OFF THE THE BEATEN TRACKS IN ROME
The golden reflections of the sunlight shimmering over the ruins of the Palatine Hill at sunset make Rome a magical city. On this hill, according to tradition, the town was founded on the 21st of April of 753 BC. From that date on, the small village of Rome, named after its founder Romulus, expanded to become one of the largest Empire of the ancient world. Strolling around Rome, it’s like walking throughout millenniums of history. The Colosseum and Saint Peter’s Basilica are only two of the best- monuments. The entire city is dotted with gems that will amaze every visitor. Renowned monuments and famous churches spread all around, close to hidden treasures. These make the richness of Rome, a city with plenty of things to do off the beaten tracks. In this guide, I will cover attractions located in the south and central areas of Rome.
1. Visit the place where St. Paul the Apostle was beheaded
In the south area of Rome lies the peaceful Abbey of Three Fountains, (in Italian Abbazia delle Tre Fontane). The complex is named after the tradition of St Paul Apostle’s beheading.
According to the legend, when Emperor Nero’s ordered to behead Apostle Paul, his head struck the earth in three different places in which fountains sprang forth. Over this place was erected the Church of the martyrdom of St. Paul the Apostle. It took its present-day monastery’s form in the late 16th century.
The monastery hosts two more churches dated to 626 and to the 16th century. The Abbey belongs to the order of the Cistercian monks.
2. Explore the first “catacombs” of Rome
Along with the adjacent cemetery of St. Callistus, the catacombs of St. Sebastian is the oldest underground cemetery in Rome after which all the other underground Christian cemeteries were named.
Built near a cave, the catacombs of St. Sebastian were called “ad catacumbas,” from the Greek kata kumbas, meaning near the dip. The catacombs are formed by narrow tunnels dug in the volcanic tuff stone, with 100.000 tombs carved into the walls. These tunnels are laid out on three levels and measure about 12 kilometers.
According to the traditions, the catacombs hosted the relics of the Apostles Peter and Paul (Memoria Apostolorum) from 258 to 313 AC, when Emperor Constantine built a Basilica on top. Cardinal Scipione Borghese restored the basilica in 1620. The martyr Sebastian, one of the captains of the Praetorian Guards who spent his life protecting Christians and was killed during the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, was also venerated in this place, and his relics are also in the Basilica. The tour of the catacombs ends nine meters below the Basilica floor where a Roman-era necropolis was found.
3. See how a Roman-era tomb became a Middle Ages tower
Located on a hill at the three-mile maker of via Appia there is the tomb of Caecilia Metella. This is around funerary mausoleum dedicated to Cecilia, daughter, and wife of two important Roman politicians. Built between the 30 and the 20 BC under Emperor Augustus, the tomb became, between the 1283 and 1303, the central tower of a Castrum, a fortified village with walls, a church, and stables. This is the reason why there are visible medieval battlements at the top of the tomb.
The affluent Italian family Caetani, responsible of this transformation, also built the church of St. Nicola. Located on the opposite side of the street, it is easily recognizable because it doesn’t have a roof.
4. Visit an underground Roman basilica during restoration works
The Underground Basilica of Porta Maggiore is a hidden gem in Rome. Discovered in 1917 under the railway, it is now under restoration and partially visible to the public. The Basilica, with the typical three naves layout of a Catholic church, was built under the Emperor Augustus era (27 BC — 14 AD).
Probably dedicated to celebrating neo-Pythagorean rites, widely spread at that time, the basilica is richly adorned with stuccos. The Greek mythology repertoire inspired all the images, and maybe also served also to encourage religious initiates to reflect on the human condition.
5. View ancient statues in a former Thermoelectric Centre
During the renovation work of the Capitoline complex, in 1997 part of the antiquity collection moved to a former thermoelectric Centre in the south area of the city. Since then the Centrale Montemartini became a permanent exhibition space housing statues, mosaics, and even a temple. Strolling around this abandoned powerhouse while admiring first class artworks has plenty of advantages. Here dismissed dark, industrial machines are set as a natural back against the white, soft marbles of the Greek-Roman era creating a unique, fascinating visual effect. This space is less crowded compared to the main complex in the Capitol Hill, and there aren’t lines at the entrance. The collection presents exquisite examples of statues, busts, sarcophagi, friezes, and mosaics of the Hellenistic period. On the ground floor are displayed Roman and Etruscan antiquities.
