From stunning skyline views to hidden sects, secret passageways and some seriously good food. Here's our inside guide to unusual things to do in Rome
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So, Christianity, as you know (!) flourished in Rome after a rather rocky start.
But what about the other religions and sects that floundered instead? What great marks did they leave on the city of Rome and its inhabitants?
Context Travel offer tours led by docents (academics) who, quite literally, take you underground to show you the secret meeting places and worship rituals of secretive men who met two thousand years ago.
Rome is surprisingly short of skyline views but once I found one that worked, my word it was beautiful. The rooftop terrace at the Rome Cavalieri overlooks the city of the seven hills almost in its entirety. You can see the dome of St Paul's, the arc of the colosseum and the terracotta spread of a world capital that seems exempt from the usual uniform of concrete skyscraper grey.
What's even better? The hotel also has a pool so if the heat from the city-slicker life is getting you down, you can hop on in and cool off with a dip.
The Rome Cavalieri, part of the Waldorf Astoria and Hilton Worldwide network, makes for a gorgeous place to stay even without the view.
The rooms, decked out in cream and gold, are matched in opulence by the service and attention of the staff, accentuated all the more by the Imperial Club on the 7th floor.
It’s a large place, a village within a village, and it’s some way out of town. At another time in life, I would have longed to be in among the action, the sweaty, cobbled trattoria-lined streets of the beating heart of Rome around the Vatican.
Battle scarred by a succession of medical interventions, however, I couldn’t have been happier to find myself away from the hordes, in a sanctuary, with a breeze, on one of those infamous hills.
There’s an indoor pool and gym, too, awash with marble and a Roman nose, because, let’s face it, even Rome lives within Europe’s greyer winter climes.
I tackled the basket of focaccia, walnut and olive bread with peppery olive oil and a first course of delicately spiced Roman rigatoncini “Amatriciana” pasta.
However, the suckling pork on a bed of lentils defeated me and I declined the option of dessert.
“You will need to change if you are to understand this country, “ the waiter told me. “We love to eat! Some days, that is all we do…”
The petits fours arrived whether I agreed to them or not… ;-)
The Cavalieri also houses La Pergola, the only restaurant with three Michelin-stars in Rome, but, as you’d expect, you need to book well in advance and the last minute nature of my trip didn’t give me the time to try it this time around.
What I Loved about the Rome Cavalieri
That view of Rome. Really, truly, absolutely magnificent. A trip highlight in itself.
Excellent sound-proofing – an extra door between the corridor, the bathroom and the bedroom.
Heated towel rail within the room.
Option of rainshower and focus shower effect.
Vanity area in the bathroom
Thoughtful touches – such as a dedicated “wet bag” for swimwear so you can have a last minute dip before heading to the airport.
Pillow menu – excellent for those with allergies or musculoskeletal problems.
The welcome prosecco and rainbow macarons.
Extensive provision of toiletries. As it happened, this visit coincided with an assignment I was working on to do with lost luggage. Half my job was done by just opening the bathroom door.
The Imperial Club Floor – a quieter, calmer place to check in and out and catch up with emails (while still enjoying that view.) Complimentary breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and pre and post dinner drinks amid 18th century Venetian masterpieces.
What to Know About the Rome Cavalieri
The Rome Cavalieri doesn’t lie within walking distance of the main sights of Rome. A free shuttle bus operates every hour, more or less, with up to date details available from the concierge.
You need to reserve sunbeds (and pay extra depending on your room rate.)
There’s a rooftop terrace on the 9th floor that showcases that incredible view once more, but for me the best part, by far, was watching the sun set over Rome from the privacy of my own balcony on Room 761.
St Peter’s. The Colosseum. The shadowy curves of those historic hills.
I could have watched the changing patterns of the sky all night.
Barring time asleep, that’s exactly what I did.
Until daybreak came and it was time to head into town.
Visit the narrow streets of “wrong side of the tracks” Trastevere, where green tendrils and scarlet petals spill out from lopsided windows and vespas laze in the shadows.
