Over ten years ago, I took a tour of Italy with my mother and grandmother. We started in Venice, had to skip Florence because of a train strike, spent a day and night in Pompeii-Sorrento-Naples, but we spent about half of the trip in Rome. I don’t want to be cliché and call it the Eternal City, but if I left Dallas for ten years and came back there would most likely be some drastic changes. But walking through the ancient streets of Rome…storefronts have shuffled, gelato flavors change, but the ancient streets and piazzas are exactly as they have been for centuries (maybe not the graffiti).
My husband, poor man, had seen none of this except for a very quick detour to the Colosseum between errands. Since he works regular hours during the week, we had to put off our first big Rome site seeing tour together until last weekend so we could stroll properly at our own pace and not frantically after work. One of the many things I love about this place is how easy it is to walk from one masterpiece to another, and stumble upon unexpected ones along the way. Keeping this in mind we decided a nice lazy afternoon of eating, walking and gawking would be Campo de Fiori, to Piazza Navona, to the Pantheon, ending in the Trevi Fountain. My new favorite walk.
This can be done in less than a few hours if you’re short on time. It took us about five because we had a nearly three hour lunch (not unusual) and we didn’t feel like rushing.
Stop 1: CAMPO DE FIORI
Compared to other piazzas, Campo de Fiori has a humble past. Literally “Meadow of Flowers”, until Medieval times, it was just a flowering flood plain. Around the 13th century, buildings starting popping up and the streets around the Campo became centers for tradesmen. The streets surrounding the piazza are named after the trades that once occupied them. My favorite is Via dei Balestrari (Crossbow Makers). The square was also a horse trading market, part of the Pope’s Road, and the scene of executions.
Which brings me to this guy. So, who is the creepy hooded figure in the middle of the square? According to Wikipedia, Friar Giordano Bruno. Around 1600, he had the gall to defy the Catholic Church by publishing a work that basically declared the Sun just a star, not the center of the universe, and he went on to say it’s possible that there are other planets with life on them. For this, he was burned at the stake in this very spot. Two hundred and fifty years later he was proven right, and they erected a statue of him where he defiantly faces the Vatican. Tragic stuff, but my husband loves Astronomy and I love history so we totally geeked out over this.
Today Campo de Fiori is much more laid back. Monday – Saturday the center of the piazza hosts a market, where you can find fresh produce, spices, olive oil, flowers, musicians, leather, and “Ciao Bella” t-shirts. Restaurants, pizzerias and cafes line the perimeter. My advice, do what we did, sit down at one of the restaurants, order drinks, and enjoy some truly entertaining people watching.
We ate at a little restaurant called Obika. It wasn’t a tourist trap, though there was some English on the placemats explaining the nuances of mozzarella making, we were surrounded by Italians which is always a good sign. We had an appetizer of fresh mozzarella di bufala, SMOKED mozzarella di bufala, tomatoes, black olives, and foccacia…so simple and so good. I highly recommend the smoked mozzarella di bufala, I didn’t even know it existed. Sorry, I was too busy chewing to take pictures, so you’ll have to use your imagination.
For lunch we had pizza at the same restaurant. This was my first experience with real Roman pizza. Typical pizza in Rome has a cracker thin chewy crust, about 10-12” wide, and is served one per person, no slices. You are also supposed to eat it with a knife and fork, something that still feels very unnatural to us. I had the Pomodori (I think), which is basically fresh tomatoes, buscata cheese, fresh mozzarella, and basil, (I think). It was sooo good, but I could only eat half.
Stop 2: PIAZZA NAVONA
Full of pizza and beer we made the short walk north to Piazza Navona.
Unlike the rustic nature of Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona is much more open, ornate, and generally on a grander scale. The site of an ancient Roman stadium, the piazza gets its long narrow shape (think chariot races) from the original structure. Because the square was the residence of the family of a wealthy Pope in the 1600s, palaces, fountains, and grande churches were erected by Baroque superstars like Bernini and Borromini.
Compared to the chaos in Campo de Fiori and the crowds we were about to encounter at the next two stops, Piazza Navona invites you to wander slowly from one fountain to the next. Between the fountains, artists selling kitschy canvases and street performers try to catch your eye. The shops around the square sell leather goods, treats, clothing, and other various knick-knacks.
But we were just there to admire the architecture and fountains, I’m a huge sucker for a good fountain.
Overall, a perfect place to take a stroll after a long lunch.
Stop 3: THE PANTHEON
From Piazza Navona we headed east for about 5 minutes. The streets are very tangled in this area, but it’s nearly impossible to miss the Pantheon. Just follow the crowd, and if that fails, follow the little brown signs.
It’s staggering to know that this building is nearly 2000 years old, and narrowly escaped being destroyed by becoming a church sometime in the 600s.
But it was CROWDED. Not that I expected much less, it’s one of the top sites in Europe and it was a Sunday on a fairly nice day in September. So we decided to take 5 and find some gelato. A few of the best are just a block or two away, but I’ll talk about those in another post. Gelato deserves its own post.
After congratulating each other on moving to a country that considers ice cream part of its lifestyle, happy and cooled off we went to battle the crowds.
Judging from the dark grey exterior, one wouldn’t necessarily expect the interior to be clad in colorful marble, artwork, tombs, and even a church in the back. It’s obviously not the original interior, that has long been either ransacked or restored. To me though, it’s interesting to see nineteen centuries of artistic interpretation in the same space.
But of course, you don’t necessarily come to the Pantheon for the art, you come for the architecture. I personally believe, that once entering, you cannot help but look up.
Fun fact: the Pantheon’s dome is the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome. The Oculus in the center is open, and the only source of light in room. The sloped floor and drains allow rain to drain in the center of the room. I’m told it looks pretty cool when it’s snowing.
Stop 4: FONTANA DI TREVI
Following the crowd we headed east again, about 5-10 minutes to the Fontana di Trevi.
This is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, in this tiny square, which is why I couldn’t get a full picture.
Finished in the mid 1600s Taming of the waters is the theme of the fountain with the god Oceanus riding a shell chariot in the center. If you aren’t already familiar with it, you might recognize it from Le Dolce Vita, or Roman Holiday.
Even with the crowds shoving through, teenagers climbing on the outer rocks, and street venders trying to sell you these high pitched whistling gelatin-like toys, so many put up with the chaos to get close to the fountain, it’s beautiful.
Feeling a little claustrophobic, still full from lunch, and ready to escape the humidity of the day, we ended it here, feeling accomplished and luckier than ever.
Little tip: If you have the chance to come out here, try to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. These narrow cobbled streets are adorable, and hold many surprises along the way.
This is hardly the end of our Roman site seeing though, much more to come. Stay tuned.