Rome-based BBC drama Zen out on DVD Monday


Zen is now available to pre-order from Amazon

It need hardly be said that I greeted the news that the BBC were broadcasting a new detective drama set in Rome with immense enthusiasm. Anything based in Rome could only be a feast for the eyes, and the fact that the eponymous detective would be played by God’s gift to women Rufus Sewell only served to heighten my anticipation.

And the series certainly did not disappoint.  An entertaining mix of mystery, crime, comedy and romance, the three programmes were filmed in numerous stunning locations in and around Rome.  If, like me, you harbour a substantial obsession with Rome, you’ll definitely enjoy this series.  It’s always wonderfully sunny, and we’re often treated to scenes of the suave Aurelio Zen strutting about the streets of Rome in a sharp suit and downing his morning espresso. Of course we do also see a lot of the darker side of Italy – the corruption, bribery, ‘favours’ etc, and I felt that this was conveyed well.

Rufus Sewell – playing a good guy for a change – was delightful as well as smouldering, turning him into an instant sex symbol.  My Grandad commented that his voice isn’t manly enough, but personally I didn’t find this an issue ;-).

The three-part series was based on a set of eleven books by the late author Michael Dibdin, so let’s hope we see the rest of them appearing on our screens in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the DVD of Zen is released on Monday and is available for pre-ordering from Amazon.  If you missed it, I highly recommend it – even if detective dramas aren’t usually your sort of thing (I don’t watch many myself).  Rome, Rufus and romance are a winning combination if you ask me!

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A Beginners’ Guide to the Seven Hills of Rome

You may have heard reference to the ‘Seven Hills of Rome’ and wondered what this is all about.  Walking around in modern Rome, you’re aware of the ground rising and falling, but in the jumble of buildings it’s difficult to get a sense of the underlying topography, which would probably have been rather clearer in Roman times.  It’s important to remember that the famous hills are really more ridges of land than hills, and from Roman times to the height of Fascism areas of the city have undergone vast landscaping projects which have seen parts of these ridges completely flattened.

Seven Hills of Rome

The Seven Hills of Rome (image from Wikipedia)

I thought it might be interesting to say a little bit about each of the hills, highlighting key monuments in those areas, to make it a bit easier to understand the topography of ancient Rome in relation to the present day.  Note that although I am not including the Janiculum or Vatican hills (which are on the opposite bank of the Tiber) nor the Pincian, because these are not included among the traditional seven hills, it should be remembered that (as Amanda Claridge points out) the Romans themselves had trouble defining which the seven were!


'Hippodrome', Domitian's palace

The so-called ‘Hippodrome’, a sunken garden of Domitian’s Palace

The Palatine Hill was said to be where Romulus founded the original city of Rome on the site of an older settlement (archaeological evidence supports settlement here from the 9th century BC).  During the Republican period, this was where many aristocrats of Rome had luxurious houses, but by the Imperial period the whole hill was given over to the lavish palace of the emperor.  Indeed, our word “Palace” takes its name from this hill.  These days, the whole hill is an archaeological site, with the ruins of many generations of Rome’s emperors on show – notably some incredible frescoes in the House of Augustus (worth queuing for) and the vast so-called ‘Hippodrome’, an elliptical sunken garden from the palace of Domitian.  There’s an impressive view of the Circus Maximus from the south side, and of the Colosseum to the north.


Piazza del Campidoglio

View of the Piazza del Campidoglio from outside the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli

The Capitoline Hill was incredibly significant in Roman times, being home to several important buildings, notably the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest, the Temple of Juno and the Tabularium (archives), the foundations of which can be seen beneath the Palazzo Senatorio, which is the modern City Hall of Rome.  The hill was also the site of the infamous Tarpeian Rock, from which traitors to ancient Rome were hurled to their deaths.

The focal point of the hill today is what would have been the back of the hill in Roman times.  It’s dominated by the mighty Vittorio Emmanuele Monument and by two imposing staircases:  the one on the left, leading up to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (which stands on the site of the Roman Temple of Juno), dates to 1348 and was offered in thanks for deliverance from the plague; and the far gentler cordonata on the right was designed by none other than Michelangelo, completed in 1566 and leading up to the Piazza del Campidoglio, over which Marcus Aurelius casts a kindly eye from atop his bronze steed.  This impressive statue is in fact a replica of the Roman original, which can be viewed in the Capitoline Museums which surround this piazza.  We don’t know for sure where it stood in Roman times – possibly the Forum Romanum – but it stood for centuries outside the Lateran palace before being moved to the Capitoline in 1538.  The hill also provides spectacular views over the Forum Romanum towards the Colosseum, and if you go down the set of steps to the left of the Forum you’ll get a brilliant close-up view of the colossal Arch of Septimius Severus.


