Rome: Baroque, After Dark
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner as we return to eternally entertaining Rome. Italy is a festival of good living and Rome... it's the capital.
There's history everywhere here in the city of the Caesar's. The Colosseum reminds us of chariots and gladiators. Monuments like Trajan's column, wrapped with a scroll carved in stone, boosted imperial egos. Statues show how Emperors were worshipped as gods on earth. And the Pantheon, with my favorite skylight anywhere, inspired future ages to great domes of their own.
But let's save the Pantheon and these ancient wonders for a future episode. Right now, we're more interested in a different Rome.
We'll ramble through the back streets to discover artistic and cultural surprises, admire breathtaking Bernini statues, ponder sunbeams inside St. Peters at the Vatican, meet some Roman friends for an early evening stroll. And we'll go local after dark mixing some great gelato with Rome's Baroque and bubbly nightspots.
The old core of Rome is best explored on foot — ideally in the spring or fall. The most grueling thing about European travel is the heat and crowds of summer — especially in Italy. We're here in springtime — much more comfortable.
The people-packed Spanish Steps were named for a nearby Spanish embassy. And for over 200 years travelers have gathered here to enjoy a little dolce vita with their sightseeing.
Another of Rome's great people zones is the Campo de' Fiori. Literally, the field of flowers, this has long been a fragrant and colorful market. The market action is best in the morning. Artichokes are a favorite seasonal vegetable with Roman cooks.
Back in medieval times Campo de Fiori was also a place of executions. Giordano Bruno was a heretic, burned at the stake during the Counter-Reformation. His crime: believing the world was round and not the center of the universe. This neighborhood — which honors heretics — is still known for its free spirit.
Rome is a delight on foot. A morning wandering is filled with surprises. Playful fountains decorate squares — this fountain dates from the 16th century — its turtles were added much later.
The Rotunda of Diocletian — from about 300 AD — is easy to overlook. Part of Diocletian's Baths, it offers a great peek at classical Greek and Roman sculpture. Ancient art could be idealistic: here we see Venus emerging from the waves... tying up her hair. And realistic: like this battered boxer with his roughed up face and tired hands... complete with brass knuckles.
Poke around. Explore. Gardens drip from sleepy balconies and Vespas share lanes with pedestrians.
Small churches, like Santa Maria della Vittoria, hide unexpected riches. Rome is the birthplace of the Baroque style and Bernini is considered its father. He designed this chapel like a theater — with members of the family who paid for the art looking on from their box seats.
Center stage is "The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa." Bernini takes the Renaissance mastery of realism and breathes emotion into it. Here he captures the feeling Theresa described when the angel pierced her heart with a heavenly arrow: She said, "The pain was so sharp that I cried aloud. But at the same time I experienced such delight that I wished it would last forever."
Here, in San Luigi dei Francesi a church built 400 years ago for the French in Rome, three paintings by Caravaggio fill a side chapel. Caravaggio was another influential Baroque master.
He intentionally shocked his viewers with creative use of light, dramatic contrasts and by placing sacred Bible stories in contemporary Roman street life settings. Here in "the Calling of St. Matthew", Christ points his finger at Matthew.
This church was built in the 1600s to honor St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. It's bursting with Baroque decor. Artists from this period loved painting illusions. And this church comes with an architectural surprise.
From here its dome looks real. But walk under it and you'll see it's actually a flat, ingeniously painted ceiling... a handy trick when the neighboring monastery doesn't want its light blocked... or your church building project runs out of money.
More and more of old Rome is traffic-free and pedestrian friendly. Still you may want to catch a bus. Tobacco shops sell bus tickets.
Stamp a time onto your ticket as you board. Each ticket is good for 75 minutes — great for hopping on and off.
There's no way a normal city bus can navigate these characteristic quarters. But mini electrico buses offer a good option for joy riding. Bus 116 is particularly handy. And friendly locals can be impromptu tour guides.
To best enjoy Rome, I want a centrally located refuge — like Hotel Oceania. It's peaceful, air-conditioned, and easy on the budget.
Throughout Europe, small, family-run hotels offer great value with a smile. At Hotel Oceania, Armando Loretti serves up a warm welcome and plenty of sightseeing advice.
This is the kind of place I like to recommend in my guidebooks. Forget the old shower down the hall. These days in Europe, most hotels have remodeled, shoehorning in small bathrooms.
In many cases the room showers with you — there's the drain... and don't worry, the toilet paper comes with a little rain cap.
