Eat, Pray, Love – not worth sitting through even for the shots of Rome

Eat Pray LoveA while back I reported that Julia Roberts was to star in an adaptation of the Elizabeth Gilbert novel Eat Pray Love, a fact I was looking forward to on account of the fact that a third of the film (the ‘Eat’ section) would be set in Rome. I hadn’t enjoyed the book (because it was so badly written) but thought that, as is sometimes the case with poor literature, it might make a better film. I was wrong. It’s now out on DVD, and I can sadly report that the film is even worse than the book.

There were some pleasant scenes of Rome, including, as has been widely observed, one in which Roberts could be eating San Crispino ice cream. I was perplexed by the fact that she was calling the Mausoleum of Augustus the “Augusteum” (not a term I’d ever heard used to describe it, maybe it’s an American thing?), and it’s not open to tourists. I’m pretty sure you can’t get into it without some kind of permit – it’s not a homeless shelter, as stated in the film.

I have read a lot of people saying that the book really ‘spoke to them’. Perhaps both the book and the film are aimed at an older audience than me, but I found it impossible to sympathise with Liz, despite having been through a similar situation myself. I put this down both to Julia Roberts’ awful acting and also the fact that, from the film, I really didn’t get what was so dreadful for her – the guy she was married to seemed perfectly nice and she seemed to have a nice life. What was unconvincing enough in the book was doubly implausible on film, which by its nature had to leave out a lot of the explanations in the book.

I found the opening of the film thoroughly crass, in which she claimed that Cambodian refugees, who had suffered from genocide, torture and starvation, would ask about guy problems (“I met this guy in the refugee camp”) when offered psychological counselling. Er, I doubt it. Just another example of Hollywood trying to sugarcoat everything. To be fair, I don’t remember this ridiculous statement being made in the book.

In conclusion, a dire film and not worth wasting over two hours of your life on, even if you’re a die-hard Rome fan and would watch anything set there. Even the Mary-Kate and Ashley movie “When in Rome” was better than this!

Posted in Films set in Rome | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cul de Sac, Rome – a wine bar review

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I’m a big fan of wine bars in Rome, so I thought it was about time for another review of one. This one was recommended to me by Agnes Crawford of Understanding Rome, and now that I know about it I will definitely be going back every time I’m in Rome!

The wine bar in question is called Cul de Sac, and you can find it in a small piazza called Piazza di Pasquino, just outside Piazza Navona.

Its website boasts that it has a collection of over 1,500 wines, sparkling wines and champagnes, making it the perfect place for me to stop after a tiring morning in the Palazzo Altemps and the Museo di Roma.

Cul de Sac, Rome

Cul de Sac - might not look much from the outside but I promise you it is! (Photo from the Cul de Sac website)

It looks rather small and cramped from the outside, and it’s quite narrow, but it goes back a long way and there’s actually quite a lot of seating inside. The walls are lined with innumerable bottles of wine, and I was surprised to observe one gentleman sitting across the room from me drinking Fanta! Fanta! In a wine bar! I ask you!

Having had an unfortunate solo dining experience the previous night (I don’t think the rude waiters appreciated me taking up a table when they could have made more money from two people taking it), I was relieved to find that Cul de Sac welcomed the solo diner, and I was not alone in enjoying a solitary lunch among the tempting array of bottles.

I ordered a glass of Puglian red wine and lasagne, both of which were very reasonably priced. There was plenty to choose from on the menu, including a great selection of cheeses and cured meats which would be ideal with wine tasting.

I had been told that Cul de Sac doesn’t have a kitchen, instead serving a variety of reheated dishes, but this didn’t detract from it at all – the lasagne was superb, and the wine was a perfect accompaniment and was poured for me at the table into an enormous wine glass, a sight which cheered me tremendously after my strenuous morning of museums.

Apparently it’s equally great for dinner, so perhaps next time I’m there I’ll give that a try… it gets 5 stars from me!

Posted in Reviews and recommendations, Wine bars | Tagged , , ,

Rome’s Churches: you don’t have to be religious to enjoy them

I returned last week from another wonderful week in Rome and will now be giving this blog some much-needed attention. As it’s Easter, I thought I’d start with a post about my favourite churches in Rome, because I’ve now visited about 30 of them and have a reasonable idea of which I would recommend people to visit. 

I was originally going to set myself the challenge of seeing how many churches I could visit in one day – I read that Rome actually has three churches for every day of the year! – but in the couple of weeks prior to my trip I was struck down with a nasty virus, from which I was still recuperating by the time I reached Rome. Having visited the majority of the publicly accessible archaeological sites in the centre of Rome (and, thanks to the BSR, some of the ones which are closed to the public as well), I visited a lot of churches this time in search of new sights, though actually ended up going back to a lot of the ones I’d been to before. I would like to stress that I am not religious at all, but you really don’t have to be – it’s interesting enough visiting Roman churches without having to be into all that!

