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Rome is a city so full of treasures that no matter how many times you visit, there is always something new to discover or experience. There’s no one better to give you insider info on a city than someone who has lived there and has secrets to share on magnificent sights and where to find the best bites.
In this episode, we are talking to Michele Frolla of The Intrepid Guide, an expert in Italian and languages in general, who has just won TravMedia Vlogger of the Year for her two YouTube channels The Intrepid Guide and Intrepid Italian with Michele. Despite having Italian heritage Michele didn’t learn Italian as a child but after throwing herself passionately into learning the language, including moving from Australia to live in Rome for a few years, her love of Italy and of learning the language has led to Michele developing a unique way of teaching Italian so you can become “travel fluent” very quickly. In our Amici members group, we invite back some of our Untold Italy podcast guests to share their favorite and often secret places and experiences, in Italy. Their tips have been great for finding ways to form a deeper connection with the country to enrich your travels. If you enjoy this chat, in a more casual approach to podcasting, go ahead and visit casa.untolditaly.com where you’ll find all the details on how to sign up to be a supporter or Amici, friend of the podcast. Michele is a former resident of Rome and she shared with the group, her 7 favorite secrets of the Eternal City that visitors may not know about.
7 Secrets of Rome
1. The amazing views from Terraza de las Cuadrigas/Terraza Vittoriano
Many know about the views from Janiculum Hill, the terrace that overlooks the whole of Rome, but after she had been in Rome for a few months, Michele discovered that there’s another terrace even more central, even closer to the historical monuments and so even more spectacular. In Piazza Venezia, the heart of the historical center there’s a big white iconic monument – people call it the wedding cake or the typewriter. On top of that monument, there is a rooftop terrace. You take an elevator to the top, and from there you get an incredible perspective over the Piazza itself, the Roman Forum, you can see the Colosseum, the top of San Giovanni in Laterano, you can see down the main thoroughfare of the shopping strip in Rome, which is called Via del Corso. You can also see all the way down to Piazza del Popolo with the obelisk in the center. Terraza de las Cuadrigas – Cuadrigas refers to the chariot on top of the monument with the four horses. It’s above the Il Vittoriano, which refers to the King of Italy – Victor Emmanuel II, so the monument can be called Terraza Vittoriano.
The entrance is not very obvious. When you’re in Piazza Venezia you can go up the stairs and explore the exterior, but to actually go to the rooftop terrace, you have to go to the side of the building and the entrance is there. Every time Michele has gone there they have always said you have to have cash – so before you go there make sure you have cash just in case they still don’t have card payments. It’s about €12 to go up to the top, but very much worth it. You’re literally on a rooftop though so there’s no cafe or anything up there.
It’s a nice way to start off your trip – to go to the top of things to orientate yourself with the place. Even when you know Rome, it’s still nice to stand up there and have a look around and just soak it all in – that incredible perspective.
2. Domus Aurea – Nero’s underground treasure
Domus Aurea is Latin for the golden house. This recently re-opened sight is just opposite the Colosseum and is basically hidden underground because it had been lost for centuries.
This is what Emperor Nero had built and was incredibly elaborate. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to spend much time in it before he committed suicide. It was quite an egotistical vision and he wanted to create a golden house so it would be reflected by the sun, and would basically be a reflection of him as a Sun God.
Since it was buried, as lots of things are in Rome underground, it was lost for centuries and lots of it was destroyed, but there are still parts that you can now visit. Where the Colosseum was, the whole arena – used to be a lake and was part of Nero’s house. The whole area was this massive, impressive villa and was in fact, how the Colosseum got its name – Colosseo. There was a massive or ‘colossus’ statue of Nero depicting himself as a Sun God, when the statue was taken away, the area was still known as the Colosseo and it stuck. The Colosseum’s true name is actually Anfiteatro Flavio, named after the Flavian dynasty.
