Roman Holiday

Exploring art and history in the Italian capital.

Trevi Fountain.

On November 18, 1899, Antonio Dalla Villa arrived at Ellis Island with $11 in his pocket. Two years later, he sent for his wife and daughter. The family lived in Pennsylvania for a time, but at some point they returned to Italy, where two sons were born. In 1930 they sent the youngest, 17-year-old Andrea, back to America. He worked on the docks of New York before driving a truck, marrying, and moving his family first to Portland, Maine, where he operated an Italian grocery store, and then to the Tidewater area of Virginia. 

Nearly 120 years after my great-grandfather Antonio traversed the Atlantic Ocean, I stepped off a Boeing triple seven in Rome, the trip a gift from my husband. When we flew over the snow-capped peaks of the Alps, the land of my grandfather, I was surprised by their beauty in a visceral way that left me with goosebumps.

Spaghetti alla carbonara.

It’s easy to summarize Rome in a few words—the Catholic church, Italian food, art, architecture, history—but that is a disservice to its complexity. Italy is a paradoxical mix of old and new. In Rome, we watched an open-air screening of Bohemian Rhapsody in Italian while standing on the fifteenth-century Ponte Sisto bridge and ate extra-dark-chocolate gelato sitting on a 2,000-year-old column under the Colosseum. While we picnicked in the Villa Borghese Gardens overlooking the Piazza del Popolo, families roamed the square on quadracycles or Segways as a street performer played an instrumental version of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” 

Rome has a reputation for being crowded, and it is. In 2018, Rome welcomed 9.7 million visitors, making it the fifteenth most popular destination worldwide. The masses of tourists have caused the government to reconsider the preservation of its most popular sites: Visitors can no longer sit on the Spanish Steps and swimmers in the Trevi Fountain incur a $500 fine. But don’t let the crowds or rules scare you away. Rome is still a charming, beautiful city where you can wander medieval cobblestoned streets for days, drinking it all in.

It is a walking city, with a ruin or gelateria nearly every kilometer. Accordingly, we stayed in an apartment with a rooftop terrace overlooking the Via Capo d’Africa. It was a quiet side street with a central location for exploring the city by foot. Italians have la passeggiata, the promenade, which is a favorite pastime, especially after dinner when temperatures drop. Walking back one evening from the Lungo il Tevere, a summer tent-city of restaurants and vendors along the Tiber River, we met Romans just beginning their evening stroll down the boulevard or sitting down to dinner. It was 11:30 p.m. 

Roman ruins.

On our first day, we embarked with no real destination. After circling the Colosseum and feeling overwhelmed by its massive size, we meandered through Michelangelo Piazza, famous for its stunning views, and the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which was the only church we encountered with a mirror to view the illusionistic ceiling painting. (During our stay, we visited around 20 churches, inadvertently checking off three of the four major pilgrimage sites, but coming up severely short of Rome’s 900 basilicas.)

Interior of Santa Maria Minerva.

We then descended with the crowds into the Pantheon, a temple built for the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D., and the Trevi Fountain, the city’s largest Baroque fountain. With its imposing Corinthian columns, dome, and central oculus, the interior of the Pantheon left us marveling at the architectural abilities of the ancient Romans. In contrast, we stayed at the Trevi Fountain long enough to muscle through the claustrophobic crowd, snap a picture, and get hounded by a hawker; in hindsight, we could have passed.

Even in 2019, Romans prefer traditional food like pizza by the kilo, panini and tramezzini sandwiches, artichokes, and long-established regional dishes, such as spaghetti alla carbonaro, cacio e pepe, or trippa. We were surprised to discover that cannolis are actually a Sicilian treat and less popular in Rome, and if you discover a trattoria with spaghetti and meatballs, you’ve found a restaurant catering specifically to an American crowd; Romans don’t eat the dish. Our favorite meals were alfresco, including one at an osteria of woodfired pizza with prosciutto and eggplant.    

Traditional Roman pizza.

As a former art history professor, I went to Italy eager to see canonical art, which I knew as only reproduced images, in their original context. On our second day we ventured to Vatican City, the seat of the Bishop of Rome, which includes the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica, and the second-century Castle Sant’Angelo, another building project of Emperor Hadrian’s. In the Vatican, I checked off famous Renaissance art, such as Raphael’s “School of Athens” (1509-1511), a fresco painted directly on the wall depicting Plato and Aristotle, among others. Standing in the papal palace, I tried to soak in the atmosphere, but found the experience frustrated by the pressing crowd of hot, tired tourists. The pack of people eventually dumped us into the Sistine Chapel, the home of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” (1534-41), where, ironically, we were reminded in three languages to be silent and not take pictures. Both warnings were ignored by the throng. As important as it was to me to see these renowned works in person, I was instead most amazed by the subtle details in the museum that visitors breezed past: the illegible words carved into a marble bench, or a second-century mosaic whose decoration of discarded crumbs, called “dell’asarotos oikos,” literally translated to “the unswept floor.” 

