It’s day four of this week’s series about unusual things to do in Rome.
Everybody visits the Colosseum, The Vatican, The Pantheon, The Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps when they go to Rome. While these sights are sensational they are just the very tip of the iceberg – there is so much more to see and do in Rome!
That’s why this week I’m looking at other things to do while you’re in the eternal city, things that are a little more unusual.
Jewish Ghetto and the Pyramid of Cestius. Today we are visiting the Cemetery For Non Catholic Foreigners, which just happens to be at the base of the pyramid.
The entrance to the cemetery
The Cemetery For Non Catholic Foreigners
I love going to French cemeteries. Resplendent in statues of wailing women and aching angels they are spectacular to visit. Italian cemeteries tend to be more streamlined, more about the business of the dead. This one however is beautiful. Statues, gardens, flowered walkways – it is gorgeous. And it has some fantastic statues, wailing.
This cemetery was the final resting place for all kinds of fascinating folk including, Keats, Shelley and Goethe.
Located in the Testaccio neighborhood, which borders Ostiense, the Cemetery For Non Catholic Foreigners also has a park-like area from which you can look at the Pyramid of Cestius.
In the ruins at the base of the pyramid there is a cat sanctuary!
Romans love cats and provide sensational sanctuaries for strays, in this case, the fattest stray cats you will ever see. These fat cats roam the cemetery, stretch out their full bellies on the walls in the sunshine, and generally enjoy life. They are medically treated, spayed and kept very healthy.
one of the cat ladies lining up giant bowls of tuna for the fat cat strays
An added bonus are the crazy cat ladies who work the sanctuary and walk through the cemetery with giant bowls of food for the felines. Like caricatures of themselves they speak to my deepest fears of one day becoming a crazy cat lady myself. Although if you are going to be a crazy cat lady, you might as well be one in Rome!
To find the Cemetery For Non Catholic Foreigners take Via Marmorata from the bottom of the Aventine Hill in the direction of the Aurelian Wall. Look for the giant pyramid gleaming in the sunshine and you will find the cemetery sitting right beside it.
This year the Corinna B’s World Glam Italia Tour took in the Amalfi Coast from a different angle. Instead of staying in Sorrento, Positano or Praiano as we have done in the past, this time we stayed at the bottom end of the Amalfi Coast in one of my new absolute favorite places in Italy, the magnificent and almost tourist free Salerno. I am in love with this glorious little city on the water.
my giant door in Salerno
In Salerno I live behind a giant door. A door so big you can’t quite believe it.
arriving home at night we are dwarfed by the door
There’s a courtyard behind this door and a big old palazzo that is now apartments.
When the plaster falls away there are signs of the life centuries ago.
artwork peeping through the layers of plaster
there is always something hidden under the layers of plaster and paint
A narrow alley runs between palazzi built so close together you could jump from one to the next if bandits attacked in the night.
the alleyway between the two palazzi, from my bedroom balcony
The cross breeze blows through the curtains making them float like ghosts in the night.
bedroom curtains at night
My home in Salerno is on a very narrow street. Not much more than two arms wide and as old as the hills.
my street in Salerno
yellow scooter in Salerno
Ideal for scooters and tiny cars, a suburban couldn’t even make the bend.
Run by byzantine gangs in another lifetime, my street is now artsy and cool.
my street in Salerno
There is a stunning cathedral a half block away with St Matthew’s bones.
Duomo San Matteo in Salerno was built between 1080 and 1085
San Matteo, Salerno
popes were buried at Duomo San Matteo, Salerno
The is an 8th Century castle up on the hill, standing over all who breathe the air below.
Castello di Arechi, Salerno
Laura from the cafe has young sons who play in the piazza while we talk over espressos in the morning and white wine at night. She tells me she dreams of one day seeing Miami.
morning cappuccino at Laura’s
Laura’s cafe and bar, seen from her garden terrace across the piazza
Anna owns a restaurant in a converted 5th century chapel. It’s called Taverna Santa Maria De Domno. I cannot go to Salerno and not eat there at least once. Her food is so good you have to eat it as slowly as you can. It fills your soul while it fills your belly. and she tells stories that make you cry you laugh so hard.
inside the Taverna Santa Maria De Domno. Salerno
Inside Taverna Santa Maria De Domno, Salerno
Sunday mornings call for sugar.
