One of the Loveliest Little Leather Shops in Rome

“Where can I find a good leather store in Rome?” has to be one of the most frequently-asked questions I get. Although I’ve dragged my (leather-clad) heels on writing a full list — it’s pending, I promise — here’s one to add: Mancini.

The little shop, tucked behind the Pantheon, got its start back in 1918. The great-grandson of the first owner runs it today. For a small place, it’s had an illustrious history: it provided leather for the 1951 film Quo Vadis, once made a leather folder (random, yes) for Pope Pius XII and was Gucci’s go-to spot for repairs for years.

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Travel Virtually to Rome’s Top Sites

School of Athens by Raphael in the Vatican museums Memories fade, and photographs don't always do justice to Rome's top attractions. Now, though, a spate of virtual tours allow travelers to explore some of Rome's most popular buildings and art, from the Sistine Chapel to the Capitoline Museums — all from the comfort of home.

Below, some of the best of the virtual lineup. Prepare to want to start planning your next trip to Rome!

St. Peter's Basilica, now visitable virtuallySt. Peter's Basilica. Gorgeous virtual tour by the Vatican itself. Highly professional and stunning.

The Sistine Chapel. Also by the Vatican.

The Vatican Museums, including the Pinacoteca (below), Raphael Rooms, Etruscan Museum and Egyptian Museum.

San Giovanni in Laterano, or St. John Lateran, the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) and the mother church of Catholics.

St. Paul Outside the Walls, founded in the 4th century on the burial place of St. Paul and one of Rome's four papal basilicas.Raphael's paintings at the Pinacoteca, Vatican museums, Rome

The Capitoline Museums. They're the oldest public museums in Rome and boast some of Italy's best ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Now, you can visit all 45 of their rooms… digitally.

The Pantheon. Rome's single best-preserved ancient building; the tour isn't as professional as the previous virtual tours, but still pretty great.

Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, a beautiful example of the blending of the Baroque and Renaissance styles of architecture. It's famous for its Caravaggio paintings — which, bummer, you can't see in the tour — but also for its Chigi Chapel designed by Raphael, which you can.

The Ara Pacis, the altar made from 13-9 B.C. to commemorate Emperor Augustus' victories and the Pax Romana. (Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Ara Pacis").

Circus Maximus, where ancient charioteers once raced (make this full-screen for a better image)

Largo Argentina, with the remains of four ancient Republican temples

And, yes… the Colosseum! Colosseum, Rome
Finally: Yes, virtual tours of what actually exists are all well and good — but virtual tours of what ancient Rome would have looked like? Maybe even better.

UCLA's Digital Roman Forum includes both modern and ancient views of the forum, including the basilicas Julia and Aemilia. Pick a time between 700 B.C. and 500 A.D., click on the map, and see what that spot looks like in 360 degrees today — and an image of what it would have looked like then rotates with you.

It's a work in progress and only shows you what the sites look like today, but this other virtual tour of the Roman forum features 360-degree views of a dozen different spots in the ancient landscape.

Now, if only you could also virtually enjoy the taste of pasta alla gricia or the feel of the warm Roman sun on your neck…

 

 

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La Campana: A Classic, and Rome’s Oldest Restaurant

Oxtail at La Campana, near Piazza Navona, RomeLa Campana, a restaurant tucked away a few steps from Piazza Navona, claims to be Rome's oldest dining establishment. It was recorded as being on the same street all the way back in 1518 — a tough claim to match.

But since these kinds of claims are everywhere, particularly in a city as overrun with old establishments as Rome, that's not really why you should go.

You should go if you want to experience good, classic Roman food, or cucina romana, at not-bad prices, in the heart of the center. In an area where culinary mediocrity is so thick on the ground, that's pretty tough to find. Oddly enough for the neighborhood, it's not even fair to call La Campana touristy: While there are always tourists there, a number of businessmen are always taking up the tables as well, particularly at lunch.

That said, not all of my experiences at La Campana have been perfect. One more-mediocre experience included my rigatoni all'amatriciana (€8), a dish that was undone by the long strips of not-very-crisp-or-smoky guanciale, or pork jowl, each of which were at least two-thirds white fat.

