Touring Italy’s ancient city on foot, as Romans always have

By Kerri Westenberg, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Like hordes before us, we entered Rome through its northern gate.

We had rented a terrace apartment in an old marble-filled building in the Flaminio neighborhood, just outside the ancient city walls. Each day, we kept pace with Romans bustling to work and flowed through the Porta del Popolo, built in the late 1400s as a grand entrance to the city.

Centuries before we arrived, barbarian tribes (so named by the Romans), stormed in here and sacked the city. Martin Luther also traveled this way; he came in the early 1500s to live in a monastery, from which he observed the church and the pope close up, just nine years before he and his ideas rocked the world. Later, there was Queen Christina of Sweden, who in 1654 converted to Catholicism, abdicated her throne and rolled into her adopted city through Porta del Popolo dressed as an Amazon and riding in a chariot.

Unlike the Visigoths and the Gauls, and unlike the queen, my family and a friend came in peace and attempted to blend in with the Romans. And while Luther may not have liked what he saw, we did — very much.

The first morning, in a haze of jet lag, we paused to get our bearings after passing under the arch. To our left, a ragged woman hoping for alms sat on the steps of Santa Maria del Popolo. Inside the church, works by Caravaggio, Raphael and Bernini belied the simple facade, its travertine dirtied by soot. With 10 days stretching before us, I figured the artwork could wait.

In front of us, the vast expanse of Piazza del Popolo made a warm welcome. Sun bounced off its cobblestones. In its corners, sculptures representing the four seasons gazed at indifferent passersby. An obelisk pilfered from ancient Egypt in the early days of the Roman Empire soared. On stairs at its base, young people smoked cigarettes and worked their smartphones. A pair of matching churches, one behind scaffolding, marked the far side of the square. Radiating out from them, three main roads led more deeply into Rome. Which to take?

The Pantheon, where the artist Raphael is buried, remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. It was build nearly 2,000 years ago.

Kerri Westenberg, Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

The Pantheon, where the artist Raphael is buried, remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. It was build nearly 2,000 years ago.

We opted for the center road and passed a restaurant called Dal Bolognese, after a city in Italy renowned for its cuisine, storefronts of Italian designers such as a.testoni and Boggi, and leather goods stores. Clearly, we had chosen well. We wound through a maze of tight streets, where shopkeepers chatted with neighbors as they opened for business. A truck loaded with topiaries and bright flowers tooted its horn, nudging its way among pedestrians. Then we landed at our breakfast spot, a cafe that predates the United States.

At Antico Caffe Greco, circa 1760, we sat on red velvet banquettes set against art-covered walls. Officious servers in crisp black suits brought us pastries, cappuccinos and a hot chocolate nearly as thick as pudding.

When we stepped back outside, we practically stumbled onto the Spanish Steps. Just down the street, that staircase rose from Piazza di Spagna, surprisingly empty for one of the city’s top attractions.

Such unexpected discoveries would occur again and again. Rome is strikingly compact. Within its ancient walls, just 12 miles around, lie many of the city’s iconic gems: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain. We walked nearly everywhere, moving between epochs in a matter of minutes. We shot past the 28 B.C. tomb of Augustus on our way to the Baroque Piazza Navona, all the while navigating the bustle of modern-day Rome.

It could be said that I walked amid ancient Rome twice — or at least its marble. The first time came when I toured that era’s Colosseum and Roman Forum. The second time came when I explored Vatican City.

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