Rome’s Latest Light Show: A New Way to See the Imperial Forums

Imperial Forums at night
Last year, Rome launched a nighttime light show in the Imperial Forums (Fori Imperiali) at the Forum of Augustus. This year, it’s not only bringing the Forum of Augustus show back — it’s also starting a second one, at the Forum of Caesar. (Both will run from 22 April to 30 October 2016).

I did the Forum of Augustus tour last year. It was excellent. I’m sure the Forum of Caesar tour will be the same.

What makes these light shows/tours so cool? For one thing, both lead visitors through usually-inaccessible archaeological sites: the Imperial Forums, which were built by Caesar and the emperors who followed him and which, unlike the Republican Forums on the other side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, you can’t buy a ticket to wander through. Instead, usually, all you can do is peer down at the Fori Imperiali from the road. (Or from the museum at Trajan’s Market).

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What to Know About Coffee in Italy — And Where to Find the Best Coffee in Rome

Coffee in Italy

The sad news arrived this week that Italy is truly, finally getting its first Starbucks—which seems like the perfect time to talk about coffee in Italy. You know, Italian coffee in Italy. What it is. How to order it. What the various kinds (macchiato, lungo, cappuccino, mamma mia!) really meanAnd, naturally,  where to find the best coffee in Rome (and beyond).

But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: what coffee in Italy is not.

How to know your coffee isn’t Italian-style

Italian coffee is not something you would mistake on the first sip for a weirdly hot milkshake. It does not require 10 minutes of you patiently waiting for a barista to make it only to then grab it to go and rush out the door with it in your hand as if, at that precise moment, the urgency of your situation suddenly became apparent. It is not served in a cup so large it could be mistaken for an army barracks stock pot.

And it does not in any way taste like peppermint, spiced pumpkin or like what would happen if you burned butter, added it to raw bitter greens, then boiled the two together. (Yes: that last point means properly-done espresso, from good-quality beans, does not have that burned, bitter taste that you get from a mug of classic Starbucks roast).<p?

Got it? Good!

Okay, fine, but what’s the big deal with Italian coffee, anyway?

You mean, why does Italian coffee have such cachet that leading coffee chains worldwide all give their menu items Italian names… no matter how American/British/fill-in-the-blank their drinks really are?
Best coffee in Italy at Naples Caffe Mexico
At the best Italian bars, like Caffe Mexico in Naples, making an espresso is down to a science

For one thing, because Italians invented coffee culture. No, they weren’t the first to harvest—or brew—the beans. But they were the first in Europe to open a coffee house (Venice, 1629), to invent the espresso machine (Turin, 1884) and to come up with the macchinetta (the stovetop percolator first produced by Bialetti, still the leading creator of the moka, in 1933).

Or, as the owner of Caffè Sant’Eustachio in Rome once put it to me years ago, when I asked him why he thought not a single Starbucks had opened in Rome:

Macchiatto, espresso, cappuccino—these are all Italian names. Why would we buy the American version of these drinks when we’re the ones who invented them?”

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Can Rome’s Ancient World Be Saved? My Video with BBC Travel

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In July, I filmed my first video for BBC Travel: It’s about how Rome’s ruins are at risk — and what’s being done (or not) to save them. The video is part of what we hope will be a series called Dissolving History, about cultural heritage under threat around the world. You can watch Dissolving History: Rome here.

Cultural heritage (a decidedly unexciting term for what I think is one of the most exciting things around — the one way we can really get up close and personal with our own history!) is a topic close to my heart. I first covered how Italy’s heritage was underfunded five years ago. Since then, I’ve written about UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage for National Geographic Traveler and Italy’s stolen works of art for the BBC.

But even when I’m not writing about cultural heritage directly, I’m writing about it somehow. It’s rare that I write a travel story — or take a trip at all — without somehow touching on the destination’s monuments and museums, its artifacts and archaeology. And I have a feeling it’s the same for most of you.

