In Rome One Lifetime is not Enough

Mar 21, 2014 |

The Fountain in Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, a popular neighbourhood gathering place in the increasingly hip and popular Monti area of Rome.

Photo by Barbara Bagnell for the Spectator. 

By Kenneth Bagnell

Rome. The very sound of the word lingers in memory, so that just hearing it spoken, evokes my past visits, so many that certain streets and sites seem permanently engraved: St. Peter’s Square. Piazza di Spagna. Trevi Fountain. The Vatican Gardens. Rome displays much — 500 churches but one example — the legendary Italian phrase is true: “Roma? non basta una vita,” — “Rome? a lifetime is not enough.”

On our trip last fall, my wife Barbara and I chose a neighbourhood new to us — Monti — with narrow cobbled streets and ancient fountains, atop one of Rome’s famous seven hills. We’d made reservations at a small inn, one so unique that we can describe it honestly as modest, spotless, cordial, affordable and well situated. That said, if you like a well-stocked bar in the room and a celebrity chef in the kitchen, please turn the page. Why? Because Casa Il Rosario is a convent inn, owned by the Dominican Sisters of Charity, and well managed by four nuns. One of its best features is its location: in an uncrowded interesting neighbourhood just minutes from numerous small and lively restaurants, each a reminder of the familiar saying: “It’s impossible to eat badly in Rome.”

It’s also impossible to settle anywhere in Rome, including the increasingly trendy Monti neighbourhood, and not be close to history. Casa Il Rosario is itself an undiscovered example, for along with very reasonable rates and impeccable housekeeping, its history is genuine: set in a building once a monastery and theological college that’s now over 300 years old. It’s been a convent since the 1920s. One sunny morning, I sat with its director, Sister Esperanza, a Dominican sister for over two decades who came to Rome from her native Colombia two years ago. I asked about the people — mostly North American or northern European — who choose to stay at a convent inn. Her soft reply was not surprising: “They are people who like a meditative place. It’s also very safe for, say, women travelling alone. We are ecumenical so many are of various faiths. Our fees, quite modest, go to care for the building, the rest to our missions to the poor mostly in Africa.” She laughed lightly and added: “As one of our guests put it, ‘Your inn is a little hidden treasure in Rome, near every interesting bit of history.’”

Sister Esperanza is ready to help every visitor to see the sites through her neighbourhood’s travel firms: “They are very good, very competent. But there’s something else: they offer special prices for our guests.” So if you’re not looking for opulence, want to see Rome’s past, and like quiet refinement, it’s just sensible to consider Il Rosario in Monti. We had a fully acceptable room, with its own bath, and the modest but adequate breakfast, for a nightly rate of €94 ($145 Cdn).

Over the years I’ve been to Rome’s legendary Vatican City several times, a couple of times to interview policy people, but always to see one of the world’s most truly awesome spectacles: St. Peter’s Basilica, mostly the design of Michelangelo, and 150 years of workmanship. In long gone decades, Barbara and I climbed the winding steps to its rooftop, and once actually up a very narrow staircase to the cupola from which the view of the Eternal City is beyond spectacular. I’d add that one of the most appealing Vatican sites are the Vatican Gardens, existing since the Middle Ages, and occupying about 60 acres. It’s a private space, originally created for the Pope’s need for privacy and solitude. A few years ago, it became public at specific hours (usually from 8 a.m. 1 p.m.) five days a week, with audio commentary. You’ll find three gardens — Italian, English and French — along with ancient statuary of very high quality. It’s a sea of floral beauty, with deep red roses, swaying bougainvillea and the chirp of birds in silent palms.

Ironically, one of the most beautiful and popular sites in Rome had its origin in the bequest of a French diplomat in the early 18th century, and the decision of the Spanish embassy to The Vatican to use his bequest to create what is one of the most appealing and visited architectural sites in all Europe: Rome’s Spanish Steps. The site is so engaging and popular that it’s best visited in the morning when its striking elegance can be viewed before the 137 steps are crowded by vendors and hipsters. On a clear morning, the view from the first step leading upward to a magnificent church edifice is unmatched. The staircase, dating to the 1720s, is the widest in Europe.

Immediately to the right of the base of the steps is a small houselike building that is in fact a famous museum: the Keats-Shelley Memorial. Inside, you’ll find a major collection of the work of history’s great poets, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley both of whom died in Rome and are buried there in the Protestant Cemetery which is open to visitors, but should have another name since many non-Christians are buried there. The museum, given its artifacts of the great poets, has a touching spiritual purpose and is thereby yet another revelation that Rome is, as ancient scholars called it, The Eternal City.


Special to The Hamilton Spectator