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Stars and Stripes Publisher Tom Kelsch, right, shares observations with Lt. Col. Norman Schaefer, commander of European Stars and Stripes, in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square.

Stars and Stripes Publisher Tom Kelsch, right, shares observations with Lt. Col. Norman Schaefer, commander of European Stars and Stripes, in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square. (Roxanne Cooper / S&S)

Rome has a well-established tour route: the Forum, Palatine, Colosseum, St. Peter’s, Vatican Museum cum Sistine Chapel, Trevi Fountain, Capitoline Hill, the catacombs. But no city in the world is richer in lesser sights, sights that would be showcased in most other cities. Every alley you go down and every corner you turn can bring new — or rather old — and interesting cultural and historical treasures. Here are some of my off-the-beaten-track favorites.

Best small museum

The Villa Borghese Museum. Not more that a couple dozen rooms in total, it is a compact, easily accessible collection of one masterpiece after another. The ground floor features a number of the greatest sculptural works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Baroque stonemeister of Rome. At the top of the list are his “David,” “Rape of Proserpine” and the marvelous “Apollo and Daphne.”

The upper floor is dedicated to paintings by Renaissance and Baroque masters. The Caravaggio Room includes a handful of his works, led by his “David with the Head of Goliath.” Raphael and Botticelli both figure strongly in the Renaissance Room.

Above all, don’t miss Titian’s masterful “Sacred and Profane Love.” And Canova’s reclining semi-nude statue of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, which her husband considered so graphic he locked it up in a closet and would not even let the artist look at it.

To reach the Borghese Museum, take the subway to Barberini, then either the No. 52 or No. 53 bus, leaving from the bottom of the Via Veneto, to the Pinciana stop. Admission is 4 euros. Reservations are required, as the museum holds only 320 people at a time. Tickets are only good for two hours, but that’s adequate time for this little gem. Reservations can be obtained quickly and easily (in English), from the museum Web site: www.roma2000.it/zgaborgh.html.

Best small church

Santa Maria della Vittoria. This splendid little Baroque church contains perhaps Bernini’s greatest work, his astonishing “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” The statue is overpowering with its subliminal erotic implications, but beyond that, it is set in a chapel intentionally designed as a theater stage, so that the whole setting focuses you on St. Teresa and the angel about to pierce her with an arrow. Don’t fail to look up to the sides of the chapel, where marble members of a prominent Roman family watch the scene from theater box seats. The whole chapel becomes a stunning work of art.

Santa Maria della Vittoria is at the corner of Via XX Settembre and Via Bissolati. Take the subway to Piazza Barberini, then walk up Via Barberini two blocks to where it joins with Via Bissolati. The church is on your left. No admission charge; the church is closed from noon to 4:30 p.m. for siesta.

A truly weird church

Santa Maria della Concezione. In the same area, on the Via Veneto near the Piazza Barberini, is a little church that is so grotesque some may find it amusing and others may find it offensive. In the crypt below the church, thousands of human bones have been formed into geometric patterns and decorations on the walls and ceilings. Centuries of monks had to die to produce these displays. The church has long been part of a monastery of Capuchins, and for centuries they buried the monks in the basement. When they ran out of room, they disinterred those who had been buried there to make room for new burials. And the bones of no fewer than 4,000 monks ended up in those grotesque Baroque decorations on the walls in the burial crypts.

The present monks have caught the modern entrepreneurial spirit: They charge admission and make money on the bones of their predecessors.

Wouldn’t it be fun to be in the crypts at the last Judgment during the Resurrection of the Dead, when all those bones start flying around, trying to find the right skeleton to attach to? Macabre. And worth the price of admission.

Santa Maria della Concezione is on Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini. Take the subway to Barberini and go about 100 meters up the Via Veneto. It’s on the right. There is a small admission charge.

Favorite moderately priced restaurant

Pancrazio. Built into the ruins of the foundations of the ancient Roman Theater of Pompey, this restaurant offers al dente pasta, tasty seafood, friendly waiters and a charming atmosphere. A full meal including pasta, meat and wine will run about $25.