So it’s an important topic. And a surprisingly fun one. Check out the video for more.

And here are some behind-the-scenes shots, if you’d like to see…

Biblioteca Casatense, Dissolving Heritage Rome

I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Italy’s Minister of Cultural Heritage Dario Franceschini. Here, I’m debriefing with his aides after the interview.

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Should I Take a Day Trip from Rome to Naples?

Bella Napoli: Naples, Italy
First, let’s make one thing clear: A day in Naples is not enough time to explore the full breadth of the city’s art and archaeology, its ridiculously good food and fascinating underground, its vibrance and energy

Stazione toledo in Naples, Italy
One of Naples’ new and trippy “art stations”, Toledo, on the metro (photo: Wikipedia)

Or to even start to grasp its contradictions. Naples is a place where a spate of contemporary art museums have opened in the last few years, but where people still lower baskets outside their window to the street to trade cash for cigarettes. It’s a place where traffic patterns will sometimes completely break down, but where the buses are frequent and the brand-new subway stations have all been beautifully designed by contemporary artists. It’s a place where whole families will cram onto a scooter without a single helmet between them, but where you’ll be admonished by a well-meaning local if you dare to go out on a chilly night without a scarf around your neck.

Napoli Mia, Naples Italy
There’s way more to food in Naples than pizza, like this plate at Napoli Mia

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a day in Naples also isn’t enough time for most people to “get” the city. It wasn’t for me.

To really start to dig into (and grasp) Naples, you need at least two, three days. Or, frankly, a lifetime. (For a very good sense of why it took me a few visits to capitulate to bella Napoli — but why I wound up falling for the city, hard — then read this piece I wrote for New York Magazine).

But most people coming to Italy aren’t considering whether a day trip to Naples is enough. They’re considering whether to visit Naples at all.

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One of the Loveliest Little Leather Shops in Rome

mancini

“Where can I find a good leather store in Rome?” has to be one of the most frequently-asked questions I get. Although I’ve dragged my (leather-clad) heels on writing a full list — it’s pending, I promise — here’s one to add: Mancini.

The little shop, tucked behind the Pantheon, got its start back in 1918. The great-grandson of the first owner runs it today. For a small place, it’s had an illustrious history: it provided leather for the 1951 film Quo Vadis, once made a leather folder (random, yes) for Pope Pius XII and was Gucci’s go-to spot for repairs for years.

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Inside Vatican City

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Want to know the best ways to explore Vatican City and get to know the Pope — beyond St. Peter’s Basilica? Check out my roundup of Vatican secrets in the August/September issue of National Geographic Traveler (…it’s the cover story!), from where to shop for papal socks to seeing the “other” Sistine Chapel. Not in the US? You can also check out a version of the piece online here.

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Palazzo Altemps: The Best Rome Museum Not On Your List

Palazzo Altemps, a great museum in Rome

I can completely geek out on museums in Rome. So here’s an embarrassing confession for you: until a few months ago, I’d never been to Palazzo Altemps. And that’s even though, as one of the National Rome Museums, Palazzo Altemps was on the same entry ticket as some of my other favorites — Palazzo Massimo and Crypta Balbi in particular.

I told you. Embarrassing. Even more so when I went in December and realized just how much I’d been missing.

Brief background: Palazzo Altemps is, itself, a stunning 15th-century palace (albeit one with foundations that date back to an ancient Roman house) just around the corner from Piazza Navona. In 1568, a German cardinal with a penchant for ancient sculpture purchased it, and thus the collection was born. Although many objects have since been parceled off to other museums (the Louvre, for one), some extraordinary pieces remain — backdropped by frescoed rooms with painted, wood-beamed ceilings. And did I mention that you might be in these rooms by yourself? (It seems I’m not the only one who left Palazzo Altemps near the bottom of my to-do list).

Like this guy: the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, which dates to the 3rd century; it was discovered near the Porta Tiburtina in 1621.

