Author and Rome expert Sylvie Hogg chats with host Kelly Regan about all things Rome: the history, the people, the new anti-smoking laws, the modernization of this 3,000 year old city, the best Roman movies - and reveals the best place to get a great pizza in Rome. Sylvie also gives us some advice on ways to expand your Roman experience beyond the tourist route and get off the beaten track (while not missing the great monuments), getting the most authentic Roman experience, saving money, meeting real Romans and perhaps even where to find an ancient Roman mausoleum in the middle of a parking lot.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Whats New in Rome: Anti-Smoking Laws in bars and restaurants.
- Where to go: Take the back streets around Campo dei Fiori, near Piazza Navona, or across the river in Castebre.
- Plan Ahead: The better deals get booked early, so book your accomodations as early as possible.
- Where to eat: Avoid the main squares, they get costly. Take the back streets to where the Romans go.
- Money Saving Dinners: Pizza for Dinner at -- Pizzeria Monte Carlo near Piazza Navona or Dar Poeta in Trastevere.
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Kelly Regan: Hello, and welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, Editorial Director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host. My guest today is Sylvie Hogg, who is the author of several books for Frommer's, including the "Irreverent Guide to Rome," and "Rome Day by Day." She's been traveling to Rome since she was one year old, and she has lived in and written about Rome for years. She is here to talk to us about the Eternal City as an eternally popular travel destination.
Sylvie, welcome, and thanks for joining me today.
Sylvie Hogg: Thank you for having me.
Kelly: Sure. So we're talking today about Rome as a hot travel destination, but that's really sort of stating the obvious. Rome is always a popular place, and for a city that's almost 3000 years old, it's kind of funny to be talking about what's new and exciting in the destination, but tell me a bit about what the buzz is in Rome these days. What are the developments that people are talking about right now?
Sylvie: Definitely. There actually are a few new things that have kind of burst onto the scene, interestingly enough, really in just the past couple of years, after, I don't want to say being stagnant. There is really kind of an energy, in part due to the current mayor of Rome, behind reclaiming old, defunct buildings and giving them new functions as cultural spaces, reopening and restoring monuments that have been in need of new environs to display them the best. That's on a cultural level.
But in terms of just the city, one major thing that has happened in Italy recently, is that the anti-smoking laws have made a very big difference in the experience of eating and drinking.
Kelly: It's astonishing, because you would think that, of all places to enact an anti-smoking ban, Italy would be probably at the bottom of the list.
Sylvie: It was so surprising, and it kind of happened overnight. Everyone sort of knows that it is bad for you, but really I don't know what it was about this law that went into effect, and really has been respected since January 2005. It's just made such a huge difference in the experience of going to Rome and in visiting Rome in that you can eat in an indoor restaurant, or go to a bar, and you are not surrounded by cigarette smoke. That's a very big difference.
Kelly: The law affects both restaurants and bars?
Sylvie: Yes, it is any enclosed space. It pretty much works like New York City's laws regarding smoking. If you want to smoke, you go outside. And if there is an outdoor place to sit, you can smoke there, but what it means is that people aren't smoking less, they are just going outside when they want to have a smoke. But, it makes the experience of being indoors and eating and drinking more pleasant for the non-smokers.
Kelly: I think that's a pretty big change. And I guess that leads me to ask, how else has the city changed since you first moved there and started living there? I mean, every time you go back, what surprises you most about being there?
Sylvie: Well, I think the city has changed, honestly, fundamentally not all that much. Of course, Rome is the city with 3,000 years of history, so it's not like you are going to change anything overnight. But there really is this energy to embrace 21st century architecture, to promote development that isn't just so rooted in antiquity, the Renaissance, or Baroque. There is kind of this sense among cultural promoters in Rome that there needs to be more of a modern energy, and maybe to try and get a little bit up to speed on what more of the other major cosmopolitan cities of the world are doing more like what New York, or London are doing. You see a lot of international design in restaurants, or bars that have been remade or hotels that have been done up in these kind of avant-garde motifs. That's definitely a change.
I first moved to Rome right out of college in '97, but what's amusing to me about Rome whenever I go back, is that it is such a rich city, and the people who live there really do take for granted the incredible heritage that they have. There are so many monuments that are untended, and the mausoleum in the middle of a parking lot at a suburban office park, that's probably 2,000 years old and may have catacombs underneath it, but it just kind of sits there. There is just so much to absorb in Rome. Just, you know, everything from Roman imperial, then Renaissance and Baroque, and it is just so aesthetic, and that is what amazes me, because I'm so in love with Rome.
