Wednesday 16 December 2015

6 Alternative Things To Do in Rome

Ciao bambinos! I've just returned from a long weekend in The Eternal City; Rome, and oh boy, I don't think I've ever been quite so captivated with a place in such a short space of time. The beauty, enormity and grandiosity of Rome is simply comparable to none. 

Whilst there, we managed to do an exciting combination of both touristy and more adventurous things, and so instead of recommending the classics like the Colosseum and the Vatican, I thought I'd share some of the other wonderful little things we did!

It needn't be said that Italians know what they're doing when it comes to food, and no place is this more apparent than in Rome. We stayed in Campo De Fiori, a huge piazza blooming with restaurants, cafes and bakeries, and for the first few mornings we just ventured down to pick up some croissants and fruit to take back to our apartment. But on our final morning, we decided to take a little walk, and strolling down Via Del Pellegrino, we found the most charmingly modern yet authentically Italian coffee shop 'Barnum Cafe' with freshly baked pastries, incredible coffee and a row of scooters lined up outside. 

We sat at a little table decorated with history, and I traced my fingers over the countless faded ring marks of years of previous coffee-drinkers, marvelling about who had sat here before me. All around, the white brick walls were adorned with posters for film festivals and local jazz clubs, and every now and then an impeccably well-dressed gentleman would step in and tilt his hat toward the barista before joining his comrades leaning against the bar drinking espressos. The menu was chalked upon the walls and effortlessly beautiful couples sat hand-in-hand in sprawling armchairs reading the local newspapers, or laughter would erupt from the table next to us as girlfriends met over brunch. The air was rich with the aromas of coffee and dark chocolate, and the staff were friendly and forgiving of us being the only non-Italians in the room. 

My only wish was that we'd discovered it sooner.    

Although probably considered a classic, the ruins of The Roman Forum were so captivating and magical, they didn't even feel like a tourist attraction. Residing just opposite the Colosseum, the entrance to The Forum is a little annoying to find, but if you spot a structure looking a little like Paris' Arc de Triomphe, then head down the straight road just beyond it and the entrance will come up on your right. Plus, admittance is free if you show your Colosseum ticket!

Once inside the entrance, keeping to the right will lead you through the ruins of Ancient Rome, perfectly preserved despite the more than two thousand years which have passed since their construction. It was early afternoon as we walked, and as the sun danced golden across the marble and stone, gazing out across the panorama, there was nothing except maybe a few streetlamps that could indicate this was any less than 5th Century BC. 

Here, time was immortal, and the sight was a powerfully moving thing to behold.  

On the opposite side of the city, just North of The Vatican and perched on the River Tiber, is the great ancient mausoleum 'Castel St. Angelo'. 

The fortress itself is beautiful and fascinating, with beautiful ornate ceilings synonymous with Rome and sweeping walkways reminiscent of Hogwarts, but the true hidden gem is on the upper ramparts - a little bar which offers both coffee and alcohol, and the most stunningly beautiful views of the bridges over the river, the Vatican and St Peter's basilica, beautifully framed within the ancient brickwork of the Roman Castle. 

The view is absolutely breathtaking, and it's the perfect spot to relax in the sun after being on your feet all day.

Second only to the view from Castel St Angelo, is the view from what it looks over - St Peters Basilica. The entrance to St Peters Basilica is actually free (to avoid the enormous queue you see when you enter St Peter's Square, head down to the right off the columns as you approach - what would be the left side of the columns in the above picture - and there you can join an express queue about 1/10th of the size! From there, you go through a security and bag check, then you head on up the steps.) 

I highly recommend you go and take a look inside as the grandeur is almost unfathomable to believe. But before you leave, follow the signs for 'Cupola' or 'The Dome'. Here, you pay 8 euros and follow a corridor to a lift which takes you right to the top of the inside of the cathedral. It's knee-wobbling stuff, but the most unbelievable thing you've ever seen.

But even greater from there, the next door will lead you to the wackiest staircase you've ever climbed into your entire life. Comprised of some bizarrely angled walls, spiral staircases so steep you require a rope to pull yourself up it and a climb over 400 steps which even the most athletic will find arduous, you finally step out and witness the view of the gods, a 360 degree panoramic view 500ft above the city. You can see EVERYTHING, and it will surely take your breath away. 

