Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Eternal City

I had a wonderful and surprisingly inexpensive holiday in Rome. I promised a couple of people tips and thought I would share them here.

Going to Rome offers exciting learning opportunities for piglets of Piglet's age (11), as they have usually done the invasion of Britain by Romans in history at school, and will give a cursory glance to splendid examples of renaissance art. (Accompanied by exclamations of prudish horror - "ugh! gross" - if these are nude studies, LOL.)

Available from Hive
To start with, I bought the Dorling Kindersley Family guidebook to Rome. I checked out lots of books in an actual bookshop rather than online. (That was so nice it felt like the start of my holiday! it's a long time since I've been in a proper bookshop.) Many guide books are still lists of places to stay with a quick checklist of price range and facilities. However nowadays this information is more easily available online, so I found the DK book much better value. It tells you the sort of place to go and stay in rather than specific hotels etc. My friend also lent me the DK grown-ups' book, which was likewise full of useful tips.

Nowadays, Roman families are allowed to rent out a room on a B&B principle and I thought this would be a jolly experience for Piglet and me. The DK book suggested that Trastevere is a cheaper and more family-friendly area to stay in than central Rome so I went on Tripadvisor to check out what I could find there.

I found Tripadvisor very easy to get around. The places on there are reviewed by people who stayed or ate at them and pictures are often amateur so they give you a good idea of what the place is actually like. I found a tiny studio flat which was very highly rated, and which was about 50 - 500 € per night cheaper than a hotel room would have been. This made the whole holiday much more affordable. Some cheap flights in my shopping basket and we were on our way!

(Be careful of flight providers on Tripadvisor. I started with one offering very cheap flights, then it gave me a message saying those flights were no longer available but wait! just two seats available at a little bit more than that, no they'd gone although there were two seats more ... I used TravelTrolley in the end. They were really good, and even answered my emailed question about baggage allowance quickly and courteously.)

Because I had saved so much money with the accommodation, we were able to be self-indulgent about going out and about in Rome. The studio flat I had rented had excellent cooking facilities and was in an area where actual normal Roman families live. There were little supermarkets and a lovely outdoor market selling fresh fish, fruit and vegetables round the corner. However I was on holiday! so I'm afraid most days I didn't even do breakfast, just booted Piglet out into the local cafés for a proper caffe latte and some nice sugar-laden pastries. (BTW, there are also a couple of highly recommended speciality food shops in the Via di S. Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere, don't miss those for nice food-y presents to take home.)

We almost never used public transport, since everything was much nearer everything else than I'd expected. Even from Trastevere, which is not in the city centre, it was possible to walk to all the major attractions. We did get on the tram once or twice, and attempted to use ticket machines. But ordinary Romans got that blank look on their faces when we asked about it, which means: 'we are not going to talk about it but we all illegally skip fares here', so we never managed to pay properly. Walking is best. It allows you to constantly come across some amazing ruin which the traffic just goes carelessly past, or some other fun thing. One time we were going past the garages of the anti-maffia offices, and the mobile phone of one of the drivers rang. I kid you not, it was the theme music to The Godfather

My main rule was: do a little of everything. In that way, I felt satisfied that I had seen enough, and that Piglet had got a good all-round understanding of Rome, while she wasn't over-tired. She was already very tired when we set out on the trip as she had sat national exams a week beforehand, and had quite bad hay fever, however this strategy worked so well that she was more rested and brighter when we got back, and so was I.

At times I did feel anxious and bad-tempered about having to fight with Piglet and force her to stir her trotters to see some of the wonderful sights of Rome. However luckily on about Day 3 I saw an even more unfortunate family picnicking on the Palatine Hill. They had a 9 year old and a 5 year old. The 9 year old was weeping with exhaustion to the parents' frustration and I overheard them admonish him to try and enjoy it as he was spoiling it for everyone-else. The 5 year old had discovered that if he kicked about on the ground, it threw up dust into everyone-else's eyes and over their sandwiches and earnt him a great deal of (extremely angry) attention so he was busy doing this. I could see the parents were on the edge of despair, having spent so much money to take their uninterested brats to the wonderful city of Rome and being unable to enjoy it themselves because the kids were totally turned off by the whole thing. I realised that all kids weep, moan and drag their feet about the heights of cultural achievement and that you are entitled to tow them round (by the hair if necessary), and just ignore their squealing. When we got back, Piglet told everyone with great excitement about all the amazing things we had seen and learned about, even though at the time she bitterly complained and lay down on parts of the amazing things pretending to make snoring noises. 

