Book review: Quiet Corners of Rome

Travel guidebooks conceive of the world as a series of obvious, important monuments. This is particularly true of a brash and magnificent city like Rome. Your typical traveler could be forgiven for simplifying this complex historic capital down to a giant marble stadium, a series of famous steps and giant chapel mural. But writer David Downie reminds us there’s a lot more to Rome than its monuments. In fact, Downie argues, Rome is a city best savored through its secret places: the sensual and contemplative spaces unknown to the average visitor.

In his new book, Quiet Corners of Rome, Downie (a Gadling contributor) treats us to an insider’s tour of over 60 of Rome’s hidden spaces based on years of exploration. What he reveals is a city that is not about grand monuments, but instead the spaces in between: quiet courtyards punctuated by burbling fountains and the fresh scent of pine, the distant vibration of church bells in a shady courtyard and ancient stone plazas bedecked with intricate architectural details. Each sight is accompanied by a serene photo taken by photographer Alison Harris. It’s less a tourist guide than a dictionary of intimate discoveries and pleasant surprises – a sprawling, overwhelming city made personable, particular and specific.

Looking for a guide to Rome’s greatest and grandest sights? This is not that book. What Quiet Corners of Rome accomplishes however, is something altogether more authentic. It’s a highly personal, approachable and enjoyable way experience one of our favorite places as it was meant to be experienced: by cherishing every hidden nook and secret city view.

Rome – 3 days in Italy

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With the bustle of a large European metropolis and the detritus of a monumental past, Rome delights with a frenetic pace and antiquities lurking innocuously around each bend in the road. Here, history has been built on top of history for thousands of years. Seeing bankers in candy red Alfa Romeos zipping by millenia old ruins frames the endurance of this old city. Each sediment in time is visible and speaks to the ancient tale of decaying empire and modern function. The past is everywhere. You may be taking a stroll to sample some Trippa for a late lunch and accidentally stumble upon the Pantheon. There is a certain beauty to this unplanned chaos, and the overlapping of ages is historical mayhem at its most charming.

Rome is estimated to have been settled over ten thousand years ago. It has been a destination for a very long time. It is said that all roads once lead to this settlement on the Tiber. Thankfully, getting to Rome is inexpensive care of European budget air lines. Easyjet flies to Rome from several European cities such as Paris, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam for under $200 round-trip. Three days is plenty of time to see the highlights of Rome, but budget more time to truly understand this storied destination.

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Day 1 – Roam the streets of Old Rome

One of the most amazing qualities of Rome is the integration of the ancient city into the modern metropolis. Most ancient sites beautifully disturb the modern order of things. On an old square, a McDonald’s faces the Pantheon in a worthy example of the strange compromises the present has made with the past. Due to this integration of the historical and the proximity of many Roman landmarks to each other, Rome is a great city for wanderers.

Start at the Colosseum, and take in the crumbling feat of ancient engineering. The queue at the Colosseum can be rather daunting, but booking tickets in advance or purchasing a Roma pass bypasses the line. Here is a great online resource for line skippers. Around the Colosseum, also seek out the Arch of Constantine. It is hard to miss.

From the Colosseum, start heading northwest towards Foro Romano, or the Roman Forum – the ancient seat of Roman government. It is a ruined old structure, and its considerate ambitions can be ascertained by the remnants. The Foro Romano is just east of Palatine Hill – one of the seven hills of Rome. The Circus Maximus, or old chariot racing ground, is just on the other side of the hill.

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Continue northwest along Fori Imperiali road and slowly make your way to the heart of Rome. You will pass Foro Traiano, Piazza Campidoglio, and several other breathtaking landmarks. Eventually, if you stay the course, you will arrive at the doorstep of the Pantheon. The Pantheon is such a feat of engineering that it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. During the renaissance, master architects such as Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon’s construction to reverse engineer advancements in the architectural field. This was 1300 years after the Pantheon’s construction. To call the Pantheon a marvel would be an insult. It stands as a testament to conquering impossibility.

Next the Pantheon, duck into Tazza D’Oro for some caffeine rejuvenation. Tazza is accused of making the best cappuccino in Rome. The place is busy and confusing. Follow someone who looks like they know the lay of the land.