Armando's son, Stefano, is heading out to lunch and I'm tagging along. I find many of my favorite restaurants this way.
Rick: What should we do tonight?
Stefano: We can meet at the Piazza del Popolo, and passegiata.
Rick: What can we do after that?
Stefano: We can go to dinner, I can show you a good place.
Pasticceria Dagnino is popular for its top quality Sicilian specialties. As is typical in a tavola calda or hot table, the food is ready to go — designed for local office workers on a quick lunch break.
Rick: What shall we eat?
Stefano: Well that is...
Rick: I'll take it all. What else would be good, some mixed vegetables
Oversee the construction of your meal at the bar.
Rick: Arancino, per favore.
Their arancino a rice ball with a peas and meat filling, is a favorite. Pay at the cashier and grab a table.
Rick: Stick this in a Ziploc baggie, and you're ready for the road.
Stefano: Piazzo de Popolo, five o'clock.
Rick: Okay, Ciao.
We're heading for the Vatican, but first, a stroll through Rome's Central Park, the Borghese Gardens. This huge park has long offered locals and travelers alike a breezy escape from the big city noise and intensity.
The park's centerpiece is a cardinal's lavish mansion — now, the Borghese Gallery.
As is the case for many of Europe's top sights, admission requires a reservation. Getting one is easy — a phone call or visit to the website and you get an entry time. Guidebooks have all the details.
The wealthy Borghese family filled their 17th century villa with art. The palace abounds with great statues like this intriguing look at Napoleons sister by Canova and famous paintings by the masters. Here's Raphael's Disposition. Christ being taken from the cross.
This was an age when the rich and powerful employed great artists to spiff up their homes. Here the interior decorator was none other than Bernini. This is his self-portrait.
Bernini's David — body wound like a spring and lips pursed as he prepares to slay the giant — shows the determination of the age. Bernini was 25 when he sculpted this — in fact the face of David is his.
Another great Baroque artist, Carravaggio, tackled the same topic. Carravaggio — grabbing another opportunity to shock his viewers — also sneaks in a self-portrait... as the head of Goliath.
Baroque goes for maximum emotion. And Bernini's Rape of Perserpine packs a punch. Perserpine's entire body seems to scream for help as Pluto drags his catch into the underworld. His three-headed dog barks triumphantly.
Bernini's Apollo Chasing Daphne is a highlight. Apollo — happily wounded by Cupid's arrow — chases Daphne who is saved by turning into a tree. In typical Baroque style, Bernini captures the instant when, just as Apollo's about to catch Daphne, her fingers turn to leaves; her toes sprout roots... and Apollo's is in for one rude surprise.
The statue — as much air as stone — makes a supernatural event seem real. This classical scene — while plenty fleshy — comes with a church-pleasing moral: chasing earthly pleasures leads only to frustration. The place to contemplate that thought is at the Vatican.
Here's a case where crossing a street is crossing a border. We've just left Italy. The Vatican may be the world's smallest independent country — with only a thousand inhabitants, but it's the spiritual capital of hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics.
The Vatican is built upon the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter. It's centerpiece — St. Peter's Basilica.
Piazza San Pietro was the site of a Roman race track... chariots made their hairpin turns around that obelisk. For added entertainment Christians were executed here. In about 65 AD, the apostle Peter was crucified within sight of that obelisk. Peter's friends buried him in a nearby grave on the Vatican Hill and for 250 years Christians worshipped quietly on the site.
When Constantine legalized Christianity the first St. Peters was built. 1200 years later, the original St. Peters was replaced by this church.
It's the richest and most impressive church on earth. It's big. Six acres... over 600 feet long, bathed in sunbeams. It can accommodate thousands of worshippers. The ornamental cherubs dwarf a large man. Marks on the floor show where the world's next biggest churches would fit if put inside: Saint Paul's in London... 158 meters. As a tour guide, I've lost entire groups in here.
Visitors marvel at grand paintings decorating the many chapels. But they're not paintings at all. Because oil on canvas would soon be covered by candle soot, you won't find paintings in St. Peter's. Just the magnificent work of the Vatican school of mosaics — with thousands of different colors in their arsenal of chips.
This scene showing Peter looking after early Christians, while centuries old, looks almost new.
Michelangelo's Pieta is a highlight. Protected by bulletproof glass, it's only viewable from a distance. Here the 25-year-old Michelangelo makes the theological message very clear: Jesus was alive but now he's dead. The contrast provided by Mary's rough robe makes his body — even carved in marble — feel soft and believable.
