- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

The scaffolding erected to repair ancient treasures is packed away. The crowds attending the Roman Catholic Jubilee have been gone for more than two years. Rome has never looked better, nor has it ever been more inviting.

Romans went all out to clean, polish and make their city shine for the Year 2000 Jubilee that celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. For the few years leading up to it, visitors viewed many of the city’s monuments and fountains through a maze of scaffolding and a mass of workers.

Now, with $6 billion in repairs and renovations beautifully in place and tourists no longer overpowering, there has never been a better time to see Rome.

The best way to experience it is the way most Romans prefer — “a piede” (on foot). Pick out a favorite portion of the city and then savor it in depth at your own pace instead of scurrying back and forth around town, rushing through some guidebook checklist. Accept the fact that Rome is a boundless banquet, not fast food, and that you probably won’t be able to take in all of its many highlights in just one visit.

What sets Rome apart is that just about anywhere you look or turn, you see something that makes it worth coming here. You will enrich your visit immensely if only you take a little more time to discover a few of these extra little gems that lie next to or just around the corner from the guidebook must-sees.

Don’t give Rome less than three or four days. Start with one of those motorized overview tours, if you must, to help put the city into perspective — but do that only as an addition, not as a substitution for walking about leisurely.

Our favorite place to begin is at the spot that was the very heart of a once-great empire — the Roman Forum.

Before you enter the Forum, though, first take a little extra time to walk up the back of Capitoline Hill, the most sacred of the Seven Hills of Rome. From there, you get a splendid view of the entire Forum from above. Return to this spot some evening to observe a spectacular lighted view of the Forum and the Colosseum.

Stretching from Capitoline Hill to Palatine Hill, the Forum is a confusing labyrinth, a patchwork of crumbled temples, basilicas and monuments. Barbarians did a thorough job of battering it. You’ll see where Caesar died and where the Vestal Virgins tended the sacred fire, and you will stand by arches erected to honor the conquests of the emperors.

Only from within the Forum can you get to Palatine Hill — yet most visitors skip the walk. That’s a mistake. This oldest-inhabited site in Rome should not be missed. It’s an easy walk up, and Palatine Hill is one of the most pleasant spots in Rome to explore afoot.

Ancient Romans believed that Romulus, who with Remus is one of the two mythical founders of Rome, lived here. There are remnants of a ninth-century B.C. village here as well as pleasant gardens and ruins of palaces of Roman emperors. The view of the Forum from Palatine Hill is even better than the view from Capitoline Hill.

From up here, there also is a good overview of the city and a commanding view of a famed Roman site that most visitors to Rome either miss or see but do not recognize for what it is — the Circus Maximus. Now just a large oval indentation in the ground, this oldest and largest Roman racetrack once drew more than 300,000 spectators to its events. Emperors watched from atop Palatine Hill.

At the bottom of Palatine Hill and at the east end of the Forum sits the Colosseum, to most of us the symbol of Rome. From the Colosseum, cross the Via dei Fori Imperiali and walk a couple of blocks to a little church called San Pietro in Vincoli. On display below its altar are the chains that are said to have bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Rome. The church also houses one of Michelangelo’s finest sculptures — “Moses,” one of the world’s greatest works of art — yet probably nine out of 10 tourists miss it. Because of a translation error from biblical Hebrew, what should be beams of light look like horns on Moses’ head.

Favorite plaza

Another favorite portion of Rome is the area around the Piazza Navona, an elongated oval baroque piazza built over the site of the Stadium of Domitian that allows only pedestrian traffic. Be sure to return here in the evening, when Roman artists come out in force to sell their works. Our favorite plaza in all of Europe, Navona is best-known for its three great fountains and as a fine spot to enjoy lunch or dinner.

When it is time to eat, relish the fact that you are in Italy. You have to be incredibly unlucky to get a bad meal in Italy. Rome has a wide selection of top-class restaurants — tiny Il Drappo, specializing in Sardinian cuisine, is our favorite. It’s just as much fun and a lot less expensive to experience obscure family-run trattorias, where the food is sure to be excellent and the cook may well come out to make sure you are enjoying your meal and getting enough to eat.