Kelly: What's interesting, is that you were just mentioning this kind of dichotomy between a city that rests on so many years of history, but then a city that is also trying to look forward. And I think when I went to Rome, that was the thing that impressed me the most, was that this city that is completely brimming with ancient history in a way that people take for granted. But it also feels like a very modern city. I mean it feels like a contemporary city where people are living in the now, and I remember feeling a strong contrast to Florence in that respect, because my experience in Florence was that it was very much a city that looked back to its heyday in the Renaissance. It didn't feel as much of a modern, or contemporary city as Rome does.
Sylvie: Certainly, and I think because the head of Italian government is in Rome, and the film industry is in Rome, and it's just a larger city population-wise. It is a living museum, but in Florence there is almost too precious a historic center, where in Rome, it is rough around the edges. People live in the historic center, and I think Florence has definitely handled it a bit differently. It is much more refined in terms of how it is taken care of. But in Rome, you do have these unbelievably important historical monuments wherever you turn, but it is very much a lived-in historical center. Which is why it is so cool.
Kelly: Lived-in is a good way to describe it. I mean, that is definitely how it feels. Well, speaking of the film industry, tell me what is your favorite movie that is set in Rome.
Sylvie: That is a very good question. A classic has to be "Roman Holiday."
Kelly: Of course.
Sylvie: Not only because the leads in that movie are so charming, but the film does such a good job of encapsulating what is so great about Rome. And just the various locations that they actually went were chosen very carefully to capture what is so characteristic about Rome and what is so unique about it and so dramatic. That's a classic. But another, maybe more esoteric choice, I would have to say is Fellini's film, "Nights of Cabiria."
Kelly: Oh, that is what I was going to say!
Sylvie: Yeah, I love that. Kelly!
Kelly: That is one of my favorite movies ever. It is so great.
Sylvie: It is so great. And I actually have to confess, I didn't see it until after I had lived in Rome already for several years. I was on this Fellini kick, and I was trying to learn things I should know about Italian cinema, etc., and Nights of Cabiria was just so great, because there are these scenes in the suburbs of Rome, which is so typical of the way that many Romans live. They've got a lot of wealth for the most part, and there a lot of families that live in frankly, sort of ugly apartment towers on the outskirts of streets. But then, you have got in fields, Roman aqueducts from the first century AD just kind of arching into the distance. That is just so sublime. It is so Roman.
Kelly: What else I like about the movie is that the parts where they are sort of opening up cars and Julietta, I can't think of her last name but she is the....
Kelly: Yeah, Julietta Massina. When she is bantering with these guys that are pulling up in their cars. My senses that that part of Rome is down by the Colosseum, is that right? It is this roughing tumbles sort of area that is, again, a place that you do not know normally get to see in movies that are shot in Rome. It just shows you a very different side of the city.
Sylvie: Exactly and that is why I think it's so great to see that kind of thing. It is great to see these sort of love letters incidence like "Roman Holiday" is but then, also sits off the city side because Rome definitely does have its gritty side. Then, you contrast that with just spectacular backdrops which comes in with some of this grittiness. That gives Rome amplitude which makes it so unique as a city.
Kelly: Right. Speaking of grittiness and things, what is your least favorite thing about Rome? It is funny, your love of Rome comes through so clear when you talk about it but even the greatest love of your life, there is always that one really annoying habit that he or she has which drives you absolutely crazy. Is there something that is really either what you find very overrated or something that just we know when you are traveling around you are having negotiate the city that really bugs you about Rome?
Sylvie: Yes, absolutely. I can come up with a few things but I would say stand out for me... I have worked in tourism. I have worked with a lot of tourists. I have talked to a lot of tourists about their experience. I would say that Rome can be a zoo in terms of tourists coming through and trying to see everything they are suppose to see and trying to negotiate the city that is as crazy as anything. It is crazier than New York.
Sylvie: As crazy as Bangkok. It is a crazy city. That is very hard for someone you want to get them out of it to really see how great it is because there are so many crowds at The Sistine Chapel. There are crowds at the Colosseum. If you are just trying to pick off monuments, you really might not find Rome to be that congenial a place. That happens all the time.
Sylvie: Anything that I would say that does annoy me to know and that is customer service issues.
