For many, Rome promises romance, restaurants and relics. The reality may also include tourist traps, ticket touts and hawkers of tat. I travelled to the famous city, determined to seek out the real deal and avoid the trauma of tourism hotspots. It may have been a wet weekend in February, but with a little research I was able to enjoy the warmth of Roman hospitality.
The remains of a historic empire are impossible to escape in this city. Statues abound, rubble lies where it fell long ago. Chunks of archaeological columns are embedded in more recent constructions at every corner – recycling is not a new invention. Despite the showery, out of season weather we wandered the streets gazing at old buildings, built on older remains, built in turn on even older ruins. This mishmash of historic rubble intertwines many generations and at times is challenging to interpret.
For those wishing to rest the walking boots, the tram system is a cost effective way to see the city. Hop on and off at chosen stops, to sight see and get to and from further venues with ease. After a short jaunt east of the city centre, we alighted a few paces from the Non-Catholic Cemetery, final resting place of many famous foreigners. It is easily recognised by the surprising, and very un-Roman, Pyramid of Caius Cestius positioned in one boundary wall. Once within these aged walls, this calm oasis offers a tranquil, green space midst the hustle of city life.
The most sought out graves belong to English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley; the son of Goethe; Antonio Gramsci , the Italian political philosopher; and the Russian painter Karl Brullov. Wandering around amongst these ancient stones, many caught my eye for their design or splendour. Artists, writers and diplomats, all of whom chose Rome as their home, are commemorated here in various ways, but it was the unexpected live residents that caught my eye.
Sleeping under trees or stalking the pigeons, stray cats catch your eye wherever you look in this, and many other monument sites of Rome. Romans, like the Greeks and Egyptians, are known for their historic love of cats. Many ancient ruins around the city are celebrated by cat lovers round the world as sanctuaries for stray felines. These well fed moggies sunbathe photogenically on gravestones and columns and entertain passing cat fans who come to visit.
A small army of lady volunteers, known as Gattari, care for the many hundreds of cats on several of the monumental sites around the city. The cats in turn, serve the Metropolis by keeping local levels of vermin low. Over the years there have been municipal attempts to remove the sanctuaries, and their occupants. However, global as well as local support of these charitable women and their patients, ensures the care and control continues, with many lucky cats finding new homes in places near and far.
Returning to the tramway, and travelling on to North Eastern Rome, we stopped next in an attractive, residential area. Walking through a public park, past another small cat shelter and stepping aside for several of the neighbourhood joggers, we spied our next destination – a fairly small, but very quirky building, set on a hill at the far side of the park. This curious place would not look out of place in a Harry Potter film. Strangely enough, there was a student photo-shoot taking place in front of it, with a young model dressed as if headed for Hogwarts.
The little publicised Casina del Civette (Little House of Owls) will delight anyone fond of colour, design or unusual architecture. Situated in the grounds of the 19th century Villa Torlonia,now a museum, this house was designed as a Swiss cabin in 1839. Prince Giovanni Torlonia jr. later transformed it into the eclectic “cottage”, using an owl theme through its original design.
Fire, theft and vandalism had left this building in a terrible state by the 1990s, but painstaking restoration has delivered an attraction deserving more attention than it appears to get. Numerous, truly beautiful, stained glass windows, made between 1910 and 1925 by Cesare Picchiarini, are enriched by exhibits of other craftsmen’s glass designs, alongside drawings and preparatory sketches. As you wander from room to room, the originality of this colourful display is breathtaking.
After a days exploration of these less celebrated sites, we returned to the city centre with a healthy appetite. Our choice of eateries, like our earlier itinerary is always one which makes little effort to attract tourism and is popular with local people. These places may offer a simpler setting, but the warm hospitality and excellent food more than compensates for any lack of finery.
Our Roman gastronomic treasure was tucked away, round the corner from the Torre Argentina. As we sat in L’Angoletto Romano, a small family business, several times tourists peered through the glass door but turned away. This was definitely their loss! Our hostess welcomed us warmly and in response to our stumbling attempt at Italian, echoed us in equally faltering English. A bond soon developed and we were encouraged to try samples of their finest dishes, alongside our ordered ones. Local wines were recommended and dessert left us bursting at the seams. All served with understated style and subtlety. After all this, we could not bear to dine elsewhere for the rest of our stay in Rome.
Now many of you reading this may prefer the more recognisable Roman tour. I merely suggest an alternative bang for your buck. In this technological age, better images of the main sites can be seen online, for me experiencing a joke with the local people and seeking out the unusual has more rewards. Even off season, entrance to the main attractions entails running the gauntlet of hawkers and pickpockets and long queues to pass turnstiles. Smiling restaurant owners beckon as you pass the main street Trattorias, luring the masses with shiny pictures of recognisable dishes. Rome has something for every taste and pocket. I urge you to think outside the Colluseum.