Whenever people come to Rome for the very first time, they always ask me the same question: What is the coolest neighborhood in all of Rome? Where should I stay? Where can I have the most fun, see the most stunning sights, go to the hippest parties, meet the coolest people?
That’s probably why most ex-pats (and locals alike) have a very clear perception of the city center. Testaccio is young and hip, Trastevere is the place to go for university students. If you’re looking to have a fancy dinner date and cocktails, go for upscale Prati, while you can find the hottest new fashion trends around Piazza di Spagna. But what about the rest? While Rome boasts a total of about 3 million inhabitants, only a small number of them actually live within the Aurelian walls.
Don’t get me wrong, I still adore the Pantheon, and walking past the Colosseo at night still gives me goosebumps. But, ironically, Rome feels more… Roman to me outside of the Historic City Center. Here, people speak in heavy dialect and eat hearty Roman dishes and live so authentically Italian that it sometimes feels like I’ve left touristy Rome and instead found myself in a different place entirely.
When I moved to my little neghborhood called Appio-Latino, I got lost on many occasions and discovered the most stunning little gems. What a joy it is to take a wrong turn here, a wrong bus there, and – out of nowhere – you are plunged into a fairytale-like setting or a secret open-air museum!
I messaged all my Roman friends and asked them for more of these hidden treasures outside of the city walls, and whether they would take me there. One of the first replies I got simply said “You would love the Casina delle Civette! It’s an old royal residence that was commissioned in 1840 by prince Alessandro Torlonia.”
A few days later I met the friend who had suggested the Casina for coffee on Piazza Bologna and we walked the short way over together. He told me that the Casina delle Civette (“the little house of owls”) is named after the owls in the stained glass windows made by Duilio Cambellotti and its various owl decorations – a touch added by Prince Giovanni. “You would have liked him, too. Apparently, he was crazy about esoteric stuff… and owls.” Then, the story takes a slightly darker turn. After its partial destruction by the anglo-American troops in 1944, the villa fell into decay and, after a fire in 1991, was almost fully destroyed. “What we are looking at right now is the work of meticulous and careful restoration carried out between 1992 and 1997”. It’s a shame, I think to myself. But, although it may not be the original structure anymore, this place still holds a mysterious and almost magical beauty that speaks of centuries of turbulent history. Very, very Roman, after all.
The next morning, I get another reply. A different friend, a different suggestion. “You haven’t seen Tormarancia yet, have you? Let’s go right now, it’s so much more fun if the sun is out!” A short while later I cross the Parco della Caffarella that separates my neighborhood from Tormarancia and find my friend in a bar, chatting animatedly with the barista. I join the two and, while making our coffees, the older man tells us about Tormarancia’s fairly young but inspiring history. At first glance, the neighborhood doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. Until you discover the incredible street art that makes you wonder whether you have just stepped into a 90s cartoon. In 2015, the Big City Life project was created and transformed eleven buildings into giant canvases. “We desperately needed something to cast away the gloom that had settled in these streets for so long! You see, the palazzi of Tormarancia were originally built to house citizens that were relocated during the fascist regime”, he explains. The murals brighten his day and chase away bad memories. As we walk over and look at the stunning murals, I understand why we had to come on a particularly nice morning. Artists from 22 countries have decorated the empty cement walls with all kinds of funky shapes and pictures that are so bright and joyful that you can’t help but smile. As we walk home, my friend asks me which one I liked the best but I can’t possibly decide.
The next spot I was shown is neither hard to find nor super secret. But it is basically an open-air museum, a historic site, an important architectural structure, and a beautiful oasis all in one. What more could you ask for? I am talking about the Parco degli Acquedotti, of course.
Two hundred forty hectares of pure serenity erase every thought of a stressful metropolis. Eponymous to this green refuge are the remains of six of Rome’s famous aqueducts: Anio Vetus, Marcia, Tepula, Iulia, Claudio, and Anio Novus. Most impressive, however, is the Felice which was built during the Renaissance period and, to this day, supplies the city of Rome with water. And, after a long day of wandering the orchards and meadows, there is simply nothing better than sitting down with a good friend and a bottle of wine and watching the late summer sun set over those elegant ancient arches.
Via Gallia is one of those little gems, which is very near and dear to my heart, even if it probably isn’t very “exciting”. For those of you who have a soft spot for Rome’s beautiful old palazzi, however, it is worth a visit. The houses were mostly built in the 1920s in the so-called Barocchetto Romano style and still have an air of grandeur that is without equal. Miniscule balconies seem to sag under the weight of countless plants, every window has its own intricate decoration. My favorite time to wander this neighborhood is around sunset when you can catch a glimpse of the grandiose apartments that lie beyond, with their trimmed ceilings and gaudy chandeliers.
None of these places are as stately as the Colosseum, of course, but they add charm and intricacy to a capital that is so often reduced to a few streets and piazze. In Rome, getting lost sometimes has you finding much more than you set out to see – history, beauty, art… Best of all, there will always be someone to tell you the story of an especially funky palazzo or an old mossy fountain. The people of Rome love their home with a passion that is unprecedented and that extends far beyond the touristy center.
It’s a city that needs to be appreciated in its entirety, with its big trophies and its little gems.