It’s a small shop on an unremarkable street.
Twirls and swirls of thick white paint flick across the shop window, shadowed by shades of crimson and green. And call me romantic but the words seem to have been written with love.
Baccala e ceci. Il prosciutto del bon Gustaio. Porchetta di Ariccia.
Inside, there’s a queue, also small. It matches the range of products for sale.
Authentic. Small. Elegantly arranged.
Cardboard-boxed pasta curls and red wine line the shelves and the counters reveal rosemary-soaked pizza bianca.
But mostly, it’s all about the porchetta. Salty. Salted. Thickly cut and surprisingly melt in the mouth.
Here in Trastevere, my tastebuds are living in the moment, my mind has gone wandering back through the past.
Head to St Peter's Square after closing time and you may find yourselves the only ones there, save for the odd passing nun and ever watchful Swiss Guard.
Walk on foot from the squat Castel Sant’Angelo along the banks of the Tiber.
The columns seem taller and iridescent, the sainted stone statues more watchful, more close by. The Swiss Guards seem more relaxed and the pink tinge to the sky makes the fountain-footed obelisk appear to glow in charcoal and peach.
True, Italy has a great reputation for gastronomy. But like Venice, Rome sometimes struggles with its own popularity. Sure, it's hard to find bad food, but simply being not bad isn't enough to be good.
Do yourself a favour and book yourself onto a good food tour in Rome (here's one I would recommend) and learn the difference between parmesan and pecorino, pizza bianca and porchetta.
I opted for the four hour daylight tour, a voyage through around 20 or so different specialty shops, one open air market and not one but two sit down restaurants with an impromptu gelato and coffee stop thrown in.
It was a blur of gastronomic brilliance, with around ten or so fellow explorers. We saw pecorino cheese stacked waist high and bulbous cheese hanging from the rafters.
We tasted suppli, a deep fried rice ball, on the streets and sugar-dusted pastries indoors.
We sat for wine and pasta, stood for gelato, strolled past pumpkin and prosciutto in the market and slid forks through freshly sliced watermelon
And best of all, the people we met seemed pleased to see us too. Shopkeepers were ready, chefs passionate.
Through pregnancy and a few other issues, my diet was no longer carefree and I’d braced myself to sit on the culinary sidelines as it were.
But the Trasteverini weren’t having any of it.
When it came to gelato, they found me sorbet. For soft, gooey cheese, they substituted hard. Cured meat was swapped with cooked, and cream-laden dessert became so many different types of biscuits and coconut sweets that I struggled to take them all in.
And all without making a fuss, all with making me feel welcome.
Other food tours, which shall remain nameless, have a lot to learn.
I fell in foodie heaven.
Once pizza and pasta start to heard thin, head to Ginger Sapori e Salute right in the heart of Rome. From breakfast til dinner they serve organic, sustainable, healthy food in (ahem) a highly instagrammable setting.
If there’s one city in the world that demonstrates the rise of the selfie stick, and selfies in general, it’s the hybrid ancient-and-modern city of Rome. Everywhere you look, there’s something to marvel at – and consequently, everywhere you look, there’s a tourist taking a selfie.
Yet, wouldn't it be nice to have a professional set of photos sometimes?
Yes, you’ll feel a little awkward. But if you’re going to go in for set family photos anyway, why not take them when you’re truly happy and relaxed all together on holiday (with the bonus that the background’s more interesting than those green and white overhead projector type screens to boot?)
For solo travellers, there’s the added advantage of meeting someone – and all travellers can benefit from the inside knowledge and perspective that a local photographer can bring.
I had a fantastic experience with Guido from Travelshoot and learned much more about the city than I would have otherwise.
Disclosure - some of these experiences were hosted for review purposes, some were not. All were included because I want to recommend them - and I want you to be happy with the recommendations. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes a weird and dismal mind game. So, go! Travel! Be happy in Rome!
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