Sylvie: Italians and Romans have these reputations for being so welcoming and so loving. That is true. People are definitely always going to talk to you and be very happy to connect with American tourists. They are definitely outgoing in that way but in terms of responsibility to be good ambassadors about their city, sometimes, there is an expression in Italian called "Me ne fregismo" and it translates to "I really don't care."
Sylvie: There is no sense of obligation to make your time there a little bit easier, certain people who work in hospitality; who I do not think should be working in hospitality.
Sylvie: That is a common foreigner's complaint about Rome.
Kelly: That is funny. It is funny because you did talk about there being substantial numbers of people coming in and maybe just kind of ticking off your list of monuments, Colosseum, and the Trevi Fountain, and things like that. And taking that approach really does limit your experience and your perception of the city.
In the same way that I think think a very rough parallel would be when people come to New York City and they spend all of their time in places like Times Square where it is not really representative of the city as a whole. What tips would you have for people to try and get out of that mindset? What are some things that they could do to really expand on their experience and really get a more Roman type of experience as opposed to a touristic type of experience?
Sylvie: Absolutely, and keeping in mind that, of course, you do want to see the famous monuments. They are spectacular and stunning.
Sylvie: You do not want to miss them, especially if you do not know when you are going to be back, if ever. But what I always recommend to people is to work into your checklist of things that you must do in Rome is to take not a whole day at least a good half day of just wandering the back streets of the most typical characteristic parts of the historic center whether that is the area around Campo dei Fiori or near Piazza Navona but not actually on the Piazza, or across the river in Castebre, south of the Vatican. These are all very typical Roman neighborhoods, for how central they are still pretty authentic. There are tons of places to eat and great little churches to wonder into, little fountains to discover. So it is getting off of that track. That, definitely, is a great track of where either people on a walking tour of the city are all going. If you get off that track, it is not too hard to discover where the real Romans are but you have to see the major stuff too.
Kelly: Yeah, it is funny. As you said earlier, Rome is such a city where you are, literally, stumbling over history; getting off that kind of beaten path is still going to afford you so many opportunities to discover things, discover more about Rome's rich history and its culture and its essential "Romeness."
Sylvie: It makes for a good story. I can't tell you how many times that I've met tourists in Rome who were happy to have seen the Colosseum and to have seen the Vatican. But then, they get all excited because they are wondering some backstreet and they saw this column just sticking out of the ground, an ancient Roman temple that just never went anywhere. People get really excited when they can have that kind of sense of archeological discovery.
Kelly: Right, yeah. It is funny and I know that you recently wrote a letter to the editor to the New York Times because there was a story about Roman restaurants being a little bit expensive, especially for tourists. For people who might be traveling to Rome on a budget, the Euro is still running relatively strong against the dollar. It is going to be slightly expensive to travel to Rome. Can you provide some tips for how to save money when you are in the city, wanting a great experience but then perhaps being more cost conscious?
Sylvie: Absolutely, you main expenditures obviously when you are in a European city are your food and your lodging, and some expenses on museum and monument admission. The best advice that I can give people for accommodation in Rome is to plan ahead. It is not that you got a better rate by booking earlier, just the better places that are better values; better locations are popular and they do get booked earlier. That is the number one thing.
Sylvie: Also, I would definitely caution people away from these internet bargains that you can book as a part of your airfare. You might think you are going to a really good deal but then, you have to find out the hotel is quite a way away from where you really want to be. You pay a lot of money on taxis because taxis are not horribly expensive, but they are more than....
Kelly: They add up.
Sylvie: They definitely add up. You can stay more centrally because a lot of Rome is totally walkable. If you can stay more centrally, you actually save money in the long run because you are not spending as much money on taxis getting around the city. Because if you are a visitor for the first time, you are not going to figure out to take a bus or subway system when you get there. It's not like being in London, New York or Paris where it is much more of a no brainer for tourists, and Rome is a bit harder. If you are central that is going to save your money. In terms of eating and drinking, that's great news for tourists. You can do it very well for very cheap in Italy even with the Euro being strong. The key tip here is just to not to eat on the main squares.
Sylvie: As romantic as it might be in front of the Pinthia you're going to pay a huge premium.
Sylvie: If you get on those back streets, you see where the Romans are going. They eat out all the time and they don't have tons of money. Those are my tips right there.
Kelly: OK. That is really a good advice. Speaking of restaurants and eating in Rome, does the city have a typical kind of Roman cuisine? Or is Rome sort of an amalgam of restaurants serving cuisines from all around Italy in the same way that when you come to New York, you can have pretty much any type of cuisine that you want? Is there a real Roman cuisine or does Rome more represent cuisines from elsewhere in Italy?