One of our favorite walks from Piazza Navona is along the Tiber River, crossing to Castel Sant’Angelo over a bridge lined with huge baroque angels. Once the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, later a fortress, a prison and a residence for popes who fled the Vatican during political turmoil, this structure is named after the massive statue of the “holy angel” that tops it. Such a statue has stood atop the castle since shortly after Pope Gregory the Great, returning to the Vatican during a plague, saw a vision of an angel putting away his sword and took that as a sign that the plague had ended, which it had. This is one of those Roman sights most tourists pass by but fail to visit. Go inside. Its terrace offers outstanding views of St. Peter’s Basilica and Rome.

In the opposite direction from Piazza Navona, walk to the Pantheon, built before the birth of Christ, rebuilt in the first century and an inspiration to architects ever since. This massive circular pagan temple, which later became a Christian church, is the best-preserved structure of ancient Rome. Until 1960, its dome was the largest ever built. Be sure to go inside and enjoy the effect of the light shinning down through the hole in the dome.

Whenever we’re near the Pantheon, we always stop by one or both of two spots that Romans truly love — Giolitti, for the best gelato (Italian ice) in Rome and Gran Cafe Sant’ Eustachio, for the best espresso or cappuccino in all of Italy. We never return from Rome without some Cafe Sant’ Eustachio coffee in our suitcases.

A sin to miss the Vatican

It should be a sin for a visitor to Rome to spend less than a day touring the Vatican. Don’t just see St. Peter’s Basilica and Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To be in Rome and not see the Vatican Museum in depth is as foolish as to be in Paris without visiting the Louvre or St. Petersburg without visiting the Hermitage. The museum corridors stretch 4 miles.

On the same side of the Tiber River as the Vatican lies Trastevere, a section tourists usually visit only for its fashionable restaurants and boutiques. The people who live in this section of Rome see themselves as the most Roman of the Romans. Spend some time walking among its narrow cobbled streets for a true flavor of Rome.

Rome’s most famous cobbled street, the Appian Way, doesn’t make it onto most tourists’ itineraries. It should. Once the main road of all roads that led to Rome, it also is the “Quo Vadis?” spot where Christian tradition says Christ appeared to St. Peter as the apostle was fleeing Rome and persuaded him to return and face martyrdom.

This is where you will find the catacombs that held the graves of many Christian martyrs and saints. Not very far out the Appian Way, you will see Roman ruins, shepherds tending flocks of sheep and, in the spring, fields ablaze with yellow wildflowers that are one of the symbols of Rome.

The most popular meeting spot in Rome is the Spanish Steps. At the bottom lies the very upscale Via Condoti, and other street where most of Italy’s best-known designer brands have stores. Not far from the top is another Roman delight that too many tourists miss — Villa Borghese, a large park oasis in the heart of the city where you can rent a rowboat or enjoy the view overlooking Piazza del Popolo, a chic Napoleonic square marked by matching baroque churches. Not far from the Spanish Steps are the posh cafes of Via Veneto, of “La Dolce Vita” fame, and the Trevi Fountain.

The Piazza Venezia, location of the massive white marble Monument to King Victor Emmanuel II, which Romans disparagingly call the “Wedding Cake,” is another good spot for beginning a walk. From here it is only a couple minutes to the Campidoglio.

Once the center of ancient Rome (the name means Capitol Hill), the Campidoglio was completely renovated in the 16th century to a design created by Michelangelo.

Enter from the front, the Cordonata, a gently rising ramp he designed, with a pair of stone Egyptian lions at the bottom and statues of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, at the top.

It is a pleasant walk from here to many of Rome’s most famous sights and also to Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a beautiful 16th-century church whose entranceway houses Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) of “Roman Holiday” fame, an ancient drain cover with the face of a man. Legend says that if you tell a lie while your hand is in its mouth, its jaws will close and cut off your hand.

But don’t head off to the Bocca della Verita or any other site too quickly. Linger awhile atop the Campidoglio.

Take time to see the beautiful Capitoline museums from the inside, not just the outside. Spend some time walking leisurely around the Campidoglio just taking in the beauty of Michelangelo’s masterful design.

You are just a few feet away from one of the most unusual, impressive and fun-to-photograph sights in Rome — yet just about everyone misses it. Next to the south side of the large equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, walk into the Palazzo del Conservatori and head straight to the courtyard.

That strange lineup of fragments of colossal stone body parts along the wall — head, hand, foot — are the remains of a gigantic fourth-century statue of the Emperor Constantine II. There is something comical about this sight, yet there also is something beautiful about it. Looking at it, you can feel history.

It’s fascinating; it’s fun; and it’s timeless — Rome in a nutshell.

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