Rome has perhaps the most impressive roster of attractions of any city but, in summer, they can feel swamped by tourists. In a new book, journalist and tour guide David Downie reveals tranquil corners where you can escape the crowds.
Here he picks his five favourites:
Arco degli Acetari, Campo de’ Fiori: Campo de’ Fiori, the old market square, is among Rome’s most wildly animated spots. That’s why I particularly appreciate the cloister-like silence of a singular, cobbled medieval courtyard down an arcaded alley that branches off Via del Pellegrino about 100m west of the square. This is where Rome’s vinegar-makers, gli acetari, worked for centuries and their carts have worn down the pavements and fluted columns beside the road. Peaceful and strung with laundry, today Arco degli Acetari has an arty feel. There is no more magical place in town to sit under tangled grapevines and sniff the pittosporum-perfumed air. The bicycles, motor scooters, and rusted tubs of riotously prolific house plants merely add to the charm.
Piazzale Caffarelli, Campidoglio: Michelangelo’s architectural masterpiece, the Piazza del Campidoglio, sits on the Capitoline hill. The site’s magnetism as Caput Mundi, the centre or “head” of the civilised world, is one reason it draws millions of visitors. If the crowds at this sacred hill get too much, however, seek out the monumental gateway on the west side of the Cordonata – the grand staircase to the Campidoglio – and walk from it to unsung Piazzale Caffarelli. This leafy spot is no more than 100 paces from the maelstrom, yet here you’ll discover a panoramic garden terrace far above chaotic Via del Teatro di Marcello. Views sweep in a semi-circle, taking in 3,500 years of history. Oddly, you might well be alone as you gaze at the Tiber, Ghetto, Piazza Venezia, the Cordonata and, towering above the ancient statues of Castor and Pollux, the temple-like church of Aracoeli.
Via di San Bonaventura al Palatino, Palatine: instead of standing cheek-by-jowl in the Forum or atop the Palatine, I like to take the Sacred Way out of the archaeological area and climb to a quiet corner few know. The views are gorgeous and there’s no entrance fee. From the road linking the Arch of Titus to the Colosseum, find the narrow lane, Via di San Bonaventura, on the south side of the street. It doubles back and rises steeply towards the convent of San Bonaventura al Palatino. At the top of the hill, past the Stations of the Cross, stands a humble church dedicated to the Blessed Bonaventura of Barcelona.
Theatre of Marcellus, Ghetto: the Via del Portico d’Ottavia is the Ghetto’s main street. Broken columns, the remains of the portico, crop up from pavements surrounded by the tables of trattorias. At the street’s Tiber end rises the hard-driven façade of eighth-century Sant’Angelo in Pescheria, a Romanesque church. Between its faded frescoes and the looming, snaggle-toothed Theatre of Marcellus lies the sloping entrance to a pocket-sized archeological park. I like to pick my way through the jumble of capitals and fragmented marble, cross the footbridge, and relax on the unexpected bench set near the main door to the church.
Villa Aldobrandini, Monti: in the 1st century AD, the hilltop crowned by Villa Aldobrandini was covered by warehouses filled by goods for sale at Trajan’s Market. In the 1500s, the Dukes of Urbino built a stately Renaissance villa atop the crumbled warehouses and landscaped the hillside into a charming garden wrapped in high walls. Today the villa and park not only survive, they thrive. The park’s towering, centuries-old trees shade gravel lanes and splashing fountains, several storeys above traffic-clogged Via Nazionale. Cloaked on three sides by tall, caper-covered embankments about 30ft tall, Villa Aldobrandini is a challenge to find. The only way in is through a wrought-iron gate on a narrow side street, Via Mazzarino. From it you climb a zigzag staircase built into ancient ruins and emerge amid parterres planted with giant ficuses, magnolias, pines, palms, sycamores, camellias and ornamental orange trees. Their blossoms smell all the sweeter in solitude.
David Downie’s ‘Quiet Corners of Rome’ is published by Little Bookroom, £10.99. For his tours, see www.davidddownie.com