When In Rome, Do As The Romans Do: Go To The Markets

November 18, 1990|By Robert Ragaini

No matter how quickly they race toward the millennium, the peoples of Europe retain their age-old allegiance to shopping in the open air. In the most updated urban centers, markets pop up in plazas and parks, on street corners and in hidden alleyways. It is here that the real city is found.

It can be argued that this is more true of Rome than other, less demonstrative European cities. The Italians aren't ones to repress their feelings, and in their outdoor markets the earthiness, the humor, the shrewdness and guile, and above all the raw zest for life that is particularly Italian are concentrated in one spot.

To find these areas -- often small and out of the way -- the following technique is suggested. Purchase a good map with a street index and circle the market locations. Get within walking distance by taxi, bus, or subway and go the rest of the way on foot. When you get lost, and you will, don't be impatient. Take the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the neighborhood. You'll be passing through streets steeped in history. Famous monuments share space with artisans' shops. Roman ruins are incorporated into the facade of local trattorias. When you're ready to resume your search, stop anyone and point to the map. Before you know it, you'll be there.

To start with an easy one, to find that is, try the market on the Campo dei Fiori. Each day except Sunday from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. all kinds of fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry and, at one end, massive bunches of flowers are sold under four or five rows of umbrellas. The Campo itself is a modest rectangle surrounded by buildings in various states of disrepair, from merely peeling to near-collapse -- a far cry from its status 400 years ago, when this was the social center of Rome and one of the crumbling houses belonged to the mother of Caesar and Lucretia Borgia.

If the sight of all that fresh produce whets the appetite, come back to the Campo dei Fiori at night when, in warm weather, the neighborhood restaurants spill onto the winding streets for dining under the stars.

Fifteen minutes away or more, depending on your sense of direction, there is a lovely little market ranged along the edges of Viale della Pace, a street hardly longer than its name. Compared to the Campo, this market is subdued, but the food sold in its half-dozen stalls is fresh and colorful. On the tiny, twisting streets leading to and from, artisans have established fascinating shops in the ancient buildings that press in on either side.

Two blocks to the east is the Piazza Navona, with its gift shops and quick-sketch artists and tour groups from every country on earth. Three blocks further on is the Piazza delle Coppelle market, which might as well exist on another planet. The shoppers there live in the neighborhood and browse leisurely under the huge colorful umbrellas squeezed into a minuscule square. The result is a delightfully low-key, family atmosphere in a quarter described by one friendly fruit vendor as "molto antico."

These three markets are near enough to each other to be easily seen in a morning. (All the markets are open in the morning, usually closing at 2 p.m. All but one are closed on Sunday.) The route followed so far has been roughly northeast through Rome's Renaissance quarter. Continuing in that direction, there are three more markets that also might be grouped together.

The first offers food not for the body but for the soul. Judging from the traffic at the Piazza Borghese market, however, Romans are more interested in fresh fruit than old books and prints. Most proprietors languish behind unpatronized stalls of neatly stacked volumes, architectural drawings and prints of ships and birds and prints of flowers, and protected in plastic envelopes. There also are vendors of old silver and small antiques, and the prices are always negotiable.

Most of Rome's main streets are noisy, traffic-jammed thoroughfares, usually paralleled by quiet, narrow lanes. Unfortunately, the Piazza Monte d'Oro market is not quite far enough from the Via del Corso to escape its congestion. It is, however, within sight of the Augustus mausoleum, so if that is on your itinerary, drop by for a brief respite from tourist obligations.

Considerably more interesting is the nearby market on the corner of Via di Bocca di Leone and Via della Croce, so small as to be almost non-existent. Near the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti, a very fashionable area, this is an opportunity to see wealthy Romans -- or their maids -- judiciously select ingredients for the piatti del giorno (plate of the day).

Make sure to keep an eye out for the motor scooters that plunge into the crowds, missing pedestrians by inches. This dangerous game is a rite of passage from which some Romans never seem to emerge.

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