Travel: Rome, Italy

ITALY’S capital doesn’t have to eat up all your cash, so long as you know where to stay, dine and sightsee, writes Donald Nicholson
The Colosseum, Rome. Picture: Donald NicolsonThe Colosseum, Rome. Picture: Donald Nicolson
The Colosseum, Rome. Picture: Donald Nicolson

In The Year of the Gun by Michael Mewshaw, the protagonist David Raybourne tries to deflect the true purpose of a book he is writing, by claiming it is about “enjoying Rome on a budget if you like pizza”.

And what’s wrong with that? Rome can be expensive, but it’s not difficult to see and do more or less everything that you want to if you are prudent. The first thing to do is to look at the potential cost of your accommodation. Instead of locating yourself slap bang in the city centre why not think about staying in Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, a 60 minute journey from Fumicino Airport? It is close enough to get to Rome easily for day trips, yet far enough away from the noise of the hordes and relentless traffic.

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There are a myriad of hotels by the sea front of Civitavecchia, but we chose instead to stay on a converted ranch three miles outside. Tenuta Dell Argento, situated at the foot of the Tolfa Mountains was tranquil and offered a great view of the Mediterranean port and cruise liners. The hotel had comfortable en-suite rooms which started at e75/£55 for a single and e85/£62 for a double per night, including breakfast. There was a small swimming pool around which to lounge and catch the sun.

The restaurant specialised in meat from the ranch, and was fully booked from Friday to Sunday. Staff in the hotel were, to use the Italian expression, ‘molto gentile’ (very kind).

As the hotel was in the countryside, we were reliant on the hotel shuttle which ran between 10am and 7pm to and from the city centre. Getting back after 7pm required a taxi (apparently as rare as hen’s teeth after 10pm), at a cost of around e20/£14.50.

We spent several days in Civitavecchia, once an industrial port, but recently renovated à la Barcelona. It had the usual array of churches, which is par for the course in Italy, the Forte Michaelangelo, and a seafront. Being in Italy, there was no shortage of great places to eat at little cost. If you are vegan, vegetarian, or just like vegetable-based meals, Bios [Via Istria 9] is worth checking out. There wholemeal orecchiette pasta (literally ‘little ears’), topped with a passata (tomato sauce), was filling and tasty. La Strettoia (The Bottleneck) at the Pirgo (opposite the train station) kept my fish-loving wife and mother-in-law happy when we ate there. If you want an authentic Italian breakfast, stand at a counter and drink a caffe (espresso) – don’t expect to pay more than e0,90/66p – and try a cornetto con crema (a croissant with fresh custard filling). The best place to do this is Cioccolart – Cioccolateria Artigianale [Corso Gugli elmo Marconi, 49]. If you want gelato, and who doesn’t in Italy, the place to go is Gelateria Pincio [Via Michelangelo Buonarroti, 3].

Most tourists in Civitavecchia are fresh off a cruise liner, heading for a day trip to Rome. Therefore there are few problems getting a train to or from Rome. Services run regularly throughout the day, but they do get busy during peak hours. Most tourists are aware that when buying a ticket (a “Birg”), that it has to be validated before getting on a train. However, Italian bureaucracy has reached new levels of Kafkian absurdity, and you now have to write your full name and date of birth on it. On the plus side, the ticket was cheap – e12/£8.75 for a return, which was also valid for public transport in Rome itself.

The Birg was only valid on regional trains, and not the fast train that goes straight from Civitavecchia to Rome. Therefore journey times to Termini Station were around 1 hour and 20 minutes. However, 25 minutes were taken up with the train passing through suburb stations in Rome. So one day I found it useful to get off at Rome S. Pietro and then start my Rome wanderings from there, to cut the journey by a third. If you are seeing sights in the north or east of the city, then it is best to stay on to Termini, and be prepared for a five minute walk from the platform to the exit.

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I think writers have exhausted nearly every variant on the ‘What to do in Rome’ stakes. None-the-less I tried to be original on one of the days I went there. I love art and have been a long-time fan of the works of sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, courtesy of The Power of Art. So my main goal was to see as many of his creations as I could track down. After a brisk 15 minute walk from the station, I began at la Chiesa Sant’Andrea al Quirinale [Via del Quirinale, 29]. Bernini designed this church in the Baroque architecture style, so it was full of flamboyance, as well as faith. The beautiful white façade stood in direct contrast to the spartan grey front of the Chiesa di San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, [Via del Quirinale, 23], built by his peer and rival, Francesco Borromini.

From there, it was barely a five minute walk up the road for me to be enthralled by the magnificent Fontana dell’Aqua Felice, the Fountain of Moses. That’s the nice problem about Rome; there are just so many surprising and beautiful treats to be found around every corner, that despite the best intentions of a disciplined itinerary, one cannot help but be pleasantly distracted by the most amazing art.

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I did not stare too long, because the real treasure was across the road: Chiesa Santa Maria della Vittoria, [Via 20 Settembre]. This houses the masterpiece of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Cornaro Chapel: the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. The gripping hand, dangling foot, and half shut eyelids of the nun mean that one can’t help but conclude that the elation she is experiencing is more of the flesh than the mind. If you are in any doubt, look no further than the tip of the arrow which the angel handles.

The last stop on my Bernini trail was Piazza Navona. Here again Gian Franco looms large. His Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Four Rivers) is a sight to behold. The central spire topped with an Egyptian obelisk is surrounded by the Gods of the four rivers, the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio de la Plata.

I could have gone inside some of the museums and seen more works by Bernini, albeit at an entrance fee. But that day I was on a quest to do Rome on a budget. That just left me time to grab a beer and a slice of pizza from Alice [Corso Emmanuele II, 35], for under e5/£3.65. I just so happen to like pizza. And I will always love Rome.