Looking for another unique way to visit the Colosseum—and its underground? How about at night?
Not for the first time, but now nightly until October 5, Rome is opening up the Colosseum to nighttime visitors. Talk about a more tranquil, and spookier, way to visit Rome's bloodiest and most depressing most famous archaeological site.
The catch: because the visit includes the underground, it has to be on a tour led by a Colosseum official, which has its pluses and minuses.* Available times are at 8:20pm, 8:30pm, 8:40pm, 8:50pm, 9:20pm, 9:30pm, 9:45pm, 10pm, 10:15pm, 1o:30pm, and 10:45pm. Booking is required; reserve your spot by calling +39 0639967700. The cost is €20, including your Colosseum ticket.
*Pluses: You'll almost certainly get more information on a tour with an official guide than, say, from a guidebook. Minuses: The official guides do this tour over and over and over, meaning the million-and-first time they give the tour—in other words, when you happen to be on it—they often have very little enthusiasm for the subject left. Also, their English can be middling to poor.
I had lunch today at a Rome restaurant I'd never eaten at before: Divinare, a chic (and cleverly-named) wine bar in Testaccio. The food was delicious, from a pasta with fiori di zucca and guanciale (above) to a super-fresh and gourmet salad.
But I can't recommend Divinare to hungry travelers. And boy, is that frustrating.
It's not that they did anything that I haven't seen a hundred times before. But I'm just too sick of it by now to put up with it any more, even the smallest instances of it.
Familiar with Rome's food scene? Then you know where I'm going with this.
Like one of my favorite restaurants in Rome, L'Asino d'Oro, Divinare has a lunch special: 13 euros for a primo, glass of wine, water, and coffee. Not a bad deal. And there's no mistake that that was supposed to be the total; the menu clearly says "servizio e coperto incluso" (service and cover included). My companion and I even commented to each other how much we liked the rare sight of a restaurant that didn't charge coperto.
He ordered the special; I had a 10 euro salad. We also ordered the (included) water for him, plus one for me, asking for due acque piccole. Our very polite and friendly server, who also may have been the owner, brought one large water instead. That made sense. He also brought bread. This made sense, too.
What didn't make sense? Our bill. Thirteen euros for the menu (correct). Ten euros for the salad (yep). A charge for my coffee (fine). Plus… a charge for the whole bottle of water, plus a 2 euro "pane" charge (wait, what?).
It was a difference of three or four euros. Still, I didn't understand where it came from. We should have been charged for half of the one large bottle of water, and for no "bread and cover" at all. When we said something, the server/(owner?) tried to "explain" to us how Rome restaurants charge for bread separately. Yes, we said, but if you bring the bread without us ordering it, which you did, it seems that would be part of the "coperto" charge. Which should be included.
And what about the water? Oh, he said, it's always tough to figure out these things when one person gets the full menu and one person doesn't. (Really? It seems pretty simple: Just charge for half the two-person bottle).
To be fair, he was nice about it. He knocked the charges off for us. And, for all I know, he always charges for "bread," the lack of clarity on the menu is an honest mistake, and nobody else has ever said anything. It's definitely possible.
But, needless to say, we still left a delicious meal with a bad taste in our mouths. And what a shame that is.
I don't mean to lay all the blame on Divinare. Because here's the thing. This "tacking on" of extra, not-quite-corretto charges happens all the time. Food blogger Katie Parla has written about the selective service charge at Grano that's applied to tourists only, and she just wrote about how Roma Sparita has started sneaking a 15% servizio onto tourists' bills, although their menu clearly says service is included. Similarly, Roma Sparita didn't charge me for service or coperto in June, proving their sometimes-charge is an unfair sleight-of-hand for unsuspecting tourists that's led me to update my own blog post about Roma Sparita accordingly. At other restaurants, waiters lean over when tourists are paying to "remind" them that service wasn't already included on their bill (hint hint hint!).
As for most others I've spoken with, it's not the automatic inclusion of a charge, whether servizio or pane e coperto, that bothers me. It's the shady way that it's never clear if it's going to be added or not—even when the menu seems to make it so clear. And it's the way that it seems to be targeted primarily at English speakers, although Italians can feel free to correct me on this point.
So look, Rome restaurants: I have a request. For the love of your own business, cut the bullshit. Please. You know what's fair and what's not. Charging for bread, when it was brought to a table without being ordered and the menu says coperto incluso, is shady. Charging for a large bottle of water for two people, when one person was supposed to get their water included, is not right. Charging some people service, when the menu says servizio incluso, is not okay. But what's crazy is that you already know that. And guess what? So do many of your clients!
