Secret Rome: Why You Need To See Ara Pacis

At the time of publishing this post the world is under a travel ban due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I have chosen to keep publishing stories about traveling to Italy for three reasons. The first is that one day hopefully sooner rather than later, the world will open back up to travel, making this a great time to learn about more places we want to visit and what to see when we get there.   

Secondly I hope this will change the way we travel. Hopefully cruise ships and big bus tours and the mass tourism they bring will become a thing of the past, replaced by a more sustainable means of travel that involves smaller groups of people with a germane interest in discovering new places, rather than the masses descending on any city to check it off their bucket list. Third, in this time of crisis our minds need a place to escape to, even if only for a few minutes. So let’s escape to Italy together.

Ara Pacis

This is one of those completely fantastic secrets in Rome that’s hiding in plain sight. Even when Rome is bursting at the seams with tourists you will find very few people here. It is one of my absolute favorites and I wrote about it in detail in my best selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome. (Find it in the 13 Places To Discover Ancient Rome chapter)

The Ara Pacis in Rome. A celebration of peace brought by Emperor Augustus
The Ara Pacis in Rome

The Ara Pacis was built around 13 B.C to commemorate Augustus’ victorious return to Rome. Rome had been mired in decades of civil war, and had spent centuries at war with other countries. Augustus ended all the fighting, bringing about the first time of peace in years at the same time becoming the most powerful man in history.

Originally it stood at the northeast corner of the Campus Martius. The altar was angled so that at sunset on Augustus’ birthday the shadow of the point of the obelisk in the Campus Martius would fall onto the Ara Pacis, symbolizing that he was born to bring peace to Rome. He really was a master of propaganda!

Centuries later the Tiber river was expanded and over time the Ara Pacis, in all of its white marble glory, became submerged in 4 meters of mud. It disappeared for more than 1000 years.

2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis in Rome
2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis

In the 16th century fragments of it were found under an old palazzo. More were discovered in the 1800’s.

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In 1937 the Italian cabinet decided to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth by excavating the altar. 70 cubic meters of ground (beneath what at the time was the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia) were frozen and the altar was extracted.

When you visit the Ara Pacis you can see what a colossal undertaking that must have been. Working with comparatively few fragments and only a short amount of time, it’s amazing what they were able to achieve.

The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum
The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum

Buildings surround the mausoleum of Augustus were razed and the Ara Pacis was placed in its current location. It initially was protected by a pavilion but in 2006 got its current, very modern Richard Meier designed building. The building looks pretty incongruous surrounded by old Rome, but once you go inside you can appreciate the genius of it. There is an overwhelming amount of natural light, maximizing the magnificence of the altar.

Ara Pacis in Rome is bathed in natural light
Ara Pacis bathed in natural light

The Ara Pacis is both beautiful and majestic. A set of stairs lead up to the altar, all encased in white marble walls which are covered in carvings.

Carvings on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
The right hand exterior of the Ara Pacis

The museum itself is really good. Entirely dedicated to the Ara Pacis, it is interactive and relatively small. Everyone working there is really well informed and incredibly helpful too.

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Ara Pacis carvings explained
One of the maps inside the Ara Pacis museum in Rome

This past summer while there I had a list of obscure things I wanted to find in the carvings that line the exterior of the marble walls. One of the guards came over, as this was his specialty. There were only a handful of visitors at the museum, so he was able to spend a half hour with me, going back and forth from the maps and interactive screens to the altar itself, finding the items on my list and pointing out missing pieces in between.

Agrippa and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
Agrippa, Gaius and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis

I speak Italian relatively well, but I don’t speak archeological Italian, and he spoke only a little English, but was fully invested in helping me, taking me back to the English translations at the interactive area when we got stuck.

It really was a fantastic experience!

The windows look out over the Mausoleum of Augustus which is being restored but will be open to the public soon.

Mausoleum of Augustus renovations
The Mausoleum of Augustus, once the grandest building in Rome, is under renovation and will open to the public in 2022

I recommend first reading the Ara Pacis section of my Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome book to get some context of who Augustus was, who all the players that show up here are, and why their stories are so interesting. This will make discovering the different people represented on the walls of the Ara Pacis extra interesting.

