Words by Paul Mortimer
Beyond the obvious sights of the Eternal City, here are five things to do in Rome which might not be stereotypically chosen ahead of the more headline attractions that are already on everybody’s radar. By all means, be sure to take in the Pantheon, Forum and Sistine Chapel if you have time to negotiate the crowds; but here are some alternative ideas which you might want to experience when pushed for time or finance.Go Underground At The Colosseum
Perhaps for no other reason than to escape the hordes of shuffling tourists and selfie stick salesman outside, paying for a guided tour into the inner depths of The Colosseum is highly recommended. There are essentially three means of experiencing and learning about the most historic stadium in the world.
First, you could pay your admittance and rely on informational signs (once you’ve waited a few minutes to get close enough to read them) and your own viewpoints over the shoulders of other visitors.
Second, you could pay for a guided tour which will take you to the best standing points and all the information on the helpful signposts is fed to you via a headset.
Or, third, you can instead book well in advance and get a ticket for the limited admittance underground tour. Here, you will still learn all about who built it and what it was used for, why some sections appear to be crumbling and why whole bits seem to have disappeared - and it isn’t due to the passage of time, it was dismantled by the Catholics to help build parts of The Vatican as a big ‘eff you for killing our brethren’ - and all the other purposes of the Colosseum that the standard tours will teach you.
Beyond all of that, you will get to see and experience life underneath the arena, which was the working hub. Get to see where the lions and their prey (both animal and Christian) were housed, the living quarters, the mechanical systems which helped put on the show. And enter the arena itself in the same way all those successful Gladiators and their victims did all those years ago. It’s only from down there you can truly appreciate the scale of the most visited historic landmark in the world, which was allowed thousands and thousands of Romans to watch some good old killing and that.
Location: Colosseo, Piazza del Colosseo. BOOK IN ADVANCE HERE
Duration: Allow 2 hours.The Capuchin Crypts
These are the haunting, death filled rooms underneath church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. There’s a museum and a collection of crypts in the Church, as well as a working chapel. The Crypts are what capture the attention as they’re made of and filled with the exhumed bones of hundreds of deceased friars to create a piece of memento mori.
The monks’ bodies were initially removed from the ground after 30 years of decomposition to allow more recently deceased monks of the Capuchin order to be buried in what was a filled graveyard. As the bones were removed from the earth - from soil imported to Rome from Jerusalem - they were used as decorative installations to show the most powerful reminder of man’s mortality.
If this sounds macabre, that’s because it is. The most skilled writer will struggle to depict the absurd feeling of standing in a room titled the “Crypt of Skulls” or “Crypt of the Pelvises”. Floor to ceiling, all the eye sees is human body parts. Each one from a friar and a man of God, someone so dedicated to his cause he purposely lived in discomfort in an effort of gratuity to his Master. His clothes were purposely coarse and itchy, his diet impressively poor and his faith equally astounding. The hollow heads of these most holy men stare out at their visitors in the most eerie way imaginable.
And it goes on.
Into the “Crypt of the Pelvises”, “Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones” and “Crypt of the Three Skeletons”. The human body is dissected and presented in its fragmented parts - skull, pelvis, legs - before the final “Crypt of the Three Skeletons” presents man during birth, death and his lifelong struggle to balance good and evil desire. But by the time you first see these three bodies, you are desensitised to fact that they are actual human skeletons on display.
This is because you have spent the past 15 minutes admiring the intricate decoration of the preceding rooms. The thousands of fibula, tibia, hip sockets, knee caps and pelvises adorn the walls in a way which catches the small amount of light so to disguise their true being. The smooth and worn curves of each lump and line on the wall is not due to a master craftsman’s artistic skill; it’s from a lifetime kneeling in prayer.
The chandeliers just above your head are circular and even more intricate. And on close inspection, they are comprised of knuckles from the hand and feet, stuck together to form a circular, heavy, grey lighting unit, hanging from adjoined humerus’ and ulnas, to form something that you’d see fashioned out of concrete in an expensive homeware store.
But they are from hands which helped the poor and the sick. Hands that felt and touched and belonged to somebody. And there are hundreds of them right before your very eyes. The wall looks inviting to the touch as every little curve and crevice in what appears to be plastering is unique and different from the one next to it ever so slightly. It looks inviting to touch, it’s so smooth and free flowing. But your head tells you no, because it is, after all, from the body of somebody long deceased. And this confused feeling continues until you read the words alongside the three skeletons in the last crypt; “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” And there they stand, looking out at you. And you can’t help but meet their gaze with a falling feeling in your stomach. After admiring the intricacy of the knuckled chandeliers and absurdity of a room constructed solely out of human pelvises, it’s all brought back together into a recognisable human form. And you shuffle along, back into the daylight and the noise of a bustling city back above ground, with no further explanation.
Location: Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, 00187, Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, 00187 Roma. Small entrance fee on arrival.
Duration: 30 minutes.Beer, Street Food and Ice Cream
If anything is enough to make you need a drink and a good sit down, it’s spending half an hour in a museum dedicated to your own mortality. Let that sink in and get shelved away somewhere safe in your mind by sitting in a picturesque square, with a small can of red Peroni and some street food. All squares will have at least one pizza by the slice window and a licensed Gelateria on their edge.
Personally, you’d be far pressed to find a better option than Piazza Navona. Yes, it’s famous, but you don’t get quite the same crowds or prices of somewhere like the Spanish Steps. It will be familiar to anyone who has watched Angels and Demons, but where else would you ever sit looking at a 2000 year old fountain with a can of lager in your hand? And, besides, it features heavily in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
For other street food vendors around the city, checkout this handy blog post on The Culture Trip
Location: Piazza Navona, 00186
Duration: Your choice, innit?Keats Shelley House
But speaking of the Spanish Steps, head there to visit Keats Shelley House. This is where the two famous Romantic writers lived whilst in Rome and immediately overlooks the Spanish Steps. Well worth seeing for fans of the two writers, of course, but also any one with a passing interest in literature, the Romantic period or Anglo-European history.
The exhibits also touch on the travels and tales of other writers and activists from Britain, such as Lord Byron, so there’s enough for anyone to get stuck into if they have any interest in either the Arts or history and politics.
Location: Piazza di Spagna 26, 00187. €5 entry fee.
Duration: 20-40 minutes depending on interest. An Evening In Piazza della Madonna dei Monti
Monti is the district I definitely recommend staying in. Filled with bars, restaurants and plenty of bookshops, there’s even a vintage clothing district nearby. The mood and atmosphere is akin to relaxed and natural and there’s places to cater for all budgets and tastes.
The restaurant overlooking the fountain is excellent, as is the bar 'Caffe Bohemien' close by. But you could throw a blanket over a whole host of places round there where you wouldn’t go far wrong.
What’s more, plenty of people head to a shop for some carry outs and just mingle and sit around the square into the small hours. Candles are lit outside the church and people of all ages and backgrounds mixed throughout the night. If you’re on a budget, that’s a great way to partake in the festivities without spending too much.
Location: Piazza della Madonna dei Monti