So here are a few particularly interesting churches I would recommend you visit (by no means an exhaustive list of course!) – I’m not including the Pantheon or St Peter’s here because they are just too obvious!

Santa Maria Maggiore

Cosmati flooring in Santa Maria Maggiore

Characteristic marble flooring in the Cosmati style, Santa Maria Maggiore

One of the four Papal Basilicas (the others being San Paolo fuori le Mura, St John Lateran and St Peters), Santa Maria Maggiore sits on the Esquiline Hill not far from Termini Station and is easily accessible from either Termini or Cavour Metro stations. The legend goes that the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in around AD 358 and told him to build a church corresponding to the area which he would find covered with snow the following morning – for which it was originally known as Santa Maria della Neve, i.e. of the snow. It also houses an important relic (if you believe in that sort of thing) – a piece of the crib of the Infant Jesus, which is displayed on Christmas morning every year. The basilica is lavishly decorated, and as with many early churches in Rome (including the majority in this blog post), its floor is in the so-called Cosmati style, developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, with the marble having come from ancient Roman buildings.

Santa Prassede

Santa Prassede Rome

The light interior of the Basilica di Santa Prassede

Nestling in a little side street a stone’s throw from Santa Maria Maggiore is a smaller but equally wonderful basilica, Santa Prassede, which is well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Its inauspicious entrance belies an impressive but not over-the-top interior, the walls of which are decorated with frescoes for a more subtle and I suppose more ‘airy’ look than the lavish Santa Maria Maggiore. It’s not without the gold mosaics, however; those of particular interest are in a tiny chapel to the left as you go in, and can be illuminated with a coin-operated light.  The mosaics here – which, uniquely, cover the entire chapel – date from the early 9th century, and are incredibly well preserved. You can go down into a small crypt beneath the altar of the main church to see the tomb of Santa Prassede, as well as a 13th century altar decorated in the Cosmati style.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin - rather plainer than a lot of churches in Rome!

If you’ve seen the film Roman Holiday then you will at least recognise the outside of this church, which is frequented by tourists on account of the so-called ‘Mouth of Truth’, an ancient Roman drain cover with a rather creepy face thought by some to depict the god Oceanus. It’s mounted on the wall outside and is said to bite off the hands of liars; cue long lines of tourists waiting to be photographed with their hands in its mouth. If you’re an Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck fan then by all means do the same, but otherwise I’d say skip the queuing and go straight into the church, which is a lot more interesting. It’s actually structured around a Roman administrative building and an early Christian welfare centre. Its association with the Greeks began in the 8th century and the name “Cosmedin” is thought to come from the Greek word meaning “to adorn”. It has a bit of a Greek Orthodox feel about it, and sacred music played on a sound system adds to the atmosphere.

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, flanked to the left by the vast Vittorio Emanuele Monument.

If you stand at the bottom of the Capitoline Hill you’ll see Michelangelo’s gentle cordonata on the right, and on the left you’ll see a dauntingly steep staircase up to the plain brick facade of a church – Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. The staircase was built in 1348 to give thanks for deliverance from a plague, and if you’re not feeling up to the climb, you can also access the church from the side entrance from Piazza del Campidoglio, on the top of the hill. The name ‘Ara Coeli’ means ‘altar of heaven’, and derives from a medieval legend that this was where the Tiburtine Sybil prophesised the coming of Christ to Augustus. It occupies the spot where the ancient Roman Temple of Juno would once have stood (famous for its sacred geese). The most interesting thing about it (I think) is that the columns don’t match – they’re taken from ancient Roman buildings, and one even has an inscription – ‘a cubiculo Augustorum’, possibly suggesting that it came from a Roman public building.

Santi Quattro Coronati

View from Santi Quattro Coronati

The view from outside Santi Quattro Coronati - an unexpectedly rural part of Rome.

I was introduced to this gem on the Caelian Hill by a friend of mine, and it’s definitely worth knowing about. It’s in a part of Rome which has a surprisingly rural feel to it, making it a good place to head if you get sick of the crowds (as I frequently do). The basilica and its surrounding monastic buildings are occupied by a closed order of Augustinian nuns, and on several occasions I have been lucky enough to have heard them singing in the basilica – a beautiful sound. The real wonder is the small Chapel of St Sylvester, on the right as you approach the basilica, which is decorated with a marvellous series of frescoes dating to the chapel’s founding in 1246, depicting the life and conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperor Constantine. This chapel is one of Rome’s innumerable hidden treasures and perfect if you’re after something a bit different after the bustle of the usual sights.

Posted in Churches, My favourite places, Recommendations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rome-based BBC drama Zen out on DVD Monday

BBC Zen

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!

Posted in Reviews and recommendations, Rome news | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

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!

Palatine

'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.

Capitoline

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.

Esquiline

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.

Aventine

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.

Quirinal

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.

Caelian

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).

Viminal

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.

Posted in Hints and tips, My favourite places, Photography, Recommendations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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.

Posted in My favourite places, Recommendations, Wine bars | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Reviews and recommendations | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments