on March 8, 2010
There are few more memorable places in Rome than the Spanish Steps. On a typical day in Rome, the stairs will be lined with tourists and locals enjoying the day, people watching, trying to see and be seen. The Spanish Steps is a common meeting place, with its central location on the Piazza di Spagna, just steps away from the posh shopping area of Via Condotti, lined with designer boutiques, and a short walk to the Trevi Fountain.History of the Spanish StepsIronically enough, the Spanish Steps were built with money donated by the French in 1723. Yet the name of both the Spanish Steps ("Scalinatella di Spagna" in Italian) and the Piazza come from the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, which is located on the piazza.The "Scalinatella" (staircase) was designed with reference to the church that lies at its apex. With three landings, the Spanish Steps bows gracefully to the Church of the Trinita dei Monti at the top of the stairs. For centuries, this famed staircase has been a sight enjoyed by foreign travelers, whether it be the dukes and duchesses of the18th century Royal Houses or the more humble poets and artists from the 19th century. The Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna were a mandatory stop on the Grand Tour, when the wealthy young men (and some women) of Europe traveled throughout the Continent, collecting art and other treasures to fill their castles at home, while gaining an education along the way.The Spanish Steps have provided inspiration to all, particularly at sunset (the staircase faces west) or in spring when azaleas line the way. Among the writers who have used the Spanish Steps for inspiration in their writing include Stendahl, Balzac, and Thackeray. Lingering signs of the Spanish Steps’ importance to the foreign traveler can be seen by the two remarkable buildings book-ending the stairs at the bottom--the Keats-Shelley House and the Babington Tea Rooms, both lingering remnants from the British invasion.Keats-Shelley HouseRomantic poet John Keats lived in London, but was sent to Rome for its sun and heat in a grand gesture to help cure his consumption. Only 25, Keats settled in a then-Bohemian section of Rome, just at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Already famous for his "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats lived in the "Casina Rosa" only a short time before dying there.Today, travelers can visit the house and rooms where Keats lived in Rome, which have been preserved just as they were when he passed away. At the Keats-Shelley House, there are also other personal effects from the British travelers who passed through Rome during the same period, including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and Joseph Severn. Babington’s Tea RoomsOn the opposite side of the Spanish Steps on the Piazza di Spagna travelers can find Babington’s Tea Rooms. This restaurant has catered to tourists since 1896, when it was opened to serve the refined tastes of British travelers looking for a bit of home. The "Inglesi" have been coming ever since, and even the Italians find the Tea Rooms very charming.Antico Caffe GrecoBabington’s is not the only place to rest and enjoy a cup of something hot while at the Piazza di Spagna. Close to the "Fontana della Barcaccia" (Leaky Boat Fountain) is this 200 year old café, long a haunt of artists and writers in Rome. Among the notables who have enjoyed its Italian coffee are Wolfgang van Goethe, Lord Byron, and the unlikely Buffalo Bill, who stopped into the café while on tour with his Wild West Show. Today the café is more likely to be filled with Italian divas with Gucci bags than cowboys, but for charm alone, it’s worth a stop.Fontana della BaracciaFinally, any traveler to the Piazza di Spagna must not miss the Fontana della Baraccia, a curious fountain in the center of the piazza whose centerpiece is a sinking boat, which gently spills out water (much unlike the nearby over-the-top splashing Trevi). There is much speculation on just why this fountain was designed such. The most obvious theory is that the water pressure in this area was once poor. In fact, the only reason there was enough water for a fountain at all is that when it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, the pope first ordered the restoration of an ancient Roman aqueduct. (The bee and sun motifs on the sinking boat allude to the pope.)Some speculate, however, that the sinking boat was a reminder of the Tiber’s penchant for flooding this area of Rome for years. Still others think that the boat represents the Catholic Church. Perhaps the most interesting theory comes with history; some think that the fountain was created to mark the spot where the Emperor Domitian maintained his water stadium in ancient Rome. In this stadium, real naval battles were re-created from earlier days of the Roman Empire. No matter its origin, the fountain is worth a visit.The piazza and Spanish Steps are centrally located sights that most travelers would have a hard time avoiding, but that takes nothing away from their delight. When in Rome, enjoy the sunset atop the Spanish Steps, take tea at Babington’s Tea Rooms or have a coffee Italian style (standing up at the bar) at the café. You won’t be sorry.
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