“Pay attention to your head!”
That’s good advice no matter where you are in Rome – where head-turning antiquities, street vendors, generous slabs of pizza and stylish locals lurk on every corner – but it’s especially good advice when you’re cycling through the vast Parco Regionale dell’Appia Antica and are sufficiently distracted by the majesty of a towering aqueduct to fail to notice the low-hanging branches that line the bike path. Our guide, Musa, flashes a smile as we swerve to avoid a group of Roman teenagers heading for a sunny patch of grass and leads us under the arches of the old water supply system that was built around 300BC. The ruins that stand today are testament to the ingenuity of Roman engineering and construction.
Our two-wheeled tour of Rome started earlier in the day when we met tour operator, Glenn Newland, at his small shopfront just a short walk from the Colosseum. While hordes of tourists (more than 7 million people visit Rome each year) boarded double-decker buses, inserted earphones and dialled 4 for English, we fastened our helmets and took off down the hill overlooking the ancient centre of Rome. Since moving to Rome from London five years ago, Glenn has progressed from leading free walking tours to organising a number of cycling itineraries in and around the city. We opt for the full-day city tour and spend the morning free-wheeling through some of the common – and not so common – sights. Our path takes us past the sprawling ruins of Flavian palace, through the Jewish ghetto, down the Via Condotti to the heaving Spanish Steps and to a secret garden deceptive in size (the 16th-century designer was a master of perspective and illusion).
“I would love to see Rome become a real bicycle city,” says Glenn, who has a passion for vintage road-racing bikes and dreams of owning one that was ridden in the Tour de France. His enthusiasm for cycling is infectious, whether you’re a seasoned rider or an occasional pedaller, and his knowledge of Rome provides an insight into the city's history and culture that can be hard to glean from a guidebook or bus tour.
Glenn isn’t the only one providing a different angle on sightseeing in the Italian capital. Kenny Dunn has been running his Eating Italy walking tours for three years and, since starting out pounding the pavements a couple of times a week, he now has seven guides running five tours daily. Kenny’s tours are food-focused, and the many delicious tastings come with a side serve of history, plus an entrée into some of Rome’s food-loving secrets.
After meeting up with our guide, Anna, on Tiber Island, one of the stops on our four-hour twilight tour of the Trastevere neighbourhood is the 10th-century former synagogue-turned-restaurant Ristorante Spirito DiVino, with a wine cellar older than the nearby Colosseum. As we sip on wine and snack on artichoke blossom pecorino with a cinnamon and pear compote, Anna explains how the statues of the Madonna dotting the city are really a primitive form of CCTV – under the Virgin Mary's watchful eye, citizens are less likely to misbehave. Our next stop is Biscottificio Innocenti, where more than 100 types of biscotti have been made by the same family for a century. We try a few varieties, with the group favourite being brutti ma buoni – a hazelnut-based, meringue-like biscuit that literally translates to “ugly but good”.
Longevity and tenure is a familiar theme at many of the family-run eateries we visit. Roberto Polica started working at his family’s delicatessen, Antica Caciara, at the age of 13. He took over aged 23 and, in 50 years, he’s taken only three sick days and one day off for his wedding. The glass cases in this small store are full of cured meats and the shelves are stacked high with pasta, olive oil and wine. The popular sheep’s milk cheeses he sells all come from his uncle’s farm.
Homemade is the norm rather than the exception throughout our walk, and that extends to pharmaceuticals. The Farmacia di Santa Maria della Scala, an apothecary that opened in 1597 and once made medicines for popes – among others – until it eventually closed its doors in 1954, remains perfectly preserved. The rooms, with their shelves lined with bottles of acqua di Melissa and jars of leeches, seem untouched, as if the pharmacist has just stepped out for lunch. It’s a magical place and not one that’s easily accessible to the casual tourist.
The Farmacia is more museum-piece than tasting place, so our tour ends on a sweet high with artisanal gelato at Fatamorgana. As we sit on the street, the sounds of Trastevere wafting up the hill, Anna explains how to spot real gelato, which is only sold in about 20 per cent of Rome’s numerous gelato stores. “First, have a look at the colour – pistachio should be a soft green, not bright green, and banana gelato should be a pale grey, definitely not yellow!” The second giveaway is gelato piled high in tubs. Real gelato doesn’t contain enough air to sit up that high; it’s churned at a lower speed and is, therefore, much denser and flatter. Finally, “gelato is actually served at a higher temperature than ice-cream, so it should be soft from the first bite.” We all nod sagely, while considering what flavour to try next in light of what we’ve just learned. As the man said, “Pay attention to your head!”
Photography Nicolee Drake