The Spanish Steps

Rome's Finest Walks

7th October 2011

Rome is awe-inspiring, says Rowena Carr-Allinson. One of those places you just have to see. A city where old and new live side by side.

A living museum, this fabulous city is littered with historic landmarks such as the infamous Colosseum where gladiators once roamed. Relics from the last two thousand years are literally scattered around, lying in wait for you.

Turn a corner and you'll come across monuments of times gone by: a constant reminder of Rome's rich tapestry of history. Splendid baroque buildings, classical period giants such as the Colosseum and the Forum cohabit with Basilicas and Churches of different eras. Striking squares bear witness to 17th century sculpture, thanks to the omnipresent works of Bernini and Borromini, while Renaissance artists Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Raphael also left their eternal mark on the city.

And of course there is the crazy traffic. The city's tiny, narrow, cobbled streets are swamped by insane cab drivers, speeding scooters and oblivious pedestrian tourists.

The legacy of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck's classic movie Roman Holiday has made the city into one of the most sought-after romantic destinations. And rightly so. The ancient architecture and timeless charm make for a captivating place to be in and visit. The beauty is that everything is within easy walking distance (but ditch those heels, as the cobble stones can be tricky!).

Walk on the chic side: East of Via del Corso

At the Northern end of town, start your stroll at the impressive Piazza di Popolo. A neoclassical work by Giuseppe Valadier, it’s a grand square with Egyptian obelisk, fountains, classical oversized sculptures and 16th century gate marking the entry to Rome. The piazza can hold several thousand people and is often a base for free concerts.

At the southern edge of the square, twin churches divide the way into town into three streets, known as the Tridente: Via del Babuino, Via del Corso and Via Ripetta.

To walk down towards the Piazza di Spagna opt for the leftmost street, the Via del Babuino. The name derives from a small Roman fountain of Silenus by Giacomo della Porta, so ugly that the Romans called it the Baboon, il babuino. You’ll pass some of Rome's most chic hotels and upmarket shops, and find the neo-Gothic Anglican Church of All Saints nestling in amongst five star hotels and Baroque buildings.

Take a left and you'll be in a hidden gem: the Via Margutta. A tiny cobbled street with overhanging vines and greenery, it was once the centre of the dolce vita, the home of celebrated artists, journalists, paparazzi and actors. Today it contains exclusive antique stores, boutique hotels and art galleries, but still has its own rich life and eccentricities; La Bottega del Marmoraro, for example, at number 53b, which has been a marble shop for over a hundred years, has established a tradition whereby friends come at 1pm to lunch. Seating only allows five guests but this has become one of the most desired luncheon tickets in town. Enrico, the owner and craftsman, turns restaurateur for a few hours. Visitors who can't get in sit outside on the steps or on car bonnets sampling his grilled scamorza cheese or lamb with wine they bring along themselves.

Back on Via del Babuino, browse in Prada and Valentino before you hit the Piazza di Spagna and the legendary Spanish Steps. For a coffee break hit the stylish Caffé Greco on Via Condotti where Byron, Goethe, Listzt and Wagner stopped off too, or, if it's too crowded there, head to La Caffetteria on Via Margutta. On Piazza di Spagna, visit the memorial houses for Keats and Shelley, and admire the Fontana della Barcaccia, one of the many impressive Bernini fountains in Rome. Climb up the Spanish Steps (usually overrun by tourists, unfortunately) to the terrace and catch one of Rome's nicest views, before walking on down Via Condotti, past more exclusive designer shops: everyone from Fendi to Cartier is here.

To reach the Trevi Fountain, another major Roman landmark made famous of course by Fellini's classic film La Dolce Vita, take the busy shopping street of Via del Corso and make a left just after Piazza Colonna.

The Fontana di Trevi, immortalised in numerous other movies too, was the last monumental fountain of its kind and depicts Neptune and his chariot drawn by sea horses, guided by tritons emerging from the water. The imposing masterpiece begun by Bernini was finished some hundred years later by Nicola Salvi. If you’ve fallen in love with the place, you can guarantee a return to Rome by throwing a coin into the water. Or so they say.

Continuing down Via del Corso, you reach the Piazza Venezia, yet another monumental location, built to commemorate the unification of Italy and honour the King. This huge roundabout is the hub of the city, where all buses and public transport seem to converge.