Day 1 - Sunday. Trastevere hosts a fab flea market! so we headed on down there to get something for the cats (ho ho! geddit?). Piglet groaned and dragged her feet of course, but picked up very rapidly when confronted with about a mile of bling priced @ 1€ for many little items. We wandered back through the cobbled narrow streets of Trastevere and I let her just pick out any restaurant she liked the look of to avoid her grumbling about my choice. There was of course no McDonalds, and I figured the little venues with tables on the cobbled pavements would all have great family cooking. We had simple yet exceedingly tasty spaghetti and gnocchi dishes and went on in search of gelati.

We wandered onto the island in the middle of the Tiber, buying delicious grattachecca en route (these are the local Trastevere ices - grated ice and fruit syrup). Later we bought a very good book in the Colloseum bookshop, which uses lift-up flaps to show you how buildings used to look and how they look today. Then we realised that the island used to be built like a boat in the river. The best day to go is Sunday, when there are street traders on the old bridges over to the island and lots of people strolling about. 

Day 2 - Piglet had fixated on a toy shop listed in the guide book so we went to the Piazza Navona in search of it. Sadly it was filled with charming hand-carved wooden toys and not a Barbie in sight. What a disappointment. We sat at an overpriced restaurant in the piazza and had a coffee and ice cream, but I insisted we not eat there. Instead we went to the Piazza della Rotunda where we also visited the Pantheon. I'm not sure that meal was cheaper but the waiters were much jollier and there were actual Italians eating at the restaurant, whereas Piazza Navona seemed to be mainly tired footsore tourists. Inspired by the people who had sat next to us in Piazza Navona, Piglet ordered pizza and chips. I was careful not to imitate our fellow tourists and ask how long our food would take - poor things! what had they come on holiday to do, if they couldn't lounge about taking three hours over lunch? I tried to pretend the chips were for me but the waiters laughed merrily and put them well out of my reach.

Later in the week we went back to Piazza della Rotunda and visited a couple of nearby churches, including Sant'Ignazio. Piglet protested bitterly at going to a church when we are bad Buddhists but I chastised her for being such a philistine and insisted. She was actually of course charmed when I made her stand on the star in front of the altar looking upwards, and then put 50c in a slot at the side which made the roof above light up and show a fun trompe-l'oeil ceiling painted to look as if there was a cuppola rising above. I let her light a candle and say a prayer for someone even though we are bad Buddhists.

We also checked out the front of the rococco Santa Maria Maddalena.

Day 3 - we went to the Colloseum. I bought Roma passes, which are about 35€ and will last for three days and get you into some other museums too. We didn't manage to get along to any of those, but I felt the extra money was worth it as it enabled us to join a much shorter queue at the Colloseum. There are three extremely badly sign-posted queues: one for school trips, one for advance tickets (including Roma passes) and one for people who are paying on the day - that last one looks like it's only the same length but it actually takes a lot longer once it gets inside the building so make sure you get the right one by asking around and hunting for the exceedingly small sign.

Piglet wanted an audio guide so I bought her one, and it broke up the trip round nicely for her. She could look out for numbers on the walls and get information from the guide instead of from mum-nearly-as-old-as-the-Colloseum. I shan't go on about what a fabulous experience it was; it really was worth going to.

I hadn't quite realised that the Palatine Hill and Forum are right next door so very easy to go to in the same day (and your ticket covers all of them). The Palatine Hill is more like a pleasant park with occasional ruins in it, and it's very normal to picnic there so we did that. Then I fibbed that the way home was through the Forum so we walked leisurely past the wonderful remains of buildings there. By saying things like: "Oh, is the exit this way?" I managed to get round most of it without too much bitter complaint from Piglet.

Day 4 - we went to Piazza di Spagna. This was a total gurrllzzz day out, and my main fun day. I said forcefully to Piglet that we had done a lot of things she wanted to do on the other days (which was not strictly true! but can be made to look as if it is) so she must not complain if we did things for me that day. Actually of course she really enjoyed it, especially since whining had been knocked off the agenda.

