A secret keyhole, a library that will make you swoon AND the best place in the city for wine & cheese. Rome’s got a few secrets that you NEED to discover for yourself.
We all know Rome wasn’t built in a day. Well, it’s equally ludicrous to think this city can be properly explored in the span in 24 hours. During my first visit to Rome in 2013, I hardly scraped the surface of the place. Out of all the cities I had visited on my European Escapade, Rome had really captured my attention. Everything inside of me itched to explore this city deeper- to learn more about the history, to taste more of the cuisine, to actually get to know the locals. So when the opportunity came up to revisit Rome, I jumped at it in a heartbeat. This time, I wasn’t going to spend three hours queuing up for Colosseum, or be taken on another monotonous walking tour through the Vatican. I was on a mission to rediscover Rome and its hidden secrets.
The first step to rediscovering this city was going on a Secret Food Tour of Rome. Food is at the very heart of Italy, so there was no better way to start my time in Rome than discovering some of the best cuisine the city had to offer. What I thought would be a 3-hour jaunt in delighting my taste buds turned into so much more. I was taken around by Tommaso, who was not only an expert in about the food we were sampling, but was also overflowing with knowledge about Roman architect, art and history. Learning these things from a local was such an invaluable experience. I came to the end of the tour feeling so much more connected to a city that I had previously only understood through its touristy facade. We began the tour at Piazza Navona for a world-renowned cup of Italian coffee (I still think Australian coffee wins out but let’s not get into that cheeky debate). Once I was buzzing with caffeine (a much-needed boost as I had just stepped off a plane from New York), we headed over to a little hole-in-the-wall pizzeria that served us up a few slices of fresh, thin-crusted pizza. It was barely lunchtime and jet-lag was working havoc with my body clock, so I willed myself to work up an appetite for the delicious food I was being presented with. Our next step had to be one of my favourites- a shop specializing in fried risotto balls that were mouth-wateringly good. We wandered through the fruit and vegetable markets and then continued on our way, with Tommaso providing commentary on different buildings we passed and explaining the history of each area we walked through. We ended up at a bakery and my appetite suddenly woke up. If you have not yet tried Cannoli, the traditional Italian pastry, you are missing out. I wanted to eat five of these delicious treats but I knew there was still a lot of food to come so I held back before our main meal, which took place in a little, nondescript restaurant in the Jewish Quarter. Here, I finally sampled GREAT Italian pasta, cooked ‘Al Dente’. Belissimo indeed! Once I was positively stuffed, we headed to a very popular spot amongst the locals for cheese, ham, salami and the best bit… really good wine. I did my best to nibble through some spectacular cheeses and happily sipped through my wine, despite my stomach feeling close to exploding. There was just one stop left to get through after that, and it wasn’t hard to guess what it was going to be. My favourite thing of all- Italian Gelato. The place Tommaso took me to certainly did not disappoint, and although I could hardly move once I was through with my sorbet, I was one very content traveller.
The next step to rediscovering Rome was uncovering a few of its hidden spots. I already knew where I wanted to find first- a giant old library that I had seen a photo of some months back. I’ve always loved the traditional libraries- the repetitive aesthetic of the bookshelves, the novelty of those wooden ladders, the smell of dusty old book covers. Biblioteca Angelica was everything I could have imagined and more. It was a maze of literary bliss. The room itself was ghostly quiet, as many locals were sitting and working intently at the hard wooden desks. It made me wish I had longer in Rome- I would have loved to bring my laptop and worked inside this beautiful public space.
After the library and a much needed gelato stop at Gelateria Della Palma (150 flavours of deliciousness), we circled the backstreets until we reached the very touristy and far from secret Spanish Steps. The friend I was staying with hadn’t been to the steps before, so we pushed through the crowds to climb to the top. The spot wasn’t quite as beautiful as I had recalled, mostly due to the Trinita dei Monti church at the top of the stairs being masked by a giant Bulgari advertisement- the area was undergoing massive renovations which were funded by the luxury jewellery company. We made it out two steps before being hassled by an insistent man offering us roses- a tourist trap that is exhaustingly common around the area. It’s a flawless business model- tell a girl she is beautiful, shove a rose in her hand, make her (or her companion) pay it. It is these occurrences in Rome that really make you wish you could transport back to 100 years ago when the city hadn’t been overrun by tacky souvenir shops, overpriced pizza and street sellers.
We quickly retreated from the Spanish Steps and made our way to somewhere we hoped would feel a little more genuinely ‘Roman’. The Giardino Degli Aranci, or Garden of Oranges, quickly won me over. As we entered through the gates, we were greeted with the sweet melodies of a four-piece band drifting through the park. The sun was just about to set and everything was drenched in golden light. A bride and groom walked past us, hand-in-hand. It was like being transported to a movie set. As we approached the edge of the park, we were presented with the most magnificent view over the city of Rome. St Peter’s Basilica formed the perfect centerpiece to a pattern of terracotta rooftops. Little twinkling lights began to appear as the sun dipped below the horizon. This was Rome at its most magical.
We had one more stop before making our way home, and it was possibly the stop I was most excited about. In fact, we almost missed it. It was like a treasure hunt- the only instructions we had were to walk down the hill from the Garden of Oranges, look out for the Maltese Embassy, then search for a big green door with a tiny keyhole. We finally found some people gathered around a door and knew we had found it- the Aventine Keyhole. I patiently waited in line until finally I could peek through the mysterious hole in the door. It was unbelievable. Perfectly framed in the topiary of the garden was a view of St Peter’s Basilica. Was this a gracefully planned phenomenon or pure coincidence? No one quite knows, and I guess this mystery remains part of the keyholes allure.
Rediscovering Rome for the second time turned out to be better than I could have ever anticipated. Uncovering just a few of this city’s hidden secrets has made me hungry to go back and keep exploring… Also hungry for more gelato. Round three anyone?