Sunday morning sugar, Salerno
The beachfront promenade is the loveliest on the entire Amalfi Coast.
the waterfront in Salerno
I can’t wait to get back to Salerno.
Where to stay in Salerno
Book an apartment in a centuries old, renovated palazzo in the historical center of Salerno. I stay HERE a half block behind the beautiful Duomo San Matteo. The apartment is perfect, the landlord is cool, and has become a good friend.
Excursions and day trips
My friend (and landlord!) Adriano de Falco can take you on amazing hikes, day trips and excursions in the Salerno and greater Amalfi Coast area. Adriano is super knowledgeable and great fun, so you are guaranteed a wonderful day out, wherever it is that you choose to go.
My favorite place to eat in Salerno is the amazing Taverna Santa Maria De Domno in the historic center of town. The food is unbelievable, the wine list is sensational (I don’t know enough to choosewines in Campania, so either my local friends do it or Nello chooses for me) and the ambience is just gorgeous in this renovated 5th century chapel.
For details, reviews and to make a reservation, check HERE
Most of us are familiar with the dramatic assassination of Julius Caesar at the senate house, but some mistake the Curia Julia in the Roman Forum as the scene where it took place. In fact, the Curia Julia was still under construction at the time, and Caesar was actually killed at the Curia of Pompey; its excavated foundations are in the Largo di Torre Argentina, and most of its ruins sit under a modern road.
3. Some of Rome’s Coolest Sights Are Underground.
If you are into the creepy, cool, and slightly morbid, don’t miss out on touring Rome’s underground sights, from the Mithraic cult temple underneath the Basilica of San Clemente to the Catacombs of Domitilla to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano.
4. You Won’t find Any Spaghetti and Meatballs Here.
While many Americans may think of spaghetti and meatballs as a quintessentially Italian dish, it is actually believed to have been invented by Italian immigrants already living in the U.S. in the early 1900s. No matter its origin, you won’t easily find it in Rome. Instead, sample some delicious authentically Roman pasta dishes, such as spaghetti alla carbonara or bucatini all’amatriciana.
5. The Coins Thrown in the Trevi Fountain are Donated to Charity.
Tradition has it that throwing a coin over your left shoulder into Trevi Fountain will ensure a trip back to the Eternal City, but it also helps feed the needy. The Catholic charity Caritas collects the coins and uses the proceeds on a supermarket program that provides rechargeable grocery cards to Rome’s low-income citizens. Over a million dollars worth of coins are tossed into the fountain each year, or over $3,000 a day.
6. The First Pizzas Weren’t Even Italian.
The first pizzas were really more like flatbreads, and were made thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks were making flatbreads topped with garlic and herbs long before the Romans, though the word “pizza” is believed to have developed from the Latin word “pinsa,” used to refer to these flatbreads. The Italians were the first to start adding tomatoes in the 18th century (long believed by Europeans to be poisonous), and they certainly perfected the dish.
7. St. Peter’s Basilica is Not the Largest Church in the World.
St. Peter’s Basilica was the largest church in the world until Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny built the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro — modeled after St. Peters — between 1985 and 1989. Though it can accommodate 18,000 worshippers, the Ivory Coast doesn’t have a large Christian population and most services are attended by only a few hundred people.
In September 1870, Rome found itself under siege by the Italian army, and was formally annexed into the Kingdom of Italy on October 2nd that year. The wars leading to the unification of Italy had already been going on for decades, and essentially ended when Rome was captured and made capital in 1871.
