The (New) Revealed Rome Guidebook Is Out!

New Rome guidebook

I couldn’t be more excited to announce that, after five years, my new Rome guidebook is out.

The original 2012 version of the Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks to the Eternal City sold thousands of copies (and got rave reviews). This book builds on that success with an in-depth update and serious expansion: It’s crammed full with more than twice as many fun, easy-to-digest tips and tricks than the previous version.

Like the previous version, the new book is not your normal “Rome guidebook”. Instead of providing information easily found elsewhere, it gives you tips and tricks to experiencing Rome like a local, including items like…

  • how to pick an authentic Roman restaurant at a glance
  • budget accommodation options you may not have considered
  • the one place to never take a taxi
  • secrets to skipping the lines at the Colosseum, the Vatican and more
  • off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods that should be on your list
  • how to eat gluten-free, vegetarian or with other dietary restrictions
  • key tips for booking (and taking) trains
  • here to find drinking water, and bathrooms, while out and about
  • how to protect yourself from pickpockets
  • the best neighborhoods in Rome for shopping

New Rome guidebook

…and much, much more. Buy it on Amazon here or by clicking the cover at left.

I’m also really excited to say that, for the first three months of publication, I’m donating a significant portion of the profits (€1/$1/£1 per book, depending on location of sale) to a cause I believe in: the American Institute for Roman Culture, a nonprofit which protects and campaigns for Rome’s cultural heritage. So if you’re thinking of buying a book, now is the time to do it!

The book comes on Amazon as an e-book which can be read on any tablet, iPhone, laptop or Kindle.

Note: Bought the book before today, and now wish you’d waited for the new version? Don’t worry: You can replace the older version with this update. If you’re using a Kindle device or app, turn on Annotations Backup to back up your notes, highlights and bookmarks. Then go to the Manage Your Content and Devices page, select “Automatic Book Update” under the Settings tab and select “On” from the dropdown menu. Your e-book automatically will be updated to the new version.

If you’d prefer to receive the book as a PDF, order it through Paypal by clicking on the button below. When I receive the order confirmation, I will e-mail you the book as a PDF. (Just be aware that this is a manual process, so can take me up to 48 hours to e-mail over).




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(Fun!) Books for Readin’ Up on Rome

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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.

Next on my list (what should I add?):

Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography, by Matthew Dennison

The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere, by Caroline Murphy

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

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The Rome Palazzo You Have to Visit… By May

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Farnese for its once-in-a-blue-moon opening to the public yet, then go — by April 27.

Here’s why: The palazzo is an architectural gem, designed in the 16th century by Antonio da Sangallo, Giacomo della Porta, and that guy everyone’s heard of, Michelangelo. It’s a treasure trove of art, including Annibale Carracci’s world-famous frescoes of romping gods and goddesses (pictured above — since no photos were allowed in the exhibition, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art).

And Palazzo Farnese is a key piece of juicy Renaissance history: It was built by Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III) after he got his start in the Church thanks to his sister, Giulia. Why was she so influential? Well, she was sleeping with Pope Alexander VI. That helps.

Did I mention the travesty fact that this lovely papal palazzo is closed to the public? Since 1874, it’s been the home of the French Embassy. That means you can’t just wander in off the street. Unfortunately.

Now, you can… or almost.

Since December, Palazzo Farnese has hosted an exhibit titled, quite simply, “Mostra Palazzo Farnese.” Because that’s exactly what it is: a rare display of the palazzo’s gems, not least of all its rooms and galleries themselves. The gorgeous courtyard alone boasts ancient sarcophagi and sculptures, many on loan from the Naples Archaeological Museum; for those who can’t get to Naples, the exhibit also has copies of the fabulous Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull, both just too big to be moved. (Darn them for being so impressive!)

My favorite? The Venus Kallipygos, a 1st-century B.C. marble (based on a 3rd-century B.C. Greek bronze), as much because I get a kick out of its name — literally, “Venus of the beautiful buttocks” — as because it is, well, beautiful. From top to, er, bottom.

