Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
Bookmark and Share

Rome, sweet Rome

15 lesser-known reasons why Italy's grand capital continues to inspire and delight

Rome is known as the Eternal City for a reason. The venerable home of the Coliseum and the Sistine Chapel is so ancient that it traces its founding to legendary twins nursed by a wolf in the eighth century BCE, and it's been at the epicentre of Western history ever since. But any visitor who expects a dusty living museum is in for a shock.

Twenty-first-century Rome is the capital of Italy and a metropolis of nearly three million people — a reminder that the city's longevity isn't just due to the emperors and popes whose architectural legacies still fill it. People have lived here for 3000 years and every generation has recycled their heritage to contribute something new and invariably important to the rest of us. As a result, Rome not only endures, but it is as original and irreplaceable as it's ever been.

To help uncover Rome's persistent appeal, we've compiled a list of 15 pursuits, places and pastimes that lay bare the Roman soul.

Pasta Primacy
1 The word pasta means "paste," flour and water transformed by culinary magic into a primo piatto, a first course that has long been an art form. Pasta was already being fashioned near Rome by 400 BCE (a carving depicts a rolling-out table and flour bin), and, by 1400 CE, the Vatican was regulating the production of 60 kinds. Rome's National Pasta Museum (117 Piazza Scanderbeg; tel: 011-39-6-699-1119) features many more, including the rag-like strozzaprete, the name of which indicates you can strangle a priest with it. Local specialties are tonarelli (which looks like square spaghetti) and anything served with peperoncino, a fiery hot pepper. For tonarelli, try lunch at the Trattoria Zampagna (179 Ostiense; tel: 011-39-6-574-2306).

Espress Yourself
2 Coffee owes a lot of its fame to Rome. Baptized by a pope to cleanse it of its Middle Eastern origins, the brown bean's processing was perfected here with the locally developed espresso machine. Cappuccino, in turn, is named after the brown robes of Capuchin monks. To experience the artistry behind that particular elixir, head to the famous Caffè Perù (84 Via Giulia; tel: 011-39-6-686-1310) where the barrista will delicately etch the outline of a flower in your froth. But go before noon: no true Roman ever drinks coffee with milk after 12 (it interferes with digestion).

Market Value
3 Italy's romance with produce extends well past tomatoes. In fact, the word cornucopia was presumably coined for Rome's markets, which teem with greens and fruit brought from the countryside. The local diet still feels the seasons' pull: the dwindling of winter rains see artichokes appear, followed by broad beans (eaten raw with pecorino cheese) and, from mid-May onwards, Rome's delicious cherries. Fall is more likely to be associated with mushroom picking than leaves. If you love porcini, come in September. The market at the Campo de' Fiori is an old market popular with photographers, and Piazza Vittorio is a destination for thousands of market-goers. Both are open from early morning until about 1:30pm, Monday to Saturday.

Through the Keyhole
4 If there's a world contained behind a door, it's on Rome's Aventine Hill in a neighbourhood of churches and orange groves. Every day, a queue forms at the church of Santa Maria del Priorato (3 Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta; tel: 011-39-6-6758-1234) to peer through il buco, the keyhole of a certain green gate. What are they looking at? Well, that would be telling. I can say that it involves the world's tiniest perfect vista — a view of a treed avenue leading to a Vatican landmark, all framed in a space smaller than a garden's lock.

A Cloistered Life
5 A cloister is the four-sided courtyard of a monastery. Usually decorated with foliage, benches and statuary, they are clusters of calm amidst the city's hubbub. One of the most tranquil is found at the Monastery of San Cosimato in Trastevere. Less restful is the one at the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, which features a marble frieze of the mythical chimera — a fire-breathing monster with a lion's teeth, goat's torso and serpent's tail. Others worth a stop are at San Giovanni in Laterano and Santi Quattro Coronati.

6 Romans like to joke that their trams are one of the few things not built by the Caesars — those ones were phased out in 1990. But the tram system is actually cheap, efficient and extensive enough to satisfy visitors. Take the much-loved Number 3 line (which runs from the Stazione Trastevere to Valle Giuli), lauded by luminaries like movie director Frederico Fellini, and relax into la dolce vita the "sweet life" he portrayed on film. The route wanders scenically near the Colosseum and Circus Maximus.

Nice Ice
7 There's no better gelato in Rome than the concoctions spooned up at the ice cream and sorbet emporium, Il Gelato di San Crispino (42 Via della Panetteria; tel: 011-39-6-679-3924). Patrons rave about the flavours. Everything is delicious so it is hard to choose between the pear and ginger-cinnamon, the namesake San Crispino which has a honey taste, or the zabaglione, made with 20-year-old barrel-aged Marsala. Despite being close to the famous Trevi Fountain, the place can be hard to find — look for a small sign and folks with big smiles holding cups of ice cream.