For a very long time, it was closed because it was unsafe but now parts of the structure are stable and people are allowed in, in limited numbers. There’s a really impressive octagonal room, where the ceiling wasn’t secure, so they had to make sure that that was reinforced and it was safe enough to be open to the public. There is an exhibition in that room where you can go and see about Raphael – who actually came through the ceiling. So this room was actually rediscovered accidentally. Lots of artists around the 16 and 1700s, rediscovered it accidentally and they came through the top of the octagonal room, rediscovered the palace and the frescoes, and took inspiration from it. The exhibition pays a sort of pays homage to those artists.
For a long time, Domus Aurea was only open on maybe a weekend for a very few hours but now it’s open more often but you can’t go in alone. You have to be on a guided tour in small groups of about 15 and stagger going in every 15 minutes or so. It is quite a big complex, so you get a lot more value out of it with a guide anyway. Some parts can maybe be a little underwhelming, but it’s because they’re still restoring it. They show you an example on the wall of just how much muck and mold is still there that needs to be taken away – you can see underneath the beautiful frescoes that still remain.
If you’re in the Colosseum and you look out there is Colle Oppio (Oppian Hill) the palace is actually right below the park. This was discovered from above and so they didn’t know where the entrance was, so the entrance created was in this park. It’s a strange mixture of humid and cold, so dress in layers. It costs €14.
So many things are made better by a guided tour and this is a prime example, especially as there is not much in the way of signs/info to explain what is there. But many places in Rome and Italy benefit from having a guide as there’s only so much that you can really work out yourself and it can be tiring. When you go to a museum or a gallery or sight and you have to read these boards and reading the text can be tiresome and stale. It’s so much better to listen to someone that brings it to life and then you can ask questions too. There’s dialogue, and it’s just a lot more enjoyable, there’s a lot more of an experience and it’s more likely to sink in too because you remember the stories that go along with their history.
3. The Best Tiramisu at Pompi (il regno di tiramisu)
Tiramisu literally means ‘pick me up’. ‘Tira’ means ‘pull’ or ‘pick’. ‘Mi’ is ‘me’, and ‘su’ means ‘up’. So it’s called tiramisu because it gives you a boost of energy as it’s got caffeine in it. Who doesn’t need a bit of tiramisu as a little bit of a Pick Me Up? Which is why it’s a suitable dessert at the end of a heavy meal.
Michele lived in Rei di Roma near San Giovanni in Laterano, which is near to the most incredible place to get the best tiramisu. Pompi – il regno di tiramisu meaning Pompi – the reign of the tiramisu. It was established in 1960, so they’ve been in this massive cafe-style shop at Piazza Rei di Roma. This place is an institution. It’s a cafe and even opens until late at night. They specialize in cakes and pastries, but their main product is tiramisu. They don’t just have the classic tiramisu, they also have lots of different amazing flavors. When Michele used to go they had hazelnut, pistachio, chocolate, and fragola (strawberry) and they’ve since added other ones, like caramel, peach, mango, pineapple, and coconut.
They’re not huge – they are a perfect dessert size – not too much, not too little. Just enough that it leaves you wanting just a little bit more, but you don’t make yourself sick.
You can also get the option of them adding a few extra toppings too – so with the strawberry one, Michele used to get a drizzling of fruits of the forest. The main shop is Piazza Rei di Roma and there is a smaller shop near the Spanish Steps on Via della Croce. They also have ice cream there. They do have a small selection of cakes, but for the really big one, where you can actually dine in and have, like a proper afternoon of just indulgence, head to the one in Rei di Roma. That’s the original shop and the best. If anyone in your party is having a birthday – they do fantastic birthday cakes.
4. Pizza Bianca and Rosa in the Jewish Quarter
Michele used to work in the Ghetto Ebraico, the Jewish quarter in Rome, which has a lovely selection of restaurants – Kosher restaurants and a couple of bakeries. There’s a bakery there simply known as Forno del ghetto, that is very well known and is where people would head after a long night. You would go there at five in the morning and get the first round of Pizza Bianca or Pizza Rosa. Pizza Bianca is white pizza, literally translated, which means it doesn’t have any tomato-based sauce on it. And Pizza Rosa – red pizza does have the sauce.