Venus Kallipygos in the Naples Archaeological Museum, currently at Palazzo Farnese, rome

That’s not to mention the glittering tapestries, Renaissance paintings and portraits of the Farnese family that make up the rest of the exhibition.

As far as rooms go, though, there’s nothing quite like the salon frescoed by Annibale Carracci, the famous High Renaissance painter from Bologna. Now, his frescoes are little-recognized compared to, say, those by Raphael or Michelangelo in the Vatican, but that’s a shame: Art historians always have considered them an incredible blend of both styles, and they’re usually seen as the best frescoes of the High Renaissance. What Raphael lacked in power, muscularity and dynamism, Carracci’s got. And what Michelangelo didn’t quite grasp in terms of harmony, beauty, and elegance, well, Carracci’s covered that part, too.

Don’t believe me? Just check out this image (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art):

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Here’s a close-up of that great fresco you see at the far end, the Cyclops Polyphemus:

Cyclops Polyphemus in Annibale Carracci's frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Pretty great stuff. But if you don’t get your bottom there before April 27, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to see any of this again.

The cost of the exhibit, which includes a (unsurprisingly dry, but informative) audioguide, is €12, plus reductions. Don’t wait in line for your ticket — book your spot in advance. (Especially since the lines will probably get longer as the exhibit nears its end date!). Call 0632810 to book, or — easier still for those already in Rome — stop by the Feltrinelli bookstore at Largo Argentina. There, they have a “box office” where you can buy your tickets for one of the available time slots.

And if you’re still not convinced the Palazzo Farnese is worth beelining too — let me repeat, before it closes to the public once more — check out The Economist’s enthusiastic take on the Mostra Palazzo Farnese. (After all, if The Economist says it, it must be true).

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Visiting Rome? Expect a Tourist Tax…in Cash

With the new year come new taxes — this time, for tourists visiting Rome, Italy.

The "tourist tax," which went into effect Jan. 1, applies to any nonresidents of Rome who will be participating in tourist-like activities — including staying at a hotel or campsite. So far, it's €3 per person, per night for those staying at 3- and 4-star hotels, and €2 for those at lesser-starred accommodations. The hotel tax is applied to the first 10 nights only. Campers have to pay €1 per person, per night for the first 5 nights. Tourists will also be charged €1 extra for entrance to museums. (Yes, apartments and B&Bs also count).

No word yet on if tourists also will be charged extra at souvenir shops or mediocre faux-Italian restaurants. (Kidding).

While the tax itself is less than you would pay for, say, a couple of bottles of water, what'll probably be more annoying for visitors is how it's implemented. (Hey, it's Italy!) The tax can only be paid in cash, and the hotel fee is settled at the end of the stay. So make sure you don't give away ALL of those extra coins before you check out.

The upside: The some €80 million that Rome expects to reap from the tax annually will go to Rome's cultural heritage and infrastructure. And as I've written before, Rome's ruins are crumbling — so if you want to keep the Eternal City "eternal" enough for your kids to experience it, adding a little to the coffers ain't all bad.

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Off to Istanbul, the Other Rome

You can visit Rome, tour the forum, Pantheon and Colosseum, even visit the Baths of Caracalla, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the ancient aqueducts — and you still won't get a full sense of the Roman empire.

The only way to do that is to visit Istanbul, founded as Constantinople — the new capital of the ancient Roman empire — in 330 A.D.

When people say the Roman empire "fell" in the 5th century, they're wrong. The eastern half soldiered on. It was later dubbed the "Byzantine empire" by historians who wanted to make a nice, clean break for the timeline… but those living in Constantinople at the time would have considered themselves Romans.

Constantinople continued as the empire's capital for nearly another millennium. And many traces of the city's Roman past still remain. Both the Hagia Sofia and basilica cistern, two must-see sites, were built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who wanted to bring the Roman empire back to its former greatness and reconquer the western half. Then there's the hippodrome built under Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, and Constantine's inaugural column of 330, and the classical sarcophagi, mosaics and other artifacts of the Archaeological Museum.

