How to Roam Like a Roman
You can walk the walk and talk the talk. But can you motor the motorino? Claire Oldman plays Italian for a day.
ROME – In the early days of summer, the air in Rome is filled with the heady scent of something as sweet as honey. It's rincospernum, a plant in the jasmine family that blooms all over Rome. You catch a whiff of it as you open a window or when you walk through a patch of golden light between those ancient buildings. I tell you this so that you don't think, as I did, that you're having some kind of olfactory hallucination because you are overwhelmed by the city's beauty.
If you only have a long weekend in Rome, whether you've been there before or not, you can feel pressured to do and see all the amazing things you're supposed to do and see in Rome. This very well may lead to lots of map-folding and queing and overdosing on architectural awe. But you probably will not take the time to stop and smell the rincospernum.
I believe that the best way to experience Rome is as the Romans do: with not too much hurry or stress and plenty of coffee and gelato.
Preferred Mode of Transport: Motorino
Hands down, the best way to get around in Rome is on two motorized wheels. You can see the whole of Rome in a day without getting too tired with freedom to stop whenever you like (parking is free and easy to find). I was lucky enough to have friends with friends with at least three Vespas of varied engine capacities at their disposal. But in the unlikely event that you don't, I wouldn't encourage anyone to just go and hire a scooter without first going to a major intersection to watch what Roman traffic is really like (utter chaos). If you're still feeling suicidal — I mean confident! — you can easily rent a scooter (up to 125cc) as long as you have a full valid driver's license.
Barberini offers a scooter tour for up to five scooters (ten people) with a guide who will take you around for a few hours or the whole day to see all the major sites and more (€150- €300). Scooteroma also does tours and gives you the option of being driven as a pillion passenger (my preferred way to motor around). There's also a vintage Vespa tour if you want to live out your Roman Holiday fantasy.
Prefered Cooling Method: Gelato
Gelato is eaten after lunch and dinner, but also before lunch and dinner, or before and after coffee. Basically, anytime you please. I found my favorite flavors at Gelateria del Teatro (Via di San Simone 70; +39-6-4547-4880), nestled in an alley off a charming, quiet street right in centro storico (historic center). The shop specializes in imaginative flavors, and I partook in a post-aperitif, pre-dinner raspberry-sage gelato and a scoop of honey-lemon-rosemary. Quite the palate cleanser.
Preferred Time of Day: Aperitivo Hour
Further down the street is Casa & Bottega (Via dei Coronari 183; +39-6-68-804-037), a stylish little place for an aperitif, by which I mean savory hors d'oeuvres that arrive with drinks. It's also open as a café early in the day, which is good to know if you find yourself in the centro storico mid-afternoon having only had a gelato for lunch.
Preferred Method of Revival: Espresso
The best coffee in Rome is at Sant'Eustachio Il Caffe (Piazza Sant'Eustachio 82; +39-66-8802048), where baristas whip the first drops of espresso with sugar to produce froth for a superior crema. Founded in 1938, it's popular with locals and politicians from the nearby senato della repubblica (Italian senate). On a Saturday afternoon, the bright yellow interior was packed so solidly with customers that we had to retreat to an outside table. Bonus view: Sant'Eustachio Basilica's stag statue.
Preferred Shopping Path: Mercato
Porta Portese flea market is just like every other big city flea market, and yet you'd be hard pressed to find these goods anywhere else. Open from 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. every Sunday in Trastevere, it sprawls (seemingly) forever and ever. (It's also the most popular location for pickpockets in Rome, so do watch out.) Feast your eyes on all manner of total junk and occasional treasures: modern kitchen implements, beautiful crystal chandeliers, old cameras, dusty kilims, reproduction rococo ornaments, fake perfumes, a box of toy horses, etc. Bonus view: A drunken hobo doing a wobbly dance performance in front of some other drunken hobos and a small crowd of curious onlookers. I had the restriction of hand baggage, but I bought a '60 glass-and-chrome apple container for €5. If I lived in Rome, I would furnish my entire apartment with judiciously chosen bargains.
Preferred Spot for a Bite: Osteria & Enoteca
When you've had enough of the flea market, cross over viale Trastevere and wander the beautiful winding streets of the Trastevere neighborhood, the most picturesque little area. Which means, unfortunately, that it is overrun with touristy restaurants. (You won't know until you've been handed a laminated menu translated into six languages.) It's hard to find a place locals will happily dine, but Osteria der Belli (Piazza di Sant'Apollonia 11; +39-6-580-3782), next to Teatro Belli is where my actress friend told me her crowd regularly goes for post-show meals. It's owned by four Sardinian brothers who served us a lovely meal and dessert of tiny wild strawberries with lemon and sugar, which we washed down with coffee.
Cul-de-Sac (Piazza Pasquino 73; +39-6-6880-1094) is a wine bar with over 1,500 selections. A menu of small dishes revived our weary group. The cheese and charcuterie plates looked amazing, but I could not resist a small bowl of homemade pasta with pesto. The more typically Roman pasta all'amatriciana looked delicious, too. We were seated outside facing the peaceful piazza just 30 seconds away from the hordes at Piazza Navona. With few other customers there during the quiet part of the afternoon, we were able to chat with the staff and choose a refreshing white wine at our leisure. It was my last meal in Rome and it couldn't have been more perfect: sipping wine in the shade, away from the madding crowds.
Then it was back on the motorino, cutting through the scented air, begrudgingly changing from a swishy cotton skirt into trousers, a wool sweater, and boots for the UK rain.
See all locations mentioned in this itinerary. (Google Map)
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