Santa Maria Maggiore

The papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Esquiline Hill

The Esquiline hill is the area of modern Rome south of the main train station, Termini, and north of the Colosseum.  It’s home to the incredible basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (one of the four papal churches) as well as several smaller churches and monuments, one of the lesser known of which is the ‘Arch of Gallienus’ – one of the original Republican city gates, now crammed unceremoniously between modern buildings.  The nearby Medieval church of Santa Prassede is frequently overlooked but a highly recommended stop on a walk around this part of Rome.  There are relics of ancient Rome prominently displayed either side of Santa Maria Maggiore, with an obelisk to the rear (one which flanked the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus) and a huge column at the front which was originally part of the epic Basilica of Maxentius, the vast structure seen on the left-hand side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali approaching the Colosseum.


Divided into the Lesser and the Greater Aventine, this was the area of Rome originally outside the sacred boundary of the city and traditionally associated with the plebs of ancient Rome.  In the founding myths it was said that, while Romulus set up his augural tent on the Palatine Hill, his twin brother Remus set up his on the Aventine. It’s now a leafy residential district with a commanding view of the Palatine Hill, in which the church of Santa Sabina and its nearby orange grove are the main attractions.


The Quirinal Hill is dominated by the Palazzo del Quirinale, one of the three official residences of the Italian President. The obelisk in the elaborate horse fountain at the centre of the adjacent piazza was originally the partner of the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline, and flanked the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus.  Art lovers should head to the Palazzo Barberini, home to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, and Borromini’s Baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is also nearby and worth a visit.


Santi Giovanni e Paolo

The Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on the Caelian Hill. The impressive remains of a Roman house lie beneath it.

The Caelian hill lies to the south of the Colosseum, and these days it’s a good place to escape the manic throng of tourists.  If you’re a fan of churches, there are some stunning examples here – I recommend Santo Stefano Rotondo, Santi Giovanni e Paolo and Santi Quattro Coronati in particular.  On a rather larger scale is the Basilica of St John Lateran, one of the four papal churches, and the Baths of Caracalla, the ruins of which go some way towards giving us an impression of the enormous scale and magnificence of Roman imperial bath houses (which were so huge that they even had libraries).


Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

A famous statue showing Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest (Terme Museum). It was intended to show the emperor’s piety.

This is the area north of the Esquiline, now identified with the sprawling Termini station.  As a tourist, the main point of interest will be the Terme Museum, a priceless collection whose highlights include the beautiful frescoes from the so-called House of Livia, and an array of very famous statues including Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, the Terme Ruler and the Terme Boxer.  The nearby Baths of Diocletian are also worthy of a visit, and, like the Baths of Caracalla, give a reasonable impression of the vast scale of the Roman imperial bath houses.

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A Bar with a View: Il Palazzetto, The Spanish Steps

Has it really been a whopping six weeks since I last updated?  Dear me, it has.  But this certainly doesn’t mean that my thoughts have been neglecting Rome – I simply haven’t had the time to write any of it down!  As I don’t have much time today, I thought I’d share a few photos I took the last time I was in Rome.  On our first night, my friends and I went to a wonderful (and very stylish) bar overlooking the Spanish Steps – Il Palazzetto (part of a hotel I believe) and took a series of photos in an attempt to capture the atmosphere.  The noise of the bustling crowds below, the floodlit church of Trinita dei Monti, the lingering warmth and the jazz in the bar all combined to make it a very memorable evening!

View of Piazza di Spagna

View of Piazza di Spagna

Trinita dei Monti

The floodlit church of Trinita dei Monti

Spanish Steps wine bar

What we drank - mine was the Prosecco!

At a pricey €9 for a glass of Prosecco it wasn’t a budget bar – but the atmosphere and views were well worth it.

When I have more time I will write another post on the Spanish Steps and the interesting history of this area of Rome.

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The Best Gelateria in Rome: San Crispino versus Giolitti’s

They’re the crème de la crème, the kings, nay the titans of the Italian ice cream world. They’re in every guide book and they’re arguably the two most famous gelaterias in Rome.  But which deserves the title of Best in Rome?  Rachel’s Rome Writings sets out to answer this tough yet delicious question once and for all…

Giolitti's, Rome

Giolitti's luminous sign beckons

Best for… Flavours

This is perhaps the toughest question of all, so let’s get it over with first.  Giolitti’s has a vast number of flavours (indeed, so many that the choice is agonising), but San Crispino’s are far more unusual.  My all-time favourite is caramel and meringue, but there are far more adventurous flavours and I guess it all depends on the boldness of your palette.  Purely because it has ice cream with meringue in, however, I’m going to say San Crispino comes out on top in this category.

