a Roman history crash course in situ: Rome, Italy

July 3, 2017 2 comments

Roma non Basta una Vita is a line you’ll hear over and over from the tour guides: one life is not enough to see all of Rome, and it’s true. There is something a bit head spinning about this city, almost overwhelming. No matter where you look, left right up down it’s beauty all around. Rome is, to me, the most beautiful city in the world. Now, if only the hordes of tourists could all agree to boycott it, then Rome would also be the most beautiful city to visit in the world..

Marcelo has been studying the Romans at school, and learning Latin this year, so it felt like a timely excuse to take the family to Rome for one of our glorious European bank holiday week end. I first fell in love with Rome in my early twenties, discovering the city on a vespa, hair in the wind – as you should, right?! This time around, I had planned ahead, thought of a theme, booked a restaurant or two because I knew that three days in Rome would be a daunting experience if we tried to be spontaneous all five of us.

First things first, a good base:

My friend Mario had recommended his friend Marcella’s apartments near the Spanish Steps. Marcella rents out a few apartments in the same building on Via Bocca di Leone, a couple doors down from the famous Inglaterra Hotel. It’s in the heart of the fashion mecca, 8’ walk from the Fontana di Trevi, 10’ from the Villa Borghese. Tough to beat in terms of location! Though to beat as well in terms of atmosphere, yet quite homey with the kids. It’s as if Marcella has left in place all her family furniture, her beloved paintings, her golden mirrors, and a piece of her heart. She lived in the top floor apartment (the one we rented) for many years with her children who are now adults, and has skilfully turned the the whole place into a well run little business. Marcella will share her big black book of addresses, a driver to pick you up at the airport (handy after I got totally screwed by a taxi last time I landed in Rome  – Gino Gessini: [email protected] / +39 339 2995704), a chef and an American tour guide … I loved the red velvet throughout the apartment, the light coming from north, west and south, the views over the rooftops. Oh and I also loved the old-fashioned elevator and the internal wooden shutters that Romans open ritually every morning.

After all that marvelling upon arrival Friday night, we searched for a place to eat (everything was full) and we landed at Settimio All’Arancio, on Marcella’s recommendations. It’s a family-run trattoria (a tiny bit upscale but still lively and easy) with lots of fresh fish and the Roman specialities we were all craving for. I gladly indulged in my first pasta extravaganza: pasta cacio é pepe. Put a plate of pasta in front of the children at 10pm after a flight and suddenly everybody’s smiling.

… Our three days went a bit like this:

SATURDAY DAY 1:
MammaCult specializes in tours around Rome for families with children up to 13. They kindly invited us to try out their 1h30 Scavenger Hunt around Piazza Venezia. Ilaria, who is studying to become a school teacher, took us around hunting for a few historic landmark such as the statue where the shewolf breastfeeds Romus & Romulus (btw – I had not idea that you call a female wolf a she-wolf?! never stop learning). All three children enjoyed it but it’s our youngest, Lior, who got the most excited about the hunt and I praise Mamma Cult for finding a way to balance playfulness with curiosity. It was a great starting point for our week end, in the heart of the action, and with a few goals in mind, to let us to forget about the mad crowds all around.

The five of us then headed to Mercato di Testaccio for lunch, known to be the very first Roman food market in the city. It was recently renovated inside out on top of the very ancient site. It’s hard to choose what to eat there because everything looks and is absolutely delicious. The market has a mix of stalls cooking on the premise (some with long queues of locals) and proper grocers, butchers, fishmongers, delicatessen, you name it.


There is a pleasant area to seat (and clean toilets!) and best of all, not one tourist in sight. We went with the stalls that had the longest queues, and we all had second serving of that stunning pizza al taglio with organic whole wheat flour (3rd aisle on the left of the seating space… good luck!). And then, ice cream for all..

I had booked the afternoon with Paolo Lenzi, a born and bred Roman who has been a tour guide for 18 years. I knew that we were in good hands when Paolo took us under a pine tree shortly after meeting us, children seated in circle around him, listening with intense attention about how Rome was first created. We walked around the Palatine Hill together, marvelled at little details that we would never have noticed without him.

Paolo took us to some viewpoints of the city where more stories were told, often with the support of his iPad, showing image renderings of the city in past times. At times, he bent to pick up wild mint, found a little shade where Lior could do some roli poli. And then we continued to the Colosseum, for more tales about the bloodiness of Roman’s forms of entertainment. We topped it all with an ice cream from San Crispino near the Pantheon (an institution! my favorite), and headed back home for a rest.

