Author Tom Mueller Photography Andrea Pistolesi
DAY THREE / The contender for top coffee honors in Rome is the Caffè Tazza d’Oro. Because today is a big walking day, order the “maxi-cappuccino,” served in an inelegant but satisfyingly huge plastic cup.
Then visit the basilica of San Clemente, and descend to the bedrock of Roman history. The stairway in the sacristy of this graceful 12th-century church leads down through three layers of the past: remains of the original fourth-century church of San Clemente; second-century buildings, including a cavelike temple to the pagan god Mithras; and, in the cool twilight of the lowest level, the massive tufa blocks of a building from the Republican era, more than two millennia old.
Having developed a taste for Rome’s underworld, visit the nearby Domus Aurea, the buried palace of the infamous emperor Nero. He may not have been much fun to have as a supreme ruler, but as you wander through the enormous dining room and along elaborately frescoed halls, one thing becomes clear: The man knew how to party.
Back out in the open air, make your way to the Capitoline Museums, a collection of classical sculpture that recently has enjoyed a sweeping makeover. Gawk unabashedly at such legendary pieces as the Capitoline Venus, and settle in at the rooftop Caffè Capitolino for a light lunch and probably the finest panorama of Rome.
Next, take the less-crowded side entrance of the Forum (Foro Romano) on the Via di San Gregorio and climb the shady Palatine Hill before you. Here cypresses and spreading umbrella pines grow from the gargantuan ruins of the imperial palaces; the air is alive with birdsong and the mossy burble of fountains. Look across the Circus Maximus, where chariots once raced before frenzied crowds, and then descend into the Forum proper, the heart of ancient Rome.
Head deeper into Rome’s past at the Crypta Balbi, an innovative museum cum archaeological dig that peels back the layers of Rome’s history. Continuously inhabited since the age of Augustus, this site metamorphosed over the centuries from a porticoed courtyard to a market, workshops, a monastery, and private homes.
For dinner, head for the Via dei Banchi Vecchi, where you’ve booked reservations at Ristorante il Pagliaccio, a new star in Rome’s culinary firmament. The pan-Mediterranean inspirations of chefs Anthony Genovese and Marion Lichtle are best showcased in one of their tasting menus, with such titles as “From my heart to tradition,” where daily specialties are paired deftly with wines from the small but 24-karat cellar.
Then, catch a cab to the Theater of Marcellus, begun by Julius Caesar and completed by Augustus, where evening concerts (Concerti del Tempietto) are still held all summer in the theater’s picturesque ruins (bring a sweater for late shows, which are outdoors).
A Verdi aria or a Schubert impromptu echoing in these ancient walls has a resonance that is truly timeless.
Tom Mueller is completing Subterranea, a historical thriller set in and under Rome. He lives in Italy.
In April, daytime temperatures top out in the lower 60s, and morning lows dip into the upper 40s. Rainfall is typically light, dampening only one out of six April days. In winter, the east-west aligned Alps block intrusions of polar air.
In fact, the lowest temperature on record is 21 degrees. Winter highs reach the 50s most days. Lows tend to bottom out in the upper 30s and 40s. Summers are warm and humid with highs often reaching the low to mid 80s. Occasional summer heat waves can send highs into the 90s. Autumns are generally mild, but rainfall increases dramatically from October to December.
Weather information is provided by The Weather Channel. For more Rome climatological details, visit weather.com.
Rome is less than an hour by train or cab from Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport (also called Fiumicino). Once in town, your first stop should be at one of the forest-green tourist information kiosks located throughout the city. You can pick up a city map and a wealth of local scoops. Also, buy a copy at any newsstand of Roma C’è, a weekly publication that reviews Rome’s latest cultural and culinary offerings (with an English summary at the back).
A Villa Borghese These gardens offer puppet shows and a playhouse, as well as pony rides, rental bikes, and plenty of wide-open spaces.
B Explora (www.mdbr.it/inglese) An interactive children’s museum.
C Colosseum and Forum Many of Rome’s “grown-up” monuments (in the itinerary) appeal to younger visitors. For example, the Colosseum is impressive for all ages (especially with its audiovisual displays), and the Forum is ideal for hide-and-seek as well as sightseeing.
D Domus Aurea The underground sights of the buried palace of Nero, emperor and extravagant partier, are dramatic.