The Verdict:  San Crispino

Best for… Uniqueness

My initial thought was that this one is a clear win for San Crispino’s, which defies the normal convention of displaying an array of colourful ice creams in favour of stylish silver vats, which shield their delectable contents from the eyes of gawping tourists.  Furthermore, they don’t even do cones – all their ice cream is served in cups of varying sizes, as though the cone would sully the flavours of the ice cream, which, as mentioned above, are rather unusual.

However, if we’re talking objectively about uniqueness, there may be a possible stumbling block for San Crispino because it actually has, I’m told, several branches (shock, horror!  A franchise!), including one at Fiumicino Airport, though I have never seen this.  The only one I’ve ever been to is on the Via della Panetteria, round the corner from the Trevi Fountain.  On the other hand, Giolitti’s is, as far as I know, a one-off.  Which technically makes it more unique, but it doesn’t have silver vats or particularly weird flavours.

The Verdict:  San Crispino still wins.

Best for… Avoiding Queues

A slight advantage to San Crispino here in my experience, though only slight.  Giolitti’s always seems more chaotic thanks to the system by which you pay for your ice cream, ordering it from a separate counter before taking your ticket over and selecting your flavour.  This inevitably causes confusion among those not in the know, and the experience of obtaining ice cream from this esteemed establishment can be stressful.  Of course, with the recent press coverage enjoyed by San Crispino’s thanks to the Eat, Pray, Love movie, that advantage could be rendered obsolete.

The Verdict:  San Crispino

Best for… Price

Definitely a win for Giolitti’s on price.  The tiniest cup of ice cream from San Crispino will set you back €2.30, whereas roughly the same price will get you a huge cone at Giolitti’s.  Of course, quality rather than quantity is the key, and when it’s very hot the last thing you want is a massive cone (deceptively called ‘Piccolo’), which results in ice cream melting down your hands and arms.
The Verdict: quantity-wise, you get more for your money at Giolitti’s.

Best for… While You Eat

San Crispino – the Via della Panetteria branch, at any rate, has the obvious advantage of a location just round the corner from the Trevi Fountain, giving you an unparalleled view while you savour their unique flavours.  Giolitti’s is round the corner from the Column of Marcus Aurelius, the bloodthirsty scenes of which do little to enhance the appetite.  However, Giolitti’s does have the posh café atmosphere complete with seats, while San Crispino has no seating and people are often seen loitering around the door to eat their ice creams.  So Giolitti’s gets this one.

The Verdict:  Giolitti’s

And the winner is…

Well, it looks as though overall, San Crispino has emerged triumphant from this incredibly unscientific battle of the gelaterias, though both clearly have strong merits.  What’s YOUR view on which is better?  Or do you think that neither deserve the title of Best Gelateria in Rome?  Perhaps you prefer the quaint Palazzo del Freddo, or another gelateria entirely?  Do leave a comment and let me know what you think, as I’m always open to recommendations!

San Crispino gelateria

San Crispino emerges the victor

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The Protestant Cemetery, Testaccio

I returned last week from yet another absolutely fantastic trip to Rome, staying in the ever-brilliant Bed and Breakfast Julius Caesar.  I was with two friends, one of whom had never been to Rome before, and another who had only been once on a school trip many years ago, so I went into full-blown tour guide mode and we spent a lot of the holiday walking round Rome.  It was hot and sunny and I made sure they saw all the usual stuff, as well as doing a day trip to the Ostia excavations and then the beach.  And of course there was a fair bit of eating involved, not to mention a rather fabulous (and very expensive) wine bar overlooking the Spanish Steps and Trinita dei Monti.

But on any trip a little alone time with Rome is always important to me, as is doing new things, so I combined these two requirements on a solitary early morning trip to the Protestant Cemetery.  Well, I say early morning:  it opened at 9am, and by that time it was already about 24 degrees even in October.


Pyramid of Gaius Cestius

A view of the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius


I got there for when it opened and had the privilege of exploring the cemetery alone, which was wonderful.  Call me morbid, but I actually rather like cemeteries.  They’re tranquil places, and it’s always interesting and poignant looking at the stones and imagining the lives and stories of those underneath them.  The Protestant Cemetery has the added attraction of being directly alongside the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, a marvellous Augustan-period freedman’s tomb, of which the cemetery affords by far the best view.