In a sense, Istanbul is Rome, its successor and its heir. I'll be traveling through Turkey for the next week, and as I go, I'll be posting about what to do, see and eat. Please enjoy this brief break from the eternal city. I'm sure I will!

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How to Eat Responsibly in Italy and Beyond

The wonderful meals you can enjoy in Italy might not be around forever. Between globalization, a farming crisis, and the demand (particularly by tourists) for out-of-season products, the way Italy makes and consumes its food is changing. Just check out the relatively-sudden prevalence of grocery stores (there are three within a 5 minutes' walk from me) or the crowds that pack the (yes, few and far between, but still existing) McDonald's in Rome for proof.

The same way you'd think twice before tossing garbage into the street, think about how your choices of restaurants and foods might impact the (culinary and natural) environment around you. Katie Parla gives some excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater — in Italy, or anywhere.

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Weekend in Iglesias, Sardinia

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Last week, a friend of mine visited me in Rome. He'd never been to Italy before, and he asked if we could day-trip to Venice. I hedged. Venice is expensive, and touristy, and crowded, I told him. But I knew I had to come up with an equally-seductive alternative. Racking my brain — and asking everyone I knew — I finally came up with an answer: Sardinia.

A week later, we were on the plane. (If a Ryanair counts as a plane: Ryanair's rickety machines always strike me as much as planes as, when I was 4, a big cardboard box was an actual choo-choo train. It takes imagination. And faith.) We landed in Cagliari just an hour later. And from there, hopped on a train to Iglesias. Even for the directionally-challenged and even without renting a car — something we'd expressly been told NOT TO DO by most Italians — getting from City A to City B was a breeze.

And oh, were we glad we went.


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Sardinia gets packed in July and August, but in early June, we were the only tourists — including Europeans — that we saw. And since most Italians beeline for the northern Costa Smeralda, I'm not sure if the west coast's Iglesias, where we stayed, ever gets crowded. Take our bed & breakfast, "La Babbajola": Since we were the only guests there, for just €60/night, we had the whole palazzo — complete with clawed bathtubs, frescoed dining room, and antique armoires — to ourselves. Let's just say it felt more "baronial" than "B&B."

To be fair, there isn't a ton to do in Iglesias. (Perhaps part of the reason why the town didn't even make it into the Sardinian section of the Rough Guide we had with us). It's just a taste of Sardinia: Known for its mining and not much else, Iglesias doesn't boast any big museums or famous churches, and we didn't see the island's famed nuraghi. But I was exhausted of showing guest after guest around Rome, my friend was mending from a breakup, and for us, the town was perfect. Lovely. Quiet. Traditional. (Waiting outside our B&B, we were greeted by an elderly woman in a black veil who called from her balcony in Italian, "Who are you looking for? Are they not in?")

Iglesias was also close (without a rental car, close-ish) to some of Sardinia's most beautiful beaches. The photo above is of the famous cove at Masua, a 20-minute/€30 cab ride or €2.50 bus rideDSC_0192 away. (The "pullman" bus that goes back and forth to the beach starts running regularly on June 29. Before that, you're stuck with just one bus a day. Or, shh, there's always hitchhiking…) The closest beach is called Fontanamare. While more crowded and (slightly) less picturesque, it's also pretty darn lovely, and I think these babies (right) agree. (This took some embarrassment to realize. Read our shameful tale here.)

But the best thing about Iglesias was the people. I have never. Met such nice people. In my life. Sure,
I hail from the cold (in all sense of the word) clime of New England, but my friend's from friendly Alabama — and he agreed. From the woman who came up to us in the street and greeted us so warmly, with kisses on both cheek, that we thought it was our B&B owner (it wasn't), to the cosmetics-store clerk who took pity on our unwashed selves and gave us loads of free samples of moisturizers and perfumes (were we that smelly?), everyone was so darn nice. And they didn't expect a thing for it. Living in Rome, I'd forgotten what that was like.

If you go to the less-frequented side of Sardinia, including its western coast, be aware that very few people speak English. The town centers can be incredibly confusing, and public transport is slim to none. But I, for one, am going back.

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