Sylvie: Absolutely. Rome, its people, they are first Roman and then, they are Italian. The same thing is true of their cooking. The thing about Roman restaurants is the majority of them have pretty much exactly the same menu from restaurant to restaurant, it will pretty much be the same identical list. Pastas are on offer and main dishes on offer but it's all really good food that it is not controversial. Tomato-based pasta, healthy amounts of olive oil, garlic, Pecorino cheese, pancetta, which is a version of bacon, and Guanchalle. These are all good in Roman cooking copiously. A more traditional by traditional, I mean controversial for tourists' pallets is what they call it piso pasta and that is the Fifth quarter and this Fifth quarter refers to the parts of the animal at the slaughter house left over when all the good cuts were gone.
Kelly: It is the....
Sylvie: Yeah, exactly.
Kelly: Extra bits.
Sylvie: Yes, the leftovers, which some real Roman women back in the day, fashioned into some dishes. They are still served and have their following today, although, you would not find many young people from Rome who would not eat those dishes anymore. It's more for the old timers who relish eating intestine sauteed with tomato sauce.
Kelly: [laughter] Right. Well, you also mentioned, I think, in several other books that you write for us that pizza is a huge thing in Rome that is actually done very well. Just like the fact that commonly accepted birthplace of pizza is further south in Naples, that Rome is a great place to get pizza.
Sylvie: Rome is a great place to get pizza absolutely, again, because there is so much pride even in the simplest restaurants there is so much pride in turning out a good quality product. It is just a social city. People do go out a lot and a good way to do that and not spend a lot of money is to go out and get pizza. It's really a dinner thing only. You would not go get pizza for lunch. It's a thinner crust than you will find in Naples, Naples is a bit of thicker doughier crust. Roman pizza is pretty thin crusted but you can get a big like 14-inch pizza, which you are going to be eating yourself. You do not share pizza.
Sylvie: For about $10, not even that.
Kelly: That's incredible.
Sylvie: Some places will do a margarita pizza which is just a mozzarella tomato sauce, with a couple of basil leaves on top, for five or six Euros. You are getting top quality ingredients, fresh mozzarella which does not taste the same outside of Italy. Pizzerias are also a lively place; a lot of young people will go out. You get beer and wine and have a really inexpensive and fun night out.
Kelly: Sure. Well, we are about out of time but I wanted to ask you one last question. What is your favorite pizza place in Rome?
Sylvie: Well, I am hard pressed to make decision between two places that I love. But my first day in Rome, dinner is almost always at Pizzeria Monte Carlo which is not far from Piazza Navona. It is right near tourist spots but it is totally untouristy, very low bill. There have tons of tables. They have very efficient service, again, very inexpensive. They are just right, your total is on the actual tablecloth which is a paper. At the end of the night, it's usually less then 10 euros a head with pizza, wine and mineral water, maybe even a bruschetta as an appetizer.
Sylvie: Maybe if you didn't get enough carbs!
Sylvie: It is funny. The great thing is it is at the heart of the historic center. It is a great deal and it is fun. I go back there and they remember me. It is one of these great places like I always return to when I go back.
Kelly: That is great. Well, what is your other favorite pizza place?
Sylvie: The other one is a bit more known to the outside world. It's called Dar Poeta, and its actually in Trastevere . It is a much smaller place but it is a wait to get in there. Usually, they have absolutely divine tasting pizza.
Sylvie: So people will wait in lines. They also have a little bit more variety in terms of different toppings that they will put on a pizza, have most Roman people get together and they have pumpkin and bacon together.
Kelly: Wait! Pumpkin and bacon on the pizza?
Sylvie: It's good. Think about Thanksgiving, you don't have it in the summer, it's a but heavy, but in the cooler weather.
Kelly: [laughter] Right. It is maybe a Thanksgiving pizza. Well on that note, I think that is all we have time for today. I have been talking with Sylvie Hogg who is the author of several books for Frommer's including the "Irreverent Guide to Rome" and "Rome Day by Day." She is the aficionado and expert on all things Roman. Sylvie thanks so much for talking with me today. This was a fun conversation. I am going to go indulge my pizza craving right now.
Sylvie: [laughter] Kelly, thank you so much for having me. It is a pleasure talking to you.
Kelly: Thanks and join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I am Kelly Regan and we will talk again soon.
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