Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Month: March, 2016



(Pictured: Roman Forum
Not pictured: Fainting tourists)

The tourist season has begun. It begins very suddenly in the first couple of weeks of March, but it feels as if it happens overnight. All of a sudden there are tourists clogging up the streets of the city centre and people speaking English everywhere. I always take the relative peace and quiet of the winter for granted…

Last night I had dinner with a friend at Luzzi, a trattoria near the Colosseum that had been recommended by a (tourist) friend. She’d assured me that the food was very good and that it wasn’t touristy. The pizza was decent, but she was wrong about the tourists. I’d estimate that Luzzi’s clientele was 95% tourists. The ones who aren’t aware of Monti’s existence tend to flock to the restaurants to the east of the Colosseum, towards San Giovanni.

My friend and I are both expats who speak Italian, and it was strange having a waiter addressing us in English. After you’ve lived in a country for a while, you start to get a bit snobby about tourists, feeling superior, but all it takes is a meal at a restaurant in a certain part of town to realise that in the eyes of the locals, you’re still very much a straniera (foreigner).

Before I was an expat in Rome, I was a tourist. A couple of times as a teenager – on a family holiday and on a school trip – and once when I was at university. I stayed in a hostel near Termini for three weeks while doing an internship at Keats-Shelley House, and it was then that I decided I wanted to be more than a tourist. Three weeks was not enough.

I know what it’s like to be a tourist in Rome, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. Inspired by the groups of tourists that are suddenly surrounding me on the metro and walking at a snail’s pace down Via dei Fori Imperiali, here’s a list:

Tourist mistakes in Rome

1) Eating in the wrong restaurants. If it’s right next to a major tourist attraction (ie: the Colosseum), the menu is displayed in six languages, and there are no Italians eating there, it’s not going to be very good.

2) Sticking to the tourist map. The generic tourist map available at hotels and hostels is certainly useful, but it misses some interesting neighbourhoods. It excludes Testaccio, for example, which is where all the good restaurants are. All right, not all of them. But a lot.

3) Over-reliance on public transport. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Rome’s public transport is terrible. Did you know that Rome is actually pretty small, for a capital city? Forget the metro and the buses, and walk instead. You’ll get to know the city much better, and it’s much more pleasant than standing in a crowded, stuffy metro carriage while someone tries to steal your purse.

4) Inappropriate cappuccino drinking. It’s acceptable to drink a cappuccino in the morning, on its own or with breakfast. I have been known to drink a cappuccino after 12pm, but only if I’ve got up late and it still feels like the morning to me. I think it’s just about okay to have a cappuccino on its own in the afternoon, but if you drink it with or after lunch or dinner, I’m with the Italians – you’re weird.

5) Over tipping. As a compulsive tipper, I’m guilty of this. I’m only just beginning to accept that it’s not necessary to tip, and that if you do tip, a small amount is fine. This isn’t New York. You’re not going to get angry waiters chasing after you if you don’t leave enough.

6) Expecting good customer service. I think this is mainly an issue with American tourists, who expect charming, smiley staff in restaurants and ticket offices. Italians just don’t have the same standards, and don’t care if they have a slightly surly waiter.

7) Dressing inappropriately. It’s early March. It’s not summer. It’s barely spring! Go out in a t-shirt and shorts if you like, but you’re going to regret it in the evening, when it’s 7 degrees. Also, only wear flip flops if you want to get filthy feet and cripple yourself in the process.

8) Not bothering to learn about Roman history. Since I started working for a tour company and writing endless articles/tweets about Roman history, I’ve become much more passionate on the subject of people learning about Rome, and understanding what they’re visiting. My tourist friend told me she’d visited the Palatine Hill, and I asked her if she knew why the Palatine was important. “No.” She’d had a perfectly pleasant stroll on the hill, and no doubt enjoyed the views of the Forum, but I think it’s a shame to visit such fascinating, historical sites without knowing anything about the history. (The Palatine, for the record, is the legendary location of the foundation of Rome – the Romulus and Remus myth – and was home to emperors such as Domitian and Augustus).

9) Queuing for La Bocca della Verità. Do you really want to wait in line for half an hour so you can take a photo of a drain cover?  I mean, it’s a nice old drain cover, but in terms of interesting things to do in Rome, it’s right at the bottom of the list. For more on this underwhelming experience, see An American in Rome‘s post.

10) Visiting in August. If you plan on doing actual sightseeing, August is the worst time you could possibly visit. Temperatures are often in the high thirties, and it’s humid. Inexplicably, some tourists decide to go on lengthy tours in the middle of day, which leads to people regularly being stretchered out of the Roman Forum.

