Termini – Santa Maria Maggiore – Via Urbana – Villa Aldobrandini – Trajan’s Market – Colosseum – Forum – Piazza Venezia – Vittorio Emanuele II Monument – Capitoline Museum – Via del Plebiscito – Corso Emanuele II – Largo Argentina – Area Sacra – Piazza del Teatro di Pompeo – Campo de’ Fiori
Rome is not only one of the greatest cities in the world for history, it is also one of the greatest cities for walking. No meander through the streets of Rome is ever dull – there is history almost on every street corner and hidden away in the backstreets if you just keep your eyes open.
The walk from Termini – the main train station – to Campo de’ Fiori has one enormous benefit in that it is downhill all the way to the Forum – perfect if you fall off the train feeling exhausted before you get to the centre of Rome. There are a couple of sights to take in along the way – first stop, the magnificent church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Piazza dell’Esquilino. This 5th century church has a gilded ceiling – like St Peter’s, it is actually a basilica. The church is open every day from 7am to 6.45pm excluding the periods when mass is held.
If you exit Piazza dell’Esquilino, there are handy bathrooms for men and women at the edge of the piazza. Take Via Cavour and then turn into Via Urbana. You will find yourself in one of the fashionable streets of Rome, where the old meets the new. Antique shops nestle among the cafes and it is a good time to take a break, sit in the sun and enjoy a macchiato or a glass of wine and lunch. The next stage of your walk will take you to the big hitters of Rome – starting with a hidden stairway to Trajan’s market.
Refreshed – and having resisted buying antiques – set off down Via Panisperna to Largo Magnanapoli, passing the green space where Villa Aldobrandini is located in Frascati. The Brandini family still owns it and lives there and the villa enjoys an advantageous position overlooking the centre of Rome – you might have heard of the name by which it is better known, Belvedere, meaning “beautiful view”. The villa and its gardens have been re-opened to the public – one end of the gardens still bears the scars of bombing by the US as part of the Allied attack on Rome during WWII in 1944. The villa is open from 7am to dusk, so there is plenty of time to take a stroll round the gardens or visit the villa during your stay in Rome. More information is available online.
But now we are fast approaching the big hitters of Rome as we head out of Largo Magnanapoli and towards the hidden steps that take us straight into Trajan’s Market. The first time I found these steps I was following locals and suddenly the Forum opened up before me like magic. They are just by a pizza restaurant called (currently) Grano – you will probably see people suddenly disappearing into thin air by the restaurant, so follow on and you will find yourself walking down the steps, turning a corner as you do – and then you will be in Trajan’s Market with the Forum just across the road.
For the purposes of our walk, the best way to navigate what I think of as the beating heart of Rome is to keep to the same side as Trajan’s Market on the Via dei Fori Imperiali and walk towards the Colosseum. This gives you a good view of Trajan’s Market if you do not want to visit it – there are, however, both the museum and the market to marvel at if you have time.
On the other side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali you will see tantalising glimpses of the Forum – with the Colosseum growing larger in the distance. If you intend to visit the Colosseum and the Forum, it is best to buy tickets in advance and allow one hour minimum to visit each, to allow for queues. There are bathroom facilities in both the Colosseum and the Forum, but both get crowded. I always arrive as early as I can in the morning – or book my tours for early afternoon after lunch before the crowds amass again.
If you have managed to visit Trajan’s Market, the Colosseum and the Forum, you will be feeling tired, hungry and thirsty. There are few refreshment opportunities until we have walked back along Via dei Fori Imperiali – and those that are there will be crowded. There will be lots of photo opportunities along the way to take you mind off your sore feet, rumbling stomach and parched mouth, however – and there are usually drinks sellers along the way and even vendors selling fruit and my favourite treat, slices of coconut.
At the end of Via dei Fori Imperiali lies Piazza Venezia and the vast Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, the official government building of Rome (not the parliament building, which is Palazzo Montecitorio in Piazza Colonna off Via del Corso). If you are feeling fired up with energy, you can walk up the steps to visit the Capitoline Museum – there is also the iconic statue of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf at the top, plus the famous dismembered statue of Emperor Constantine and his huge foot – plus fantastic views of the Forum and more photo opportunities (see image of the Forum above). There are bathrooms in the museum, but refreshments are still few and far between, so buy that coconut slice and a bottle of water when you can.
Back on the ground in Piazza Venezia. head off to Via dei Plebiscito – here you will find a wonderful delicatessen where you can perch on a stool for coffee and panini, or head off to the Irish pub farther along on the same side of the road and sink a pint.
Fully refreshed, we are off again, heading for Largo Argentina farther along the road, which changes into into Via del Corso Emanuele. The area of Largo Argentina is home to Area Sacra – which holds a story everyone has heard.
