are. Maybe he’d be weighing the merits of getting himself named emperor, which would happen three years after the frescoes are finished. Maybe he’d be trying to figure out how to handle Egypt. Or maybe he’d just be contemplating his brand-new frescoes, thinking that, given his wealth and power, he could reward himself with that much elegance. Little would he know that 2,000 years later, we’d be able to appreciate it, too.
The House of Augustus is open Mondays during the summer from 10:30am to 1:30pm, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30am to 1:30pm. It’s also open throughout the year. Entrance is included in your €12 forum, Colosseum and Palatine ticket price. Just make sure to double-check opening times at the ticket office, as in Italy, they’re often subject to change.
You could do worse than “Al Pompiere.” In the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, the restaurant has been around since 1962 — no mean feat for an eatery anywhere in the world, but especially in a city with culinary competition as stiff as Rome.
In particular, it’s a place to come when you’re looking for classic cucina romana. What Rome-based food writer Katie Parla calls “the holy trinity of Roman pasta dishes” all make their appearances on the menu. My carbonara tasted a little undersalted and didn’t play quite enough on the pecorino’s (or the pepper’s) zing, but the consistency was perfect and the pasta fresh.
The biggest draw to Al Pompiere, though, is its fried offerings. The carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichoke) had just the right crunch; the filetta di baccalà (fried salt cod) was soft and flaky on the inside, crisp on the outside. Then there were the fiori di zucca ripieni (stuffed zucchini flowers), which were, quite simply, grossly delicious: There’s nothing like squishing a piece of food with your fork and seeing grease spurt out. (All three are pictured above. Just looking at the photo makes you feel like you’re hurting your arteries, doesn’t it?).
What the restaurant lacked, though, was atmosphere. Set on the second floor of a palazzo and nearly empty for Saturday lunch, it felt awkwardly roomy — and with tablecloths covering the tables, a tad too elegant for the down-to-earth fare. With not an Italian dining in sight, I had to doubt Fodor’s claim that it’s a “neighborhood favorite.” Maybe I caught it on an off day. Or maybe it’s simply been around too long.
I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”
Not in Herculaneum.
Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.
Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site: It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.
To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”
I had high hopes at Ristorante Montevecchio, a restaurant tucked into almost-impossible-to-find Piazza Montevecchio. Just a two minutes' walk from Piazza Navona, the place is in the center of everything — but thanks to the small, tranquil piazza, still feels off the beaten path.
But I wasn't there because of the location. I was there because the restaurant had been recommended to me, with lavish praise, and because when I Googled it, one of the first things that came up was this glowing review by NPR. (I hadn't even been aware that NPR did restaurant reviews). With visions of "Fresh Tastes of a Grandparents' Kitchen" running through my head, I went.
My first warning sign: the complete lack of diners. At 9:15pm — prime dining time. I should have listened to my own instructions. Instead, I gave it a try.
To be fair, the food was good. I started off with the timballo di parmigiano di melanzane, a little eggplant-and-ricotta concoction that was yummy, if not exactly €12 worth of yummy. For the second course, I took the waiter's suggestion and had his favorite, the ravioli Montevecchio-style — ravioli of the house. Big, plump pillows of pasta filled with ricotta and spinach, the dish was satisfying. But when I pay €16 for pasta in Rome, I expect something pretty darn fantastic, or at least seafood-based. This was not it. The same went for the €8 tiramisu, served, oddly, in what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a water glass.
The service was good, although I can't imagine that three waiters to three tables — the maximum the restaurant got to while I was there — could ever struggle. And the fact that they were closing down at 10:30, when most popular restaurants are just starting to get into full swing, made my dining companion and I feel awkward. "I'm worried the waiter's going to hit you in the head with a chair he's swinging onto a table," she whispered to me at one point. It was only 10:45.
Final verdict? The food's fine, but to get bang for your buck in Rome, skip Montevecchio — unless it's just the cute little piazza you're looking for. (In fairness to NPR, by the way, it looks like management has changed since the review was written).
Food: 3 of 5. Ambiance: 4 of 5. Value: 2 of 5.
But there are more. And the second-tallest of all of them, the Janiculum — not included in the seven because it's across the River Tiber from the ancient quarter — boasts Bramante's lovely Tempietto and Pope Paul V's 17th-century Fontana dell'Acqua Paola. But more crucially, it also serves up some of the city's best views. (Just see above).
To get up there without your own car, you can hike (for a long time) or take the 970 or 115 buses. Rome's transportation website can map your route for you; just remember that in Italian it's "Gianicolo," not "Janiculum." ("Passeggiata del Gianicolo" is the best to put in).
A caveat: Some people go up to the Janiculum at noon, when a cannon is fired to mark the time. That I don't recommend, unless you have lots of time to kill in Rome. There's just too much else to do during the day, and even if you're an avid photographer, the midday light will be flat. But if you can get there and back in the evening, just as the sun is setting, you might find it's a good way to see the city the only way it's peaceful: from far away. Just ignore the teenagers making out in their cars.
Click here for a map.