Marta Falconi: Home thoughts from Rome: 48 hours in the Eternal City

I am travelling home. A few months since I moved to Switzerland as a journalist for Reuters, Rome is calling. And for good reason: my grandmother, Stella, is turning 100.

As I fly over the Swiss Alps I picture once more the city in which I was born and grew up. Distinctive features make Rome what it is, an exhausting city of eternal chaos, history and life’s pleasures: the narrow cobblestone alleys of Trastevere, the world-famous monuments and their imposing architecture, the smell of freshly-baked cornettos and the small, artisanal shops still run by elderly Romani … all make the Eternal City an Eternal Discovery. This of course makes it a destination for tourists, but most see only the surface. To a visitor who can delve deeper into the city’s skin, Rome can unveil hidden treasures. So, as I celebrate this glad occasion with my family I have the chance to revisit my city. After a joyful ‘Happy Birthday’ to Stella, I plan a 48-hour tour with a friend, prepared to take familiar steps and yet to view it all with fresh eyes.

One good thing about Rome is that much of what one wants to see is within walking distance, and the centre is compact and mostly pedestrian: so let us start with a slow, leisurely walk across the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. The remains of luxurious palaces and temples surround us as we wend our way down to the Colosseum, possibly the city’s best-known landmark. Yes, it is full of people, and on a hot day it can be difficult to walk under the scorching sun. But it is essential to take your time and to picture in your mind’s eye the magnificent rooms where Roman emperors and senators enjoyed wild parties and from where they ruled the ancient world.

From the Colosseum, we head back to the traffic-filled Piazza Venezia and its imposing Vittoriano, a white marbled monument, dubbed ‘the typewriter’ for its shape, and much disliked by most Romans. Here, Rome’s chaos is often at its peak, and worth contemplating. Cars, buses and horse-drawn carriages all navigate their way around the flowerbeds in the middle of the square. This is an unforgettable scene: expect honking, yelling, and a real taste of Roman driving charm.

From the bustling square we go looking for the tiny house where my grandmother lived most of her Roman life. Nestled in a hidden piazzetta facing the rear entrance of the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva church, the two-storey house with its balcony is a little faded, yet it is bathed in sunlight: thoughts of my grandmother flood my senses. I imagine how my mother and her brothers spent afternoons playing games in the car-free small square, with my grandmother watching them from the window.

From here, we take a short detour to Piazza di Pietra, an elegant pedestrian square round the corner from Italy’s Parliament, where an ancient colonnaded complex, the Temple of Hadrian, hosts Rome’s stock exchange, no longer in use. Most visitors cross Piazza di Pietra merely to get to the nearby Pantheon, but on one corner of the square we stop at the tiny Il Boccone, an aptly named deli sandwich corner, where you can assemble your own panino of tasty prosciutto crudo, Sicilian-dried tomatoes or mozzarella di bufala, all on display at the counter. As there are no tables in this small shop, we devour our ‘Roma’ and ‘Palermo’ sandwiches sitting on a nearby bench, facing Hadrian’s Temple. It is the best sandwich in the world. Hunger assuaged, it is time to head for the best espresso in town, and we make our way past the Pantheon—taking a suitably reverential look at this grandiose monument along the way—to the Caffè Sant’Eustachio, a Roman institution.

The tiny coffee bar is constantly overcrowded, but those who work there take prompt notice of newly-arrived customers and serve them within minutes. Do not ask for a menu: just pay for an espresso at the counter and wait for the wonder to arrive. Caffè Sant’Eustachio blends its own Arabic coffee, and adds its renowned cremina, a sugary mixture that adds a special sweet taste to the cup. Do not miss the back room, with beans ready to be roasted and old machines: the scent of fresh coffee is heavenly. Reinvigorated, we can now hit the busy heart of the city and pay a visit to Campo dei Fiori and Piazza Navona, just across the street.

Campo dei Fiori today is the hub of the city’s afternoon and evening movida, with dozens of bars, restaurants and vinerie constantly crowded with tourists and residents alike. The area, which by day hosts a food and flower market, is targeted by local pub crawlers, so watch out if you happen to be there on a late weekend evening! The square is where philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 when the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy. A statue in the middle of the square stands as a reminder of those dark times.

After a glass of nero d’Avola sitting at one of Campo dei Fiori’s outdoor wine bars, we cross the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and jump right into Piazza Navona, a masterpiece of Roman architectural Baroque. Shaped as a stadium, the extensive square is also home to the Fountain of the Four Rivers, recently under renovation, a masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini facing the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, whose majestic façade was completed by rival architect Francesco Borromini.