Head north and east to the Trevi fountain, where well wishers toss away an estimated 3000 Euros per day. It is said that if you toss a coin into the Trevi fountain, then you will be guaranteed a return trip to Rome. North of the Trevi fountain is the Spanish Steps – the longest and widest staircase in Europe. Climb from the Piazza di Spagna to the top and cherish the view out over Rome.

For dinner, find a busy restaurant and order a lot of food. Rome is a mecca for food and has multitudes of delicious options. It is difficult to find a bad meal in Rome, so be adventurous. Hostaria Antica Roma on Appian Way is highly recommended.

Day 2 – Vatican City and Sistine Glory

Vatican City is a sovereign city state ruled by the Pope. With a population of less than a thousand, and only 110 acres in total size, the Vatican is considered the smallest country in the world, edging out the micro-state of Monaco. This center of the Catholic world boasts immaculate gardens, a heavenly basilica, and one of the top museums in the world.

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The best way to reach the Vatican is on foot by crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo over the Tiber River. Castel Sant’Angelo is framed gloriously between winged angels on both sides of the bridge. The castle is a great first stop of the day, and houses a museum and Hadrian’s tomb. Castel Sant’Angelo has been a tomb, a castle for the popes, a prison, and also figures prominently int the novel Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.

West of Sant’Angelo is Vatican City. Entering on Via della Conciliazione is probably the most dramatic way to approach the holy place. Once in Vatican City, take in the breathtakingly large Piazza di San Pietro (St. Peter’s square) before entering the basilica. The square boasts an obelisk that was relocated from Egypt almost two-thousand years ago.

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The height of the Michelangelo designed dome in St. Peter’s Basilica is so lofty that you could fit the entire statue of liberty within the dome with room to spare. The interior of St. Peter’s is a heavenly place, festooned with gold finery and artistic masterpieces. You can climb to the top of the dome for a stunning view out across Rome, or take to the crypts beneath the marbled interior to check on some papal tombs.

If you happen to be in Rome on a Wednesday, then you can be blessed by the Pope himself. He hands out blessings at 10:30am on Wednesdays. Check with your hotel or guesthouse to arrange tickets for the event. The Swiss guard also hands out tickets on Tuesdays from their post near the bronze door. Be sure to check the Pope’s schedule before getting too excited about being blessed. He is a busy man and routinely leaves his Vatican home.
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The Vatican Museum is my favorite museum in the world. From entire rooms filled with the works of masters to hallways covered with brightly painted maps of an uncertain world, this place is an unbelievable experience. Budget plenty of time to take it in. The museum is laid out to move you through several gorgeous rooms and immaculate hallways before climaxing at the Sistine Chapel. The museum is free the last Sunday of each month, and is not open any other Sundays. The rest of the week is fair game.

Finish your day with a stroll down the Tiber river just as dusk blankets Rome.

Day 3 – Trastevere and personal interests

With so many options around Rome, pick something personally interesting to do on your last day. Take a cooking class, check out the art at Galleria Borghese, go to a wine tasting, explore catacombs and crypts, check out Florence (only an hour and a half away by fast train), go to a football game, or perhaps just take to some serious shopping.

On your third night in Rome, spend some time in Trastevere. Trastevere is a cool neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber filled with locals, expats, artists, and college students. It is a great place to sample authentic Roman food, explore, and get inexpensive lodging. The area feels less like a museum than ancient Rome and is a great place to get in touch with the city’s less touristy side.

All photography by Justin Delaney

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk – Ancient Rome

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk, episode 24 – Click above to watch video after the jump

Well, we got to Rome in style and now it’s time to hit the streets & explore. The city’s history spans over two and half thousand years and it seems like everywhere you go, there’s something interesting to discover.

This episode, we’ll take you on a whirlwind tour of some of Rome’s most iconic monuments & show you one of the city’s best kept secrets: the American Academy in Rome. On the couch, we’ll do an impossibly brief look at city’s history as the capital of three major eras; the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. So put on your tourist hat (we won’t tell), get your running shoes on and come check out Rome!


If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.

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Links
Learn more about the exclusive American Academy in Rome right here.
Did we get an exclusive sneak peek at an archeological milestone? Read up on the Lead Burrito.
Check out our fancy digs! The Regina Baglioni in Rome.
Need a tour group? Check out I.C. Bellagio – our gracious guides to Rome’s rich history.