Lunchtime is the peak time when everyone goes to the Forno del ghetto to get a slice of this white pizza or red pizza – it would be packed with people out of the door by 12:00. They come out, arms outstretched, with these long pizzas that have come out of the oven, and you would tell them how much you would want. Then they weigh it and that’s it. The pizza al taglio, which is pizza on all these different boards – to get pizza by the slice or pizza by the quantity. If you can’t decide which one you want, just get a little bit of both. They’re a normal bakery, they have breads too and there’s a deli there, so you can get the bread in the bakery, take it across to the deli in the next section, and he’ll make up a sandwich for you. But they’re more famous for their Pizza Bianca and Pizza Rosa. Another institution. It’s a pretty tiny bakery and you take a little number when you walk in and it’s a bit chaotic, but it’s brilliant.
Normally they use scissors to cut the sizes. If the pizza is this long and this is the end of it, they’ll sort of move their scissors along and you indicate where you want it cut. You don’t really give them a measurement. You can just say ‘basta’ or ‘perfecto’. ‘Più’, means more. ‘Meno’ means less. Michele’s language tip to remember is to think of più = plus meno = minus. You can say ‘basta cosi’ which basically means that’s enough that way or like that – it doesn’t really translate that well in English, but that’s how you would say it and it in that context. They’ll maybe then say ‘Altro?’ or ‘Volete altro?’ Do you want something else? So you say ‘no, grazie, basta cosi’.
5. The optical illusion of Via Niccolò Piccolomini
The Via Niccolò Piccolomini road is quite wide and is lined with trees and houses. In a car starting at the end of the road, heading towards the Basilica, the Cúpula is perfectly framed in the middle of the road. If you’re at the back of the road and you’re driving towards the Cúpula, it gets smaller in size because of the layout of the road and the perspective. An optical illusion is created as you approach. Then as you go back, it gets bigger again. The best way to experience it is in a moving vehicle – so you can be in a taxi or in someone’s car looking out of the back window or on the back of a scooter. The idea is that you’ll spend at least 10 minutes driving up and down, And you try to work out “oh, how does this work?” It is huge when you’re at the end of the street and as you approach it, it gets smaller. Not many people know about it.
Other optical sites
The Aventine Keyhole is a bit more well-known but is well worth a visit for the interesting perspective you get. The keyhole can be found on Aventine Hill, one of the 7 ancient hills of Rome and if you stumble across it you’ll know by the sight of a bunch of people bending over-looking through a random door. It’s actually quite a large keyhole, and when you look through you can see St. Peters. It’s amazing. Apparently, you’re looking through three countries – so you’re standing in Italy and you’re looking through the Maltese embassy and then you look through obviously Vatican City.
At Palazzo Farnese, there is an optical illusion through this archway where at the end there’s a little statue. The archway creates a depth of field which is fake so it makes it look longer than it actually is – but it’s actually quite short. That’s another cool spot. That’s a guided tour as well, so you can’t just go in there – you need to actually book in advance.
Recycling Rome Style
The Piazza at Campo de’ Fiori is a wonderful place to stay but perhaps not on the Piazza itself as there’s the bustling market and a lot of people having fun at restaurants and bars (and singing if there’s a football match on). So we suggest staying somewhere just outside – so you’re close to the action, but it’s a little quieter. In the Piazza, they’ve got the baths that Giulia Farnese (who was mistress to Pope Alexander VI, and the sister of Pope Paul III) obtained. She borrowed (or stole) from the Baths of Caracalla as she decided she wanted to make them into some fountains. So she had them set up and pumped water in.
All the holes you see in the Colosseum are actually where the marble was fixed onto it – so it was a stunning vision of white. They took the marble away and used it to build the Vatican.