The altarpiece, yet another Bernini masterwork, encrusts the legendary throne of St. Peter with a starburst of Baroque praise.
Directly above the tomb of St. Peter is the high altar, Bernini's bronze canopy, and Michelangelo's dome — taller than a football field on end.
The banner declares — in Latin — Tu es Petrus.."you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." This is the scriptural basis for primacy of Rome in the Catholic Church.
An elevator takes you to the base of the dome for a close-up look at those huge letters and a heavenly perspective into the church. Pilgrims are sure to attend a Mass here in the greatest church in Christendom — performed daily at 5 p.m.
From the rooftop you can size up the dome you're about to climb.
For a close look at Michelangelo's dome-within-a-dome design, climb 300 steps to the cupola. It's often crowded and always tilted. But the view from the top is unrivaled: both of Rome in general... and the Vatican grounds. The long rectangular building is the Vatican museum with the adjacent Sistine Chapel — it looks much better on the inside.
We could spend hours touring St. Peter's and an eternity in the museum, but Stefano, from our hotel, is meeting us in ten minutes.
If time is limited, grabbing a cab is a good budget tip. It's sweat-free, the fastest way from point to point.
And from the window of cab we enjoy another lively look at this great city. In Rome you simply round up whatever's on the meter. I find Roman cabbies friendly and generally honest.
This is Piazza del Popolo-to me it's piazza of the people. Another Egyptian obelisk stands like an exclamation point, marking the start of Via del Corso. Stefano and his wife Paola are out for their evening passegiata or stroll — and tonight, they're taking us along.
Rick: Paola! Good to see you!
Stefano: Shall we go?
As the sun goes down, the people come out. Modern Rome's main street Via Del Corso is a pedestrian boulevard late in the day. Like no big city in Europe, people use Rome's public places like small town squares.
Rick: I love this about Europe. Everywhere at this time, people are strolling. The passeo. What do you call it in Italiano?
Stefano: But not in Rome, maybe in Verona or some other place, we call it a struscio.
Paola: I show you what a struscio is, it is like this, you pass and you touch.
Rick: Okay, a rubbing, this is a rubbing.
No evening stroll is complete without an espresso stop. I'm having mine espresso decaf... decaffinato. By the way, only tourists drink cappuccino after lunch.
Rick: I think it is time for a cup of coffee. Would you like some sugar?
Paola: Yes. No, look.
Rick: Okay, so. Voila!
Stefano: That's good!
Rick: That is good.
Campo de' Fiori again. The artichokes and tomatoes are gone. Rome's public places change hats through the day. That colorful morning market is packed away and at night the social street lamps are turned on.
Rick: Do you drink the water out of these fountains?
Stefano: Yeah, sure. Do you know what we call this one? The nasone.
Paola: It looks like a big nose.
Stefano: You see this one, have a drink.
Paola: You know that the boys are most generous when they take you out to a nasone.
Stefano: Last time I take you out to a nice place.
Paola: Okay, follow me.
Stefano: We go to this one, right here.
Campo de' Fiori is filled with fun eateries. But we're leaving the crowds for a Baccala joint.
Breaded cod fillets are a Roman specialty. "Filetti di Baccalà"
Rick: So, what do you call this one?
Stefano: It is a Roman salad. We call it pontarella. You have anchovies and garlic. Filetti DI Baccalà .
Rick: So you do this?
Paola: I follow you.
Rick: This is good.
Stefano: Is it good?
For dessert, we'll savor floodlit Rome. Its best nightspots are laced together by a memorable walk.
Piazza Navona is always lively after dark. This oblong square got its shape from a long-gone ancient stadium. Today, the games are limited to browsing and flirting around its famous Bernini fountain.
Piazza Navona is the place for Tartufo ice cream. It's a Roman specialty.
Paola: Rick, in Italy this means very delicious.
Listen... the Trevi Fountain's close by. You can hear it before you see it.
While built in the 1700s, this bubbly Baroque avalanche was originally powered by an ancient Roman aqueduct. The aqueduct was repaired by a pope. He built the fountain to advertise his job well done. Romantics toss a coin over their shoulder thinking it will give them a wish and assure their return to Rome. That may sound silly, but every year I go through the ritual ... and it works!
The final stop on our floodlit walk is back where we started: at the ever-popular Spanish Steps. It's been the hangout of countless romantics over the years — Wagner and Keats, Stephano and Paola, me and you.
Rome — of course it's the city of Caesars, popes, and floodlit fountains. But for over three million people, it's also simply home. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Ciao!
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.