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The best people places in Rome

Glen Grymes Husak

Savoring the best people places—the piazzas and fountains—will give you the essence of Rome. Amidst layers of history and art in this grand city, my husband Al and I like to find places where young and old, locals and visitors settle in and relax. After many trips to Rome, we find that, while we may decide to skip the latest exhibit or excavation, we always go back to the fountains and piazzas we’ve come to love. While there is usually some interesting history or art to be appreciated at these stops, more important is the experience of Rome today and the Roman version of “la dolce far niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing.

We stay at a small hotel near the Campo de Fiori, the Field of Flowers. Every day except Sunday, an outdoor market fills the Campo with stands of fish, fresh greens, vegetables, mushrooms, spices, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and fresh flowers. In the late afternoon, vendors pack up and leave, and street sweepers wash the large black stones clean of spilled scraps of produce - the wet stones becoming temporarily slippery and hazardous especially to women in high heels. In good weather, cafes and restaurants around the edges of the intimate square provide outdoor seating

Campo de fiori, the Field of Flowers

Campo de Fiori, the Field of Flowers

As we so often see in Roman history, the colorful Field of Flowers reminds us of a darker period in its past. In the center of the Campo, a sculpture of a dark hooded figure stands on a pedestal looking over the contemporary scene. He is Giordano Bruno, burned on this spot in the 1600’s after being accused of heresy. Today, the sober memorial is a meeting place for tourists, a rehearsal spot for musicians to gather, and a place for young people in jeans and t-shirts to hang out.

Going even farther back in history, the ancient Theater of Pompey forms the archeological base for buildings around the Campo. The Theater is related to the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. Shakespeare mentions it as the meeting place of the conspirators. Restaurants and hotels proudly display on their interior walls the ancient bricks of the old Roman theater as the precious archeological remains are incorporated into the new construction.

Al and I often stroll through the market on weekday mornings, picking up fresh strawberries, cheese and bread to carry with us for an outdoor lunch. In the late afternoon we can have a glass of wine and watch the clean-up process. On Sundays, when there is no market, we sit in a cafe and watch Italians cross the space from the small streets that feed into and away from the market. We observe men in dark suits, well-dressed mothers pushing baby strollers, the occasional cyclist, and men and women in clerical dress, perhaps from the church and convent in the neighboring piazza.

Not too far from the Campo di Fiori, and another of our regular stopping places, the Piazza Navona is huge by comparison. Again, cafes and restaurants line the sides of the large oval space, as well as a lovely old church which plays continual music for those who venture inside. Jugglers, mimes, and musicians perform for diners, artists work at easels beside stacks of souvenir paintings, and young people crowd t-shirt stands, all creating a carnival-like atmosphere.

Three fountains define the large space: one of Neptune, one of sea creatures, and one of Bernini’s famous work depicting four of the world’s great rivers. Tourists on a tight schedule tend to walk across the piazza checking out the fountains in their guidebooks and wondering what else to look at. But those who have settled into the spirit of enjoying their travel moments in Italy walk slowly, stopping for a drink or ice cream, or finding a place to sit near a fountain, settling in to watch and listen. It’s amazing what we see if we take time to immerse ourselves in the flow of people and energy. Sitting in a Roman piazza can become hypnotic as we, from our own still position, just observe. Whether in a café or on a stone bench, entertainment is effortless.

From the Piazza Navona, we walk on through narrow alleys to the Pantheon. The piazza is small by Roman standards, and, because centuries of repaving have built up the street level, the columns of the building’s entrance seem less imposing. The piazza slopes gently down to the level of the Pantheon and is anchored by a sculptured fountain in the center, giving the space a certain intimacy.

We usually make this stop in the daytime because we want to go into the building to admire yet again the circular dome, open at its center to the sky. In Roman times, the Pantheon was a temple dedicated to all the gods, but it was later consecrated as a Christian church, insuring its protection. We have to admire the genius of the Romans who built the largest free standing dome of its time. Just to walk in is to slow down and enter a different sense of time. This is not a visit you can rush. Take time to settle into and experience the space itself.

Outside on the piazza, young people sit in the sun at the central fountain while other visitors settle into the open air cafes around the sides. The cozy space keeps us all close together.

The Trevi Fountain is another special Roman experience. Famous from movies like La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in a Fountain, the Fontana di Trevi is where visitors throw in a coin or two to ensure their return to Rome. Al and I go every year to throw in our coins, sitting on the edge of the fountain’s pool, and so far it seems to have worked. Once we’ve finished our mission, we find a place to sit on the marble stone that surrounds the fountain at water level and settle back to watch others. Somehow it feels less crowded, closer to the water than at the stairway entrance.