You can take a virtual tour of Ara Pacis here

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You will probably only spend half an hour or so here. It is an easy walk from the Piazza Navona/Campo di Fiori area, is only a few minutes’ walk along the river to the Bridge of Angels and Castel Sant’ Angelo (in front of St Peters) and is just across the river from Trastevere.

Address: Lungotevere in Augusta, Rome

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Tourists In Rome Need To Know About These New Laws

Rome has had enough of bad tourist behavior and is cracking down with a profusion of new rules as well as the resurrection and enforcement of old ones. In the well policed city center, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site, you can expect a hefty fine if caught violating any of the new rules. And being that the police are everywhere and that tourists tend to hang out in the main tourist areas, the chances of you getting caught are huge.

Most of these new rules really are just a matter of being respectful and behaving with a sense of decency. Some of them are really annoying, because tourists behaving badly or disrespectfully have ruined things that had been hugely pleasurable for the rest of us for years.

Keep Your Shirt On

Men will be stopped and fined for walking around shirtless. Most tourists at least keep their tops on but you do on occasion see men walking around with their shirt off. Not any more! The average fine starts at 250 euro per violation.

In Venice they don’t allow women to walk around in swimwear, so shorts and a bikini top are a no-no. I’m not sure if Rome has this in place now too, if not it won’t be far behind.

Stay Out Of The Fountains In Rome

This summer the city has (finally) cracked down on tourists getting into the city’s many fountains.

tourists climbing into Rome's fountains

Yes, we get it, you’re hot. So is everyone else. The fountains of Rome are not your personal swimming pool, so don’t climb in. Not only will you be hauled out soaking wet in front of everyone you will also be fined up to 450 euros

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Stay Off The Monuments In Rome

Eating, drinking and climbing on monuments is now banned. Tourists eating sloppy food and dropping it all over the city monuments as well as leaving their food scraps and trash now means the rest of us can no longer sit on monument steps with a gelato, or with a drink in hand while taking in the view or watching street musicians.

image via Independent.uk

I am in 100% support of banning the badly behaved tourists, and I don’t want to have to clear up someone’s food detritus so that I can sit down, but I am also somewhat saddened by this rule.

No more evenings sitting on the steps of the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere

There have been many nights sitting on the steps in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere watching street performers, and just as many evenings sitting on the steps with the locals in Piazza Trilussa watching the musicians with a backdrop of the Sisto Bridge and the river, with a drink or a snack in hand. It has been part of life in Rome which for now anyway, is over.

Sunset in Rome’s Piazza Trilussa, watching the street music

One of the experiences I have loved in Piazza Trilussa over the past decade has been sitting on the stairs with local college kids and letting them practice their English on me while some dude with a guitar, a mic and an amp sings Pink Floyd songs. This is where I learned about Roman street foods such as suppli’ and tripizzini, staples for Roman college students, while they educated me on everything from local politics to current philosophy.

This is part of my aversion to American fast food chains even being in Rome let alone in the big tourist areas. McDonalds wrappers and food scraps do not belong anywhere near any monuments (or anywhere else in Rome!)

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As far as I’m concerned anyone climbing on or defacing the city’s monuments should be strung up and flogged.

No More Sitting On The Spanish Steps

One of the rules that will be hard to get used to is no longer being allowed to sit on the Spanish Steps. I have to preface this by saying that as a rule I avoid the area like the plague, only venturing in to go to the Nespresso store so the snooty sales assistants can be suitably rude while I stock up on coffee to bring home. (Why is it that Nespresso workers everywhere from Los Angeles to Barcelona to Rome are so rude??)

Rome’s Spanish Steps have become overcrowded. Although a shame not to be able to sit there anymore at least now you can see them.