I thought the children would all collapse after such a long day, but truth is, the city’s beauty drives you beyond limits. We managed to take the children out for another feast of antipasti, pasta and tiramisu in the Trastevere, a lively part of Rome with lots of bars and restaurants that locals flock to, along the Tiber river. The restaurant Z’Umberto was a huge hit (book ahead!): beautiful terrace, reasonably-priced, delicious homemade food, lots of locals around us.

SUNDAY DAY 2:

To break the pace of all these sightseeings, Marcelo and Amalya went on a Gladiator workshop Sunday morning, courtesy of Gruppo Storico Romano. They loved wearing their massive steel helmets, dressing up in gladiator costumes and learning all about Gladiator life: the training, the various fighting techniques… They even had a fight Brother Vs. Sister with us watching and cheering… It felt good to step out of the crowded historical center. The Gruppo Storico Romano is based in forest spaces, about 20’ drive from the center of the city (we took a taxi).

We then took a walk around the Jewish neighbourhood, where we had reserved a table on the terrace of atmospheric Ristorante Piperno, a rather upscale institution with a mix of chic Romans and elegant tourists. The menu has a few Roman specialties executed to perfection, such as the Artichokes Jewish style. Sipping chianti while the children played together on the piazza, I almost forgot that I had booked a third tour guide that afternoon. This time, it was with an American lady named Anne Hogan-Funaro who is married to an Italian chef and food guide Simone Funari, they have three children. They both came highly recommended by our host Marcella. Anne had insisted that we book a car with her to venture beyond the obvious. (she prefers that you get in touch with me if you would like her details).

Anne took us to a few very special places that were not in our books, such as the Catacombs of Caracalla, and the Giardino degli Aranci on the Aventine Hill, with the optical effect of the Vatican growing smaller and smaller as you walk towards it.

We finished with the fascinating Convent of the Cappuccini monks, a series of stunning chapels decorated with human bones. Nothing scary, really, as the chapels are ornamented in a very delicate way, and Anne had warned the children beforehand (she has 3 of her own, same age as ours). It made a big impression on all of us.

That night, Marcelo Amalya and I watched Roman Holiday on iTunes, feet up and smiling. It was their first black and white romance movie and I am so glad that they got to view it in the heart of Rome. We exclaimed each time we saw Gregory Peck taking Audrey Hepburn around on his scooter in some of the sites that we had seen that day.

MONDAY DAY 3:

After a breakfast near the Spanish Steps, climbing them up and down to make Lior happy (and me growing more and more frustrated with the mad crowds), we took a walk in the gardens of Villa Borghese, as you should on a sunny bank holiday.

And then, the children managed to drag me to a 3D cinema for a screening of the Time-Elevator of Rome over the centuries. They loved it. Me? No comments… Luckily it only lasts 40’! After which we all had for one more gelati!!! We braved the crowds of Fontana di Trevi (insanely mad! never seen so many tourists packed this way before!) and .. it was time to head back to the airport.

CONCLUSION

By day 3, I must confess that I had had enough of the crowds, the incessant rumbling of the tourists, and the constant ‘excuse me’ or ‘hold my hand’ that I had to tell Lior. But I tried to focus on all that the children got to view and hear, tying it all with what they are learning at school. History came alive for 3 days, and I felt that I had accomplished something really good for them.

BOZAROUND TIPS

Try to avoid Rome on a bank holiday w/e, or in the hot summer months when the combo crowds + heat must be lethal. 
– Better to choose a grey wintery visit, perhaps between November and March when the city is at its quietest.
– Book a few meals ahead based on your research because it’s easy to not eat well or have to queue in very touristy parts of the city
– there are plenty of other themes to give a trip to Rome. We chose to do it all about the Romans, but the contemporary art museums are fantastic, especially the one designed by Zaha Hadid. Also I did not try to approach the Vatican on this trip but how special it must be.
– Be mindful that the first sunday of the month, all the museums and monuments are free to the public, making them even more crowded than usual
– Buy your tickets for the colosseum in advance!! here, and dont forget to print them!

Ps: I stocked on a few books at my favourite bookshop Daunt Books, in Marylebone London (you can find all those online), and I gave them to the children when we got on the plane, to build a bit of excitement. The Alberto Moravia short stories is from my university years. I read it on my very first visit to Rome. It’s a keeper.

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