The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps
The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Because in case you missed it: the expressions on the pair in the middle — the Roman soldier, and the barbarian he’s about to slaughter — seem like exquisite portrayals of the kind of emotions that would actually be running through your veins (if there were room for any aside from ongoing expletives, that is).

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Six of the Best Trattorias in Rome

Best trattorias in Rome

If you’re eating at restaurants in Rome, you’re going to wind up eating at a trattoria (or, more likely, several). Originally, a trattoria was a mid-priced, family-run restaurant, something between a ristorante and osteria in terms of expense and formality. In reality, it’s come to mean pretty much any restaurant in Rome that’s serving up Roman dishes and isn’t overly expensive (or any others that want to pretend that’s the case — hi, all you places with tourist menus!).

So, as with any other kind of dining in Rome, if you want the very best… you should have an idea of where to go.

When I’m craving an amazing cacio e pepe or Roman artichoke or saltimbocca, these are the places I head to.

(Do note that while these places all have very good food, they’re not all always top-notch with service: brusque waiters are part of the trattoria’s charm. Truly. It’s as traditional as carbonara).

The best… no-frills trattoria

Spaghetti alle vongole at Hostaria Romana
An abundant portion of spaghetti alle vongole at Hostaria Romana.

Hostaria Romana is old-school: the tables are crammed together, past diners have scrawled their signatures on the wall, and if two people at your table order the same pasta, it’s spooned out of a pan right at your table. Fortunately, the dishes are old-school, too. Nothing here is going to blow your mind with creativity, but that’s not the purpose of, say, a like-your-nonna-romana-made-it amatriciana: We’re talking simple ingredients done well.

On that basic (but oh-so-difficult, if other trattorias in Rome are any indication!) promise, Hostaria Romana delivers. Which is especially surprising given its location right around the corner from Piazza Barberini, or tourism central. Even more surprising? The waiters here are actually nice. Go figure.

In season, don’t miss the artichokes. When I ate there in December, I ordered both the alla giudia (fried) and alla romana (braised) styles. They were both delicious. (Who said you have to settle for just one option?).

Carciofi at Hostaria Romana in Rome
Don’t limit yourself. How about a carciofo alla giudia…

 

At Hostaria Romana, a trattoria in rome
…and a carciofo alla romana?

Hostaria Romana is located at Via del Boccaccio 1, right near Piazza Barberini; it’s open daily except Sundays for lunch and dinner. For dinner, reservations are recommended.

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Rome’s Newest Top-Notch Gelato Shop

Best gelato in Rome

Fact: You can never get enough of gelato in Rome. That’s a very good thing, since these days, there seems to be a new gelateria opening every couple of months. And not just a new gelateria. But a new real gelateria.

What’s a “real” gelateria, you say? Here’s the second (more sobering) fact: The vast majority of Rome’s gelato shops spoon out industrialized junk, whipped up from a lovely conglomeration of synthetic thickeners, chemical flavors, and air. (Remember, friends, real gelato should not look like a cloud, and it should not be brighter than your sunburned face after a Roman holiday… coughBlueIcecoughDellaPalmacough). And for years, those who wanted top-notch, non-fake gelato had to seek it out, especially in the center, where such shops were few and far between.

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Nero’s Domus Aurea Reopens to the Public

Visitors touring the Domus Aurea of Rome

Rome’s Domus Aurea, Nero’s famed “Golden House,” has reopened to the public. (Well, partly. More on that in a moment).

I haven’t seen this much excitement over a site’s opening since the Colosseum’s underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.

(PS: Don’t miss my article on the Domus Aurea in the Globe & Mail!).

First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he’s the “fiddled while Rome burned” guy; although that’s an urban legend, you can’t deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.

And let’s just say that the term “Golden House” doesn’t even begin to describe the property’s dazzle and opulence. “The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities,” Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). “Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constnatly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.”

In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV’s Cribs.

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