6. See the St. Peter’s Basilica from a keyhole
In the Aventine Hill stays the probably most famous keyhole in the world. Here, close to the church of Saint Anselmo, there is the beautifully decorated square of the Knights of Malta. Here, opposite to the white neoclassical obelisks and trophies realized by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, one of the most celebrated printmakers of the Eighteenth century, in 1756, there is a green painted wooden door. The richly decorated keyhole contains one of the best-kept secrets of Rome. Opening widely one eye, and attaching it to the keyhole of this gate, you can spy a garden path and the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The garden is part of the religious complex of Church of St. Mary of the Priory (in Italian Santa Maria del Priorato). The estate belongs to the Knights of St. John Hospitaler, also known as Knights of Malta, one of the last surviving orders of knights left over the Crusades.
7. Stroll around the most beautiful neighborhood of Rome
The Aventine Hill is maybe the most beautiful neighborhood in Rome. Among its prestigious mansions are set many ambassadors’ residences. More than its elegant residential buildings, the Aventine hosts beautiful gardens, and churches. Among them, the Basilica of Saint Sabina is a masterpiece of early Christianity architecture. Built in the fifth century, its portal counter façade still preserves traces of the original mosaic. Its beautifully decorated apse and its Corinthian columns greatly adorn this basilica and contribute to its intimate yet solemn atmosphere.
Parco Savello, better known as the Orange Garden, is next to the basilica. From here you can enjoy a beautiful view of Saint Peter and of Rome. Strolling here in spring during the orange blossom season is a real feast for the sight and for the smell. Less crowded than the Orange Garden is the one of the Saint Alessio church. Smaller and with the same view on the dome of the basilica of Saint Peter, this garden has been recently restored.
St. Sabina’s apse
Start from Piazza Pietro D’Illiria, 1, 00153 Roma RM, Italy, visit the churches, gardens, stroll around, and then descend to the Maximum Circus
8. Visit the most romantic garden of Rome
On the slope of the Aventine Hill, there is one of the most romantic gardens of Rome, the Rose Garden. Located in front of the Maximus Circus and the ruins of the Palatine Hill, this garden is seasonally opened during spring months. Entering the gate of this little gem, you will enjoy the view of 1100 variety of roses from all around the world. Among them, there are species of Rosa Chinensis Virdiflora or Green Rose for the color of its petals, and of Rosa Chinensis Mutabilis whose petals’ colors change over time from yellow, to pink, to mahogany.
From the Rose Garden, you can admire the bell tower of The Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, the Middle Ages church, renowned for the Mouth of Truth located on the north side of the church.
Not all the roses here are delightful for the smell. Among them, there is also the Rosa Foetida, a rancid smelling flower native to the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia.
9. Visit the aqueduct that brings water to the Trevi Fountain
While in Rome you should admire the magnificent Trevi Fountain. It is majestic, gorgeous, and a symbol of the city. But you can also discover the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct, inaugurated by Augustus in 19 BC, that brings the water to the fountain.
The aqueduct is located in the nearby high-end mall La Rinascente. It emerged during the refurbishment work on this Renaissance period building. Here, on the lower ground floor, you can admire the aqueduct from the long benches in the bar located at the viewing area. A permanent installation showcases the history of the aqueduct and gives visitors a deeper understanding and appreciation of this timeless treasure. A 3D video shows highlights of what the area once looked like, including the Roman villas. Bringing the experience even further to life, a light display emphasizes different eras of the building and related data.
10. Visit the so-called square Colosseum in Eur
Twenty minutes from downtown by public transportation, there is a residential and business district called EUR. Built in the ’30s during the Fascism regime with the purpose of hosting in 1942 the world’s fair (in Italian Esposizione Universale Roma or E.U.R.), the area never served its original purpose. The buildings, erected under the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, to resemble most famous monuments located in the center of Rome, survived the dictatorship. Of all these white marble buildings standing out against the blue sky, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is the most noticeable. Ironically called by Romans the Square Colosseum, for its overlaid loggias made of arches, it’s visible from the highway that connects the airport of Fiumicino to downtown.
On the top of the façade, a giant inscription recalls the Duce’s vision of the glorious Italian future under Fascism. Referring to Italian, it says “A nation of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, navigators, and travelers.”
Good to know
In 2015, Fendi, the famous Roman fashion house, renovated the long-abandoned monument to house their headquarters. On Sundays, a flea market takes place near this edifice, close to the Salone delle Fontane.
11. Drink from a “nasone”
Strolling around Rome, you will probably notice fountains with metal tubes protruding at mid-height and continuously running drinkable water. Their design resembles a column with a nose, and for this reason Romans call them “nasoni” or large noses or “fontanelle” (little fountains). Introduced in the 1870s, there are more than 2500 nasoni around Rome. Trying to quench your thirst here is a must do experience that requires some knowledge. To drink through the small hole on the spout, plug with your pointer finger the big hole from where the water flows, and with your thumb the small hole approximately on the metal tube. After fifteen seconds, put your mouth close to the small hole with your thumb opening it. The pressure you will obtain in this way, against the gravity law, will make it possible to drink fresh water from a mid-height.