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Hidden Rome

For all the indignities it inflicts, aging does offer some consolations. Chief among them is the pleasure of a leisurely return to things rushed through in the dizzy, distracted days of youth.

How exquisite to give Jane Eyre a second reading, Wagner's "Ring" cycle another listen, or to re-experience a European city untroubled by anxiety that everything you see might end up on a final exam.

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This realization occurred to me recently when spending a few days in Rome. It seemed marvelously, well, adult to regard places I'd dutifully scoured on earlier trips -- the Colosseum, Pantheon and Sistine Chapel -- as old friends I no longer was required to call upon.

Instead, I felt free to visit what, at least to my experience, were the Eternal City's less well-known neighborhoods like Monti and Trastevere, or the blocks around the Piazza del Popolo. To be sure, these areas are all in close proximity to tourist sites, but being sometimes only a few steps off well-trodden paths, they're often passed by.

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Sigmund Freud believed that the decay and perpetual rebuilding of Rome was an apt metaphor for human consciousness. As with the city, so with a psyche: Some things endure, others fade, what's new is built on top of the old.

To revisit Rome, then, is not only to experience the city's past, present and future, but one's own as well.

Curiosities of Monti

"Trust me, I've had many opportunities to escape," said Alessandro Zucconi, a young man whose intense gaze flickered behind comically oversized eyeglasses. "But I always come back, not because I love Rome, but because I adore Monti."

Zucconi was speaking of his beloved neighborhood (the name means "mountains") just north of the Colosseum, where his family owns a sweet little hotel called the Grifo.

I'd wandered in to check out the rates, and soon he was pointing out such local landmarks as La Casa Della Patologia del Libro, an organization that studies how books live and die. That's right, manuscript mortality.

Also nearby is a University of Rome laboratory, where Enrico Fermi made discoveries that led to the atomic bomb. Nearly hidden behind a huge palm tree, this ochre stucco building with wooden shutters looks more like a beach club than a nursery for weapons of mass destruction.

Zucconi had left Grifo's front desk unattended for quite a few minutes to point out these curiosities but, seemingly unable to relinquish his role as tour guide, he continued to wave his hands here and there, recommending more places I really must see.

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Who would be happiest living here, I'd asked in parting, and he promptly replied, "A California vegan."

I understood what he meant while touring Monti's wealth of funky shops and antiques stores. Need a Ganesha? Il Tarlo has elaborately carved Hindu gods in all shapes and sizes. Linn-sui boasts an estimable collection of Chinese lacquer bowls and Japanese wooden sandals. Many of the neighborhood shop owners manifest an endearing indifference to modern times.

Typical of these was Anna Pirozzi, who has made leather goods in a glove-compartment-sized shop for 43 years. Admiring her belts and whimsical key chains, I noted that in all this time, Pirozzi hadn't ever bothered to get an antenna for her ancient radio, which wheezed and crackled as if she were pulling in a signal from Beijing.

And, at the used jewelry shop of Fabio Piccioni, vitrines stuffed with silver, Bakelite, pearls and precious stones had me mesmerized for nearly a quarter of an hour, during which time Signori Piccioni didn't once lift his eyes from his morning newspaper.

Such is the charm of these winding, cobblestoned streets, where 18th-century buildings are covered in magnificent clouds of creeping vine.

In Monti's teeny town square, there is a magazine kiosk, a multi-tiered fountain and lovers sitting on benches laughing, kissing and eating lunch.

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Enticed by their example, I followed my nose to Flaminia Pizza, where pie is weighed by the kilo, then chopped into bite-sized squares on a wooden serving platter. The best had neither cheese nor tomatoes, but was simply thin slices of potato, flavored with rosemary and roasted on a paper-like crust.

Waddling forth into the afternoon light, I was nearly sluiced into a torrent of tourists headed toward the nearby Cathedral of Peter in Chains, where one can see Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses.

"Let my people go!" he'd commanded the pharaoh. With those words in mind, I shook myself free, and headed in the opposite direction.

