On a quiet corner in the backstreets off Piazza Navona, rampant tendrils of ivy screen the terracotta-colored façade of a mansion, stretching out into the sun like a contented cat. Whenever I reach that corner, I know I have a choice. When I’m pressed for time, I turn left, where I can take a (relatively) direct route to wherever I’m going. More often, though, I turn right, ready to get lost in the maze of small streets in the heart of the city; it’s one of my favorite things about Rome.
Think of Rome and you think big. This is a city brimming with 2,000 years of imposing architecture, the legacy of its role at the heart of the Roman Empire and subsequently as one of the holiest cities in Christendom. From the ruins of the Forum to the towering St. Peter’s Basilica, the imposing Colosseum to the wedding-cake-like Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, Rome has a fine line in monuments.
But for many of us, Rome’s most enduring treasures are on a smaller scale. In the Centro Storico – the ancient heart of the city, embraced by the gentle bend of the River Tiber – lies a maze of narrow streets a world away from the straight roads favored by the legions of the Roman army. Walk these cobbled streets – only the most brash Romans attempt to maneuver a vehicle through these tightly winding alleyways – and you discover a different city, a place where power and prestige are irrelevant.
It’s all about the fun of discovery here. Turn a corner and you might find a tucked away wine bar, a compact storefront with shimmering silk scarves, a café with a counter full of cannoli and pistachio cookies. There will be centuries-old mansions, their shuttered facades painted pink, orange or yellow, their entrances marked with a potted cypress or yucca or olive tree. Perhaps there is even one of the small fountains scattered around the city that provide drinking water to thirsty pilgrims.
Exploring these winding roads is not something to do if you are short on time. This warren of streets is full of confusing twists and turns – even after countless visits to Rome, I still occasionally take a wrong turn and find myself in a square that isn’t the square I wanted to go to.
However, if you have a day off, there are few greater pleasures than following your nose and enjoying the myriad of exquisite details, from the jaunty corner of a Vespa parked in an oh-so-narrow alley to a house with a mighty baroque portal, the front door marked by a pair of imposing lion head knockers.
You don’t have to have a destination, but to prevent me from unknowingly walking familiar paths, I sometimes go on a kind of scavenger hunt, where I don’t collect objects but sights. For example, I might visit my favorite animal sculptures, list a piece by Rome’s most famous sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk in Piazza della Minerva.
The point isn’t to take the most direct route, of course, so after hailing that exquisite elephant I could take a detour down Via del Governo Vecchio, browsing the vintage shops before ambling through the Campo de’ Fiori.