Pyramid of Gaius Cestius

Close-up view of the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius


I should add at this point a little about the history of the cemetery.  Obviously Italy is a Catholic country, but Rome has a long history of being visited by non-Catholic foreigners, and in particular the English. Think, for example, of all the Grand Tourists who found their way there in the 18th and 19th century:  poets, writers and artists all seeking inspiration from Rome’s incredible history and romantic environs.  Many chose to settle permanently in Rome (I maintain that I will join their number one day), while others died before they could return home, and the Protestant Cemetery provides a final resting place for many illustrious names in the literary and artistic world from that period.

It is most famous for being the place in which Keats and Shelley are buried, and, being most interested in Keats’ grave (having studied his work at GCSE), I devoted the first portion of my visit to locating it.  This didn’t take long; having stopped to observe several tombs modelled on the Tomb of the Scipios, I found Keats’ final resting place barely a stone’s throw from the Pyramid.


Keats' grave

The grave of the poet Keats


Keats’ grave is now one of three in a small cluster of graves comprising those of the artist Joseph Severn and Severn’s infant child.  I found the whole scene very moving.  Keats died aged only 25, having travelled to Rome to try to regain his health, while his close friend Joseph Severn outlived him, surviving to the grand old age of 85.  Keats’ grave contains no mention of his name; at his request, the stone is inscribed with the words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”  Severn’s grave speaks of the artist’s close friendship with Keats, and how he had lived to see his friend numbered among the world’s greatest poets.  I thought how very sad it was that Keats hadn’t lived to see his own success, and how Severn had had to bear the loss of his friend, finally being laid to rest alongside him.


Protestant Cemetery Rome

A view of the Protestant Cemetery


After standing by the graves for some minutes, with a slight lump in my throat which took me by surprise, I decided to explore the rest of the cemetery. The bit where Keats is buried is the older part of the cemetery, and there’s a newer part by the entrance which is a lot more crowded, with all shapes and sizes of tombs and gravestones commemorating the huge variety of people who had connections with Rome.  Shelley’s is one of them, and I found someone with the surname Mendelssohn, whom I suspect was some relation to the composer.

Before I left I went into the small gift shop/visitor centre near the entrance and, exchanging pleasantries about the beauty of the cemetery with the man in charge, purchased some postcards and a small book of Keats’ poetry.  I then went back into the older part of the cemetery and sat reading on a bench with a great view of the Pyramid.  The sun was blazing down and I thought to myself that life doesn’t get much better than that!

I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the Protestant Cemetery if you’re a seasoned traveller to Rome and haven’t been before.  I get the impression that a comparatively small number of people visit, but it’s very easy to get to – just get off at Piramide on the Linea B Metro line and aim for the Pyramid – you can’t miss it!  The entrance is on an inauspicious-looking road to one side of the Pyramid but it’s easy to find.

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Only in Rome

Sometimes you see things in Rome which start to make you think, “Only in Rome”.  Here are a few of my favourites!

Unfortunately there’s no escaping the golden arches even in the Eternal City; but where else would you find a branch called “Pantheon”?

McDonalds Pantheon

McDonalds - the Pantheon branch

How many scoops of ice cream is it possible to fit on one cone?  I suspect not this many, though I have yet to ask for one of these…

Ice cream

Gelateria near the Via Tritone (if I recall correctly)

There are Smart Cars everywhere in Rome – they make sense in a crowded city. But as a wedding car?  How does the bride’s dress fit in?!  I spotted this outside Santa Maria sopra Minerva:

Wedding Smart Car

An unusual wedding vehicle

Roman Holiday calendars, fine. But where else but in Rome would you find a calendar of Hot Priests?!  Also available… the Pope.

Hot priests

Hot priests calendar, anyone?

And of course the ubiquitous penis pasta. Don’t leave Rome without buying some for the folks back home 😉

Penis pasta

Rudely shaped pasta

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Photographing Roman sculpture

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve updated – life has rather overtaken me.

For this entry, I thought I’d share a few of the photographs of Roman and Hellenistic sculpture I’ve taken over the years in various museums in Rome.  I’ll start with my favourite…

This is the original equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, housed in the Capitoline Museums. It only survives because it was thought for a long time to be the Christian emperor Constantine. I like it because he looks so benevolent! A replica now stands in the Piazza del Campidoglio.

