Rome's Centro Storico on a sunny day must be one of the great pleasures of Europe. Exploring its narrow streets with their apricot or terracotta coloured buildings is an absolute joy. You can't explain the delight of following the streets with their balconied apartment blocks, tabacchi's, boutiques and trattoria's and then stumbling out onto a 2,000 year old Roman column or a gurgling marble fountain. All cities should be like this. Of course you have to share these treasures with thousands of other tourists, babbling in hundreds of languages and pushing and shoving to get the right shot of the Quirinal or the Trevi Fountain. But who can blame them as the area between the Tiber and the Villa Borghese, Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza Venezia, has to be one of the most beautiful in Europe.
There is so much in this area that I have broken it into three journals. This one covers the northern section of Piazza del Popolo (the old entrance to the city), The Mausaleom of Augustus and every Italian teenagers fantasy - The Spanish Steps. But also try not to forget that this small area is the heart of the Italian republic. The President is at the Quirinal. Lawyers and civil servants wear Armani suits while driving mopeds, women too chic to live shop on the Via Condotti and hordes of teenagers come up from the suburbs to ogle the signoria's on the world-famous Spanish Steps.
The best place to begin, I think, is the Piazza del Popolo. Reached by the Flaminio metro or any bus from northern Rome - this is the best introduction to the city. From here you can head south and eventually hit the Piazza Venezia or west to the Tiber. But the most workaday and least touristy is the area around the Piazza and is probably the best place to enjoy Rome without the tourists.
As you emerge from Flaminio metro you will be greeted by office-blocks and a small market. On the south side is the huge marble baroque gateway, the Porta del Popolo. For hundreds of years as the city hid behind its walls, this was the first glimpse of the city that most travellers got. You can imagine the Grand tourists trotting through at the end of their journey. The Piazza del Popolo on the other side is one of the great vista's of Rome and you cannot help but stop and say wow! This grey square is the size of a football pitch overlooked by two domed baroque churches - Santa Maria de Miracoli and Santa Maria de Montesanti. From this point three avenues raditate out southwards like a trident cutting through the Centro Storico. The Great Via dei Corso runs arrow straight for a mile and the flambuoyant Victor Emanuelle monument can be seen at its end.
The Piazza itself is dominated by another giant Egyptian obelisque reaching into the sky and is surrounded by lion statues spewing water. If you can catch this on a sunny day the contrast of the white marble against the azure sky is breathtaking. If you want even better views then on the eastern side the Villa Borghese begins and a number of switchback paths lead you up to the Pincio. A platform with fabulous views of Rome and where the warty dome of St Peters can be seen across the Tiber. Also the Chiesa Santa Maria Popolo which is snuggled up against the city walls is worth a look for its Pinturicchio frescoes.
If you leave Popolo by the soutwest along Via Ripetta you will enter workaday Rome. As you walk along the street you will pass snack bars, butchers, bookstores and boutiques and will eventually end up at the Mausaleum of Augustus. This is where Rome's first Emperor is buried. The Mausaleum itself is a terracotta rounded tomb covered in trees and surrounded by a moat. Guided tours are available but have to be made in advance. Next door is the Ara Pracis (the altar of peace)A giant white marble frieze commemorating the imperial family is currently being refurbished and when re-opened will consist of a education and multi-media centre. I was sorry it was closed because I wanted to see what Augustus, Livia, Julia, Antonia and baby Claudius really looked like.
If you head east from here you will enter prime shopping territory. The Via del Corso runs south lined with boutique after boutique. The most famous Via off the Corso is of course the Via Condotti - the chicest shopping street in Rome. In this area pedestrians clutch Gucci handbags, hips start to swagger and sunglasses are pushed to the top of the head. Hermes, Prada, Gucci, Westwood, Cartier and Valentino all line the Via Condotti. But they must compete with the great sight at the end of the Via - the Spanish Steps. This lived up to expectation - a pink marble church stands on a hill with towers reaching into the sky. Three terraces with balaustrades spill down ending with a gushing fountain shaped like a boat. Horsedrawn carriages are at the foot of the steps and most surprising was the Keats-Shelley house - it was bright pink!
The Spanish Steps are one of the great people-watching areas of the world. And they are covered in tourists, you could do alot worse then spend half an hour people-watching on the steps. Beautifully coifed teenagers of both sexes hang out eyeing each other up. The women were dressed in the latest fashions and the current craze for men is tight jeans, spiky hair and sunglasses. Italians must be naturally born with sunglasses.