Sure, all of this is small-change stuff. Three or four extra euros is hardly the end of the world. But, when it comes to restaurants with great reputations like Roma Sparita and Divinare, that's part of what blows my mind the most. You'd really rather go to the trouble of making a client an amazing meal and still risk them leaving less than 100% thrilled with their experience… just for the sake of some pocket change?
And, dear restaurants, here's something else you need to keep in mind. You might think that, if your client is a tourist who's in Rome for a day, it doesn't really matter if they love your food or think the bill is fair. But guess what? Tourists, too, have brains, friends… and access to TripAdvisor and Chowhound. Plus, with smartphones and iPads becoming more and more prevalent, future would-be clients now can access lousy reviews online more and more easily while they travel.
Not to mention that, every once in a while, that "tourist" happens to be a Rome-based blogger, travel journalist, or guidebook writer. Or even all three.
So please. You're smart people. You've figured out how to start a business in one of the world's most challenging countries for entrepreunership, not to mention a food establishment in one of the most restaurant-saturated cities on earth. So you tell me. Is it really worth the small change?
Sweet relief — in the form of homemade, artisanal gelato — has just come that much closer for those sightseeing in the Colosseum area. Right across from the entrance to the Roman forum, on Via Cavour, is “Flor,” Rome’s newest gelateria.
Flor just opened in the last month, and I’ve already taken (several) tastings. The good news: It’s definitely good gelato. And it’s made fresh on-site, always a absolute must huge plus. It’s also a welcome addition to an area that previously, Sicilian pastry and ice cream shop Ciuri Ciuri aside, didn’t have very many gelato options at all, never mind artisanal ones.
That said, it’s not the best gelato I’ve ever tasted. Some of the flavors don’t have as much “kick” as I’d like, particularly the fruity ones (is pear really that hard to turn into gelato? Because time after time, I find gelaterias failing to deliver on their pear flavors). But others are definitely worth trying. My two favorites: the variegato all’amarena, a mix of creamy vanilla and cherry, and the fondente, a super-rich dark chocolate.
Even if it’s not Rome’s best gelateria, Flor is still pretty darn good. Oh, and they have 3-euro milkshakes, too. You can bet I’m going back soon to try one.
Flor. Located at the bottom of Via Cavour, just above where it meets Via dei Fori Imperiali, on the left. I’ll go back soon for the proper address, but if you head up Via Cavour from the Roman forum entrance, you can’t miss it.
First, Colosseum has confirmed that it’ll be running tours of those newly-opened areas through July, rather than ending in June, as previously announced.* And, although it’s not confirmed, rumor has it that the hypogeum and third levels will proooobably also be open through October.
Second, before, the Colosseum only was allowing access to the hypogeum and third level via its own tours, given by official Colosseum guides. (Even tour agencies selling the Colosseum underground hand their clients over to official Colosseum guides for the underground part of the tour). But that’s changed. Now, one agency, Walks of Italy, is using its own guides for the hypogeum and third level on the VIP Colosseum underground tour. And, although I’m obviously a bit biased (full disclosure: I used to work for these guys), I think this is an alternative to consider.
Why? Well, even though the official Colosseum guides know their stuff, they can also be a bit, erm, dry. (Your spiel would start to sound dull, too, if you’d been repeating it five times a day for the past 10 years). And not all of them speak that great of English.
So, from what I can see, there are now three main ways to get into the Colosseum’s underground.
Here they are:
Colosseum tour only, with a Colosseum guide. I outlined how to book this tour in an earlier post about booking the Colosseum’s underground. The cheapest way is to book by phone, at least if you have Skype’s Skype-to-phone set up or a great long-distance plan. Otherwise, you can book by using a website like Omniticket, but these sites charge a premium for the convenience. (And all they’re selling you is the official Colosseum tour that you’d get by calling Pierreci).
The facts: Costs €21.50 (if you book directly over the phone). Takes about 1 hour. Only covers the Colosseum and its underground. You use an official Colosseum guide (not always a good thing). Maximum group size is 25.
The complete ancient city tour, but where you’re handed over to a Colosseum guide. This option would be Dark Rome’s Colosseum underground, forum and Palatine tour. They’re one of the only agencies I can see that offers access to the underground as part of a bigger ancient city tour (i.e., not just the Colosseum), but they don’t do the Colosseum underground part with their own guides.
The facts: Costs €92. Takes 3.5 hours. Includes the Colosseum and its underground, along with forum and Palatine. For the Colosseum part of the tour, you’re handed over to an official Colosseum guide; for the rest of it, you use a Dark Rome guide. Maximum group size is 10; for the Colosseum part, it’s 25 (since you’re put onto the bigger group).
