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Secrets of Rome

Joanne Poh uncovers some of the Italian city’s lesser-known attractions

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The Straits Times on 12 Aug 2014

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ROME is home to some of the world’s most recognisable postcard images.

 

Yet, when pressed for off-the-beaten-track recommendations, a local friend declared it’s often said that Romans don’t know their own city.

 

With what is arguably the highest concentration of historical sites on earth, Rome finds itself aswarm with tourists running helter skelter from one attraction to another.

 

Iconic monuments like the Colosseum are as spectacular to the millions of visitors who descend upon Rome each year as they are to the locals who pass them every day. To fully explore the city would take years. Hence, it was only after some months in the Eternal City that I was able to uncover some of its best-kept secrets.

 

A view to end all views
Stunning views in Rome are a dime a dozen.

 

Climb to the top of any of the city’s famous hills, such as the Capitoline, and you are met with yet another pretty panorama.

 

It takes a little more than a nice view to impress a true Roman.

 

Take a hike through the stately residential neighbourhoods on the Aventine Hill until you arrive at the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

 

On an ordinary day, a small queue of people can be spotted waiting patiently outside an unremarkable looking gate, what lies behind obscured by whitewashed walls.

 

When it is your turn, march up to the gate, bend at the waist, peer boldly through the keyhole and be met with a view of Alice in Wonderland proportions.

 

Lo and behold, the famous dome of St Peter’s Basilica, positioned perfectly in the centre of the keyhole, framed symmetrically by rows of manicured hedges in the garden behind the high walls.

 

Tales from the crypt
While Rome’s over-the-top renaissance churches are certainly a visual treat, church-hopping tourists tend to get bleary-eyed over the course of an exhausting day of sightseeing.

 

The Capuchin Crypt on Via Vittorio Veneto is one religious building that will awaken even the most jaded visitor.

 

Located beneath the church of Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, better known as Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, the crypt is chillingly decorated with the bones of dead friars.

 

A mosaic made entirely of grinning skulls gazes down at visitors from a high wall in front of which complete skeletons attired in friars’ robes preach soundlessly to an invisible congregation.

 

Revived ruins
The ancient ruins at Largo di Torre Argentina are not just reminders of bygone glory.

 

The ruins, which comprise the remains of four Roman temples and the Theatre of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was assassinated, are also the location of the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.

 

By day, volunteers feed a collection of stray cats that nap and play amid the ruins.

 

In a world where everything considered old and irrelevant is at risk of being sacrificed in the name of progress, Largo di Torre Argentina is a pleasant example of a historical site that has been successfully repurposed.

 

The good food guide
Anyone who purports to know Rome will warn you against eating in restaurants near the major tourist attractions. Not only are they overpriced and guilty of serving up woefully sub-standard fare, they also deprive visitors of the opportunity to experience the sublime wonders of real Italian food, often located just minutes away.

 

For divine pizza and supplì, an appetiser consisting of rice and tomato sauce encased in a fried shell, head to Al Fornia della Soffitta (Via Piave 62/64), which is a short walk from Castro Pretorio metro station.

 

There is also Zucchero e Farina (Via dei Banchi Vecchi 105-107), a deceptively unassuming pizzeria that offers rectangular pizza slices, which make a tasty snack or quick lunch.

 

Italy’s pasta and pizza are rivalled only by its desserts. 

 

For the city’s best tiramisu, we went to Bar Pompi (Via Della Croce 82), near Spagna metro station. At Mizzica, a traditional Sicilian bar on Via Catanzaro 30, close to Bologna metro station, we savoured Cannoli, an Italian dessert filled with pastry dough that is as light as a feather yet bursting with flavour.

 

After dinner, skip the raucous bars and buy a bottle of beer to nurse as you people-watch at the foot of an ornate fountain in Piazza Navona or Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, joined by a gaggle of Roman students absorbed in the beauty of the city despite a dismal economy and soaring unemployment

 

The secret to exploring Rome is that with a pair of good walking shoes, a few euro stuffed into a back pocket and open eyes, the city is yours for the taking.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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