There was something so iconic about sitting on the steps looking out over Rome, and many of my Glam Italia Tour travelers have really enjoyed that little photo op. But over the past few years it has become really overcrowded, full of vendors trying to sell you bottled water and selfie sticks, and has been pickpocket heaven, so has lost some of the magic.

travelers sitting on the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome. New laws now make this illegal, with fines up to 450 euros
Sitting on the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome is now illegal

If you are caught sitting on the steps the fine starts at 250 euros and goes up to 450 euros if you have dirtied or damaged them. Neon vested police officers now crisscross the steps all day and will be blowing whistles at you before your bum hits the deck.

No More Dragging Luggage Down Steps

This rule is long overdue. If you get caught bouncing your luggage, especially wheeled luggage, down any of the monument steps (most famously the Spanish Steps) in Rome you can expect a heavy fine.

Venice has already banned dragging luggage up and down stairs, now Rome is too.

I have always been stunned at how people can think it is ok to drag their over-packed suitcases down ancient stairs, be it inside an apartment building, a villa or public walkways. The lack of concern for potential damage they are causing is deplorable.

Buses and Public Transport Fines

Think twice before jumping on to a bus, tram or metro in Rome without a ticket. In July of this year the ATAC, Rome’s public transport company issued more than 17,000 tickets to fare dodgers.

Where formerly you didn’t really see too much of a presence, this year ticket inspectors are checking an average of 9,000 people per day. From January to July of this year (2019) they have checked more than 2 million passengers, resulting in more than 134,000 fines being issued.

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Leave Your Padlocks Of Love At Home

If you are thinking about attaching a “love padlock” to any bridge or monument, anywhere in the world, for God’s sake just stop!

It is now outlawed in Rome, hopefully Paris will follow suit.

Here’s the deal: these centuries’ old bridges and iron grates were not built to withstand the weight of all these padlocks. Your one padlock may not seem like a big deal, but multiply it by hundreds and the equation changes. City workers have to cut the padlocks off (so it’s a waste of time anyway) but still the weight and the constant use of bolt cutters and steel cutters is damaging to something that will definitely outlast your love for Roger.

On top of that, would be romantics after attaching their padlock then toss the key over the bridge into the river below. Cities have to dredge the river beds to collect these stupid keys. The whole thing is ludicrous and incredibly damaging, and when you think about it is no less offensive and defacing than if you spray painted “I love Roger” on the wall. If you love him so much, padlock something at your own house.

Expect to get caught and expect a big fine.

No Lips On Water Fountains

Everywhere you go in Rome you will see Nasoni, the ever running water fountains that keep Romans and tourists hydrated. Fill your water bottle or cover the opening and drink the water that spouts out, but whatever you do don’t put your mouth on it!

How to use the Nasoni in Rome
The corrct way to use the nasoni in Rome

Firstly, come on – that’s gross. We all want to use the fountains and none of us want your mouth cooties. More than just being yucky behavior, it can be expensive too. New laws have made it illegal to put your mouth on the water fountain. Expect to get caught and expect to pay a fine of hundreds of euros.

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The BEST guide book for Rome! Order your copy here

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New laws in Rome are costing tourists hundreds of euros in fines

Why Rome Should Ban McDonalds At The Pantheon

Junk food giant McDonalds is trying (re)open a temple to processed meat at the place built 2000 years ago to be a temple to all Gods, and I for one am not happy about it.

The Pantheon in Rome was built 2000 years ago by emperor Hadrian.
The Pantheon was built 2000 years ago by Emperor Hadrian. It has been in constant use ever since.

Italy pioneered the slow food movement, a movement that is about real food, in season, not processed, as close to farm to table as possible, eaten at a table with friends and family. Basically the complete antithesis to the garbage that is McDonalds.

So the American junk franchise aggressively trying to push its way into the sites of ancient ruins is even more offensive than otherwise.

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No One Wins With McDonalds. Except McDonalds.

Although there’s a McDonalds on every street corner in America they are few and far between in Italy. The Fast food culture hasn’t really taken off in Italy, a country where meals are consumed sitting at a table be it at home or in a restaurant.