The large marble sculptures of the fountain, which flows with water brought from an aqueduct in the mountains, represent the divinities of water. But as grand and beautiful as it is, the Trevi Fountain is not so much about the sight as the experience. Tour groups and individuals who stop just to look miss a great deal.

The Trevi Fountain creates a community experience for Italian and foreign visitors alike. School groups burst into song and couples pose for pictures as they throw in their coins. Children try to climb in the water while old people sit on the sides leaning against the worn and cool stones. Young immigrant salesmen offer small toys to children and adults, demonstrating how the molded silly putty figures with glued on eyes can be shaped into cats and birds with funny faces.

We feel comfortable talking to and laughing with the strangers near us. The soft roar of the water blends with the hum of human voices in the small space. For some, the high energy of the crowd may seem overwhelming, but we enjoy the experience. There is a philosophical lesson to be learned in just sitting and watching. It’s a lesson in living in the moment instead of rushing off to the next sight or task. We become connected with others sharing the experience in a way that we don’t often find at home.

The Piazza del Popolo is another must stop for us. The large Egyptian obelisk and fountain with steps define the center of the large circular Piazza of the People. Two avenues lead toward the Spanish Steps on one side of the circle and, on another, visitors can climb to Pincio Park above the piazza to look down on the design. Opposite these streets, the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo houses some of the most striking paintings by the artist Caravaggio.

We usually bring a sandwich and drink and have a picnic lunch here. We look for an unoccupied bench on one side of the large round space and sit in the shade and eat, joining local people enjoying their midday meal outdoors. We watch business being done as pedestrians, bicyclists, and small motor vehicles cross the open space. Although some vendors and tourists are present, the Piazza del Popolo remains authentically Roman with local people going about their daily tasks. We enjoy blending in.

On the way back to our hotel, we pass another great people place, the Piazza di Spagna. The steps are crowded on the weekends with young backpackers resting in the sun, some older women chatting and the familiar toy salesmen. If we can find a space on the stairs, the views and activities are much like the Fontana de Trevi. It seems to us that young travelers predominate here. We are likely to hear more English spoken than in other areas of Rome. Perhaps it is suitable since the English poet, John Keats, died in the small pink house to the right of the steps. It is said that the Piazza di Spagna was his last sight. The lovely design of the Spanish Steps is best seen from the street opposite, the Via Condotti, although another interesting perspective is available to those willing to climb above the stairs.

But topping all for majesty is the Piazza San Pietro in front of Saint Peter’s Church. When late afternoon sunlight reflects the pinkish marble tones of the façade and the life-sized sculptures of saints above, the genius of Michelangelo, Bernini, and other artists is appreciated. Walking across the piazza in front of the church (two semi-circles from church to street), we feel as if we are embraced by welcoming arms. Even if we don’t go into the church, we often walk into the piazza just for the experience of beauty and awe.

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter's Square

Every Sunday at noon, through a high window facing the church on the right, the Pope says a blessing. In one of the great ongoing gatherings of the world, the piazza fills, well before noon, with people from all over the world, many in groups carrying decorated banners in many languages. When the Pope appears at the upstairs window, the cry of “Viva il Papa,” is heard throughout the crowd. No matter what one’s religious views, the connection with so many people from so many places is a comment on our common humanity. Seeing the Pope in St. Peter’s Square is always a lot of fun.

Finally, we love the Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere, where we often spend part of our last day in Rome. An easy walk from the Campo di Fiori to the other side of the Tiber River, the piazza is the center of a medieval working class neighborhood with narrow streets. The Church of Santa Maria Trastevere looks comfortably over the space bounded by apartment buildings of golden stucco, restaurants, and cafes. The mosaics of Mary and the saints that look benevolently out from the front of what may be the oldest church in Rome, personalizes the small space. The steps of a fountain in the center provide 360 degrees of seating for young and old. Tourists and worshippers enter and leave the church, having to pass a seated woman dressed in old clothes who asks for alms. Local shoppers return with grocery bags, elderly gentlemen walk their dogs, children kick a soccer ball, and pigeons keep an eye out for crumbs. On weekends, musical groups play at various spots on the square, hoping for coins in their violin cases.

We like this piazza the best because it is intimate, low key, and richer with everyday activity than the busier tourist centers. Sometimes we sit on the steps of the fountain and other times we sit in a café, but we always go into the church. As in the other piazzas we visit, we enjoy the vibrancy of life that surrounds and overtakes us. We are immersed in the energy around us. These moments of just being in Rome, enjoying whatever comes along, are the best moments of our Italian visits.

Additional Resources:

Since 1993, Glen Grymes Husak has made an annual pilgrimage to Italy. Glen brings her background and insight as an English teacher and museum docent to the history and art of Italy in her travel memoir, Passeggiata: Strolling Through Italy www.passeggiataitalia.com

© Glen Grymes Husak, 2009

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