We got the tram to Piazza Venezia, then walked along the Via del Corso, and saw street entertainers and guys with cute puppies begging. The Marcus Aurelius column is along here and worth stopping to check out, if you are not distracted by the Zara window display opposite. We turned down Via Borgognona and wandered into Guccis and Balenciaga. Don't be surprised if someone follows you round as you go through these stores, LOL. I was smartly dressed and actually buying something (very small!) and they still went everywhere with me.

I think Piglet actually liked the fountain in Piazza di Spagna best. You can get close to the 'leaking boat' and dabble your feet in its water and drink from the spouts out the side of it.The fountain is of course right in front of the beautiful Spanish Steps - which all us gurrlzzz know from Roman Holiday. 

To one side of the Spanish Steps is the famous café Babington's, set up by two English ladies in 1893. Deliciously period, you feel as if Maggie Smith is going to sweep in fully costumed for A Room with a View, followed by Cher from Tea with Mussolini. The food actually is great, the scones are not quite as they make them in Britain - crisper, however they serve them properly with jam and cream. The teapots are lovely as they are surmounted by little cats: the symbol of the cafe being a black cat.

On the other side of the Spanish Steps is the Keats-Shelley museum and once you have had your afternoon tea, you must of course go there - or you must go there first and then you can sigh and shed a little tear over your tea. The rooms are beautifully laid out in period furnishings, and you can stand in the room where Keats died; if you are still and quiet you can hear the rushing sound of water which he used to hear. (He wanted his epitaph to be: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.) You can buy nice books and bookmarks and cards, etc. A big bonus is that they will let you leave heavy bags in lockers near the cash desk, so you don't have to lug these round while you sigh over the romantic poets' untimely demises.

Available from Hive for 
an incredibly cheap price
Later on in my trip, I went to the super fun English bookshop Almost Corner, which is in Trastevere, and bought a steampunk edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Because of its Romantic themes about the beauties of nature, and the exciting story, and the peculiar circumstances of her writing it to entertain Byron and Shelley, I felt this was the best book to read in relation to visiting the museum. (Mary Shelley Godwin is herself an exciting and interesting person, well worth reading up about.)

Day 4 - we hung around Trastevere, checking out the shops and cafés in the narrow medieval cobbled streets. You can buy pizza by the slice here, and we sometimes had lunch for 3 or 4 the pair of us! We found one shop serving potato pizza and another doing hot-dog-and-chips pizza, evidently influenced by the many American students in the area. The hot crispy pizza is really delicious whatever they put on it so you can try what you like with impunity. Check out Piazza di Santa Maria where the young people all hang out around the central fountain. There are little stalls selling jewellery and scarves and stuff, as well as the small shops full of jewellery and scarves and shoes.

Day 5 - we headed through the narrow medieval gate and went to the Villa Farnesina. I had decided queueing for two hours in order to walk for six hours round miles and miles of exquisite world-famous art in the Vatican might tax Piglet's fledgling powers of art appreciation, so I chose to go to this nearby little villa instead. It has two Raphael frescos - which is one more than Piglet can really take in. There was no queue at all, and the villa was full of charming paintings aside from the Raphael frescos, including these shutters.

 We went on from the villa to check out the Garibaldi Monument on the Janiculum Hill. (Romans call this the Giardini del Gianicolo.) By mistake, we ended up in the Orto Botanico - the Botanical Gardens. As we had paid for tickets to get in there, I insisted we walk round it and get our money's worth. It was very charming and refreshing. We found a pretty Japanese garden at the top with a pond full of large koi carp, and sat in the pavillion eating cherries and chatting to a kindly French couple.

Spectacular view! Nom nom.
The Giardini del Gianicolo is free, LOL. The climb up the hill is a bit stiff but by going a long way ahead, I managed to lose the wailing cries of the plaintive Piglet toiling along behind me. The view from the top is spectacular so it actually is worth it.

There are many other things so worth seeing in Rome! The catacombs, the Terme di Caracalla, and I wished we could go out of the city to see the Villa d'Este Gardens, and Piglet wished we could go out of the city to some sort of waterworld thing full of flumes. However my take-it-easy plan meant we came back informed, refreshed and very well fed, laden with multi-coloured pasta, packets of dried porcini and Italian sweets - which are of course very different to British sweets.


  1. I've always wanted to go to Rome and next year it will happen. I found this memoir really interesting and probably just as good as any guide book.
    Really well written and humorous. I won't have an eleven year old to drag around either.
    Thank you for this thoughtful insight. I enjoyed reading it very much.

    Graham, Newcastle