I live in Italy, in Rome. My family lives in the north. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, we find ourselves in the eye of the storm. It’s all incredibly calm. Streets are empty. Churches are empty. The cafes and piazzas are empty. There are only people lined up outside the supermarkets. Ten people at a time are allowed, so you have to form a queue. Not something Italians are used to.
Cities are empty. Hospitals, however, are full. The data from the past two days looks slightly encouraging. But the Coronavirus has taken so far more than 5,000 lives. Some etymologists say “OK” comes from the message “0 killed” or “0 K” used during the American civil war. We long for the day when we can write OK on the board. Meanwhile, we sing the national anthem from the balcony.
Also, we think a lot. We think a lot about the things we miss. Get togethers. Hugging and kissing. Going to concerts. Travel. One wonders naturally about the meaning of traveling at the time of social distancing, because traveling is mainly traveling towards the other. Life itself is a journey. One wonders: Can intelligent life even exist on this planet without travels? Is traveling itself going to become luxury?
Walking around Rome these days is a unique experience. I think of a time when Rome was all countryside — flocks of sheep taking over the Roman Forum. The air is cleaner, the boisterous streets are silent, and as I reach the basilica of St John Lateran, it stands grand and lonely in the middle of empty space — as it did maybe 1,700 years ago (roughly) when it was founded. It is like traveling back in time. Famous monuments you are so used to seeing now appear under a new light. They are so new and beautiful that for a moment you have that “feeling of the first time.” With the Coronavirus breakout I thought at first: Why Italy? It’s an instinctive, selfish thought. But, as this pandemic unfolds I had the time again to consider how much I miss my own country. How much I miss the opportunity of traveling — all over the world, yes, but especially to Italy. Because now I know that nothing will be the same again. That I will look at old and new things with the same genuine eyes of an enthusiastic child. I am happy to have been born in Italy.
At the time of social distancing, we crave human contact. At the time of travel bans we accumulate a greater desire to travel and make the most of our time on planet earth. I don’t want to waste this time. I want to be ready for what comes next. So I decided to scribble down an essential roadmap to the places I want to visit or visit again, as soon as the restrictions placed upon us are removed.
I will start from here, Rome and Lazio, with the promise of more to come. So, here it is. An essential roadmap to the rediscovery of Rome and the ancient region of Latium, with carefully selected places far from the mainstream. A roadmap for sophisticated and curious travelers, who aren’t satisfied with the Colosseum and Vatican City.
I add to this list the amazing Palazzo Farnese of Caprarola, a unique place where the Farnese family, one of the most powerful families in sixteenth-century Italy, built one of their stunning retreats, a grand villa with rooms and decorations so beautiful that it’s often used as a movie set. Director Fernando Meirelles has recently chosen it as a location for his movie The Two Popes, now on Netflix.
One of the most fascinating places outside Rome with not one but two UNESCO heritage sites: Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. Once there, you also might want to look for Ristorante Sibilla for a special luxury treatment and have a romantic dinner under the columns of an ancient pagan temple. With time at your disposal, visit to the Park of Villa Gregoriana will make a perfect day more perfect.
Civita di Bagnoregio
A medieval village built on top of a small and steep mountain that can be reached only through a bridge on foot. Crossing the bridge is like traveling back in time. The mountain is now slowly crumbling, so they call it the dying city. But the place itself is so wild and beautiful that I am in awe every time I go.
From antiquity to the Renaissance, the Roman aristocracy has chosen the Castelli Romani to spend the hottest days of the summer. These small villages East of Rome are unique for a number of reasons: amazing food, great weather, stunning viewpoints and famous villas. This is my checklist: Going to Ariccia to eat the famous porchetta; visiting Castel Gandolfo to visit the Papal summer residence (and then eat on the belvedere facing the volcanic lake); visiting Frascati and the magnificent park of Villa Aldobrandini.
Spend a nice afternoon visiting the ancient village of Anagni, hometown of the pope Boniface VIII, Dante Alighieri’s great enemy. The Crypta of St Magnus inside the cathedral is so special and beautiful they call it the Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages.
A place of beauty and solitude. Subiaco was Nero’s imperial retreat in late antiquity and it still is an amazing place where you can rest your body — and soul. St Benedict founded his first convent here in the VI century, now called Monastery of Santa Scolastica as well as his spiritual retreat called Sacro Speco, a must-see monastery carved into the rocky side of a mountain. The place also contains the only portrait of St Francis painted when the saint was still alive.
I make an exception to my list. After Trastevere, Porto Fluviale near Ostiense is becoming the new fancy neighborhood of Rome, with its street art, music scene, and trendy restaurants. Given the restrictions placed upon us, I would consider a luxury experience getting lost in a neighborhood following the crowd, the instinct, and the narrow streets full of bars and nice restaurants.