Hidden Rome

Touring the ancient capital's lesser-known neighborhoods yields many pleasures -- and few tourists.


Cover Story

July 11, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

For all the indignities it inflicts, aging does offer some consolations. Chief among them is the pleasure of a leisurely return to things rushed through in the dizzy, distracted days of youth.

How exquisite to give Jane Eyre a second reading, Wagner's "Ring" cycle another listen, or to re-experience a European city untroubled by anxiety that everything you see might end up on a final exam.

This realization occurred to me recently when spending a few days in Rome. It seemed marvelously, well, adult to regard places I'd dutifully scoured on earlier trips -- the Colosseum, Pantheon and Sistine Chapel -- as old friends I no longer was required to call upon.

Instead, I felt free to visit what, at least to my experience, were the Eternal City's less well-known neighborhoods like Monti and Trastevere, or the blocks around the Piazza del Popolo. To be sure, these areas are all in close proximity to tourist sites, but being sometimes only a few steps off well-trodden paths, they're often passed by.

Sigmund Freud believed that the decay and perpetual rebuilding of Rome was an apt metaphor for human consciousness. As with the city, so with a psyche: Some things endure, others fade, what's new is built on top of the old.

To revisit Rome, then, is not only to experience the city's past, present and future, but one's own as well.

Curiosities of Monti

"Trust me, I've had many opportunities to escape," said Alessandro Zucconi, a young man whose intense gaze flickered behind comically oversized eyeglasses. "But I always come back, not because I love Rome, but because I adore Monti."

Zucconi was speaking of his beloved neighborhood (the name means "mountains") just north of the Colosseum, where his family owns a sweet little hotel called the Grifo.

I'd wandered in to check out the rates, and soon he was pointing out such local landmarks as La Casa Della Patologia del Libro, an organization that studies how books live and die. That's right, manuscript mortality.

Also nearby is a University of Rome laboratory, where Enrico Fermi made discoveries that led to the atomic bomb. Nearly hidden behind a huge palm tree, this ochre stucco building with wooden shutters looks more like a beach club than a nursery for weapons of mass destruction.

Zucconi had left Grifo's front desk unattended for quite a few minutes to point out these curiosities but, seemingly unable to relinquish his role as tour guide, he continued to wave his hands here and there, recommending more places I really must see.

Who would be happiest living here, I'd asked in parting, and he promptly replied, "A California vegan."

I understood what he meant while touring Monti's wealth of funky shops and antiques stores. Need a Ganesha? Il Tarlo has elaborately carved Hindu gods in all shapes and sizes. Linn-sui boasts an estimable collection of Chinese lacquer bowls and Japanese wooden sandals. Many of the neighborhood shop owners manifest an endearing indifference to modern times.

Typical of these was Anna Pirozzi, who has made leather goods in a glove-compartment-sized shop for 43 years. Admiring her belts and whimsical key chains, I noted that in all this time, Pirozzi hadn't ever bothered to get an antenna for her ancient radio, which wheezed and crackled as if she were pulling in a signal from Beijing.

And, at the used jewelry shop of Fabio Piccioni, vitrines stuffed with silver, Bakelite, pearls and precious stones had me mesmerized for nearly a quarter of an hour, during which time Signori Piccioni didn't once lift his eyes from his morning newspaper.

Such is the charm of these winding, cobblestoned streets, where 18th-century buildings are covered in magnificent clouds of creeping vine.

In Monti's teeny town square, there is a magazine kiosk, a multi-tiered fountain and lovers sitting on benches laughing, kissing and eating lunch.

Enticed by their example, I followed my nose to Flaminia Pizza, where pie is weighed by the kilo, then chopped into bite-sized squares on a wooden serving platter. The best had neither cheese nor tomatoes, but was simply thin slices of potato, flavored with rosemary and roasted on a paper-like crust.

Waddling forth into the afternoon light, I was nearly sluiced into a torrent of tourists headed toward the nearby Cathedral of Peter in Chains, where one can see Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses.

"Let my people go!" he'd commanded the pharaoh. With those words in mind, I shook myself free, and headed in the opposite direction.

Jewish Ghetto gateway

The Portico d'Ottavia is a bizarre patchwork of ancient, medieval and Renaissance architecture where a 16th-century palace was plunked down on what remained of a massive circular theater built by none other than Julius Caesar. It's also the unofficial entryway into a few square blocks known as the Jewish Ghetto.

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