Jewish Ghetto gateway

The Portico d'Ottavia is a bizarre patchwork of ancient, medieval and Renaissance architecture where a 16th-century palace was plunked down on what remained of a massive circular theater built by none other than Julius Caesar. It's also the unofficial entryway into a few square blocks known as the Jewish Ghetto.

While Rome is overwhelmingly a Catholic city, Jews have lived here for more than 2,000 years, making them Europe's longest surviving Jewish community. In the 16th century, however, Pope Paul IV ordered all of Rome's Jews confined to this area, thus inciting religious intolerance that would erupt periodically until well into the 20th century.

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The ghetto's hub is a synagogue built in 1904 in the grand beaux-arts style, with elaborately curlicued interior designs and a square-sided dome that rises majestically into the sky.

Inside, a museum houses a poignant collection of artifacts recalling the Nazis and other persecutors of the Jews, as well as prayer books, liturgical silver, and Torah mantles. Terrorists attacked this edifice in 1982, so security is tight at the entrance; grim-faced Italian policemen holding machine guns guard all four corners of the synagogue.

On a cheerier note, the surrounding streets are a pleasant place to wander as the alleyways narrow to centuries-old widths and for a moment, you are free of Rome's fantastic traffic and the constant drone of Vespa motorbikes. Surprises abound here, such as the Fountain of Turtles, which is nearly hidden in a small courtyard and shows four nude young men tossing about tortoises.

I'd recommend a trip to the ghetto for a meal at Da Giggetto alone. The restaurant specializes in Jewish delicacies -- flattened, then fried artichokes; lightly breaded cod; and zucchini flowers with anchovies.

If you can possibly save room for dessert (it's not easy), visit the ghetto's famous bakery, an unmarked shop on a corner. It's easy to find: just look for the crowd that is lined up, any time of day, to buy slices of warm, flaky tort, stuffed with ricotta cheese and your choice of either chocolate or cherries. I ordered both.

Puppets and cannons

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Riding toward the Janiculum, one of Rome's famed seven hills, I noticed that my taxi driver had a small television screen plugged into his dashboard where the radio should be. It was about the size of a postcard, and as he zipped through traffic and across the Tiber River, he kept one eye trained on the screen, which was tuned to an American police drama.

On top of the Janiculum, I found a crowd gathered before a wooden structure that looked like an outhouse, with a rectangular window up high.

Suddenly, a curtain parted in this window and a puppet show starring Punchinello began. He flailed about, verbally and physically abusing every other puppet that appeared, including a dignified older lady who I guessed to be his mother. Punchinello's voice had a razor-sharp nasality that transfixed children in the audience. They held bags of confetti and tossed it about when the puppets got particularly bumptious.

When the show ended, I followed the crowd to a stone wall built overlooking a plaza immediately below and with sweeping views of the city beyond. Every day at noon, I learned, a cannon is fired here. Soon enough, two soldiers wheeled out the weapon and with high solemnity loaded a brass canister into its fuselage, while everyone waited in great suspense.

BOOM! The cannon's retort ripped forth like the loudest crack of lightning I'd ever heard multiplied by 10. Children screamed, and many began to cry. Their parents consoled them, all the while chuckling at such a delightful fright.

My ears still ringing, I made my way down into Trastevere, and wandered up Via Della Lungaretta, which ends at the Piazza Santa Maria. One of the prettiest piazzas in Rome, this lively spot changes moods throughout the day: school children kick soccer balls around in the morning, workers stroll by eating an afternoon snack of gelato, and late-night bibliomaniacs browse the excellent bookstores.

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No matter when they come, doubtless all will make their way into Santa Maria, a splendid church facing the piazza and the first basilica known to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As with the ghetto's Portico Octavia, the architectural revisions are keenly apparent.

Santa Maria's interior -- first constructed in the 4th century, and rebuilt in the 11th -- is especially notable for its two colonnades of mismatched columns salvaged from Imperial Rome. Elsewhere, odd fragments, friezes and decorative slivers tease one to imagine the glorious ancient structures from which these are flotsam and jetsam.