There's a reason it's ranked the number one attraction on TripAdvisor. (Okaaaay, I guess it's not alternative, but hey. It's too good not to mention.)

Now this is certainly one for the adventurous and not for the faint-hearted, as it is stepping outside the warm comfort of the cobbled paths and sun-bleached streets of central Rome. For us, this was even more of an adventure because we thought we'd do it as authentic as possible, and upon local advice ended up on a terrifying rickety tram rattling into a silent Sunday night with some tired and grumpy-looking non-English speakers.

After a frantic consultation of Citymapper, we found what we were looking for - Pigneto, what seems to be referred everywhere as the effortlessly cool artsy quarter, the Shoreditch or Brooklyn of Rome. 

Now as is the way with those arty neighbourhoods in any city you go to, if it seems a little terrifying you, know you're in the right place. This was a far cry from the Rome we know, and the streets were covered in graffiti, half-torn posters and miscellaneous cables. It was alarming simply because it was so different, but we gradually got a feel for the place. 

We headed for Necci, a beautiful ivy-clad restaurant born in 1924 and recently renovated into a 70's style retro diner. There, I tasted fresh Italian pasta for the first time in my life and was absolutely blown away. It was thick, doughy and unlike any texture I'd ever tasted. The food was exceptional, yet unbelievably well-priced. All around us were the young creatives you find in Bushwick and Dalston, with tattoos, facial hair and the kind of glasses that you're pretty sure aren't prescription.

From there, we hit the main street, Via Del Pigneto, where there are a collection of painfully cool cocktail bars and music venues. Most recommendations seemed to lead to a place called 'Cargo' where we settled for a few Moscow Mules and Old Fashioned's, and drunkenly chatted the night away. 

We were dreading the post-midnight journey home, and panic set in when we realised the tram had stopped running... until we took a taxi back to Central Rome and realised it was only a 16 euro journey away! So I'd definitely recommend getting a taxi or taking the Metro to 'Pigneto' station to get there, as the tram is just a little bit terrifying.      

Reading up about it since, I really want to return and fully explore what Pigneto truly has to offer, and imagine it sparkles in it's prime on a Saturday afternoon which simmers into a wild night. If you do go, I'd love to hear what you get up to there! 

This was perhaps my favourite moment on the entire trip, and something which I would recommend everyone go out of their way to see. 

The Altare della Patria is a soaring marble spectacle that can be seen for miles, instantly recognisable from it's two winged goddess riding chariots atop. It was late afternoon, and the whole plaza was doused in the most glorious golden sunlight. It's free to enter, and if you enter on the right side, you can climb the staircase to the roof terrace, which overlooks the ruins, part of the Roman Forum, and the walkway down to the Colosseum. 

Between the great marble building and 'Campidoglio' to it's right, is a palce where two beautiful staircases intersect. One leading up to the flank of  The Altare della Patria and the other leading up to Campidoglio, a square where the Museo Capitolini lays.

And so there we sat and watched the most serene sunset I have ever witnessed. And as the sun finally twinkled beneath the horizon, a little chill crept through the air so we stood, ready to head back inside. 

When suddenly... we noticed a few smudges in the sky. 

We clambered to our feet and watched in awe because, as if the setting sun had emitted a siren call to nature that the day was done, thousands if not millions of birds suddenly ERUPTED into the sky. We could not believe what we were seeing and rushed to the terrace to lean over the marble balustrade and watch as these birds danced into fluid plumes, filling the entire sky up to the horizon. People around as laughed and whooped, and unwitting residents below us ran for cover as the birds wove closer and close to the trees, unleashing an air-strike on unwelcome-ness on the poor pedestrians beneath. 

It was the most dazzling display of the force of nature I had ever witnessed and the sheer amazement dazed us all upon that terrace into a stunned silence. 

On later research, we learnt that this was a daily occurrence despised the Romans, who frantically have to dash for cover every day at 4.30pm should be they caught in what can only be described as a shit storm. And for some reason, that was the funniest thing I had ever heard in my life. The next day, we ourselves got caught short in it, and realised just what perfect chance has us sat up on those stairs above the world, witnessing this marvel of nature, completely unscathed.  

It's certainly something you have to witness should you visit Rome, and I can think of no safer spot to see it. 

And so, these were my favourite little things we did! I had such an incredible experience and cannot wait to return one day. 

What are your favourite things to do in Rome? Let me know in the comments?