Bonus personal prejudice point!

11) Going on segway tours. Segways are stupid and I actively judge everyone trundling along the gravel of the Giardino degli Aranci, like lemmings on wheels. When I see segway tour groups, two thoughts go through my mind: “Arrested Development” and “Lazy”. Use your head – and your legs – and do some independent exploring on foot.

L’universo trova spazio dentro me


In honour of it being March, and the birthday month of Lucio Battisti (incidentally, one of the most Pisces of Pisces), I thought I’d write about “I giardini di marzo”. It was the first song I heard by Lucio Battisti, and while I’ve since spent many hours listening to his albums and playlists on YouTube, it continues to be my favourite song. Not just my favourite by him, but one of my very favourite songs by anyone ever. There are good songs, and then there are the songs that are so good that they’re transcendent – reaching some higher, more spiritual level of pure poesia and raw emotion. “I giardini di marzo” is one of those songs.

It’s simple, poetic, and incredibly profound. It’s about weakness, insecurity and vulnerability, but also about the rich potential of the human soul and our capacity for love. Lucio Battisti sings with such feeling, with such honesty, that I hardly notice the instruments. When the chorus takes off, I get shivers.

Che anno è? Che giorno è?
Questo è il tempo di vivere con te
Le mie mani come vedi non tremano più
E ho nell’anima , in fondo all’anima
Cieli immensi
E immenso amore
E poi ancora, ancora amore, amor per te
Fiumi azzurri e colline e praterie
Dove corrono dolcissime le mie malinconie
L’universo trova spazio dentro me
Ma il coraggio di vivere quello ancora non c’è

For me, it’s a song about the difficulty of being able to truly connect with another person. Everyone has this secret world inside them, their true self, and if only we could communicate it to another human being, we might have a chance of a meaningful relationship that would end our insecurity and isolation. It ends on a pretty pessimistic note (“But the courage to live, that’s still missing”), but I find it inspiring rather than depressing. It’s a rare example of a song that celebrates inner strength and beauty, even if it ultimately sinks into disappointment again.

However you want to interpret the lyrics to “I giardini di marzo” (the verses are particularly ambiguous), you can’t deny that it’s surprisingly profound for a #1 single. #1 in Italy, that is. The rest of the world, unfortunately, has never given Lucio Battisti the attention he deserves.

Here are some of my other favourite songs:

Io vorrei…non vorrei…ma se vuoi – Another one with a chorus that soars. It feels a bit like a sequel to “I giardini di marzo”.

Dieci ragazze per me – You think he’s given up on love and become a womaniser, claiming he can have one woman in the day, and another in the evening, until the punchline at the end. “Pero’ io muoio per te.” (“But I die for you.”) He’s not very good at hiding his sensitive side. Lucio is 100% sensitivity (note my earlier comment about him being a Pisces).

Io vivro’ (senza te) – Manages to be dignified and fantastically bitter at the same time. Yeah, I’ll survive our break-up, I’ll live, but…”Io piangerooooooooooo'” (“I’ll cry”). If you think this is over the top, listen to the Mina cover.

Acqua azzura, acqua chiara – One of the happiest, most life-affirming love songs ever.

Il mio canto libero – bellissima, immortale, insuperabile, incredibile, meravigliosa…The YouTube comments say it all.

Due mondi – This is one of the poppier songs from his experimental Anima Latina album, and my current favourite after “I giardini di marzo”. It builds up, then takes off. And when it takes off, it really takes off. Euphoric.



The best gelato in Rome

In the 1930s there was only one gelateria in Rome – Fassi. Now there seem to be hundreds, and the choice can be overwhelming. Once you’ve chosen a gelateria, there’s an even harder decision to make. Which flavours to choose? Chocolate? Lemon? Pistacchio? Basil? Most gelaterie have at least 10 mouth-watering flavours to choose from, and gelato-makers are becoming increasingly inventive. Basil with honey and nuts is just one quirky flavour offered by Fatamorgana, and elsewhere you’ll even find cheese-flavoured gelato.

Once you’ve chosen the gelateria and the flavours, the only decisions left to make are ‘Cono o coppetta?’ (‘Cone or cup?’) and ‘Con panna o senza?’ (‘With or without whipped cream?’), and then you’re ready to stroll the streets of the Eternal City, gelato in hand. We can’t help you with every choice, but some kinds of gelato are definitely superior. Steer clear of the lurid colours – neon blue or fluorescent pink – as they’re bound to be packed with artificial ingredients. Instead, try the most delicious, authentic gelato in one of Rome’s best gelaterie for a true taste of la dolce vita.

