IT IS DAWN in Rome, no later than 6 a.m. The rising sun burnishes the mustards and russets of the city's stuccos. It edges over the sycamores lining the Tiber and shines down the Via della Conciliazione into the open arms of the church--the colonade ringing St. Peter's Square--and up the steps to the majestic facade of St. Peter's itself.
All of Rome is deserted at this time of day. There are no cars, no people--oh, one or two men stalking toward some hidden workplace, lunch pails in hand. From the cafes come the tinkling of espresso cups and the aroma of strong coffee. And in St. Peter's Square, normally awash in people, it is possible to hear the echo of one's own laugh.
To know Rome well one must rendezvous with her at such odd hours--early in the morning, late at night--when it is possible to have her to oneself, just as one must seek out her more sheltered and private treasures if one is ever to claim an intimate knowledge of her.
Rome, with her monuments, ruins, intricate and ancient history, cultural lineage and churches, is a very public city. Tourists flock to admire her, wearing out hearts and soles tromping from one famous site to another. The Forum, the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain--all are symbols of Rome and all are worth seeing. But it is possible, with little effort, to go beyond her public halls into the realm of her more private chambers.
These out-of-the-way nooks and often-missed cranies are as plentiful and as variegated as her more celebrated relics. The following is a list of just 12 such places, a mere beginning for those visitors to Rome who care to exchange homage for courtship.
Porta Portese flea market (Sundays only, 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.): A fantastic adventure for bargain hunters and inveterate shoppers. Stalls, booths and blankets cover acres of land and offer a variety of goods that is both awesome and entertaining--from old clothes to old books, from genuine junk to genuine antiques. The word here is bargain--vendors regularly jack up the prices to four times what they will accept and are shameless in their tactics to shame you into paying the inflated price. A colorful glimpse of the "real" Rome, the market is located off the Via Portuense. You can get within walking distance by taking the No. 75 bus from the Terminal Station.
The Catacombs: These ancient burial grounds offer an array of frescoes, mosaics and other tomb decorations as well as a unique excursion into the ceremonial death rites of the early Christians. Multi-tiered, labyrinthian and full blind tunnels, the catacombs can only be visited with a guide, usually one of the local friars. Of Rome's 40 catacombs, only eight are open to the public. Of these perhaps the best is the Catacomb of San Sebastiano, located under the church of the same name at 132 Via Appia Antica (the Appian Way). Closed on Thursdays, this catacomb is famous as the burial site of Saints Peter and Paul as well as the martyred St. Sebastian.
San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains): The attraction here is Michelangelo's stern, patriarchal statue of Moses. Commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb, it was one of 40 pieces in Julius' grand scheme and meant to be a minor piece. Instead, the tomb was never completed, and many consider this exquisite piece of sculpture one of Michelangelo's masterpieces. It is certainly a standout in this unassuming 5th-century church, so named because it displays the chains that supposedly bound St. Peter in Palestine. Located off the Via degli Annibaldi, it is within walking distance of the Colosseum.
Jewish Ghetto: This ancient section of Rome, which is situated between the Piazza Campitelli and Lungotevere Cenci, no longer has the gates, curfews or compulsory Christian training of its gloomier past. But, until 1847, all Rome's Jews were confined here, and much of what you see today--the dark and narrow alleyways, the cramped buildings--existed then and as far back as the time of Emperor Titus (it was Titus who brought the Jews to Rome from Palestine). Well worth an afternoon's exploration. Also, don't miss the local delicacy--artichokes fried in olive oil.
Keats and Shelley in Rome: Literary pilgrims will no doubt discover the Keats/Shelley Memorial House next to the Spanish Steps. Three stories up are an intimate little library specializing in the Romantic poets and the room where Keats died. Here, Joseph Severn, Keats' close friend, sketched him on his deathbed. The sketch remains and is both haunting and moving. A little further afield, however, is the cypress-lined Protestant Cemetery where Keats ("Here lies one whose name was writ in water"), Shelley and Severn are buried. In the shadow of the Pyramid of Caius Cestius (from the first century B.C.), the Protestant Cemetery can be reached on the No. 30 bus from the Terminal Station.
Piazza Navona: This is one of the best-loved squares in Rome. Once an ancient Roman circus, its oval shape is graced with three fountains, the most spectacular one being Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers, and the concave facade of Sant'Agnese (architecture buffs will find the floor plans fascinating). Warm evenings here often give way to art fairs, warm days to Punch and Judy. The square is lined with restaurants, including Tre Scalini, home of the tartufo and a mecca for chocolate lovers. Plan a dinner here.
Campo dei Fiori: The scene of Rome's oldest open fruit and vegetable market, this square is buried in the middle of a dense medieval section of the city. Once a public execution ground, this market is located across the Corso Vittorio Emanuele from the Piazza Navona. Considered one of Rome's most appealing sights, it is open seven days a week, but in the afternoon on Saturdays only.
The Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill): The steps, approaches and buildings of this square were all designed by Michelangelo, and they are stunning. But the highlight of this stop--and of any visit to Rome--is the magnificent view of the Roman Forum from the back of the Campodoglio. Best seen at night, the ancient ruins are illuminated by modern lighting. The combination of eerie shadows and the stark majesty of the ruins cast up against the night is unforgettable. The Campodoglio is located behind the monument to Vittorio Emanuele, off the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Baths of Caracalla: These Roman baths, with their gigantic brick walls, are said to be six times larger than St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Dating back to 217 A.D., they once served up to 1,600 bathers at once and were in use until the 6th century. During the summer, the excellent acoustics are employed for open-air opera--and Verdi's "Ai da" here is famous for the sheer spectacle of it. Tickets can be purchased at the Rome Opera House (1 Piazza Beniamino Gigli), while the baths themselves are on the Via delle Terme di Caracalla--No. 39 bus from the Terminal Station.
The Bones Church: Not for the faint-of-heart, the cemetery of the Capuchini fathers (27 Via Vittorio Veneto) is unquestionably Rome's most macabre site. Here the skulls and bones of some 4,000 of the brothers, dead lo these many centuries, are used to create "art work," such as the decoration of the altar and other areas of the friary.
Stadio dei Marmi (the Marble Stadium): An impressive piece of modern architecture, the Marble Stadium is the grandest of the structures forming the Foro Italico. This sports complex was designed by Mussolini for the 1940 World's Fair and is part of the EUR (Universal Exhibit of Rome). The Stadio dei Marmi is the site of 60 magnificent marble sculptures of famous athletes and is considered by many to be Mussolini's greatest gift to the Italian people (some say the only one). To get there, drive north along the Tiber on the Lungotevere d. Vittoria to the Ponte Duca D'Aosta or follow the Strada Olimpico north.
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere: This broad pedestrian piazza is in the heart of one of Rome's oldest and most truly Roman neighborhoods, Trastevere. At the far end is the 12th-century church for which the square is named, and in the middle is an octagonal fountain on a pedestal of steps, a playground of street urchins. Plan an afternoon wandering the narrow lanes of Trastevere, one which will bring you back to this square in time for the sunset and dinner. Then, to cap off the evening, walk out of the alley opposite the church to the Tiber and across the Ponte Garibaldi. Though long, there is not a more romantic walk in all of Rome than along the Tiber at night from Trastevere to the Castel S'Angelo. When you arrive at the end of this stroll, you can count on being in love with the one you're with--and thoroughly in love with Rome.