Rome: An Easy, Mandatory Walking Tour

“What, we need to be Italian to get in?” Hess rebuffed the comely ragazza who had asked where we were from, as she collected our cover charge for Discoteca Radio Londra in (literally in — it’s a cave in an ancient pile of amphora shards) Rome’s hip Monte Testaccio. This being my first time back in town as anything other than a clueless youngster, as I considered how soave “Come, dobbiamo essere italiani per entrare?” had sounded in my friend’s immaculate Italian, I got a fresh glimpse of the language’s, shall we say, broader potential.

The entirety of Hess’s duties as summer intern at the American Embassy to the Vatican consisted of keeping staff entertained, and each morning scouring a few dozen international papers (that’s what we used back then) for news relating to the Holy See, which he dutifully clipped and glue-sticked to folio-sized briefing sheets for his boss’s boss’s boss, the ambassador. So Hess had a lot of free time. Similarly, the orchestra and technical staff for the production of Le Nozze di Figaro for which I was in town to sing the role of the curmudgeonly Dottore Bartolo, was union. Italian union. So I had a lot of free time.

Together, the two of us — well, the three of us, counting his Vespa PX 125, which we certainly must — spent that free time very well. We sat hillside in the the Parco del Colle Oppio for an al fresco screening of I Soliti Sospetti, on a giant screen dwarfed by the Colosseum looming behind it just across the street, back before Agent Kujan and the rest of us learned the truth about Keyser Söze. We lept heavenward in a spontaneous rapture when the fountains of the Gianicolo fired up for the morning as we basked, after a night on the town, in dawn’s first beams over the Eternal City, Hess shouting, “R-r-r-r-r-oma, ti aaaaaamoooooo!” We expended considerable effort, and Lire not-a-few, in our self-appointed roles as municipal gelato inspectors.

My enterprising friend had stockpiled some Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme samples, which we sprinkled so liberally that even a couple of decades later, the smell always takes me back to Rome. Thus properly seasoned, we conspired (Hess playing Cyrano to supplement my much-weaker Italian) in coaxing the attention of Valentina, a lovely violinist in the opera orchestra, in my direction, and with moderate success. Both the apex and the nadir of this joint venture were signaled by Hess’s hardy, Armenian-gutted guffaw that boomed from his nearby hideout when he heard me respond to the incomprehensible, decibellissimo ragings of Valentina’s boyfriend (a boyfriend?!) with a nonplussed, “Parliamo come gentiluomini.” (“Like gentlemen we speaking will.”)

It was Hess who, during that magical summer sojourn, introduced me to the route of this walking tour. It doesn’t stray from the beaten path, but it does add a tad of depth and delight to a path that deserves to be beaten. In the ensuing decades I’ve prescribed it zealously to (read: imposed it tyrannically upon) every Rome-bound friend, to enthusiastic response. So now I share it with you.

The basic route runs from the Pantheon to Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere and, at about a mile, hardly seems worthy of being called a “tour,” but stick with me. Whether this lasts one hour or several is up to you, but timing is important, and late-but-not-too-late afternoon is recommended for a few reasons: First, you avoid peak heat. Second, you want to arrive in Trastevere at a time that will allow you to explore a bit and transition to dinner, which, in Italy, never ever begins with a “5” on the clock, and rarely with a “6.” Third, you don’t want the indoor stops along the way to be closed. So it’s a balance that requires you to check some times and monitor your pace.

PANTHEON AND GELATO

Start at the Pantheon, whose oculus (eight-meter circular opening to the sky) is a sunny highlight of the dome, an enduring marvel of Classical architecture. Before you leave the neighborhood, pass Ramses II’s obelisk that adorns the fountain in the middle of the Piazza della Rotonda, and head north a few blocks to 4 Via della Maddalena, for a few scoops at gelateria Della Palma. If it’s not the best in all of Rome (best efforts notwithstanding, I can’t claim to have tried every last gelateria — yet), it’s certainly one of the most colossal selections. Once you’re fueled up, take a quick detour a couple of blocks east and step into Sant’Ignazio on Via del Caravita to see the fantastic trompe l’oeil roof and dome. Saw it? Head straight back to the Pantheon, with or without another visit to Della Palma, and now you’re really ready to head west, toward Piazza Navona.