But McDonalds isn’t targeting Italians. Italy is one of the most touristed countries in the world, and McDonalds wants those tourists, so it is trying to worm its way into the big tourist sites. Just last week they got turned away from the Baths of Caracalla, this week they are trying to pollute the Pantheon.

The Piazza della Rotonda, home of the Pantheon has a variety of eating options, from artiginal gelato, to the most famous coffee shop in the world (Tazza d’Oro) to a variety of trattoria and restaurants. You can sit outside at a table with a view of the Pantheon and enjoy Italian food and culture. McDonalds wants to violate that, siphoning off Americans and Chinese and plowing their tourist dollars into junk-o-rama at the expense of the local businesses.

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Three Ways McDonalds Makes Rome Lose

There are multiple ways the city loses when McDonalds comes to town, but lets look at three of them:

* Local Business Suffers

Italians don’t really benefit too much from all these tourists. Beautiful, historical piazzas such as Piazza della Rotonda don’t charge an entry fee, you just walk in. The only way the city and the people make money is by tourists spending money in stores and at food establishments. Local business benefit from the influx of tourists sitting at their tables, eating their food.

Glam Italia Tour in Rome at the Pantheon in Piazza della Rotonda
June 2019, Glam Italia Tour at the Pantheon

If a percentage of those tourists are now getting Big Macs instead, those local businesses get hurt.

* The Trash!

American fast food chains generate an extraordinary amount of trash. Here in the states people walk around eating fast food and then (hopefully) dump the refuse into trash cans. Look around any American city and see how much fast food rubbish is littered around the streets. A McDonalds by the Pantheon is going to create trash around the Pantheon.

traash on the streets of Rome has become a crisis
Trash in Rome has reached crisis levels since the closure of the Malagrotta landfill a few years ago, then the fire at the Salario landfill last year.

It should also be noted that Rome already has a problem with trash collection and disposal. The city doesn’t need American food franchises adding to the volume and making it worse.

* The Extra Crowds

A McDonalds at the Pantheon will draw even more people into the area as tourists follow the signs to the golden arches. As tricky as it can be to take a photo of the Pantheon without tourists getting in the way, a McDonalds will make it worse.

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The Burden Of Extra Tourists In The Piazza

Bringing American tourists to a McDonalds at the Pantheon also brings more problems, for everyone – you and me included.

* PICKPOCKETS

Whether they are right or wrong, pick pockets think American tourists have the best and easiest stuff to steal. The average American tourist is likely to have more cash on them than the average European or Eastern European. The flash more jewelry, more overall bling, and as a result are pickpocket magnets.

If you were a pickpocket and didn’t want to hang out at the Trevi Fountain, a big American fast food chain would be the next best thing. Easy pickings from distracted tourists busy supersizing their orders and plowing through fries. I wouldn’t care about that – serves you right for eating there, but now you have drawn more pickpocketing to the area, and that impacts all of us.

* TERROR TARGETS

If you belong to some deranged sect and want to inflict harm on a large group and get your cause some internationally televised fame and attention, what better place to do it than one where Americans hang out? McDonalds, Starbucks, Subway – none of them should be in Italy, period. I tell all of my Glam Italia Tour travelers to stay the heck away from them and with the exception of two travelers, over the years have been successful.

Although I travel the world without fear of terror attacks, I do consciously avoid the areas around McDonalds and Co. While writing this I did a quick google search on terror attacks and McDonalds. It looks like over the years there have been plenty.

McDonalds had a junk food palace in the Piazza della Rotonda in the past but was run out of town back in 2011. Hopefully the powers that be will turn their backs on any kickbacks paying the chain’s way into the piazza. The reversal on permitting the proposed Baths of Caracalla McDonalds at least gives me some hope.

If you feel you need McDonalds to be part of your travel experience, maybe just stay home?

Do you want a bigger, more authentic experience in Rome, away from the tourist crowds but still in the heart of the city? My new book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things to Do in Rome: Beyond the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps shows a different side of the Eternal City, with loads of options for incredible things to do without the crush of tourists! It is already a bestseller – get your copy today and see why!