The facts: Costs €79. Takes 3 hours 15 minutes. Includes the Colosseum and its underground, along with the forum and Palatine. For the Colosseum part of the tour, you get to keep your own Walks of Italy guide. Maximum group size is 12, throughout the whole tour (since you get to keep your guide).
I'd always wanted to try L'Asino d'Oro, the Umbrian restaurant, run by renowned chef Lucio Sforza, that had made the leap from Orvieto to Rome's Montesacro neighborhood. But, somehow, life got in the way. Before I had a chance to try it, the Rome location closed.
This past weekend, I went for the first time. And it was so good, I went back again four days later for lunch. I can't recall any other restaurant in Rome–not Le Mani in Pasta, not Palatium, not even Roma Sparita–that's made me such an addict so quickly.
Given the restaurant's glowing reviews and the elegant crowd inside (unsurprisingly, the restaurant was completely booked up), I had high expectations on Saturday. The meal, though, beat every single one.
Dinner kicked off with two surprises: smiling servers (rare for Rome!), and a little "taste" from the kitchen, a chicory and ricotta frittata drizzled with olive oil. Then came the fettucine in a duck liver and Vin Santo sauce (€10), one of those bizarre-but-perfect pairings that you just don't find at your average trattoria, and scafata with fava beans, peas and chard (€9). Wild boar stewed in "dolceforte," a reduction of chocolate and red wine–kind of like an Umbrian version of mole (€15). And a super-tasty twist on zuppa inglese that was light, creamy and just sweet enough.
I returned that Wednesday. I had to try their lunch: €12 for an antipasto, primo, secondo, glass of wine, and water. As I suspected, it just might be the best lunch deal in town. (Four-euro pastas at the Spanish Steps aside). For starters, the patio (shown at top) is a lovely choice on a nice day. The service is just as attentive as at night. The portions are smaller, of course, but just right for a lunch that doesn't leave you reeling. (Or rolling). The menu changes daily, and it wasn't quite as creative as what we'd seen at dinner. Still, it was delicious: pumpkin soup, ravioli with ricotta (below), and lamb stewed with artichokes.
So there you are. Another top restaurant to add to your list, and a well-priced one, too. As for me, I'm just thrilled to have found a restaurant that replaces a once-upon-a-time favorite in Monti. Let's just hope L'Asino d'Oro doesn't follow the same well-trodden path.
So you're coming to Rome… but you don't know much (or maybe at all!) about its history or art or sites, and the idea of digging into that thick old Rough Guide you've got is less appealing than gelato in a snowstorm. What do you do?
Crack the books — the fun ones, that is.
Really. There are fun books about Rome that you can actually (gasp!) learn from. And even if you don't remember the ins and outs of what you read by the time you get here, hopefully all that educational entertainment will have done something every bit as important: made you excited to see the forum, the Vatican, or whatever it is that you only originally put on your list because, well, it sounded important.
A caveat: I'm only recommending books here that I've read. And I know I'm missing lots of great ones. So, have you read an excellent book or novel about Rome? Put it in the comments!
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King. I still haven't read The Agony and the Ecstasy (I know, I know)… but I have to say that, for me, it'll be hard to beat King's version of the Michelangelo-versus-the-pope knockdown. King is the guy who wrote Brunelleschi's Dome — also a recommendation, if you're heading to Florence. And he has a knack for narrative that will have you hanging on every twist and turn in the Sistine Chapel saga.
Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This brand-new take on the woman history loves to hate wasn't quite as groundbreaking as it promised to be. After all, it's hard to completely reset someone's reputation when the only surviving sources about them come from their enemies. Even so, Schiff gets pretty close, trying to shine a light through the sources' (fortunately predictable) biases to illuminate who the real woman would have been. But all that aside, Cleopatra is, on its own, an addictive biography. You know how it all ends, but you can't help turning the page for more, more, more of this confident, extraordinary, anything-but-promiscuous woman Schiff paints for us. Plus, while most of the book deals with Alexandria, its section on what Rome would have looked like to Cleopatra on her visit (in brief: a backwater) is pretty entertaining.
Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's, R. A. Scott. She's been slammed for some historical inaccuracies, but there's no denying that Scott's a storyteller. And deserves major kudos for telling the sweeping 200-year history of St. Peter's Basilica with both page-turning speed and colorful details (Michelangelo didn't just "make his escape"; he made it "wrapped in a lavendar cloak the color of dusk, riding headlong against a sharp north wind"). The enormity of the basilica, and its history, here comes compact (less than 300 quick-read pages). That's a downside if you plan to be the next big St. Peter's Basilica expert… but a positive if you don't want your head to hurt.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy. He's the most famous Roman to have lived, and Goldsworthy does him justice. In this fat (632-page) but readable biography, he delves into the man behind the myth, from the stand-up to Sulla that got the 18-year-old banished from Rome right up to the world-rocking murder… with all of the juicy betrayals, affairs and shenanigans in between. Better yet is Goldsworthy's deftness in contextualizing Caesar and exposing the Republic's "rot". Be warned, there's a lot of detail here, and it might be little much for anyone who's not already drawn to the Roman Republic or Caesar himself. But for geeks like me those who want a real grasp on the guy who changed it all, it's just right.
Rome: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert. For those who want the whole history, told in a relatively comprehensive and non-textbook kind of way, this is the big daddy. Hibbert's book takes you right through from 753 B.C. to the 20th century. It's hefty, but readable — although this is one I wouldn't go for until you're already pretty interested in the city. It also comes with a handy section on the history of individual sites in Rome, even the more minor.
The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Susan Cahill. If you want something that you can pick up, put down, pick up, put down, look no further. This anthology of works by writers who lived in, or visited, Rome — from Ovid to Fellini, Henry James to John Updike — is full of by turns poignant, cutting, and witty impressions of the city. At the end of each piece, there are suggestions for a walk you can take that incorporates the sites written about.
Once upon a time, I had a favorite restaurant in Rome.
This restaurant wasn't five-star. It wasn't fancy. But it was everything you'd want from a Roman trattoria: Good, fresh dishes, particularly the pastas; dad cooking in the back, kids serving out front; convenient location (a stone's-throw from the Forum!); moderate prices; checkered tablecloths.
Sadly, this is also everything tourists, understandably, would want from a Roman trattoria. And where the tourists go, the quality flees — at least here in Rome.
It's a sad story. But it's not a unique one.
In fact, you see it again and again in Rome: A place becomes a local favorite. Then someone writes it up. Then it winds up in a guidebook. Then, just as the deluge of tourists really starts, once the place has really made it, once you'd think the owners might work all the harder to maintain that success and re-invest and be creative… that's exactly when the quality slumps. The cooks change. The servers get surlier. The food gets worse. And the prices go up.
I never thought I'd say this about the restaurant that, even a year ago, made me wax poetic about truffle ragu and eggplant, the one where I took every single guest who visited, the one I could count on to be easy on the palate and (almost) as easy on the wallet. But Taverna dei Fori Imperiali has, it seems, taken the same path as countless Roman restaurants before it.
The seeds of demise probably were planted back in 2006, when Frank Bruni wrote it up in a glowing restaurant review for the New York Times. (A "real find," he wrote). The taverna started doing so well that it changed locations, moving into a tonier and bigger spot (like the old place, right across from the Forum). Other reviewers started writing it up, too, including myself — I included it as a pick for lunch my article for the Guardian last summer, "Eat Like a Local in Rome." When that article came out, the food was still great, the price still good, and the place was still packed nightly with lots of tables of Italians. (Almost always a good sign).
But over the next few months, the menu changed. The prices rose; no longer was I shelling out 25 euros for a dinner, but 30. Thirty-five. I could understand that — hey, the place was getting popular — but the pastas, usually so delicious, seemed to lack a certain something. Still, I had to give them credit: I never saw the restaurant without Dad cooking in the back, either his son and daughter serving clients themselves, just like always.
So, after a couple more mediocre meals there, I went back again last week. It was one last shot. I still felt like I could almost taste that first ragu I'd had here. Trust me when I say it was a taste worth fighting for.
It was lunchtime. There wasn't a single table of Italians. While the son was in the restaurant, we were served mainly by waiters I didn't recognize; the daughter was nowhere to be seen. And Dad? He was still there. But, in all my meals there, it was the first time I'd ever seen him in "civilian clothes," without his chef's hat. Nor did I see him enter the kitchen once throughout our entire meal.
Needless to say, not having the same cook, the one who before had seemed so proud of making his creations personally, is a big change. And, of course, chefs don't remain chefs forever. They train new cooks. They move on. They retire. It's understandable.
But here's the thing: This was a change we could taste. And it wasn't good.
My companion and I ordered a starter of liver patè. The patè was fine… the toast it was slathered on, burnt. The cost? Eight euros.
Well, on to the pastas, always Taverna's fortè. Portions seemed to have shrunk. The main menu's puttanesca (9 euros) was fine, but nothing particularly special. I had a carbonara that was served lukewarm, salty, and seemed to be swimming in liquid — uncooked egg? Fantastic. Not the worst food, or even the worst carbonara, that I've had. But definitely not great, especially for 13 euros.
