The Aventine Hill is one of Rome’s most seductive spots. The view from the Parco degli Aranci spans across the medieval bell towers of Trastevere, over the budding trees along the Tiber river, and all the way to the massive four-sided cap of the synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto. The dome of St. Peter’s basilica above a dark blanket of umbrella pines on the Gianicolo in the distance makes a perfect backdrop. The view alone is well worth the effort to climb the highest of Rome’s seven hills during most of the year, but in the spring you would be better off exploring the Aventine hill with your eyes closed. In fact, the sense of smell is really all you need on the Aventine right now. At the top of the hill, the peppery essence of laurel trees blends with the bubblegum perfume of the wisteria that sprawls along the stone walls. Down the hill, the first hint of musky jasmine flowers mixes wonderfully with the sweet-smelling blossoms on the orange and lemon trees. From late March, when the bright Mimosa trees burst into their pungent yellow bloom, the Aventino puts on a sort of olfactory concerto that lasts well into summer. In a few weeks, the roses in the Roseto Comunale (the city’s rose gardens on the site of a former Jewish cemetery) will add a new layer to the bouquet.
The pungent scent of mimosa and the telltale trace of powdered sugar that cascades down the front of anyone eating “frappe al forno” define Rome’s abbreviated winter. Balconies are lined with bright pink, red and white cyclamen plants and the grass remains an uninspiring turf-green. Buds are forming on indigenous trees and the smell of wood-burning pizza ovens permeates the air. January and February are the only months when Rome is filled only with Romans. The rest of the year it sacrifices itself to everyone else. But during its gloriously un-punishing winter, Rome is real.
Christmas in Rome is a unique time of the year, characterized by falling leaves, misty mornings and glorious sunsets. There are virtually no red balls or green garland, few (and dismal) glittering lights, and not one single caroler in the entire city (buskers don't count). Instead, it is the time of the year for sipping hot chocolate (senza panna) on a piazza and strolling around Piazza Navona or along the via del Corso. For those who live here, Christmas time conjures up not the relentless sounds and colors of Christmas, but instead such glorious treats as cold clementines and warm Pandoro or Panettone for breakfast.
Homes are decorated not with tinsel-covered trees, but instead with painstakingly prepared presepe. Commercialism lives, sure, but Santa Claus has been coming to Rome for not much more than a decade. Instead, the befana or Christmas witch brings the good stuff on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Surprisingly, Christmas in Rome has less to do with the Vatican's religious onslaught than most other seasons. Instead, it's not far removed from the Pagan ritual of Saturnalia, which was characterized by over-indulgence, extravagant gift giving and the relaxation of the rules.
For further reading, check out Roman Holiday on Budget Travel Online.
No matter how awe-inspiring the Colosseum may be by daylight, especially Sundays when silky brides flow around its foothills in search of the perfect wedding portrait backdrop, it is best appreciated at night when it has the allure of a forbidden hideaway. After dark, when the gates are closed, its majestic arches perfectly frame the moonlit caverns inside. It is as dangerously romantic as it is ominous. It’s no wonder Henry James, in his 1878 novella “Daisy Miller” placed the flirtatious American and her warm Italian companion Mr. Giovenelli there at midnight. In a single starlit moment, she naively scorned her one true love -- the aptly named Mr. Winterbourne, who, not surprisingly, was also drawn there that moonlit night. And she lost her life, dying shortly thereafter from the malaria, or “Roman Fever”, she contracted in the night air.
There is perhaps no other spot in all of Rome so often associated with the process of death. For many, the pocked ruins immediately evoke thoughts of martyred innocents -- from commoners who died for the entertainment of ancient Romans to devout Christians who were hanged for their beliefs.
That image of senseless death exists even today. Starting in December, the city of Rome will reinstate its silent protest and light up the giant shell whenever a person, anywhere in the world, faces the death penalty.
To visit the colosseum in person, reserve tickets through Pierreci Tickets.
At the top of the hill, near the grave of poet Percy Blysshe Shelley, the scents of pine needles and jasmine flowers intertwine to perfume the air which is otherwise thick with exhaust fumes from the traffic circle below. Down the slope, just beyond an ancient wall near the grave of poet John Keats, wild grasses dance in the shadow of the massive Pyramid of Cestius, itself a funerary monument from 12 B.C. The menacing sounds of Rome's human and vehicular chaos are muted here, replaced by the wraithy whisper of wind through the cypress trees playing harmony to the songbirds and cicadas.
Unlike other sites in Rome, here there are no ancient ruins to decipher, no imperial lineage to memorize. All one needs to know is written on the tombstones. Be they poets, artists, diplomats, or wanderers, they all made their way to Rome to die. Their stones tell tales of love and illness, fortune and misery, and life and death through the dates and cryptic epitaphs.
For further reading: ICON: A Grave Situation