But I've also had a juicy saltimbocca (veal wrapped with prosciutto, €12, shown below) and an excellent coda alla vaccinara (€12), at top, in a rich, delicious sauce and with the meat falling off the bone. That coda alla vaccinara, alone, made me vow to pay more visits to Rome's (maybe) oldest restaurant. Other classic dishes on the menu to try include the fettucini al ragu (€10), trippa (€12)and artichoke (€5).

Saltimbocca at La Campana, RomeSomething else I'll say for La Campana: The service is excellent. That's not something you tend to see in many moderately-priced Roman restaurants, particularly not those that have been written up as often as this one. But the black-vested waiters are unfailingly polite, and the service (usually) pretty fast.

La Campana. Vicolo della Campana 18. Closed Mondays. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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On Tuesday Nights, Free Art Across Italy

DSC_0162
Just in case all of the fun events and free entrances on European Heritage Day (September 25-26) weren't enough for you, mark the last Tuesday of the month in your calendar, too.

That's because, on the last Tuesday each month through December 28, a series of state-run museums and sites will have late openings and free entrances. It's called "Martedi in Arte" and takes place across Italy. In Rome and Lazio, the following sites will be open from 7pm-11pm and will be free:

  • Palazzo Barberini, with its reopened archaeological exhibit, Via Quattro Fontane 13
  • Pantheon
  • Borghese Museum
  • Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Viale delle Belle Arti 131
  • Baths of Diocletian, Via Romita 8
  • Crypta Balbi, Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31
  • Museo Nazionale Romano and Palazzo Massimo, Largo di Villa Peretti 1
  • Palazzo Altemps, Via di S. Apollinare 44
  • Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo, Lungotevere Castello 50
  • Villa d’Este, Tivoli (shown above)
  • Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli
  • Necropoli, Strada Provinciale Monterozzi Marina, Tarquinia

To see which sites will be open elsewhere in Italy, check out this list on MiBAC's site (in Italian, but pretty self-explanatory).

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The Hagia Sofia: Roman Ruin, and Symbol of a City

Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

There’s a reason why the Hagia Sofia is so
evocative of all of Istanbul: It’s a microcosm of the city's entire history, from Roman origins to Ottoman Islam to today’s (relatively) secular
nationalism. 

DSC_0235The site initially held an ancient temple, some remnants of
which remain in the current structure — like the dolphin design on the column to the right. The first Christian cathedral was built
on the site in 360 A.D.; it was rebuilt twice, both times after being destroyed by riots. (To see what the older Hagia Sofia(s) would have looked like, check out Byzantium 1200's digital reconstructions).

The current
building, which dates back to 537, was the largest church in the Roman empire. It also remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, beat out only by
the Seville Cathedral in 1520.

In 1453, with Constantinople’s seizure by the
Ottomans, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. And in 1935, at the height of Turkey’s
secularization under Ataturk, it became a museum.

See what I mean about it being a microcosm of Istanbul — and Turkey — in general?

You could write a book on the Hagia Sofia. (Many have). But among the many treasures not to miss are
its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, which date back as far as the 9th century. Also
make sure you check out the seraphim (above) who was only recently uncovered: Although
his three compatriots are still plastered over, his face was revealed this year after
being hidden for centuries by the Ottomans.

Coronation disk of the Hagia Sofia, IstanbulFor a clear tie to the city of Rome, meanwhile, look no further than the gray granite disk set into the floor, on the right of the middle of the church (left). Placed here by Justinian in the 530s, this is where the Byzantine emperors knelt to be crowned as early as 641. If you've visited St. Peter's Basilica, you know that the Roman basilica boasts a similar disk in red porphyry; that's the rota porphyretica, set into the old St. Peter's Basilica and the spot where the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The similarity in the two stones is no mistake. Charlemagne was setting himself up in direct opposition to the "other" successors to the Roman empire, the Byzantines, and by crowning him, Pope Leo III was showing that the papacy had wriggled from Byzantine control and was choosing the Holy Roman Empire as its protector instead. It's also no mistake that the St. Peter's Basilica disk is red porphyry, a precious stone that "one-upped" its sister stone in the Hagia Sofia. (Take that, Byzantines!)