Resist – or indulge in – the opportunity to be photographed with a Russell Crowe lookalike in full gladiator garb, and then head around the right hand side, up the steps to the Palazzo Venezia museum which houses paintings from the 13th to the 18th centuries, plus marble and carved-wood sculptures, bronzes, terracottas, china, silver, textiles and much more. Take a quick peek at the Forum from above, round the back of the Palazzo, and make a detour onto the terrace which offers great views of the city…

Rome’s classics – from the Pantheon to the Vatican: west of Via del Corso

Take another day to explore the winding streets from Via del Corso down to the Tiber…

Treasures abound, from the impressive Pantheon to Piazza Navona and the Campo de' Fiori.

Start in the Piazza della Rotonda, home to the Pantheon, built by Hadrian, and the burial site of Kings Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I and of the painter Raphael. The immense structure will also provide a welcome respite from the intense heat as you tread on the finely polished marble, patterned in ‘Opus Sectile’ style. The most impressive part of the jaw-dropping Pantheon is the precisely equal height and diameter of the dome. Legend says that even when standing under the dome’s opening when it rains you don’t get wet as the rain evaporates before it reaches you. I can’t say I’ve tested that myself…

Just around the corner, in Via degli Uffici del Vicario, is the Gelatteria Giolitti – the best place to stop for an iced coffee, complete with a tower of cream, and a good place, too, to pause and ponder the enormity of the feat of architecture that stands in those columns.

Then head west across Corso del Rinascimento onto Piazza Navona. Renovated in the 17th century to Baroque style, it is a hub of activity: street vendors, artists and tourists mill around making this long narrow square one of Rome’s busiest. At the centre stands Bernini’s most famous work, a stunning fountain: the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Dating back to 1651, it has four giant statues, representing the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges and the Plate, one river for each quarter of the world.

Across from the fountain is the Sant'Agnese in Agone church. Commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1652, but then handled by Francesco Borromini, the dome and twin bell towers are a reminder of the fierce rivalry between Borromini and Bernini. The story says that one of the statues in the Fontana dei Fiumi is shielding his face from the church so as not to suffer such a sight, while on top of the church’s façade a solitary statue also turns his head away from the square, ignoring the fountain. Lasting feuds are the best!

Walking south past Piazza di San Pantaleo and down Via dei Baullari will lead you to Campo de' Fiori. Another focal point of the city, it’s best known for its food markets and lively nightlife, and is lined with bars and trattorias. But the square wasn’t always a happy party place, and a bronze statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno is a reminder of his burning at the stake for heresy here in 1600.
Follow the banks of the Tiber and cross over to Vatican City, the tiny independent state that is utterly breathtaking. St Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square, again both creations of Bernini, are surrounded by two semi-circular colonnades, with an Egyptian-style obelisk in the centre.

The Vatican Palace, the Pope’s main residence, is guarded by the anachronistic Swiss Guards, who despite their somewhat ridiculous costumes are said to be amongst the world’s most feared. Remember to wear appropriate clothes (you won’t be allowed in with bare legs), so that you don’t have to miss the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Gardens or the bulky Castel Sant’Angelo, where Emperor Hadrian was laid to rest.

For food and fun and a sharp return to the 21st century, head down to Trastavere, which has become a hip and happening area, with a relaxed vibe and plenty of fantastic seafood and pasta restaurants.

What to do in Rome

• Try the drinking water from the fountains found at almost every corner – it’s beautifully cool and tastes pure and fresh

• Enjoy sun-downers on one of the many roof top terraces

• Go sightseeing: the Vatican, Caracalla Thermal Baths, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiore, the Colosseum and the Forum

• Breathe in some fresh air in Villa Borghese

• Catch a free concert on Piazza di Populo

• Eat pasta, especially seafood

• Go shopping on Via del Corso

• Take in a museum or two: plenty of choice, from Art to Pasta

What not to do in Rome

• Wear high heels. The streets are mostly roughly cobbled and make stilettos uncomfortable and dangerous. It takes years of practice to master the art.

• Eat at trattorias on main tourist squares. The food is often mediocre and will be twice the price of a restaurant a little further afield.

• Drive. A veritable labyrinth of one way streets and narrow routes mean that driving around is more than a challenge, and the never-ending traffic will drive you crazy. Don't waste your time. Walk. Besides, that’s the best way to see the city’s treasures.

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