On 15 March 44BC Julius Caesar set off (against his wife’s advice) for a meeting of the Senate, which was being held at Teatro Pompeo – Pompey’s Theatre. It was on this day Caesar was brutally murdered. Area Sacra – now a cat sanctuary – houses the remains of a temple complex and the theatre entrance where Caesar met his end.
The theatre complex actually spreads across a vast area so it is impossible to estimate exactly where Caesar was murdered. But after you have walked round the exterior of Area Sacra – you cannot enter the ruins – and had a good look at what remains of the theatre, temple complex and all the cats sunbathing – we are leaving the main road and heading to Largo Arenula, at the far corner of Largo di Torre Argentina.
Turn right and walk across Piazza Benedetto Cairoli – and this is where I get really excited – and turn into Via dei Giubbonari, my favourite shopping street in Rome! I had to take you there – full of independent shops, designer shops, cafes, wonderful delicatessens, discount stores, buskers and tourists, it is a buzzing area. There is no need to feel at all guilty if you stop to shop or sip because very soon we are turning off to see another important and hidden landmark in Rome’s history.
It is possible to reach Campo de’ Fiori by simply walking along Via dei Giubbonari, but frankly, where’s the fun in that when you can have one last adventure before you get there? On the right-hand side of Via dei Giubbonari, look out for Via dei Chiavari and head along it. At first you might wonder what an earth could be of interest along the narrow winding streets – but it is a slice of life behind the scenes of Rome’s tourist facade. There is a garage that repairs cars, a place where you can hire a locker for your luggage – even a smart fish restaurant.
But turn into Via di Grotta Pinta and you will see something most people who visit Rome either do not know about – or simply walk past. The building looks like a block of apartments, which is what it now is. The building is painted a pale peach colour – and on first seeing it, the only thing that may register with you is its sweeping curve along the street.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the building was designed to accommodate the exaggerated curve of the street; but, in fact, it is the other way round – Romans were not keen on curved streets and opted for right angles. But the curved building that is now apartments is the back wall of the auditorium of Teatro Pompeo, which began several blocks away in Area Sacra. A rear entrance to the remains of the theatre is also in Piazza di Grotta Pinta, but the remains are not open to the public as they are deep underground.
So we have one more surprise left before we reach Campo de’ Fiori and afternoon tea or supper. As you are facing the curving wall of Teatro Pompeo, to your right you will see a church. If you walk to the side of that, you will find what appears to be an alley – Passetto del Biscione. It is quite foreboding, covered in graffiti and with an uncertain exit, but make your way inside what appears to be a covered walkway – and look up at the barrel ceiling and then turn around. You are now in the tiny church of Santa Maria di Grottapinta, which I first found on a solo trip to Rome in September 2005 and was very moved by it. I entered from the other end on that trip and first saw a tiny altar and statue of the Virgin Mary lit up in the darkness. Then I looked up and saw the wonderful ceiling. It was on that trip that I had the idea for my first novel ROME ALONE and this little church briefly features in the novel – the tiny church made a lasting impression on me because of its surprising beauty in such humble surroundings. Even if you are not religious, it is a small wonder in a dark corner of the Eternal City.
When you have finished photographing the church and maybe left a coin on the tiny altar to the Virgin Mary, head out of the other side and keep walking until you realise you have reached civilisation again. As the narrow street opens into a small square, Piazza del Biscione, to your right is an excellent restaurant, Verso Sera, where you can eat or just sit and enjoy a coffee or a glass of wine. It has a very ancient and rustic facade, but it is usually crammed with people and gets quite exuberant at times.
Serenaded over afternoon coffee at Verso Vera…
It is especially atmospheric at night, with lights on the tables glowing in the shadows of the ancient architecture.
If you are keen to reach Campo de’ Fiori, have no fear – it is literally to your left at the end of the small piazza – just beyond the umbrellas in the above image. As you exit Santa Maria di Grottapinta, you might already have spotted locals carrying their shopping or heard the noise of the marketplace.
Campo de’ Fiori is another hip area of Rome – here you will see priests and students, tourists and artists side-by-side shopping or in the many cafes and restaurants bordering the piazza.
In the centre of Campo de’ Fiori is a statue of the martyred Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (February 1548 – 17 February 1600), a Dominican friar who was also a mathematician and astronomer. He suggested that the stars were distant suns and surrounded by their own planets – and even went as far to suggest these planets might have life on them. He was put to death as a result by the Inquisition, as his theories were deemed heresy by the Catholic Church. Ironically, today, the Vatican has its own observatory.
So here we are at last in Campo de’ Fiori, with a glass of wine or a macchiato, taking in the sights – or perhaps enjoying a gelato, browsing the stalls of herbs and spices, olive oil, clothes, leather goods and flowers. The sun is shining – and all we have to worry about now is how to get that antique we have been carrying in our rucksack through customs and back home without breaking it. If you are a shopaholic, perhaps run down Via Urbana, just in case.
Images copyright A. Meredith except where stated.