9. The Ancient Romans Considered Early Christianity a Mystery Cult.
In ancient Rome, there was no separation of church and state, and so any religious organizations that operated outside of the state and had secret rites revealed only to initiates were considered mystery cults. These included the Mithraic Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries, and the Christian Mysteries. For Christians, one had to be baptized to be initiated into the cult and only the baptized could partake in the Eucharist, the drinking of Christ’s blood. (This ritual caused many Romans to also think of the Christians as cannibals.) Many mystery cults of the day also had themes of death and rebirth, cleansing of sin, and symbolically sharing the experiences of the god.
10. The Pantheon Has Been In Continuous Use Since It Was Built.
The current structure was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D. The structure — even the dome — are original, though there were some modifications over the years. The dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
11. All Roads Led From Rome, Not To It.
Almost everyone has heard the saying that “all roads lead to Rome.” In fact, Romans would have flipped that saying on its head. In their view, all roads led from the Milliarium Aureum, or Golden Milestone, erected by Augustus in the Roman Forum. The Romans had an impressive network of highways and roads, necessary not just for trade but for military transport. Many still exist, including a section of the Appian Way.
12. You Can Drink from Rome’s Public Fountains.
Many tourists don’t realize that you can drink the water from Rome’s 2,500 or so public fountains — it’s fresh, cold, and delicious. For many of them, if you cover the end of the spout, the water will shoot out of the hole in the top like a drinking fountain. The fountains are referred to as “nasoni” or “big noses” because of the shape of the spouts.
13. There Really is a Secret Passage Leading Out of the Vatican.
Fans of Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons” read about the Passetto di Borgo leading from Vatican City to Castel Sant’Angelo. It really does exist, and has been used by popes when Vatican City has been under attack. The Castel Sant’Angelo is a museum and open to visitors, and it is also possible to tour part of the passageway, but note that it is only open during limited months and hours.
Traditionally, the offal of an animal is known as the quinto quarto, or fifth quarter in Rome; the real four quarters of an animal went to nobles, clergy, merchants, and soldiers, and the poor could only afford the guts. This has led to rich and creative cooking, however, and to this day dishes with trippa (tripe), pajata (lamb, kid, or veal intestines), coratella (lamb or kid kidneys, heart, and coronaries), testarelle (the head of a lamb or kid), and cervelli (lamb brains, usually fried in small pieces) are still found on many Roman menus.
15. There are More Than 900 Churches in Rome — More Than Any Other City.
This one isn’t a total shocker considering Vatican City is within the city limits (technically not part of Rome, because it’s, you know, its own country) — but still, wow! That’s a lot. And it’s no surprise that many of these beautiful and historic edifices are popular attractions for visitors. During an average year, Rome gets around 10 million visitors, but on a holy year, it can be significantly more (some estimates say double). And get ready, because Pope Francis has announced a forthcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, kicking off on December 8th. So it must be a good thing that there are 900-plus churches to accommodate Rome’s religious pilgrims.
16. There is No Proof that the Romans Threw Christians to the Lions in the Colosseum.
Most of us have heard about how the Romans persecuted Christians, and anyone who has visited the Colosseum has seen the cross in honor of the Christians who were martyred there. It is true that there were animal hunts held in the Colosseum, and there were also executions in which the criminals had to face (and get killed by) bloodthirsty beasts. But there is no evidence that Christians specifically were punished that way. According to Candida Moss, Professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, killing Christians was rare and the persecution of Christians was limited to a handful of years.
Tangentially related, for anyone who has seen “Gladiator,” when the emperor gave the thumbs up sign, it was actually a sign to kill rather than to grant mercy.
17. Rome is Full of Cats And They Have Squatters Rights.
If you have cat allergies, be aware that Rome is full of felines — possibly around 300,000 of them. There is a large cat sanctuary in the Largo di Torre Argentina and plenty of furry friends can be found prowling around the city’s other ancient ruins. This is because a Roman law essentially gives cats squatters’ rights — wherever five or more cats live together in the city, they can’t be chased away.
Want to know where to get a drink with a view in the Eternal City?
I’ve made a list of The Best Rooftop Bars in Rome, with details on where they are and why you need to check them out (and their incredible views! Download your free PDF HERE