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TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE- When in Rome, Explore Its Hidden Gems PDF Print E-mail
Written by Robert Selwitz, Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 20 October 2011 02:34

PHOTO COURTESY OF BARBARA SELWITZ

The Pantheon is one of ancient Rome's greatest structures.

Rome hardly needs more publicity. Capital of the nation that seems to dra w virtually every European-visiting American, Rome's greatest tourist concern is not attracting more visitors but coping with them in a sane and reasonable manner.

While Rome itself needs no boosting, however, there are many attractions that definitely could use more patronage. For those who stray somewhat off the beaten path, these sites can provide extraordinary moments of unexpected delight. Best of all, most of these places are quite near Rome's most in-demand locations.

For example, while almost everyone sees the Coliseum — the stadium extraordinaire that was home to gladiatorial events, man-beast tilts and even naval battles — just a few blocks away is the Basilica of San Clemente. One of Rome's most intriguing churches it's actually a church on top of a church on top of a Mithraic Temple.

Long assumed to date to the fourth century, 19th-century excavations spurred by flooding from the nearby Tiber River reached not just original church foundations but an even lower collection of first-century remains that included a Mithraic school and worshipping area. This area still boasts grottoes with faded but visible frescoes. All of this was filled in the fourth century to provide a base for a new church that lasted until the 11th century. Then Normans destroyed the original church and erected the structure, with its impressive mosaics, that one sees today.

San Clemente stands between the Coliseum and St. John Lateran, headquarters for the Catholic Church before the Vatican was built. Rebuilt in the 17th and 18th century Baroque style, it features a particularly impressive ceiling frescoes and statuary.

Another worthwhile site requires a half-hour subway ride out from the center of Rome. But Ostia Antica is definitely worth the trip. Rome's original military and commercial seaport was founded in the fourth century B.C. at the mouth of the Tiber River. For some 800 years it played a critical historical and commercial role until, in the fourth century, river silting made it impossible for vessels to reach the port.

Though for 15 centuries it was essentially deserted, today Ostia Antica remains an extraordinary remembrance of cities past. More than just a collection of structures, columns and temples, Ostia still boasts blocks of streets with shops whose floor mosaics depicting the trade within are still clearly visible. Highlights include the Piazzale della Corporazioni, the heart of the business district, remnants of the Ostia forum, numerous temples and apartment blocks. All of this exudes a real sense of a lively, breathing city, even though it has been unoccupied for nearly two millennia.

For a complete change of pace, there's the Borghese Gardens, the magnificent swath of greenery many regard as Rome's counterpart to New York's Central Park. Extending from the Piazza del Popolo to the top of Via Veneto, it offers secret gardens, lovely statuary, lakes, a theater, a zoo and — most importantly — the extraordinary Galleria Borghese, along with two other museums dedicated to modern art and Etruscan finds.

Housed in a replica of a suburban Roman villa, Galleria Borghese is home to one of the world's largest private art collections. Particular treasures include paintings and sculptures by Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Bernini and Lucas Cranach. The Galleria strictly limits daily admissions to 360, visits are limited to two hours, and tickets should be reserved and purchased in advance.

After this cultural infusion, the next stop might be the Via Veneto, once one of Rome's most elegant byways immortalized in Federico Fellini's 1960 classic film, "La Dolce Vita." Quite close by is Piazza Barberini, home to several non-touristy restaurants that, while not inexpensive, give good value for money.

Viewing or puffing up and down the 138 Spanish Steps is hardly an unknown Roman draw. But this also happens to be a key entry point for elegant and famous hotels such as the Hassler, steps from the top of the steps, as well as fabulous and pricey dining.

Near the base at the Piazza di Spagna is the 17th century "Fountain of the Old Boat" by Pietro Bernini, and nearby is the home where John Keats died in 1821. The property honors Keats as well as his contemporary poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died the following year.

Above, at the top of the steps, its handsome Renaissance namesake church oversees the Piazza Trinita del Monti. An elevator at the entrance to the Piazza di Spagna subway at the foot of the stairs rises to the top for much of the day. Operating hours are posted at the station so visitors know when they don't have to climb the stairs.

Anyone who has experienced Giacomo Puccini's opera "Tosca" should be quite familiar with Castel Sant'Angelo. Looming at one end of the road that leads to St. Peter's, this grim fortress — from which Tosca leaps to her death — is a most fascinating piece of masonry. Built originally as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian, it later was renovated and became quarters for harried medieval popes who took refuge there during several attacks on the city.

For decades prior to the 1626 debut of St. Peter's, popes resided here in splendid apartments while Catholicism's iconic symbol took its century-long road to completion. Replete with formidable ramps and battle stations, Castel Sant'Angelo offers fabulous views of most of Rome as well as Vatican City from its uppermost level.

Not far from the famous Fontana di Trevi is the Pantheon. Erected by the Emperor Agrippa in 27 B.C. and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian a century later, if features 16 elegant columns and a dome whose diameter is the same as its height. In the sixth century it became a church. Later it was the burial place, in side chapels, for luminaries that include the artist Raphael and two 19thcentury kings of Italy, Victor Emanuael II and Umberto I.

For a change of pace, particularly in temperate weather, a visit to Piazza Navona is almost always in order. Today's elegant cafes belie the site's origins, for beneath the fashionably trod feet of today's upscale cafe patrons lie the ruins of the stadium of first century Emperor Domitian, where chariot races were regularly staged. Above ground, highlights include the 17th-century Bernini statue, "Fountain of the Four Rivers," and several eyegrabbing Baroque churches.

These destinations don't always get the attention they deserve, but they enhance a visit to Rome. Because they are lesser-known, crowds are smaller than at the city's more famous sites.

WHEN YOU GO

Hotel Hassler-Virtually adjacent to the top of the Spanish Steps is the five-star, 82-room and 13-suite landmark Hotel Hassler, one of Rome's most elegant hotels. The Hassler also operates the nearby Il Palazetto, a 16th-century palazzo. Both properties feature superb service, views and dining: www.hotelhasslerroma. com.

The Hotel Eden, a grand, 108- room property on a calm and peaceful street near the Spanish Steps, Via Veneto and the Villa Borghese specializes in understated luxury with views, excellent service and concierge assistance: www.hoteledenview.com.

Near the Plaza Berberini metro stop is the Tullio Restaurant, a genuine Roman gem that features a clever menu designed for demanding local patrons: www.tullioristorante.it.

For Villa Borghese tickets: www.galleriaborghese.it/borghese/en/einfo.htm

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