For the seasoned tourist, a trip to Rome can become contrived if the itinerary centres solely around the Colosseum and the Vatican, producing a ridiculous number of pictures with sweaty costumed gladiators and hours spent hacking through the crowds in the gift shop avoiding sticky-handed children with gelato. But with only a little research needed, it is possible to discover how to calmly enjoy the often-ignored pockets of cultural interest that truly colour the city.
Avoiding the indoor museums and the big outdoor monuments by taking only side streets results in an amplified appreciation of the city. The Forum Museum offers the feeling of Ancient Rome and shows how dramatically the city has grown. An added bonus: it’s slightly difficult to find and therefore much less busy than the other tourist hotspots! For an unrivalled view of the Forum, the Capitoline Museum has the prime position. The Capitoline Museum also houses the most extensive collection of Classical art and sculpture after the Vatican and I would highly recommend seeing the collection.
It is impossible not to notice the architectural grandeur that the city is famous for. The Colosseum attracts roughly six million visitors a year, mainly composed of tourists drawn to the marvel of proportion and power that it would have taken to build. However, the dome of the Pantheon and its oculus seem to me a much more impressive architectural feat. Layers of history can literally be seen in its walls as it has been frequently rebuilt as its function has adapted over time. In May, on Pentecost Sunday, Mass is held at the Pantheon, which culminates in great sweet-scented handfuls of rose petals being thrown through the oculus. This annual tradition prompted the tiny old Italian woman standing next to me to burst into spontaneous tears, a reaction justified by the incredible beauty of the experience.
A unique mix of modern and old, tradition and innovation keeps the aesthetic and the atmosphere of the city, fresh. The dome of the Pantheon contrasted with the angular features of Zaha Hadid’s celebrated Maxxi Museum clearly demonstrates the creative excellence that Rome inspires and will continue to produce. Architecture compliments the presentation of art in Rome to enhance the enjoyment of the viewer. An example of this can be seen in the MACRO Museum in the district of Testaccio. The gallery always has the hippest collections which contrast with the setting being a former slaughterhouse, complete with meat hooks still hanging from the ceiling.
The prominence of culture from different countries was a revelation to me and I would urge others to make a beeline for the Accademia di Francia, also known as the Villa Medici, located just above the Spanish Steps, near the Villa Borghese. During antiquity, the site of the Villa Medici was part of the gardens of Lucullus, and in 1961, the French painter Balthus became director and embarked upon a period of restoration, which included uncovering a number of beautiful frescoes. Not only does this beautiful building provide extensive tours of the interiors and the grounds, but also the academy is a hub of contemporary art and culture. In the summer, the gardens are utilised to the maximum and outdoor film showings and concerts can be heard from the walkways in the Villa Borghese. Not to be outdone by the French, the British School at Rome, although smaller, has an arts programme to rival the grandeur of their neighbours. Behind the neo-classical façade features a weekly programme of lectures and exhibitions that are unavoidable for any budding artist or even the traveling individual with an ounce of interest.
Taking a short train ride for a quick escape from the city is incredibly worthwhile. One popular destination is Tivoli, an ancient town famous for fountains, particularly the Villa D’Este. The abundance of water is noticeable in Rome, with taps and fountains spewing at every corner and mobs heading to the Trevi every day. But in this spot just outside the city stand resplendent lesser known but equally as spectacular water features, such as a wall of water topped with one hundred carved stone heads of various animals and creatures.
The avoidance of cultural cliché became my quest during my time in the eternal city. In doing so I was able to become acquainted with the cultural Rome that does not necessarily feature on the postcards. I suggest you do the same!