Surprisingly, the Borghese Gallery and Museum was my favorite museum in Rome. There, I found that seeing Bernini’s “The Rape of Proserpina” (1621-22) and “David” (1623-24) in the ornate seventeenth-century palace transformed everything I had learned from art history. Bernini’s sculptures beg their Baroque context—with its excessive gilt and floor-to-ceiling decoration—as well as close observation. I marveled at the way Bernini manipulated hard marble into plump flesh and dramatic facial expressions. Best of all, the museum caps visitors to 360 guests per day, ensuring people can actually experience the art.   

The Borghese Gallery and Museum.

When we travel, we prefer to explore at our own pace and enjoy prepping beforehand by reading and studying, so we typically don’t take tours or hire guides. However, we made an exception for our visit to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill—the Roman palace—and the Roman Forum. The amount of ruins is overwhelming, so it’s helpful to have someone highlight the vast amount of rubble. Then it came to life—the copius violence, political machinations, and bustling city life that once existed. It was humbling to consider that we trod over the ruins of a great empire—and in the palace, a place that was off limits to most people. Along the way we walked over the 2,000-year-old uneven stones of the Via Sacra, Rome’s main street where the empire’s triumphs of war were paraded through the city center. Afterward, we went to the Mamertine Prison and stood in the damp, cool cave underground where the apostle Paul was allegedly imprisoned; the site is marked by not one but two churches built over the prison. 

Interior of the Colosseum.

Our final day was reserved for shopping. The city has shopping for any price point, from luxury retailers, like Gucci and

Max Mara, to street markets with homewares, art, clothing, and food items. The most famous street market occurs in Trastavere on Sundays, and we enjoyed a lazy afternoon soaking in the atmosphere rather than shopping. Rome is also known for ceramics, but instead we brought back extra virgin olive oil and limoncello, which is made in Naples but sold all over the country. 

Before leaving the country, we ignored the adage of tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain to guarantee our return. Instead, our return is ensured by a pair of worn, badly repaired, but beloved handpainted nineteenth-century majolica ewers passed down through my family. It’s unclear when the ewers were brought to America, but I like to imagine they originally arrived in 1899 and crisscrossed the ocean alongside my ancestors, unsure whether to land in Italy or America—before ultimately coming to represent a little of both. 

If You Go
Logistics

Exterior of the Colosseum.

Many carriers, including Delta, United Airlines and Italy’s national carrier Alitalia, offer nonstop airfare from Dulles International Airport to the Rome-Fiumicino International Airport. It was a 20- to 30-minute drive by taxi to our Airbnb, which was arranged beforehand by our host.

Traveling to Italy requires a passport. U.S. citizens may enter and remain in Italy for up to 90 days without a visa.

Money: We exchanged money at our bank before we left, with an exchange rate at the time of $1.15 to €1, but discovered many places took credit cards, and some, like the Mamartine Prison, only accepted credit cards. Look for a card with no foreign transaction fees. 

Tickets: We bought most of our museum tickets online before we left. However, we had to call the Borghese Gallery because they do not have online ticket sales, and tickets must be purchased at least one week in advance.

Language: While Italians in the touristy areas speak English, few do—and then only a little—as you venture farther into the country.

Tours: Angel Tours (AngelTours.eu) was highly recommended by a friend who has taken several of their tours. On our tour, we were impressed by the guides with City Wonders (CityWonders.com/Rome-Tours).

Stay

We stayed in an Airbnb, which cost less than $800 for the week, because we wanted the convenience of an apartment and location in the middle of an Italian neighborhood. The majority of the hotels are located in the touristy areas of the city, but guests looking for a luxury hotel can choose from many places, including the five-star St. Regis Grand Hotel near the train station or the Hotel Hassler at the top of the Spanish Steps. 

Eat

A sausage vendor at the trastevere.

We picked up several guidebooks, including Fodor’s Essential Italy: Rome, Florence, Venice, and the Top Spots in Between, but found the best resource for traveling logistics was Romewise.com, a blog and Instagram account maintained by Rome-based American Elyssa Bernard. The site answered our questions, from why we couldn’t find Rome’s famous artichokes during our stay (Romans prefer seasonal produce, and artichokes are a spring delicacy) to tips on finding a reliable restroom while exploring. 

Don’t leave Rome without attending a local festival or event that caters to the Roman people. For us, that meant the Lungo il Tevere in Trastavere. Research the must-see seasonal events before you go. 

We very nearly ate our weight in gelato or sorbetti in a variety of flavors, including gianduia, a creamy mix of chocolate and hazelnut; our favorite gelateria was Gelateria da Costanza, located just a couple blocks off Via Capo d’Africa.


This article originally appeared in our December 2019 issue. For a guide to a day trip from Rome to Florence, click here. For tips on spending Christmas in Rome, click here.

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