The bill — which came with a receipt only when we asked, and not with a smile — with water, no wine, came to about 18 euros each. Not terrible. But not worth it.
(And let me just say it kills me to write that. Oh, Taverna! How I once loved you! How I wish I still could!)
It's a sad tale. But I share it because it's also a cautionary tale. And I think we can all learn from what it tells us: If you're visiting Rome and trying to figure out the best local places to eat, don't rely on TripAdvisor, don't rely on guidebooks, and don't even rely on articles written more than 6 months ago. As even Anthony Bourdain said in his "No Reservations" Rome episode, to "out" a restaurant as being good, to expose its brilliance to the masses, is to kill it.
And in Rome, that happens quickly. So quickly that you have to let go of that memory of aromatic, delicious, heartstrings-pulling ragu… and go in search of a new favorite restaurant to replace it.
Again, these last five scams, especially, are very unlikely to happen to you on your travels. Rome is a very safe city. And while I’ve heard of #5 and #4 happening to friends of friends, those after that, thank goodness, have never happend to me or anyone I know.
That said: It’s always smarter, obviously, to be aware. Here, the last five — and some of the scariest — of Rome’s top scams and crimes.
5. ATM fraud. You use an ATM to withdraw money — usually, the best way to avoid extra fees. When you get home and check your bank statement, you realize someone else has been withdrawing money, as well.
This is getting more common as more and more criminals are figuring out ways to install ATM skimming devices onto the machines, which can capture your account information by using a card reader and a tiny video camera to capture your PIN.
Usually seen: Unpredictable. Most likely victims: Anyone using an ATM. If it happens to you: There’s not much you can do, although of course once you file the fraud with your bank, you should get the money returned.
The best way to avoid this, though, is to always cover the keypad with your hands when you type in your PIN and to use the ATMs that are inside reputable banks. If it looks like you need to slide a card through a scanner to get into the vestibule, don’t worry — whatever your bank card is will work. Also be wary of any gaps or tampered appearance in the machine, and avoid card readers that aren’t flush with the machine’s face.
4. Any distraction technique. These run the gamut. Maybe you’re at a busy metro stop and someone collides into you. Maybe you’re out at a club and a guy dances up close to you… really close. Maybe a little girl tugs on your pant leg and asks you for help. Either way, by the time you’ve reacted, your wallet is gone.
Usually seen: Unpredictable — and, it should be noted, worldwide. Travel forums for Paris and Barcelona are full of them, too. Most likely victims: Anyone who looks capable of being surprised. If it happens to you: By the time it happens, it’s too late. Even if you can chase down the accomplice, your stuff is long-gone.
3. Theft-on-the-move. You’re walking; someone whizzes by you on a scooter and, bam! your purse is gone.
Usually seen: Also unpredictable, and also worldwide. This just happened to a friend of mine living in Paris. Most likely victims: Females walking alone. If it happens to you: It’s already too late. Just be glad that you weren’t hurt in the theft; the force can cause broken arms and collarbones.
2. Drugging and mugging. This post on the SlowTrav forum was the first I’d heard of this, but it’s pretty scary. Usually, it unfolds in a “befriending” scenario: You’re alone at a train station, restaurant or bar, someone starts chatting with you, gets you a drink, and before you know it you’re passed out because of the drugs they’ve laced the drink with. When you wake up, your valuables are gone and you may have been sexually assaulted. It seems the SlowTrav victim may not have even been befriended first, which is even more worrisome.
Usually seen: In the area around the Termini train station or near the Colosseum, Colle Oppio, Campo dei Fiori, and Piazza Navona. Most likely victims: Anyone, male or female, who’s out alone. If it happens to you: Call the police and, if needed, seek out a hospital immediately.
1. Flat-out assault. Again, please remember: For a city, this happens very, very rarely in Rome. But you don’t want it to happen to you.
Usually seen: In any dark, unlit areas at night. Be particularly wary of parks: I saw the immediate aftermath of one violent mugging (two Korean tourists who had been roughed up and gotten their cameras and wallets stolen) at the Parco di Traiano, the park overlooking the Colosseum, while they’d been (obliviously) taking night shots. (In case it’s not clear, this is not a nice park at night). Also be wary of the area right around the Termini train station, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, or in San Lorenzo. Most likely victims: Anyone, but especially tourists, especially those traveling alone or in small numbers, and especially those who aren’t aware of their surroundings.
The takeaway? Don’t be paranoid, but do be aware. Use common sense. And don’t get so caught up in taking pretty photos that you have no idea of what’s going on around you.
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.