In streets radiating from this church, there's everything from stained-glass-window repairers to custom neckwear designers. Polvere Tempo("Dust of Time") has a vast collection of antique timepieces, hourglasses, sundials and globes. If you've ever said a prayer while rubbing in acne cream, or applying hair dye, don't miss the pharmacy built into an alcove at the church of Santa Maria della Scala.

Ai Spaghettari, a local spot since 1896, is where I dined on linguine alla vongole. The clams were an itty-bitty variety found only in the Mediterranean, and they were ridiculously tender and sweet.

Italians are passionate about seafood, of course, perhaps because it reminds them of the heady days when they ruled the oceans and the world. A pasta recipe currently in vogue features Nescafe in the sauce, which supposedly tastes like the ocean crashing on the shore. I never tried it, though I did find myself licking my clamshells, just as I saw other diners doing.

After dinner, I found my way to Trastevere's Il Pasquino, which is the only cinema in Rome screening movies in English. There was an American film called Wonderland showing, starring Val Kilmer, a true story about a porn star who turned into a drug addict and murderer.

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A gelato sounded much more appetizing.

Piazza del Popolo

Traditionally, Piazza del Popolo, situated at Rome's northern gate, was the first place visitors saw; out from it branches the Tridente, or a fork of three streets that traverse the city: Via Babui-no, the Corso, and Via di Ripetta.

In fact, when Queen Christina of Sweden (think Garbo in gorgeous black and white) made a Roman pilgrimage after abdicating her throne in 1654 to become a Catholic, she embarked in this plaza to find a plaque reading felice fausto ingressui, or "a happy and blessed arrival," was installed to welcome her.

This same plaque still greets all who arrive, though today's tourists, fresh off the bus or plane, are more likely to con- gregate at the Spanish Steps or St. Peter's Square, so the Piazza del Popolo is a treasure hidden in plain sight.

This is especially true when one stays, as I did, at the Hotel Locarno. A quirky spot built in the 1930s, it boasts an iron cage of an elevator rising upward through the staircase's center and an art deco decor that seems a perfect setting for a crime novel, perhaps one by Iain Pears, whose art-history mysteries are all set in Rome. You can even warm your aching feet in front of a fire in the Locarno's thrillingly spooky bar.

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Expect tired toes, as there's a wealth of specialized shopping around the Piazza del Popolo. If you are a crazy for paper supplies, run don't walk to Vertecchi, a high temple disguised as a stationery store.

Sailors will want to set their course for Il Mare, where there are nautical charts, pilot books and planispheres of all seas. And, oenophiles should dine at Buccone, a wine shop that sets up a few dining tables on the weekends, seemingly as an excuse to facilitate wine tasting.

While it's easy in Rome to succumb to "art disease," whereby even the thought of seeing one more painting or church sends you into cardiac arrest, if you only visit one museum on your next trip, make it the recently renovated Borghese Gallery. Once a private residence, the Borghese is a marvel of trompe l'oeil, sculptural insets, frescoes and ceiling murals.

When you enter (to control crowding, groups are let in at distinct time intervals), make your way immediately to Room X, and recline on a tufted ottoman placed at the floor's center. Gazing upward to painted scenes of the skies parting for Hercules' apotheosis is a near-death experience, without the unpleasantness of, um, nearly dying.

Then, working against the crowds -- galleries below will empty as you head down -- you can feast your eyes on masterpieces by Titian, Andrea del Sarto, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rubens and many more.

Ever wonder why so many Roman statues are headless, armless or neutered? That's because centuries ago, marauders had a fondness for sculptural souvenirs, often whacking off a limb or other appendage because it was relatively light and could be easily secreted into a bag. Obviously, this practice is frowned upon today, which means if you want to "sack" Rome yourself, you'll have to pay for it.