Plan to eat downstairs in the crypts. Just inside the door, take the stairs on the left going down to the lower level dining rooms. There, you can see some ruins of the foundations to the splendid theater built in the first century B.C. The waiters will be quick to point out an ancient column and tell you that is the very column against which Julius Caesar fell when he was stabbed to death on his way to a senate meeting in the theater.

The night we were there recently, an accordion player and an Italian tenor filled the room with music and laughter while we ate.

Pancrazio’s is at Piazza del Biscione 93, just off the Campo dei Fiori. From Piazza Venezia, take the 62 or 64 bus to Sant’ Andrea della Valle. Walk one more block west (away from Piazza Venezia), then turn left. Two short blocks will bring you to the Campo dei Fiori, a large, open square. Stand back to back with the statue of Fra Bruno — a heretic burned at the stake at that spot — in the middle of the piazza, and angle left toward the northeast corner of the square. Pancrazio is in a small piazza about 50 meters outside the Campo dei Fiori.

Favorite really, really cheap restaurant

Rome is filled with little, family-run restaurants called trattorias. They offer delicious, home-cooked food at low prices. Usually the husband does the cooking and the wife serves the customers. In most of them, you can get a good meal for under $15. My favorite does not even have a name. The sign simply says, “TRATTORIA” and points. You can get a solid three-course fixed-price meal — pasta, meat, dessert and wine — for about $10.

To get there, start in the Piazza della Rotonda with your back to the Pantheon. Walk out the street that leads directly away (north) from the Pantheon on the right side of the square. Turn right at the first street you come to on the right. You should see a blue neon sign ahead of you saying “Trattoria.” At the sign, turn right down a dead-end little alley and you will come to a small, picturesque restaurant with a few tables inside and fewer outside.

You’re there, at the no-name trattoria with good local food and a bright, comfortable, friendly atmosphere. You can’t beat it for quality, service and price.

Favorite gelato

Ice cream. Rome is famous for it, and justly so. You can get the best ice cream in the world in Rome. The whole area of downtown Rome inside the Piazza della Rotonda-Piazza Navona-Campo dei Fiori triangle is filled with wonderful gelato shops and stands. On a hot evening, look around you. Every other person has a cone. On cool evenings, maybe it’s only every one in three. Indulge yourself. Once you try it, you’ll be hooked.

My favorite stand is a little shop at the north end of the Piazza Navona, the second shop, first gelato shop on the street feeding off the north end. The ice creams come in a great and exotic variety of colors and flavors. Try the fruit flavors; they’re the most special. And go back often. All that walking will burn off any calories the ice cream might have.

Best shopping

Via dei Giubbonari. The very best is the Via Condotti, leading away from the Spanish Steps, where Bulgari stands arm-to-arm with Gucci and Prada amid scores of other shops equally pricey. But get real. Who can afford to shop there on military wages?

A more reasonable choice is Via dei Giubbonari, a half-mile strip of clothing, leather goods, shoe and video shops leading off the bustling Campo dei Fiori. In the evening, it is filled with tourists and locals alike, a lively, pleasant street with good-quality products not quite at Via Condotti prices.

After your meal at Pancrazio, return to the Campo dei Fiori. Standing again back to back with Fra Bruno, angle right this time to the far right (southeast) corner, where the Via dei Giubbonari starts. Enjoy.

Favorite moderately priced hotel

Hotel Nord Nuova Roma. You didn’t come to Rome to enjoy the hotel. You came to enjoy the city. So pick your hotel for convenience, not splendor. That means, like real estate, location, location, location. The Nord Nuova Roma (North New Rome) has a great location. It is just meters from the Stazione Termini (main train station), the subway station where the only two subway lines in Rome cross and the beginning of the line for a dozen bus lines, including the No. 64, which takes you downtown.

The hotel is clean, the desk help speaks English. No restaurant, but why eat in your hotel when Rome has thousands of good restaurants? It does have a breakfast nook and great variety in the continental breakfast, which is included in the room price. The restaurant is owned by the Bettoja family, which also owns a couple of more expensive hotels nearby. They demand the same quality service and cleanliness at the Nord Nuova Roma as they do at their expensive properties. Doubles are slightly over $100 a night; singles slightly below.

Tom Kelsch is publisher of Stars and Stripes. He lived in Rome in the early 1960s, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.


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