As my father told me countless times to impress me as a child, I urge my friend to check one of the fountain’s figures facing the church, a huge statue of a man representing the Rio de la Plata. As Bernini tried to mock his rival Borromini, the statue’s hand is raised above his face, as if protecting himself from the church’s façade, so poorly built that it is likely to fall upon him. This anecdote, often recounted by locals, is in fact false, because the fountain was built before the church was completed. But visitors with guidebooks knowingly point at the statue’s outstretched hand, and so the myth lives on.

From Piazza Navona we hop in a cab to reach nearby Trastevere, perhaps Rome’s most charming, yet busiest, area. We could spend hours mingling with the crowd of artists and expats, stopping at every corner for a bite and a glass of wine, but instead we opt for a Roman pizza at the ‘Obitorio’, the Morgue. Despite the creepy nickname, the pizzeria Ai Marmi—named the Morgue after the long marble tables inside—is the ultimate Roman pizza experience. The queues at this inexpensive restaurant are legendary, and the cramped rooms are not ideal for romantic or private chats as customers feasting on fried starters such as suppli and filetti di baccala eat pretty much elbow-to-elbow.

With our last remaining energy we stroll around the fascinating Santa Maria in Trastevere church and the picturesque alleys nearby, and then head home to recharge our batteries for a new day of Roman flavours.

Saturday is the typical day for shopping, but before losing ourselves to the myriads of boutiques and malls of Rome’s city centre, we make our way through the beautiful Villa Borghese, home to the glorious Galleria Borghese museum. A large heart-shaped park north of the city, the Villa brings visitors directly into the heart of Rome through gentle walks through the woods and the beauty of a well-maintained garden. We take in the view from the Pincio terrace atop Piazza del Popolo and then descend downhill to find ourselves at the start of the world-famous Scalinata di Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps). From there we hit the Via dei Condotti to window shop at Bulgari, Gucci and Armani, and then reach the more affordable Via del Corso, possibly the busiest street in town.

Walking along it can also provide some really good people-watching, and the street is numero uno for playful groups of loud and fashionable teenagers. When we are tired of checking out boutiques and mainstream clothing shops, we take refuge in Rome’s little-known Jewish Ghetto, a fascinating neighbourhood where the mouth-watering smell of deep-fried Jewish-style artichokes accompanies us along the ruins of ancient temples and botteghe. The Ghetto is one of Europe’s oldest, and the Jews’ presence is still very visible.

Few live in the laid-back Ghetto nowadays, but they do come regularly to visit the majestic Sinagogue. We make sure not to miss the eclectic Portico d’Ottavia, a mighty ensemble of ruins and partially collapsed temples, with a tempting walkway, especially at sunset. But before the shops close for the day, we refuel with the heavenly cakes and pies of the Forno del Ghetto, a tiny shop close to the Portico d’Ottavia, instantly recognisable from the long lines outside. Once we have taken in the flavours of the Ghetto, there is still one of Rome’s best-kept secrets left to explore. We leave the bustling atmospheres of the central hoods and head north, in the quiet upscale residential Quartiere Trieste. Here, we search for the massive arch that guards the entrance of a special, almost surreal architectural gem: the Coppede.

The area, which is not even officially a quartiere (neighborhood), is truly an experiment, mixing Art Nouveau, Baroque and Mediaeval styles. Built in the early 1900s by Gino Coppede, an architect from Florence, the Coppede takes you through heavily decorated buildings, arches and fountains, as reliefs of mythological creatures and lions gloomily look down. Villas covered in mosaic tiles, spiralling staircases and gardens accompany you throughout the visit—but beware that you will not find a restaurant, nor any shop, in the Coppede.

Restaurants and bars instead abound in the nearby residential area all around. From no-frills pizzerias to upscale restaurants, the offerings are suited to every taste. As we pick a local trattoria for a pasta all’amatriciana I am thankful I was given the chance to come back to this multifaceted city on such a special occasion.

As we prepare to end our visit, we make one more special toast to my grandmother and to the city: standing at an open-air kiosk in the middle of the Piazza Buenos Aires, we sip two glasses of Lemoncocco, a freshly-made drink of coconut juice and lemonade found only at this particular address: the ultimate, secret taste of the enchanting Eternal City.