Hosts: Aaron Murphy-Crews, Stephen Greenwood

Produced, Edited, and Directed by: Stephen Greenwood, Aaron Murphy-Crews, Drew Mylrea

Photo of the Day (7.13.10)

The Pantheon in Rome is an unmistakable icon and marvel of engineering, construction, and design. Almost two thousand years after being built, it is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The name “Pantheon” is speculated to originate from the many statues of gods placed in the building, or from the resemblance of the dome to the heavens.

Today’s Photo of the Day, from Flickr user tysonwilliams really puts the overwhelming geometry and scale of the dome’s ceiling into perspective – thanks to good use of light, shadow, and a little creative post-processing.

This week, Travel Talk is headed to Rome – and we’ll be sharing all of our favorites in Italy’s capital. Tune in to see all of the ancient Roman attractions as well as a few lesser known spots & surprises…

Eternal returns in springtime Paris

Natives will tell you that Paris has everything necessary for the pursuit of happiness, including songbirds. The intensity and frequency of birdsong signals the end of winter, if not the arrival of spring. Spring comes and goes, hesitating on the threshold. That’s why accordions are Paris’ reliable bellweather. Their wheezing is a sure sign people are back outdoors filling cafés, or draping themselves over the double-backed park benches, staring at buds.

The other day the usual spring suspects began squeezing their red-and-white accordions in the square under our bedroom windows. Listening to them, I just happened to open an email and click a link to the biggest panoramic photo ever taken, “Paris 26 Giga Pixels“, composed of 2,346 individual shots stitched together.

Up came Paris, from the belltower of Saint Sulpice. And up came the accordion waltz from the cult movie “Amélie Poulain.” I closed my eyes. The soundtrack is a masterpiece of nostalgia. Baguettes and berets, Edith Piaf’s raucous croonings, and Robert Doisneau’s black-and-white photos floated above Montmartre painted by Utrillo and Modigliani, the merry-go-round spinning below Sacré Coeur.

The music distills the bittersweet essence of a certain Paris. It’s a Paris much of the world — and many Parisians — desire, a magical city of dreams and memories and merry-go-rounds, abstracted from the globalized, recessionary nitty-gritty of today.I opened my eyes. On screen were the domes and Gothic towers, the neoclassical palaces, the gardens and 19th-Century merry-go-rounds of my home of the last quarter-century. The digital technology is state-of-the-art, the definition astonishingly high. But the high tech didn’t diminish the nostalgic punch.

Carouseling on Amélie’s waltz, clicking, dragging or scrolling, the merry-go-round of images sped up, zooming in and out, unapologetically plucking at heart-strings. The effect was instantaneous and systemic. I reconsidered Paris from a rooftop perspective, eager to see what had changed. I flew to the places I’ve lived and worked in. So much seemed the same, at least outwardly. Better, the panoramic view pushed me out to climb a real tower, revisit Paris, and be an aimless wanderer in spring all over again.

Because the belltower of Saint-Sulpice isn’t accessible, I headed to the Panthéon. En route at arcaded Place des Vosges, the Internauts used free WiFi, blissfully oblivious to the 17th-century bricks and stones. Across the Seine, a carousel spun near giant sycamores in the Jardin des Plantes, Louis XIII’s lush botanical garden. To synthesized calliope music, shrieking todlers rode back in time to the days of their grandparents.

The Panthéon rises atop Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, an awkward imitation of the real Pantheon in Rome . A toothy guard from a former French colony informed me gleefully that the panoramic terrace wouldn’t reopen for another week. In the meantime, there was Foucault’s famous pendulum, and the tombs of France ‘s great and good.

Directly beneath the dome, the pendulum dangled from a wire over 200 feet long. Back and forth it swung in the damp gloom, demonstrating the rotation of the Earth, marking the seconds, minutes, hours and days. It was not the pendulum moving forward, but we the public, the church, the city, the Earth, moving around it.

Mesmerized, it seemed to me that the pendulum’s bob was Paris, marking timelessness, while the rest of the universe spun around. Paris was as eternal as Rome, the Eternal City. The real Paris, of the mind, did not exist and could never age.

By comparison, the vaulted tombs of the country’s great men — and one woman, Marie Curie — left me chilled, an exercise in mildewy propaganda. Rome’s Pantheon, dedicated to the pagan gods, was saved by being consecrated as a church. In Paris, a church was saved from Revolutionary vandalism by becoming a temple to the Republic.

