30 October 2006

An authentic Rome experience

Yesterday's Sunday Times features an article entitled The Real Rome, in which "Stanley Stewart picks 20 ingredients for a more authentic weekend in the Eternal City". His list of recommended sights avoids the obvious attractions and we'd concur with most of them as being good things to do. His list is still a tourist list, of course. After reading the article, we put our heads together to come up with our ideas for an 'authentic' weekend in Rome. Forget the tourist stuff: if you want to experience the Rome of modern-day Romans, here are our suggestions:

1. Watch the world go by
Sit at an outdoors cafe table and watch the evening passeggiata as Romans of all ages parade along the lanes of their neighbourhood or of the city centre, greeting acquaintances, appraising and being appraised. Good central spots are Trastevere and the Centro Storico (try the lanes between Campo de' Fiori and Piazza Navona).

2. Eat alla Romana
Enjoy a real Roman meal at a humble, family-run trattoria where the proprietor treats the diners like friends (they probably eat there every night, after all) and the written menu is usually overlooked - instead eat your host's recommendations and tuck into a generous pasta dish incorporating fresh local ingredients.
> Restaurants in Rome

3. Go out for a pizza
The next day, go for the pizza option: a proper Roman pizza preceded by bruschetta and accompanied only by a bottle of beer or glass of water. If possible, infiltrate a group of young Romans: 'going out for a pizza' usually involves a large convivial group of chums and a packed pizzeria in some unlikely location outside the city centre, in a world of cheap, superb food usually hidden from the tourist.

4. Coffee at Sant'Eustachio
It may be listed in every newspaper article and guidebook, but the Caffè Sant'Eustachio really is a local institution. Get your morning coffee here - but don't try to ask for an American or English-style brew. Acquire a taste for real, strong Italian coffee and you may begin to understand why they find other varieties barbaric.

5. Cross the road
Step boldly out onto a road-crossing, right into the path of speeding cars and taxis. As they jerk to a magical halt, stroll past with your nose held high and count yourself a real Roman. (Note: follow this advice at your own risk).

6. Battle bureaucracy
Attempt a form-filling transaction at a bank or police station (some post offices are much improved... but just try asking for stamps). Don't worry if you have to give up - that's all part of the experience.

7. Window-shopping
Window-shopping is a favourite pastime throughout the year. Stroll along a shopping street at snail-pace, pausing to ponder any goods that take your fancy. Shops often have more goods in their windows than on the shelves inside, and window-shopping is a ritual enjoyed by both men and women. This is why Romans wear such big thermal coats during their relatively mild winters - they spend so much of their evening loitering outside shops that they need to wrap up warm. There's plenty to look at on Via del Corso but for a tourist-free Roman experience head to the Via Appia Nuova around Re di Roma metro between 6 and 8pm. There is also a popular gelateria by the roundabout where you can carry out suggestion 8:

8. Eat an ice-cream
But in the Roman way - in the early evening, not the midday heat. For a city-centre stroll try the small gelateria halfway down Via di Tor Millina, or the famous San Crispino. Or for a serious ice-cream experience, the impressively-named Palazzo del Freddo. (Incidentally, who would have thought, when we set up Italy Heaven, that even gelaterie would one day have their own functional websites?)

9. Show Roman toughness
Hold your place in the non-queue of a take-away pizza place or gelateria. While no formal queueing takes place, you'll need to know who is before you and who behind, and insist when it is your turn (or even before, if you are really tough). Watch out for elderly ladies: they are the worst at barging in.

10. Ignore the sights.
You can permit yourself the odd satisfied glance, but if you want to feel like a local you should use the tourist sights as mere landmarks on your routes across town. Take a short-cut across Piazza Navona without pausing by any of the fountains; cut right through the Forum and past the Colosseum on your way to somewhere else, striding past the gawping tourists (ok, Romans don't generally use the Forum as a thoroughfare, but it is fun).

11. Roman high-life
Mingle with Rome's glitterati at the Teatro dell'Opera. The operas and ballets can be very fine, but also fascinating is the interval, when the bar fills with elegant society creatures posing in their finery.

12. Go to a football match
There is no better way to witness the soul of Italian society.
> Football in Rome

13. Night life
The young and intrepid should try out Rome's night time pursuits: head to Testaccio or San Lorenzo and stand around outside ramshackle, throbbing venues. Sip some beer if you want; bring your own drinks if you want. Actually entering a bar or nightclub is optional; many participants seem never to get around to this. Mind you, it is hard when eighteen friends, all arriving separately, have to meet up and discuss where to go next. For a tamer version, try Trastevere. For a more tourist-oriented meat-market head to Campo de' Fiori.

14. Go to the beach
In the summer all of Rome heads to the local, rather unappetising seaside (further south, Sperlonga is much nicer). In the daytime you sunbathe in a paying beach establishment, and in the evening you party.

15. Lunch out-of-town
Visit Frascati or one of the other Castelli Romani towns for a long lunch and cheap local wine.

That's all we can think of for now. Follow a few of these ideas and you'll begin to feel part of this chaotic city - or certainly understand it better. We were tempted to suggest that you witness rush-hour traffic (when policemen have to enforce traffic lights) or the packed morning Metro, but we're not quite that cruel. And other suggestions to make you feel Roman (for example, never ever take public transport or even learn how it works) might merely depress the unfortunate tourist.

Good luck - or in bocca al lupo, as the Romans say.

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