6. Aperitivo at Freni e Frizioni
Michele recommends heading to Freni e Frizioni for a fantastic aperitivo experience. The name of this place means ‘brakes and clutches’ because historically it used to be a mechanics workshop. It’s in Trastevere – the beautiful, charming, and cool neighborhood of Rome. The establishment itself is fairly small but the outside area is on a Piazza, so you’ll have people that sit inside and people that are sitting and standing outside. It’s just full of life and full of character. They have wonderful cocktails and really nice food for an aperitivo. The food is not just like finger foods – here you get a little mini pizzas, as well as more hearty meals like pasta, lentils, or beans – a really nice mix. So, if you’re not planning on having a big dinner, you can get an aperitivo/apericena (pre-dinner) for around €10. A cocktail of your choice and then you get the buffet that you can go back to as many times as you like. Some places start aperitivo a little bit early but because this is a bar, they tend to open a little bit later, but by 6 pm you can go there -and at 7 pm it starts to pick up a bit more. It’s a really cool spot with a really nice vibe.
7. Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio
This Basilica is a 5th-century church close to San Giovanni in Laterano in Celio district, straight down Via Claudio from the Colosseum. When Michele lived in this area, she would go on walks with the Roman lady she lived with, Rosario. She would take Michele to places in the neighborhood that she’d never heard of and would never have found out about alone. One day in February, a beautiful winter’s day, Roman style – clear blue sky, but cold, Rosario took Michele to this basilica. It is old, beautiful with an interesting history but is not very well known by visitors to Rome. It is the first circular church in Rome. It is completely circular, hence its name – Rotondo, meaning rotund. It’s dedicated to St. Stephen hence Santo Stefano Rotondo. There’s a beautiful altar in the center. If you see photos of people getting married there, it’s incredible because they’ll take a really wide-angle perspective of this rounded interior with all these beautiful pillars and columns. There is one thing that is less pretty, even a tad gruesome but definitely interesting. On the walls, there are frescoes that depict the grizzly deaths of 34 different martyrs. They are quite graphic. As not many people know about it, it’s usually quite quiet inside – with only other Italians that are in there. They have strange opening times – they’re always closed on a Monday, and then they’re open in the morning from 10 till 1 and then from 2 till 5 – so you have to time it right during your trip. Michele thinks the fact that it is circular adds something to the experience of it. Normally you go into a Basilica Church and it’s got that cross layout, where everything is leading to the altar. but when it’s circular, it feels more inviting. Even though the altar is in the center, it still feels like it’s hugging you/like it’s embracing you. When you go to the Vatican and the Piazza is designed to be circular to welcome in the people – you get that same feeling when you go to this particular Basilica, (regardless of the grisly depictions on the frescoes). It’s unique, interesting, and almost unknown.
About our guest – Michele Frolla
Michele is an Italian-Australian language educator and travel blogger and ‘guide’ behind The Intrepid Guide. Michele aims to enrich her readers’ travels with her detailed destinations guides and travel phrase guides. Michele also offers online language courses that use her unique 80/20 method to help you learn the local language so you can travel with confidence, enjoy meaningful interactions with the locals, and avoid being treated like a tourist. Follow Michele on social media as she shares fascinating and little-known linguistic and cultural facts.
