At dawn, while the city still slumbers, I like to climb to the top of Pincian Hill via the Spanish Steps or the Piazza del Popolo – either way is wonderful – and stand on the terrace with the domes and crowded rooftops of Rome below.
Usually I only have to share the city with a lone streetsweeper tidying the Tridente and a couple of romantics still out from the night before. From this vantage point, at this hour, it feels possible to inhale the splendour of Rome.
There are many cities where centuries collide but few like this, where the millennia are laid bare. The obelisk that dominates the Piazza del Popolo dates back to the 13th century BCE. In the distance lie Vatican City and the Renaissance dome of St Peter’s Basilica, conceived in the late 15th century as the greatest temple of Christendom. Faced with Rome’s significance, I can’t help but feel hopelessly insignificant. So small among the thousands of years of human heritage on display.
The heart of Rome
In Monti, my current Roman crush, the gravity of history coexists with the energy of one of the city’s most vibrant rioni (districts). At one end is the Colosseum – go in the early morning or on a midweek afternoon to beat the crowds – but the entire neighbourhood is littered with monumental landmarks, including the Imperial Forums, the second-century Trajan’s Market (arguably the world’s first shopping mall) and Mussolini’s triumphal boulevard, Via dei Fori Imperiali.
In the charming cobbled streets off the main tourist trail, modern-day Monti buzzes with fashionable bars and eateries, artisan and antique stores and a hip weekend market featuring designer and vintage fashion.
For coffee and pastries there are few prettier cafés than ivy-cloaked La Casetta a Monti (Via della Madonna dei Monti 62; +39 06 482 7756) with its dress-circle seats for people-watching. Or take a table at the mod trattoria Urbana 47 and let owner Angelo Belli restore your spirits with a bowl of San Marzano tomatoes seasoned simply with olive oil, salt and basil, fried friggitelli peppers and pici pasta with clams and pesto. Just up the street, the boutique Fifteen Keys Hotel has 15 bright and charming rooms and a 24-hour bar for guests.
Monti is also where the emperor Nero built his “golden house”, the vast and extravagant Domus Aurea. Its remnants are still visible between the Colosseum and San Pietro in Vincoli, a church worth seeking out for Michelangelo’s tomb of Pope Julius II and his superb statue of Moses. Legend has it that on its completion, Michelangelo was so pleased with his handiwork that he tapped Moses on the knee and commanded, “Now speak!”
The American Bar on the roof terrace of the Hotel Forum offers a pigeon’s-eye perspective on antiquity with its views over the Imperial Forums. The hotel sits alongside the walled Via Tor de’ Conti, built to safeguard the imperial city from frequent fires in the slums of Suburra, as Monti was once known.
Lovely Via Panisperna dips sharply between the Esquiline and Quirinal hills and is lined with grand historic palaces. Its name is said to come from the bread and ham (panis and perna) once offered to the poor by the nunnery at the top of Esquiline Hill and it’s still a great place to find food. Beside the much-instagrammed curtain of vines near the bottom of the street, Ai Tre Scalini is a ninth-century winery and, since 1895, a popular wine bar serving aperitivi with spuntini (share plates), plus lively lunches and dinners. Lounge bar Sacripante Gallery (Via Panisperna 59; +39 06 4890 3495) has art on the walls and DJ sets on weekends.
Trysts with Hadrian
More than 70 emperors have ruled Rome but the one I always bump into is Hadrian. Whether sipping a spritz at Salotto42 bar on the Piazza di Pietra facing the fluted columns of the 145CE Temple of Hadrian or standing in the centre of the Pincian Hill gardens beside the obelisk he erected as a memorial to his dead lover, Antinous, he seems ever-present.
Hadrian’s most precious legacy is surely the Pantheon, a modest-sized masterpiece of Classical architecture that has been in continuous use as a place of worship since it was completed in the second century. Its ancient presence still stops you in your tracks and demands a moment of silent reverence. For the immortal symmetry of its design, for the dome that was the largest in the world for 1300 years. But most of all for those grey granite columns, hewn whole from a quarry more than 4000 kilometres away in Egypt and transported here at untold effort and enormous cost to make a bold statement of the might of imperial Rome and its eye for eternal beauty.
The city is our most glorious living museum, a place where it’s impossible to escape the weight of history. Yet it’s reassuring to know it has taken millennia to make Rome’s countless heart-stopping moments seem so random and effortless.