Marcus Aurelius

The original equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (Capitoline Museums)

I’m very pleased with this photo I took of a bust of Paris in the small museum on the Palatine Hill a couple of years ago. He looks very pensive , and though this photo makes it look big, the sculpture is actually quite petite.


Paris (Palatine Antiquarium)

Next we have something really interesting:  a statue which still has traces of gilding and paint on it.  This gives us an impression of how statues would originally have looked in antiquity.  Though there is undoubtedly something romantic about a pure white marble statue, they would originally have looked a lot more realistic – as you can see with the eyes painted on, for example. I like the contrast in this photo between the red and gold on the statue and the green background.

gilded statue

A statue with traces of paint and gilding (Montemartini museum)

The next photo shows the most famous frieze from the Ara Pacis – Augustus’ Altar of Peace.  The iconography of this monument is complex, but overall it was designed to show Augustus’ reign as heralding a new era of peace and prosperity. Here the imperial family is shown as the model of traditional family values – and fertility (note the children are shown, demonstrating that there would be heirs to Augustus who would continue his work).

Ara Pacis

The Ara Pacis (Ara Pacis Museum)

This last photo is of the bronze statue known as the Terme Ruler.  There has been much debate over the age of the statue and who it depicts; some have argued that it is a victorious Roman general shown in heroic nudity in the style of a Hellenistic king, while others (and I believe this is the generally accepted opinion) believe that it is actually a Hellenistic king. Either way, it ended up in Rome and it has graffiti on its rear which appears to indicate that it was imported. That’s about all I can remember about it for now!

Terme Ruler

The face of the Terme Ruler (Terme Museum)

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Music that reminds me of Rome, #2

‘Five Years Time’ by Noah and the Whale –

One of my favourite songs because it’s so happy and sunny! It reminds me of Rome because on the BSR course some of my fellow students were singing it as we wandered the streets of Rome. And of course in Rome, there was sun sun sun. Happy days! 🙂

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San Crispino gets some love on the big screen

I hear that my favourite Rome gelateria San Crispino has got some great publicity by being featured in the forthcoming Julia Roberts film Eat Pray Love.  Needless to say I can’t wait for this film to come out. Not having heard of the book before, I have just ordered my copy so that I can read it before seeing the film, part of which is shot on location in Rome.  I’m also pleased to hear that Javier Bardem stars in this film – I adored him in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

I also read today that Robert De Niro looks set to star in another forthcoming film set in Rome, in which he will play a divorced professor living in the Eternal City.  Apparently it’s the third Manual of Love film, but I must admit I’ve never heard of these films.  Are they worth watching?  Surely this one will be, if it stars Robert De Niro and is set in Rome!

To go back to the subject of San Crispino, it also featured in my guest post for the travel blog.  I wrote about what my perfect day in Rome would be, so naturally San Crispino had to feature in there somewhere.

Hurrah for San Crispino!

San Crispino ice cream

My favourite flavour at San Crispino - caramel and meringue!

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Colosseum to open for night tours

Earlier this week I read with interest and excitement the news that the Colosseum is to open for night tours.

Colosseum interior

The skeletal remains of the Colosseum by day

It will be opening to small groups of visitors each Saturday evening for seven weeks starting on 21 August, which is excellent news because as it happens, I will be in Rome on a Saturday falling within this period.  I would imagine that it will be highly oversubscribed, but it’s worth a shot!

The lucky few to see inside the Colosseum after dark will be following a well-trodden path.  For the Victorians, a stroll about the Colosseum by moonlight was very much the done thing, thanks to the immortal words of Lord Byron in “Manfred”:

The stars are forth, the moon above the tops
Of the snow-shining mountains. Beautiful!
I linger yet with Nature, for the night
Hath been to me a more familiar face
Than that of man; and in her starry shade
Of dim and solitary loveliness,
I learn’d the language of another world.
I do remember me, that in my youth,
When I was wandering,—upon such a night
I stood within the Coliseum’s wall
Midst the chief relics of almighty Rome.

Colosseum night view

The Colosseum at night

Inspired by these words, Murray’s Handbook to Central Italy, first published in 1843 and the essential companion to any Victorian traveller, recommended the twilight hours as the best time to view the Colosseum.  This view continued to be propounded throughout the nineteenth century, and night-time visits became so popular that some entrepreneurial type began putting on private light shows for paying tourists, who marvelled at the Colosseum being lit up with red and blue lights.

Somehow, I think that I would probably prefer today’s tours for their greater historical awareness… So wish me luck!

And thus ends what will probably be the first of many entries devoted entirely to Rome’s most famous monument.

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