Rambling Rome
8 Rome is an eminently walkable and watchable city, and never more so than after dark. Ruins loom from the shadows as people throng the squares until the moon is high over the river Tiber. It isn't surprising that both the apartment block and the tiny urban balcony were invented here in antiquity. Romans have stayed outdoors ever since and have been responsible for Europe's liveliest nighttime scene in the process. Take a walk and take part in the evening passegiata, a tradition still followed on some of the city's most prominent squares, including the Piazza Venezia, Piazza Colonna, Piazza Navona, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza del Popolo and Campo de' Fiori.

Picture Perfect
9 Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576-1633) was a Vatican bureaucrat with a shrewd eye and a voracious appetite for works of art. The collection of the Galleria Borghese (5 Piazza Scipione Borghese; tel: 011-39-6-32-810;, which he assembled and housed in the mansion his family commissioned, is still one of the world's finest. It includes works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian and Rubens, among others. Borghese was the patron of the great sculptor Bernini, whose masterpiece in marble, Apollo and Daphne, is on display here. The extensive grounds around the mansion are gorgeous. Reservations are recommended.

Clean Sweep
10 The ancient Romans were one of the first civilizations to institute street cleaning and their innovations have persisted. Today, a quota system ensures that a sizeable percentage of the municipal netturbini are women, easily recognizable as they attack Rome's grime with brooms. In return for their service, the Pope blesses their union's crèche every Christmas. They also get into the movies free year-round.

A Drink Before Dining
11 The pre-dinner aperitif is an essential part of Roman life. And although the term aperitivo refers to certain types of grape-based alcohol, try not to linger on Rome's mostly unmemorable wines. Play it safe and have a Campari and soda, or, if you're adventurous, a glass of artichoke-flavoured Cynar. But make sure that you sip with a view. Any aperitivo in Rome needs to be accompanied by the skyline — the historic Hotel Eden's (49 Via Ludovisi; tel: 011-39-6-478-121; bar is perfect for a rendezvous with St. Peter's over the rooftops.

Silent as a Statue?
12 There are so many statues in Rome that no one's quite sure exactly how many there are. Among the more memorable are the so-called talking statues, used from the 16th to 19th centuries as sites of protest, upon which inflammatory or satirical posters were stuck late at night. The best-known talking statue is the third-century-BCE "Pasquino," located in the small square of the same name behind Piazza Navona. Today, botteghe or artisanal shops produce highly skilled works to order. One such studio is Massoni Antonio Scultore (23 Via Canova; tel: 011-39-6-322-7207), which specializes in plaster copies of famous statues you may trip over while in Rome.

Pomp It Up
Long derided by locals as "The Wedding Cake" or "Giant Typewriter" because of its undeniably kitschy appearance, the National Monument to King Vittorio Emanuele II (Piazza Venezia; tel: 011-39-6-699-1718) fails in its clumsy attempts to compete with the magnificence of its classical neighbours. But climb past endless grandiloquent carvings of events that took place during Italy's 1860s/1870s Risorgimento unification movement, and you'll eventually reach the colonnade at the top. Here, the real spectacle begins: lovely views from the Vittoriano sweep across central Rome and the Imperial Fori.

Grave Truths
14 The Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners (Cimitero Acattolico per gli Stranieri, 6 Via Caio Cestio; tel: 011-39-6-574-1900) is exactly that, an eerily beautiful resting place for Rome's centuries-old expatriate community. Take a walk among the tombstones and you might find something interesting. Among the graves of minor British baronets and fever-stricken American debutantes lie the tombs of the great English Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Also buried here are a number of notorious atheists like Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist Party. Adding to the atmosphere are 250 feral cats that live in a sanctuary on the grounds.

Into the Hills
15 If all roads lead to Rome, where do Romans go to get away from the traffic? Many take a trip to the Mare di Roma, the area's seaside colonies and beaches. Quick 20-minute rail connections are available into the city, but the seashore itself is perhaps too built up for Canadian tastes. The most interesting part of the coast is Ostia, 35 kilometres outside of Rome and filled with world-famous archeological remains. It's surprising that there are ruins left to visit, as many ancient bricks were carted away during the Middle Ages for buildings elsewhere, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

For a better bet, head southeast with the rest of Rome to the nearby Castelli Romani or Alban Hills. This beautifully rugged region of deep blue volcanic lakes, dense forests, mild winters and cool summers was the favourite retreat of Roman Emperors (especially the infamous Caligula), and has attracted leisure-seekers to its sleepy hilltop towns and precipitous vistas ever since. A half-hour from Rome, via the Autostrada del Sole, the Alban Hills are close enough to lend themselves to an afternoon outing — although you may be disinclined to return at nightfall. Filled with villas, churches, castles and frescos, the seven towns of the Castelli Romani are Frascati, Grottaferrata, Marino, Rocca di Papa, Genzano, Ariccia and Monteporzi. Genzano is the busiest, offering cheap, quality shopping compared to Rome.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.