On a broader, architectural note, of course, it's no surprise that the Hagia Sofia looks — almost — reminiscent of that seemingly divinely-inspired building in Rome: the Pantheon. Both structures innovated in setting a circular dome on a square, rather than circular, shape. And both awed contemporaries by building domes on such a large scale: The Hagia Sofia's original dome, which collapsed in 559, was thought to be slightly bigger in diameter but shallower than the current one, built in 563. Even so, the Hagia Sofia's dome today is 102 feet in diameter — just 40 feet smaller than the Pantheon's. (Check out the difference between the two in the images, below).

Don't miss the garden of the church, either. There, in an unassuming tumble that reminded me of abandoned bits of column in Rome's Forum, lie several marble blocks from the second church, dating back to 415. The most striking among them depicts twelve lambs, each symbolizing one of the twelve apostles. Many more remnants of the ancient church remain in the area — but they're still buried underneath the ground, excavations ending in the 1930s after it was realized that continued work could harm the current structure.

Even without that, though, there are enough treasures in the Hagia Sofia to keep a history or archaeology geek satisfied — and maybe a little bit awed.

Dome of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Dome of the Pantheon, Rome

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Eat, Pray, Love and Il Gelato di San Crispino

Ginger-and-cinnamon and black fig gelato at San Crispino, Rome

A confession: I sort of feel the same way about San Crispino, one of Rome's most famous gelaterias, as I do about the book Eat, Pray, Love.

Eat, Pray, Love wrapped up a long-established idea (travel as a journey of self-discovery!) that's still a bit underaccepted by Americans (isn't traveling for a year hippy-dippy and selfish?) in an appealing package (easily-relatable 30-something woman finding her independence, and, in true Disney fashion, love!) that still seems just-off-the-beaten-path-enough to be original (would you quit your job to travel for a year? Well, maybe if you had the cash advance she did, but still….)

Similarly: Il Gelato di San Crispino takes the concept of using fresh, organic ingredients (not exactly a new culinary idea, at least here in Italy) that's still seen as a bit rare (given the number of gelaterias that don't do this) in an appealing package (I mean, it's gelato, and it's near two of Rome's biggest tourist sites).

And just as Eat, Pray, Love found wild success, so — it seems — has San Crispino. As well as franchising (there are now two of the stores), San Crispino's even gotten a movie cameo. In a movie about a woman traveling to Rome to find herself. What was the name of it? Oh, yeah. Eat, Pray, Love. Go figure.

Now, I like San Crispino. Maybe even more than I like Eat, Pray, Love. But I wouldn't call San Crispino the best gelateria in Rome. Its flavors, like the chapters of the book, can be a little uneven in their poignancy and effectiveness. (Okay, I'll stop now). I prefer the creamy texture of the gelato at Ciampini, just up the road. And San Crispino is a little pricier than other gelaterias, with the cheapest cup, for just one taste of one kind of gelato, coming in at €2.50.

That said: I still sometimes recommend the place. Why? First of all, when other gelaterias that "foodies" tend to tout are on Rome's outskirts (like Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè, out in E.U.R.), San Crispino is right in the center. It's convenient. And as corny as it is, you can't underestimate how watching the sunset light up the dome of the Pantheon while noshing seems to make your gelato taste that much better. (The only way, I'm guessing, that all of the restaurants on that piazza manage to stay in business).

Secondly, lots of other people, from La Pergola's Heinz Beck to Elizabeth Gilbert herself, are obsessed with San Crispino gelato. It's obviously a crowd-pleaser. And third, the fruit flavors do taste pretty darn fresh. I especially like their black fig, blackberry, and plum. The ginger-and-cinnamon is a favorite, too.

So: Go. Just please, leave the copy of Eat, Pray, Love in your hotel room to keep the gelateria from imploding by sweet-stuff overload.

Il Gelato di San Crispino. Via della Panetteria 42 (Trevi location) or Piazza della Maddalena (franchise at the Pantheon. For a map, click here.

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