Looking at the locals careering around on four wheels, and often two, their aggressive insouciance seemingly handed down at birth, you could be forgiven for wondering if you too could be Marcello Mastrioanni behind the wheel of his nippy English sports car bouncing across the cobbled streets in La Dolce Vita. But think again.
Hiring automotive transport is not a good idea, especially if your doctor or insurers have any say in the matter. Far better to ditch the motor unless you are used to parking your vehicle head on to the kerb, because you are almost certainly unfit to drive in the eternal city (so called, surely, because it takes that long to get anywhere through the perpetually ram-a-jam streets).
Instead you should take Shanks’s pony. Few cities reveal themselves and their secrets from the pavement as Rome. And in a city that was at the centre of the world for the best part of two thousand years where better to start than on an ancient thoroughfare, the Via Appia (although you may want to take a taxi to get there).
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The “queen of roads” heads south out of the city and during classical times was the most important of all the roman trade routes. The first section of the road is still used by cars and lorries but these days the traffic to the Campania and the port of Brindisi soon diverges and travels down the Via Appia Nouva, leaving a 10-mile section of ancient cobbled stepping stones for walkers, cyclists and the odd crazed jogger – it gets steamily hot in the summer. This is the perfect place to do nothing while absorbing the ancient atmosphere and gawping at classical monuments, all beautifully enclosed by the Parco dell’Appia Antica. And what a lot there is to take in.
Laws in ancient Rome forbade burial within the city walls and most Romans were cremated anyway. But the first Christians preferred a different approach to the afterlife and choose instead to be buried outside the city. The Via Appia was their burial ground of choice. Its verges are lined with the underground burial cemeteries – or catacombs – of the first Christians, including briefly, they say, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
Above ground the aristocracy advertised their wealth, the most famous being the tomb of Cecilia Metella, the daughter of a Roman consul. Converted into a castle in the fourteenth century this castellated memorial marks the spot where the park begins and the road stretches out before you as a straight as an arrow. Hire a bike to explore the park and save your energy for later.
Heading back towards the city you come to Rome’s cathedral. No, not Saint Peter’s, which is of course the Vatican’s cathedral, but San Giovanni in Laterano. Rome’s oldest basilica, it was founded in the 4th century – don’t be fooled by its 18th century facade – and was once the seat of the pope. By no stretch as beautiful or iconic as Saint Peters it opens the way to Rome’s imperial past, though the vast bronze doors that were taken from the senate house of the ancient forum. On the other side of the church, on Piazza di Porta San Giovanni, is the Scala Santa, reputedly the steps down which Christ climbed after appearing before Pontius Pilate. Wooden boards protect the stone steps, up which pilgrims climb on their knees. There is a staircase alongside for the less athletic, not to say, penitent.
Back on your feet and heading for the heart of the city you soon reach the colosseum, the city’s icon and next to the Parthenon the most impressive Roman relic. A 50,000 seater theatre of cruelty that saw gladitorial battles until the 6th century has newly opened underground and upper sections that hint at the carefully orchestrated depravity on display. Hunting animals warmed up the crowd before a tasty execution provided the hors d’ouvre to the main course of gladiators. All props, scenery and wild beasts were delivered to the arena via an elaborate pulley system. Ingenious and cruel. For those with a stomach for food not brutality avoid the touristy fare around the colosseum and head into a back street (Vicolo del Boun Consigilio) to tuck into an anti-pasta buffet and desserts to, er, die for.
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Wander the streets near the Capitoline Hill you will find the real heart of Rome. You wont need more than the most basic map as you’ll soon be blown off course by one serendipitious find after another. You begin with the intention of getting from A to B and before you know it you are weaving through the warren of streets distracted by anything from a palazzo with a history that belies its current status as the offices of an insurance company, cafés with cakes and coffee and a robust approach to smoking and ordering a capuccino after midday (they’ll raise a disapproving eyebrow), a street market with crates of fruit and veg bursting with colour, an ecclesiastical outfitters that will sell you a pair of papal purple socks, no questions asked (you could be a visiting cardinal).
Then just as you decide you are hopelessly lost you turn the corner and bump into a landmark: a Bernini masterpiece set in a Renaissance piazza, a church that hides a Caravaggio or a perfectly preserved Roman ruin – although none so artfully arranged as the Forum itself where the remains lie scattered across the grassy site as if props on a gigantic film set. Frankly the whole place could provide the backdrop to the movies – and indeed it has.
For a view from the director’s chair head to the Parco Della Villa Borghese, where the Pincio Hill gardens offer a box seat from which to survey Rome from the rooftops. Below lies the Via Margutta, where Frederico Fellini lived at number 110. With its cobbles and ochre buildings draped by ivy it is no surprise to discover it is also the location for the apartment where Gregory Peck took Audrey Hepburn at the start of Roman Holiday. They memorably travelled by scooter. But for the best Roman holiday give yourself the pleasure of seeing Rome at it’s best, at a leisurely pace, by foot and from the pavement.
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Visit Rome, one of the world’s most compelling cities. Boasting an uninterrupted recorded history for upwards of 2,500 years, it has a rich heritage of classical antiquities, and medieval buildings from Renaissance palaces to intricate Baroque piazzas. Click here to find out more