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Rome

Out of Rome - Published in Man's World Magazine

Roma, non basta una vita. Rome, a lifetime is not enough. Twenty five years ago, when Massimo Vanini, property dealer and art specialist, invited me to spend a fortnight in Rome, little did I know that it would be a life-transforming visit. Since then I have been a guest at his palatial home, situated a 15 minute walk away from the Vatican, no less than 20 times.

During balmy summers, I have taught Vittorio, Massimo’s only son, English diction; discussed current issues with his wife Francesca; dined in the finest restaurants with Italian film stars, politicians and the Pope’s personal photographer; drank prossecco with wealthy socialites whose lives revolves around cocktails and cruises; eaten simple but delicious fare in austere monasteries around Rome thanks to Father Sidival, a Franciscan monk; and toured ancient churches all around.

I have feasted not just on art and culture but also on food. Massimo’s family believes only in fresh produce, bought from local open air markets in their neighbourhood. It’s a delight to see rows of fresh salami, artisanal cheese, green salads, vegetables, fruits arrayed and sold in hygienic stalls. The banter between seller and buyer, all known to each other, usually ends in something extra being tossed in with a laugh and a grazia, ciao. At home, Massimo rolls out his own pasta and as I write this, I can still taste the Mince Meat Lasagne, Fettuccine Al Carbonara, Linguini With Calm Sauce and Tagliatelle Ai Funghi.

One fact has emerged from my love affair with Rome: the Roman lifestyle was always larger than life. Their palaces, churches, gardens and villas were natural extensions of their passion for wine, women (men too), song and political power – the ultimate aphrodisiac. Most of the wealthy and the powerful built summer palaces in the countryside (Umbria, Tuscany), where they would repair to for more wheeling dealing and orgies.

Some of you who also have two lifetimes have already sampled Rome’s ample charms. Now use the second one to discover some lesser known attractions within an hour’s drive of Rome’s circumference. Here are some insights into my favourites, places I never grow tired of visiting.

 

VILLA ADA

Thirty minutes northeast out of the city centre along Via Salaria (the ancient route along which salt was transported from the Mediterranean to the interiors) lies Rome’s largest park, Villa Ada. Here the Piazza Mincio (Via Nemorense) is adorned by fantastical eccentricities created by Art Noveau architect Gino Coppede in the 1920s. Flamboyant flourishes include gargoyle embellishments where Gothic marries Renaissance to create a truly surreal ambience.

If you are a foodie, book a table at La Scala, a neighbourhood restaurant that serves Roman classics like Grilled Calamari and Linguini Cacio e Pepe. La Scala is as much a part of Roman life as the Coliseum.

 

TIVOLI

As any tourist knows, Tivoli is probably the most popular excursion from Rome. A 40 minute drive on the highway brings you to the favoured resort of ancient Romans. The slow crawl through the suburbs will explain why, as your nose picks up the unmistakable smell of sulphur. Yes, it is spa heaven, with some pretty expensive resorts frequented by Rome’s old and wealthy citizens. Once close to the site, the remnants of the temples that once covered Tivoli’s hilltop become visible. Those of Sibyl and Vesta still reflect the glories of a bygone era.

Tivoli is no longer a charming old town but it’s a must — visit if only for Villa D’Este. In the 16th Century a single Benedictine monastery existed on the hillside. On this site Cardinal Ippolito D’Este commissioned a sumptuous country residence for his family. Gardens were planted on terraces, statues carved and installed around a spectacular array of ponds and fountains. The Viale delle Cento Fontane (Valley of 100 Fountains) is picture postcard pretty. At the very top, the Fontana dell’Organo Idraulico comes alive just after noon with organ music every day. Check out the first floor of the villa too, where renaissance frescoes have been painstakingly restored to colourful effect.

A 10 minutes walking distance is the ancient site that used to be known as the Valley Of Hell because of its 120 metre deep chasm, where powerful jets of water from the top of the mountain roar down in torrents. It is now called the Gregoriana Gardens . You can get to the bottom using well-established pathways, through a lush wooded valley. The half hour effort is rewarded by the sight of gushing waterfalls cascading into azure blue lakes. Breathtaking. But the climb back will leave you even more breathless.

HADRIANS VILLA

Don’t forget to keep aside at least two hours extra when you visit Tivoli. Just five km away, rambling ruins and rectangular pool, grottos and gardens encircle one of the most spectacular villas ever built by a Roman emperor. Built in the second century AD by the well-travelled philosopher king Emperor Hadrian, it served as his palace because he hated staying in Rome.

 

 

TARQUINIA

Travel 3,000 years back in time, when ancient Tarquinia (Tarxuna) was one of Etruria’s most important centres. The Etruscan civilization endured from the time of the earliest Etruscan inscriptions (ca. 700 BC) until its assimilation into the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. Historians have no literature, no texts of religion or philosophy; therefore much of what is known about this civilization is derived from grave and tomb findings.

En route to Tarquinia, stop over at Cer Veteri, an ancient Etruscan town which traded with Greece. On the outskirts is the Nercropolis, a network of streets lined with tombs — dating from the 7th to the 1st century BC. Some of the tombs are arranged like houses with doors, rooms and corridors. But what did the Etruscans look like? What kind of lives did they lead ? These questions are answered in Necropolis where you can see remains of the nearly 6,000 tombs that have been excavated so far. Small steps in each tomb lead to rooms decorated with frescoes. You can see diners having a feast, hunters out on a kill, gay and straight sex depictions and dancing figures that reminded me of gypsies from Rajasthan. And yes, some legends believe the Etruscans came originally from India.

 

FRASCATI

Each trip of mine to Rome includes a visit to my dear friend Count Gian Anselmo del Borgo’s penthouse apartment, in the Alban Hills, south-east of the city. In the middle ages, Frascati was already the favourite site for wealthy Romans to build their summer villas. Fortified castles were built here in the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, luxurious residences and villas were constructed for Rome’s nouveau riche and those connected to the Vatican. Frascati’s central piazza is a belvedere over-looked by the Villa Aldobrandini, a splendid building set in a verdant park of statues, fountains and grottoes. While there don’t forget to drink Frascati’s famous white wine. It’s fruity and delicious.

 

SERMONETA

A lovely hilltop town overlooking the Pontine Plain, with narrow cobbled streets winding around medieval houses, places and churches, the duomo here has a fine 15th century panel by Benozzo Gozzoli showing the Virgin cradling Sermonetta in her hands. In the valley below lies the abandoned medieval village of Ninfa, converted into lush gardens by the Caetani family in 1921 and punctuated with streams and waterfalls amongst crumbling ruins.