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Happily, the neighborhood of Piazza del Popolo provides ready access to Via Giulia, which is probably the most impressive conglomeration of antiques shops in Europe, if not the world, as well as the flea market of Via Flaminia. While Porta Portese, the flea market in Rome's south, is more famous, I've always had good luck at Via Flaminia, where there are far fewer dealers, but also a lot less junk.

On my last visit, I found something there I'd been searching for my whole life, without even knowing I wanted one: a crystal ball. As I admired it, the woman who owned the ball encouraged me to pick it up. "Don't you know what happens when you look inside?" she asked.

"I see my future?"

My reply made her laugh. "No, no, no! It turns the world," she explained.

She held the orb up before my gaze and, to my astonishment, everything before me was upside down. The antiques dealer herself, thick smoke from her cigarette now seeming to plume up from the ground, appeared a grinning Genie.

I bought the crystal ball, and it sits on my desk, where I am gazing at it right now. Hmm. What do I wish for -- to be 20 again? Please. Once was enough. Instead, I'll hope to return again to Rome, where many visits are still too few.

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An ideal day

9 a.m.: Wake at the Hotel Locarno, and take a run through the Borghese Gardens.

10 a.m.: Breakfast in the hotel's cafe. Drink espresso so strong your nostrils flare with each sip.

10:30 a.m.: Walk down the Corso -- Rome's Main Street -- from the Piazza del Popolo to the Piazza Venezia, with its huge monument to a united Italy that Romans dub the "wedding cake" or the "typewriter."

Noon: Head west, crossing the Tiber and into Trastevere. Eat a slice of pizza as you spend the afternoon wandering streets around the Piazza Santa Maria.

5:30 p.m.: In the late afternoon, walk up the nearby hill of the Janiculum and watch the sun set over Rome below.

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7:30 p.m.: Take a taxi back to the Piazza del Popolo, and splurge for dinner at either Canova or Rosati, two restaurants facing the square that are constantly vying for preeminence.

10 p.m.: Have a nightcap in the Hotel Locarno bar, and then, buonanotte!

-- Stephen G. Henderson

When you go

Getting there: There are no nonstop flights from either BWI or Washington's Dulles airport directly to Rome. American, Alitalia, Continental and United all offer one-stop connections.

Phones: When dialing any of the numbers below, add 011 (the international dialing code) plus 39 (the country code for Italy).

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Lodging:

Hotel Locarno, 22 Via della Penna

06-3610841

www.hotellocarno.com

* A charming hotel in the art-deco style, with a courtyard terrace in warm weather. Rooms start at $200.

Hotel Grifo, 144 Via del Boschetto

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06-4871395

www.hotelgrifo.com

* A small, budget hotel located in Monti. Ask for a room with a terrace. Rooms start at $145.

Dining:

Da Giggetto, 21a Via del Portico d'Ottavia

06-6861105

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* Located in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto. Try the chicory roots with anchovy dressing. Entrees start at $14.

Buccone, 19 Via di Ripetta

06-3612154

* Try the saltimbocca (veal) or the spaghetti alla carbonara, while sampling this wine shop's comprehensive inventory. Entrees start at $12.

Ai Spaghettari, Piazza San Cosimato

06-5800450

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* A local's spot in Trastevere, the pasta specials are all unpretentious and delicious. Entrees start at $13.

Activities:

Galleria Borghese, 5 Piazzale Scipione Borghese

06-8548577

www.galleriaborghese.it

* One of the world's great small museums. Call well ahead to make a reservation.

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Flaminia Flea Market: Head straight north out of the Piazza del Popolo on Via Flaminia. Three blocks up on the right, in a parking lot, is the Saturday morning flea market.

The Domus Aurea (Nero's "Golden House"), 136 Via Labicana, opposite the Colosseum

06-6990110

* Nero was known for his flamboyance, and what remains of his palace evokes all the decadent glories of the Roman Empire.

For more information about visiting Rome, contact the Italian Tourist office in New York at 212-245-4822, or visit the Web site www.italiantourism.com.


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