Giolitti (Via degli Uffici del Vicario 40)

Many visitors to Rome head straight to Giolitti, which has been run by the same family since 1900. Located close to the Pantheon, Giolitti is technically a café, but it’s best known as Rome’s most famous gelateria. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck got their gelato here in Roman Holiday, and Giolitti has also been popular with popes and politicians.

With such a reputation, it’s not surprising to find crowds of tourists and locals queuing up for a cone even on rainy January afternoons, although regulars can now buy a ‘FastPass’ to skip the queue. The gelato is soft and creamy, the perfect refresher on a hot day of sightseeing.

Fatamorgana (Piazza degli Zingari 5, Via Roma Libera 11, Via Leone IV, 50)

This gelateria has several branches in the centre of Rome, including Monti, Trastevere and Prati. It specialises in gelato naturale and has a creative range of flavours, including grapes and nuts, pear and gorgonzola, black cherry and beer, and black rice and rosebuds. On my last visit I sampled ‘bacio del principe’ (a deliciously creamy scoop of gianduja and hazelnut), and zabaione with strawberries. Fatamorgana somehow manages to make gelato that tastes good, and yet is healthy at the same time.

Apparently some Italians try to lose weight by going on a gelato diet, where they replace a meal with gelato. Whether you’re on a gelato diet or a regular diet, Fatamorgana gelato is a good option if you want a lighter, less decadent dessert.


Fassi (Via Principe Eugenio 65)

Officially called Palazzo del Freddo, this Roman institution near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is commonly known as Fassi. Founded in the late 19th century, most of the people queuing up for a gelato today are the Italian and Chinese families who live nearby.

Most tourists flock to Giolitti and are unaware of Fassi’s existence, but they’re missing out. Fassi uses the freshest ingredients to make the best gelato in Rome. The most popular flavour is cream with chocolate and hazelnut, but the fruity flavours are excellent too, and portions are generous – €1.60 for two massive scoops.


Gelateria del Teatro (Via dei Coronari 65)

Walking down Via dei Coronari, one of the most elegant shopping streets in the centro storico, you’ll mostly see shop windows full of antiques or leather goods. But one window stands out for being much brighter and livelier than all the others, as the gelato-makers at the Gelateria del Teatro put on a suitably theatrical display of making gelato in full view of the street.

The gelato at this gelateria stands out for its rich flavours. The pistacchio gelato is deliciously nutty and genuinely tastes like pistachio, rather than an artificial imitation. Inside it can be a little chaotic, with tourists confused by the queuing system and the occasional loose dog, but once you’ve got your gelato, you can go for a stroll in one of the most scenic parts of Rome.

Gelateria La Romana (Via Cola di Rienzo 2, Via Ostiense 48, Via Venti Settembre 60)

La Romana started as a family business in Rimini, but there are now a few popular branches in Rome; one near the Vatican, one close to Piramide, and another a short walk from Piazza della Repubblica. The gelato is dense and rich, and the creamy and nutty flavours are particularly good. If you want to make it even more decadent, you can have melted chocolate poured into the bottom of your cone.

Carapina (Via dei Chiavari 37)

Originally from Florence, this gelateria is tucked away on a side street near Campo de’ Fiori. It’s one of the priciest gelaterie in Rome – €3 for a small cup or cone – but their gelato is made of the highest quality ingredients. You’ll find the classics, as well as some more experimental flavours, such as chestnut with rosemary and raisins, and even pecorino cheese. Adventurous chocolate lovers should try ‘Neroassoluto’ – the darkest of dark chocolate.


Panna & Co (Via Marmorata 115)

If this gelateria was located right in the centre, it would be packed. But luckily for the locals, this gem of a gelateria in Testaccio is never too crowded, and you can choose your flavours at leisure, without being elbowed by other tourists.

All the gelato at Panna & Co is made on site, using only natural, Italian ingredients – they’ve even been awarded with a certificate of ‘Eccellenze Italiane.’ I had a chat with the owner, who explained that they use seasonal ingredients. That means no strawberries in winter, but at least you’re getting the freshest flavours.

The gelato is full of flavour and exactly the right texture, as it’s filling and satisfying without being too heavy. The zabaione is exquisite, and the one flavour to break the ‘only seasonal ingredients’ rule – mango and ginger – is perennially popular.

Note: I wrote this for Insight Guides. My personal favourites are Fassi and Panna & Co.