Michele has recently won TravMedia Vlogger of the Year for her two YouTube channels The Intrepid Guide and Intrepid Italian with Michele. This is the first time I’ve won an industry award which makes it all the more special
You can find Michele on these channels:
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/theintrepidguide
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/intrepiditalian & www.instagram.com/intrepidguide
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/intrepidguide
- YouTube: www.youtube.com/intrepiditalianwithmichele
Michele’s unique courses
- Whether you have a trip to Italy coming up shortly, or you have more long-term goals, Michele offers a number of courses with her unique way of learning, if you go to www.theintrepidguide.com. The courses come with lifetime access so you only pay once and you can learn anywhere, any time on any device which means that you only pay once. These courses give you everything that you need and it’s just a matter of you finding time, as and when. It also comes with access to Michele and a private community where you can get feedback and support and ask any questions
Places mentioned in the show
- Janiculum Hill – ancient site on Janiculum Hill in Trastevere, Rom
- Piazza Venezia – a central hub of Rome, Italy, in which several thoroughfares intersect, including the Via dei Fori Imperiali and the Via del Corso
- San Giovanni in Laterano – originally founded in 324, it is the oldest public church in the city of Rome, and the oldest basilica of the Western world
- Via del Coros – main shopping strip in Rome
- Piazza del Popolo – the name in modern Italian literally means “People’s Square”, but historically it derives from the poplars after which the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. It has a large obelisk in the center
- Terraza de las Cuadrigas – the amazing lookup point over Piazza Venezia
- Il Vittoriano – large national monument built between 1885 and 1935 to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy
- Giardino degli Aranci – the Orange Trees Garden is the name used in Rome to describe the Parco Savello
- Domus Aurea – the golden house – Nero’s grand home has only recently been opened to the public
- The Baths of Caracalla – baths that were Rome’s second-largest Roman public baths, or thermae. The baths were likely built between AD 212 and 216/217, during the reigns of emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla
- The Oppian Hill – the southern spur of the Esquiline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome
- Pompi il regno del Tiramisu – amazing tiramisu in many varietes
- Ghetto Ebraico – the jewish quarter
- Il Forno del Ghetto (Boccione) – v small bakery for amazing pizza bianco and pizza rosa. Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 1
- Via Niccolò Piccolomini – road which as you drive towards and away from the Basilica creates an optical illusion
- Aventine keyhole – unique scene and line of sight through the rooftops of Rome to St Peter’s
- Palazzo Farnese – one of the most important High Renaissance palaces in Rome. Owned by the Italian Republic, it was given to the French government in 1936 for a period of 99 years, and currently serves as the French embassy in Italy
- Freni e Frizioni – great aperitivo in Trastevere serving cocktails, pizza, pasta and more
- Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio – circular church in Rei di Roma
Food & Drink
- savoiardi – the sponge fingers used in tiramisu
- pizza bianco – pizza with no tomato sauce
- pizza al taglio – a variety of pizza baked in large rectangular trays, and sold in rectangular or square slices by weight
- apericena – aperitivo is sometimes referenced as apericena, with the word ‘cena’ meaning dinner, so pre-dinner
- Aperol – an Italian bitters made of gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, among other ingredients
- Anfiteatro Flavio – (Flavian Amphitheatre) the original name of Colosseum
- Raphael – Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period
- basta!/basta cosi – enough! In Italian
- più – ‘more’ in Italian
- meno – ‘less’ in Italian
- altro – ‘other in Italian’ often used to ask if you want something else in a store/deli. Volete altro? Means ‘do you want something else?’
- Giulia Farnese – mistress to Pope Alexander VI, and the sister of Pope Paul III. She was known as Giulia la bella, meaning “Julia the beautiful” andcame from the noble Farnese family
- The Parco Colosseo app on Google and Apple stores
Resources from Untold Italy
- Discover our favorite ways to learn Italian, how to say I love you in Italian, and top travel words for your trip
- Get help planning your Rome trip in our Rome travel guide, Rome airport transfers, Best Place to Stay in Rome: Districts and Neighborhood Guide, 3 day Rome itinerary and 5 day Rome itinerary and discover things to see in Hidden gems in Rome, The most interesting and beautiful fountains in Rome, How to buy tickets for the Colosseum, How to buy tickets for the Vatican museums and Best Vatican tours
- Listen: to our previous episodes with Michele on learning Italian in Episode #123 5 tips for learning Italian fast and Episode #091 Learning Italian for your trip. Find out more on Rome in Episode #145 Budget-friendly ways to explore Rome, Episode #136 How to enjoy your time in Rome when it’s super hot, Episode #109 Women of Ancient Rome, Episode #101 Tales from the Pantheon, Episode #98 Vatican museums – tips and highlights for your visit, Episode #96 A wander through Trastevere, Episode #29 What to eat in Rome, Episode #27 How to choose where to stay in Rome, Episode #17 Secrets of Rome, Episode #05: Getting around with taxis in Rome and Episode #3 Highlights of Rome
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.