The cult of the Republic may once have been a fine thing. It seems less so now, when France’s anti-immigrant policies and reactionary reinterpretations of liberty, equality and fraternity clash with a spinning Earth of many hues and infinite diversity. In the gift shop a visitor wondered why French patriot Léon Gambetta’s heart was in an urn. The attendant replied that a body part was needed. Clearly the cult of relics had not ended with the Revolution, the visitor remarked, buying a mug emblazoned with “Vive la République.”

Down the street in the Luxembourg Gardens, the merry-go-round turned dreamily. Nearby, children rode ponies. Gaggles of pimply teens fiddled with hand-held devices as others devoured obsolete printed matter. Everyone smoked, even the tennis players.

The pendulum swings, the Earth and the merry-go-rounds spin. Paris stays the same.

Skipping Montparnasse, I aimed for the Eiffel Tower, last experienced by me in 1976. Bookstores in the notoriously literate 6th and 7th arrondissements displayed the sensation of late-winter, La Paresse et l’oubli, a novel by 29-year-old David Rochefort. The title means “sloth and oblivion” or perhaps “laziness and forgetfulness.” The cover is wrapped by a banner promising “Les battailes perdues de la vie” — life’s lost battles.

How someone not yet 30 could know such things, be compared to Flaubert and Balzac, dead for 150 years, and how such a clear-eyed and pessimistic oeuvre could be published and embraced by all in a world of corporate sameness, seem unanswerable questions to non-Parisians. The other big literary noise, this one written with tongue firmly in cheek: Mai 1958: Le Retour du Général de Gaulle. Did he ever go away?

At the Eiffel Tower’s base the requisite merry-go-round wheezed. Accordionists serenaded the waiting lines. Why not hang Foucault’s Pendulum here, I wondered?

Riding up, I calculated the number of merry-go-rounds in Paris. There are dozens. Dozens. But there are many more bookstores selling difficult novels. Both are subsidized, like public transit, health care, and much else. Culture is propped up at both ends of the spectrum. French movies are too. And the Eiffel Tower.

Might that help explain Paris’ abiding popularity even among lovers of free enterprise?

Amélie’s waltz replayed in my mind’s ear as I gazed down at 17 centuries’ worth of cityscape, from the Roman baths at Cluny, to the National Library and other remarkable monstrosities of the 1980s and ’90s. The messy reality of Paris glimpsed from above seemed immeasurably more satisfying than Paris 26 Giga Pixels.

Amid the jumble below I spied two more merry-go-rounds, one in the Tuileries and one in front of City Hall, my next destinations. As I walked through the Tuileries, the same children rode the same ponies. Had they trotted over from the Luxembourg or was I hallucinating?

Beyond the merry-go-round fronting City Hall’s neo-Renaissance façade, the line to enter “Izis: Paris des Rêves,” a photo exhibition, was as long as the lines at the Eiffel Tower. ” Paris through a Dreamer’s Lens” is the French Dream, the European Paradise as dreamed by Izraël Biderman, better known as Izis. A Lithuanian Jew determined to escape persecution, Izis wound up in the City of Light, soon dimmed and Occupied. Like other Jews and undesirables, Izis was hunted by Nazis aided by zealous Frenchmen. But he kept loving Paris. It belonged to him and the world, not his persecutors.

Like those of Doisneau or Brassai or Cartier-Bresson, Izis’s black-and-white photos capture the allure, the sleaze, the enchantingly bleak Paris of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Everyone smokes, especially the Résistance fighters. Everyone dresses in the shades of gray that are fashionable again today. One haunting, wall-sized image shows a merry-go-round in the Tuileries, its battered horses standing out against the snow.

On the sidewalk outside City Hall an outdoor exhibition currently hails 150 years of immigration to Paris. As I walked home past it I thought of Izis, Brassai, Chagall, Picasso, Piaf, Yves Montand and others. Many others. I thought of Chopin, a Pole, and how Paris is celebrating his 200th birthday, as if he were a native son. The cafés I looked into were staffed by immigrants. The restaurants, museums, monuments and City Hall were too. Even the accordionists in the square beneath our windows are immigrants. And so am I.

The pendulum swings, the accordions play, people, politicians and recessions come and go on an ever-spinning merry-go-round. Paris remains.

David Downie is an American writer and journalist based in Paris. He is the author of nine books, including Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light and Paris City of Night. He has written for Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Town & Country Travel, Departures, Travel + Leisure, salon.com, and concierge.com. His website is www.davidddownie.com.