NAVONA AND GELATO

Just before you reach Navona, step into Borromini’s Sant’Ivo Alla Sapienza, which has a gloriously stark-white Baroque interior that contrasts the rest of Rome in a manner similar to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, aka Altare della Patria. Once at Navona, built on the site of an ancient stadium, consider a gelato at (famous more for location than product, but still very good) Tre Scalini. But also consider the cautionary tale of my father, whose Tre Scalini treat once mysteriously exploded as he, resting on the rim of Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain, leaned in for his first lick. Confused, he stared at the cup, looked left and right, examined the bunker-busted stracciatella once again, then turned his now-knowing countenance slowly skyward to see the sparrows (or maybe they were some of Rome’s infamous starlings) swirling around the top of the obelisk. He shook his head in resigned dismay, shrugged, prodded the cup’s contents a bit with his wooden mini-spoon, flicked a few spittles toward the ground, and continued with his dessert.

Check out the kaleidoscopic cupola in Sant’Agnese in Agone, and then as you leave Navona from its southwestern corner, watch for the armless Pasquino, who occupies a perch of honor on his own little piazza. Pasquino was the first of Rome’s several “Talking Statues,” known locally as the arguti, or “witty ones,” around whose necks signs have hung in anonymous public protest through the ages. Each of the arguti has a special reputation, and Pasquino, presumably due to his proximity to the Vatican, gained fame for criticizing popes. One pontiff’s death was reportedly commemorated with a placard praising the papal physician as “liberator of the nation, the senate, and the Roman people.”

CAMPO DE’ FIORI AND PALAZZI  

Cross the large road (Corso Vittorio Emanuele III) and go to Campo de’ Fiori, which you may have visited already, ideally in the morning when its market is in fullest splendor. The adjacent Palazzo Farnese is an exceptional example of High Renaissance design, and setting for a crucial scene in Puccini’s Tosca; today it’s on loan to the French as their embassy and is well worth a visit, albeit during very limited hours. If possible, step into nearby Palazzo Spada to see “Il Perspettivo,” Borromini’s trompe d’oeil that makes a two-foot statue appear to be heroic size. At my last attempt, several years ago, I was able to see it — partially obstructed but satisfactorily — through double windows on either wall of its adjacent library, without having to go into the museum that for the last twenty-plus years seems to have existed for the sole purpose of making people go through the palace in order to see Borromini’s little gem.

BRIEF ENCOUNTER WITH ANCIENT ROME, THEN TRASTEVERE

At this point, your energy and watch will dictate whether you proceed directly to the Ponte Sisto footbridge, or make an elongated southeastern loop to see the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (Rome’s largest synagogue), Teatro Marcello (an open-air theater founded by Julius Caesar), and the Bocca della Verità (an ancient curiosity of disputed origin that is best appreciated if, before your trip, you and your special someone pair a Chianti with some carbonara and watch Gregory Peck tease Audrey Hepburn here in Roman Holiday). In either case, once you cross the river, you are now in the neighborhood known as Trastevere, or “Across the Tiber,” and will follow either a fairly direct (Via del Moro) or indirect (Via della Lungarina & Lungharetta, etc.) route to your your destination, Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.

This is an irrepressibly energetic evening hangout spot, with numerous options for a relaxing and even romantic Italian dinner. I recommend La tana de Noantri on Piazza San Egidio, a hundred or so meters northwest of Piazza Santa Maria. Although some of its online reviews aren’t as strong as those given to some of its neighbors, on my visit many years ago I found its food superb and its location perfect for people-watching from a streetside table. But then again, I was distracted — nay, beguiled — by my companion for the evening, Valentina.