A real slice of the action
ROMAN HOLIDAY:They’re a cranky bunch in Rome, but the city is worth visiting when you have the inside track on where to go, writes ROISIN AGNEW
WHEN PEOPLE FIND out I’m from Rome they often want to tell me how they are never going to go back there: “Everyone was so rude, and it was so hard to get around.” When I hear this I must confess that I smile inwardly. Rome is not for visitors, it is for Romans.
Although it is one of the most visited cities in the world, Rome has and always will have a strange relationship with its visitors. It is not a city that is easily cracked because it does not want to be cracked. Of all Italian cities, it is the city that is most “di Popolo” (of the people). We’re known for being a little crude, very friendly and a little xenophobic. It is not a city you can adopt easily, but one that you have to be born into or fight for. In spite of being tall, pale and blond, the fact that I was born here and have the same accent as the guy who runs the local fruit shop means that I qualify. In fact, I get extra brownie points for being blonde.
Rome is old families, old money, and conservative customs for the most part. It is proud, dirty and lacks any self-consciousness. The layers of cultural sedimentation in Rome are awe-inspiring but also the reason it has failed in many ways to produce a significant alternative or underground scene. If you go to visit the city that holds 16 per cent of what are termed “world treasures”, but end up not seeing them because you were in a shed listening to a post-punk poetry reading, I think it’s fair to say that you missed the point of Rome entirely.
However, Rome has always had an important alternative way of life to it in the form of networks of bars, clubs and cultural centres that have survived by never being totally counter-current, but always running alongside the city’s comfortable bourgeois backbone. Although it is not a young city, it is a vast and sprawling one with a population of more than six and a half million; that makes it a city with infinite potential. You couldn’t rightly recommend anyone visiting Rome not go to some of the more tourist-infested places, but similarly you know that they could leave without ever having seen the real Rome in action.
These suggestions tread the line between the unmissable and the unknown to the normal visitor, and hopefully will help attempts to explore a city that is so skilful in revealing just a little, enough to keep the visitor happy, while keeping the best to itself.
Bar della Pace, Via della Pace, 3/7 This is no secret, but is one of the oldest and most famous bars in Rome. It’s in one of my favourite areas of the centro storico behind Piazza Navona. Its ivy-covered walls and beautiful location next to the little basilica of Santa Maria della Pace make it a classic choice for an aperitivo.
It is featured in several movies as the entire street retains a rather cinematic washed-out timelessness. In spite of being right behind one of the most tourist-ridden piazzas in town, its slightly aloof air of being an insider’s bar keeps tourists away – for the most part.
It has a wonderful old bar inside but it’s outside on the cobbled street that its best aspect is on show, in the form of its clientele. You can never figure out where anyone is from, or what they do. Lacquered and coiffed, decked out with flawless precision and taste, these exquisite beings seem to communicate in Italian while also being able to drift effortlessly into French, English and Spanish, making you feel like you’ve joined a conclave of spies. Go between six and eight in the evening, or you are at risk of being there with other foreigners.