When in Rome... don't do as the tourists do

David Willey, the BBC's correspondent in the Italian capital over the past 40 years, reveals some of the city's secrets

Half a lifetime's residence in the city of the Popes has not been enough for me to discover all Rome's secrets, but it has provided something of a head start. Most first-time visitors to Rome make a beeline for Michelangelo's now wonderfully restored wall and ceiling frescoes of The Last Judgement and The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museums (four million visitors a year) do indeed contain a wealth of art and historical treasures, any one of which can have the power to astonish or move you, and cause you to return for another look. But the length of the queues of tourists and pilgrims who, during many months in the year, are forced to line up for hours in the sun or the rain outside the back entrance to the Vatican, suggests to me that you might be better advised to concentrate on some of the lesser-known and more easily accessible marvels of Rome.

If you arrive by train or bus at Termini railway station you are only a stone's throw from the National Roman Museum located inside the former Baths of the Emperor Diocletian and across the road in the recently opened Palazzo Massimo, an imposing 19th-century copy of a Renaissance palace. Palazzo Massimo houses some of the most stunning remains of the ancient city recovered by archaeologists. During the Second World War the building was used as a military hospital: 30,000 wounded Italian and German soldiers were treated here. Today, the star of this collection is a frescoed garden room dug out from the ruins of a country villa belonging to Livia, wife of the the Emperor Augustus. Painted songbirds perch on painted quince and lemon trees in a painted garden. A low painted trellis fence separates the spectator from this enchanted scene, which has survived almost in its entirety. Butterflies flit between the leaves of the trees, and flowering shrubs recede into the distance. The 2,000-year-old fresco still looks as fresh today as when I was a student visiting Rome and saw it for the first time.

The many other rare examples of Roman decorative arts on show include a mosaic depicting jockeys parading in front of their mounts before a chariot race. Other remarkable wall paintings show boats afloat on the Tiber river, and a fishmarket with the same fish you see today laid out on market stalls in the Campo de' Fiori.

Be sure to go all the way to the top floor where you will find a unique collection of coins and displays of how they were minted. Here you have a wonderful miniature portrait gallery of the men and women who ruled Italy in antiquity. My favourites are the coins proudly celebrating the serial conquests of the rest of the world by Roman armies: a tiny gold coin bearing the head of Caesar Augustus on one side and a crocodile and the boastful inscription "Aegypta Capta" on the other. It dates from about 30BC, after the victory of Octavian over the navies of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Others celebrate later military victories over Judaea and over the tribes of Germany during the first century AD.

It's time for refreshment. I have two favourite ice cream shops in Rome both family-run. One, Giolitti at Via Ufficio del Vicario 40, is right bang in the centre of old Rome almost across the road from the Chamber of Deputies. Italian MPs frequently pop in for a refreshing granita di caffe (frozen espresso coffee frizzed up in a blender and topped with whipped cream). In summer it tends to get besieged by Japanese tourist groups. Among Signor Giolitti's regular customers: the Pope, who gets cartons of ice cream sent up to his summer residence at Castelgandolfo. The other gelateria is Pellacchia at Via Cola di Rienzo 103, not far from the Vatican. It is still run by Giovanni, the grandson of the founder, who set up his original dairy in the days before refrigerators. Back then, a cow was kept on the premises to ensure the freshness of the milk. Gianni Pellacchia's ices are like nothing else I have ever tasted; that's because he uses only fresh seasonal fruit and real cream. He once told me of American clients who, as soon as they land at Fiumicino airport from New York, rush to his gelateria for a quick fix of his ice cream.

Now to church. My favourite is Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which lies just down the road from the palazzo in which I am lucky enough to have an apartment. The church was mistakenly named after the Roman goddess - in fact it was built on top of the ruins of a temple complex dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. Inside, there's a surprise: Rome's only pure Gothic church. Begun in 1280, it belongs to the Dominicans and is now the titular church (a papal gift) of our own Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O'Connor.

Santa Maria contains stunning works of art that never fail to raise my spirits. The first is a nude standing figure of the risen Christ, by Michelangelo to the left of the high altar. Few visitors are immediately aware of it, but as soon as you examine the exquisite modelling of the twisted torso you know you are in the presence of the master. The painter Sebastiano del Piombo was so awed by this sculpture that he declared: "these marble knees are worth more than the whole of Rome." The second, in a side chapel, is an ancient sarcophagus bearing a vivid depiction of Hercules fighting a lion. It was recycled during the Renaissance to form the base of a Cardinal's elaborate tomb and is a wonderful example of how the stones of Rome were reused during the past 2,000 years.

Incidentally, as you leave the church, don't overlook the exquisite small marble monument near the door. Its centrepiece is a tender and lifelike portrait of Vittoria Pucci. a Roman noblewoman who died at the age of only 28, mourned by her family. And note the floodmarks dating from the early Middle Ages onwards, which have been incorporated into the external façade of the church to commemorate the centuries during which the Tiber, before the building of its embankments a century-and-a-half ago, used to overflow into the city centre almost every winter, forcing Romans to go about by boat. Henry James wrote that one of the most exciting things to do in Rome was to go on a moonlit boat ride into the nearby Pantheon.

By now you are likely to be hungry and thirsty. For a real Roman family-run trattoria where you can eat every vegetable and fruit as it comes into season fresh from the market, you could not do better than La Pigna on Piazza della Pigna. It takes its name from a gigantic ancient bronze pine cone, originally dug up near here, that now stands in a Vatican courtyard. Its lavish display of antipasti will delight vegetarians: in spring, you can expect artichokes Roman style with fresh mint, and puntarelli, a type of chicory peculiar to the Roman countryside, served with a tangy anchovy sauce, the direct descendant of ancient Roman garum. In late autumn, look forward to berries and porcini mushrooms. Also on display is a selection of fresh fish, some of which you will recognise from the wall painting at the Palazzo Massimo.

If you need an aperitivo, try Bleve on Via di Teatro Valle. It has a wonderful choice of wines. Just by the Senate, this wine bar is patronised by Rome's chattering classes as well as by discriminating tourists. I nearly forgot: the best espresso and capuccino in town (stand-up only) is at the Tazza d'Oro bar and coffee shop (Golden Cup) one minute from the Pantheon.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

The National Roman Museum

Largo di villa peretti 1 (00 39 06 39 96 77 00; www.archeorm.arti.beniculturali.it). It opens 9am-7.45pm daily except Monday, admission €7 (£5), valid for three days.

Giolitti

Via Ufficio del Vicario 40 (00 39 06 699 1243)

Open 7am-1.30am daily except Monday.

Pellacchia

Via Cola di Rienzo 103 (00 39 06 321 0807; www.gelateria-artigianale-pellacchia.com).

Open 6am-1am daily except Monday.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

35 Via del Beato Angelico Usually open 8am to 7pm.

Bleve

Via di Teatro Valleme

Roma Via del Teatro Valle 48/49 Corso Rinascimento (00 39 06 686 5970; www.casableve.it)

Closed all day on Sundays, and for dinner on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Tazza d'Oro bar and coffee shop

Via degli Orfani 84, very close to the Pantheon (00 39 06 678 9792; www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com/homeeng.htm)

Ashley La Grua

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