When in Rome….forget the monuments, go for the lifestyle

(photo by Mauro Scaffardi)

Rome is one of those places that never loses its thrill, no matter how many times one attends a papal audience on St. Peter’s Square, or tries to count the number of holes where the metal bars supporting the marble façade of Hadrian’s Temple used to be, or feels the rhythm of street musicians, artists and mimes along the pulsing Piazza Navona.

While technically you could spend a lifetime re-examining its sundry ancient ruins, churches or museums, with nary a ho-hum, you will never achieve true intimacy with Roma (i.e., amor spelled backwards) if your goal doesn’t exceed checking off famous landmarks on an American-style “to-see” list. An intimacy with this ancient city—as with any relationship—requires that you move to the next level by absorbing the lifestyle of its people.

The route to cultural comprehension through lifestyle, however, can often be confusing for the outsider who wouldn’t dream of coming home without a snapshot of Michelangelo’s Pieta as proof of a vacation well-spent. But here are five ways you can make your next trip to Rome more meaningful, and help you to view your newfound amor with a fresh perspective. If only all relationships were this simple!

1. Go to Rome’s periphery, where there are more natives and fewer foreigners. Right outside of Rome, for instance, are the Roman hills, the Castelli Romani and other quaint towns like Ariccia. Take a short train ride to a place like this and begin by visiting the local store at the train station. Go in and order a cafe and sip it slowly as you watch locals come in and out. Cashiers or the barista who makes your coffee, are most happy to engage in a conversation about their town, and tell you what places are worth frequenting for dinner, a gelato, shopping or for a nice passeggiata (stroll).

2. When you visit a typical tourist landmark, try to look beyond what everyone else is hovering around. I recently visited a beautiful church called Santa Maria in Trastevere. Although this was not one of Rome’s four major basilicas, there were still quite a few foreigners clustering about the most obvious points of interest—such as the magnificent gilded altar, the ancient tomb pieces embedded into the walls and the geometric mosaic tiled floors.

Instead of trying to get up close to a tour guide to get the scoop, or rushing over to what I knew must be a famous tomb or relic, I opted to center myself by taking a seat letting my eyes wander about absorbing every detail within visual range. To my left, stood a life sized statue of San Antonio, covered by and standing in a pile of little folded pieces of note paper upon which Italians leave their prayers, their requests or their expressions of gratitude. What a treasure, I thought, as I took out a piece of paper, and added mine to the collection.

3. Become a regular. Whether a coffee bar along the Tiber, an out of the way osteria or even a pharmacy that you visit for your daily needs, find a place that is far enough off the beaten track to be a local spot, yet close enough to your hotel so that you are able to visit often—and have the opportunity to become friendly with the owner or other “regulars” so you can learn through comments, gestures and daily habits what really makes Rome’s culture tick.

4. Ask a local instead of consulting a travel guide. Recently, while sitting at an outdoor cafe across from the Pantheon, it just happened that a retired Roman philosophy professor sat reading the paper next to me. Before long he began explaining how contemporary Romans react to the ancient architectural treasures, which they see every day—an insight no travel book in the world could have revealed with such authenticity.

5. Engage in local customs. Forget shops designed to attract tourists and opt for shopping for everything from flowers to ceramics at the open-air market at Campo dei Fiori. Instead of using the hotel gym, head to one of Rome’s many squares or the path that borders the long Tiber River for that evening passeggiata. Notice how people interact, walk, and the detail with which they dress. Make sure you stop and rest (and observe) every once in a while on a strategically positioned public bench, where you might even make a friend or a family of friends with whom you may even feel comfortable enough to exchange e-mail addresses. I have made some enduring and valuable Italian friendships in just this way.

There is no better way to know Rome than to gain a deeper insight into the lives of her people. The late Luigi Barzini, one of Italy’s most beloved journalists, once referred to Italy as a mosaic of relationships. That is your tip as to how you can get to know her best.

(Adapted from an article I wrote for The Chicago Tribune Sunday Travel Section). Please feel free to leave you comments, share via email or twitter with your friends,  or subscribe so that you can get my posts delivered to your email. Mille grazie for following my blog!

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