ROME — Several years ago, a bestseller called Eat, Pray, Love chronicled the author’s quest to “find herself” by taking adventures around the world.The “eat” part took place in Italy, and in some of the most memorable scenes from the 2010 hit film version, Julia Roberts devoured pasta and pizza in what she called her “no carb left behind experiment.” Then she moved on to India for the “pray” part of the journey, which led to “love” by the end.Well, with apologies to that author — and Julia Roberts, too — my recent trip to Rome could be called “Eat, pray and do what I love most — shop.”My husband and I travel to the Eternal City about every other year, and we have enough restaurant recommendations to fill a travel book. As a professional stylist who shops for a living (for other people, mind you), I’ve amassed a list of favorite boutiques in Rome, too.But it’s the “pray” part of the journey to Rome — the cradle of Roman Catholicism — that made our most recent trip as meaningful and memorable as one could ever experience. Thanks to my husband’s job with the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, I had the good fortune to be at the Vatican during a once-in-a lifetime event: the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII in late April.This celebration was held at St. Peter’s Square on a Sunday. More than 800,000 people from around the world flooded into the streets of Rome. They were pilgrims who came to honor their beloved popes and see them attain sainthood.It was 6 a.m. when I made it as far as the Bridge of Angels, about a mile from St. Peter’s Basilica where the canonization was to take place. People who had camped out, rock concert-style, were everywhere, making turning around or moving even slightly virtually impossible.So I gave up being that close to history and retreated to Piazza Navona, where I was joined by probably 35,000 other participants who watched the event on a big-screen TV (one of many that had been set up around Rome to handle the huge crowds). I know Piazza Navona well; I make sure to visit it each time I go to the city. It’s a part of medieval Rome that is packed with Renaissance and Baroque period churches, palaces, and fountains. I found a spot on the curb so I could sit during the churchlike ceremony. Normally the piazza is full of shoppers, artists, and street merchants trying to sell their wares. But on this day, under cloudy skies, there was no pushing; everyone was calm and respectful. I could have been sitting in my own church instead of the well-worn pavement of Piazza Navona.Soft tears fell from the eyes nearby Polish people, loyal to their country’s beloved Pope John Paul, as Pope Francis declared him a saint. The crowd’s roars of delight and applause were a perfect ending to the touching ceremony.I soaked in the atmosphere and tried to record as many mental photographs as I could, because I know that no matter how many more times I’m fortunate enough to return to Rome, I’ll probably never again have an experience of such historical and spiritual significance as this.Getting to know RomeRome is an ancient city of about 2.7 million passionate, enchanting, vibrant but down-to-earth Italians. It stands out among Italy’s exciting and magnificent destinations.In my five trips to Italy in the past 10 years, Rome has always topped my list of cities to explore — both the tourist must-sees and the quaint neighborhoods off the beaten path. My first time in Rome, I hopped on a city tour bus to catch the highlights of the major attractions and areas of the city. It was time and money well spent. Using the hop-on-hop-off bus, I traversed easily to famous places including the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum and Vatican City. Each piazza, or square, has its own personality and attractions. One of my favorite areas to kick around in is north Rome. There you will find the Spanish Steps nestled among the finest designer stores, quaint, family-run shops and restaurants right off the cobblestone streets. The Spanish Steps are great for people watching (while eating a gelato, of course).Take some time to bask in nearby shopping heaven on the streets leading to Piazza del Popolo and then wander over to enjoy the beauty of nature in the Borghese Gardens, Rome’s equivalent to Central Park. Plan in advance and make reservations ( www.galleriaborghese.it) to see one of three museums in the gardens. Italian masters Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian fill the most famous Borghese Gallery with paintings. A quick jaunt down the way is the Pantheon neighborhood, often called the heart of Rome. Stand under the granite columns and take in this wonder of architecture; then go inside to experience the dome built in A.D. 120.This site is always packed with tourists but still worth your time. If you are lucky, you will experience the quietness that falls over the crowd when a soft rain falls through the open skylight. In this area, just off the tourist path, is my favorite street in all of Rome — Via Margutta. It’s a short street, tucked away from the hectic bustle, offering sweet smelling vines, colorful flowers, art galleries, shoe cobblers and fine craftsmen mixed with small boutiques to delight your senses and slow down the city pace. The classic movie Roman Holiday was filmed here. Actor Gregory Peck’s character lived at Via Margutta 51, while the film director’s, Federico Fellini, lived at Via Margutta 110. Make sure to return to the Piazza del Popolo around 6 to 8 p.m. daily to join the Italians in their ritual evening stroll, called the passeggiata .Next, head down the Via del Corso and up Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps to enjoy La Dolce Vita Stroll, or The Sweet Life Walk. It’s packed with Italians and tourist alike enjoying the early evening, people watching, flirting and checking out who is best dressed. Leave the maze of the cobblestone streets to get a bird’s-eye view of Rome from the top of the Grand Hotel Minerva (Piazza della Minerva, 69). This magnificent view of the Pantheon and ancient Rome is hard to beat, especially while enjoying an aperitivo tradition of a buffet of small snacks and a glass of vino. I spend most of my time in these areas during my visits. You can spend days exploring the streets, uncovering gifts and souvenirs, and living the Italian way of life — “il dolce far niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing, as the Italians say.EatDelicious food is synonymous with Rome. Around every corner, you can find a ristorante or a pizzeria. The trick is to find authentic Italian food, away from tourist traps; for recommendations for off-the-beaten-path eateries, ask your hotel staff or locals who live in the neighborhood. (If I am the only American in a restaurant, I know I’ve found a gem.)About those restaurant classifications: The ristorante is more expensive and a bit more formal, while a trattoria is more casual and lower priced. The osteria is even less expensive than the trattoria. The food at trattorias and osterias is authentic Italian home-cooking, like the “nonna” or grandma would make. Both types typically are family-owned businesses, which means good food at a good price.Start your typical Italian morning with a croissant and cappuccino in one of Rome’s prettiest piazzas — Campo de’ Fiori (Field of Flowers). Each morning it is filled with flowers, fruit and vegetables, and as well as household items and spices. Wander through the stalls while watching locals bargain with the merchants.For lunch, pop into a small local pizzeria or forno, a bakery, for a tasty meal. I like to stop for lunch at Pizzeria Pasquale (Via dei Prefetti, 34) and order a pasta dish and a glass of wine for the euro equivalent of about $7.50 U.S. Pasquale has been around more than 25 years and is a favorite for the staff at the near by Parliament Building. A good lunch will hold you until dinner, with the help of a gelato. Snacking is not “a thing” in Italy. The meals are hearty and they last. But don’t plan on eating dinner before 8 p.m. or you will give away that you are not Italian. To ensure a spot for dinner, make sure to call ahead or have your hotel call for a reservation. While at dinner, relax and take your time. Allocate at least two to three hours. With a finely prepared meal of local and fresh ingredients, it would be a waste to rush.Another surprise to Americans: Don’t wait on servers to bring the check. They won’t. Ask for it when you are ready, politely, of course. Italians are not concerned with turning tables to get hungry customers in and out; they want their diners to take all the time they need to enjoy their meal. Also, Italian servers do not expect a tip.One of my favorite restaurants in Rome is a trattoria almost tucked away from sight, Piccola Roma (Via del Vicario, 36). Go all out with a meal of bread, wine, water, antipasti, salad, pasta, and a main course of meat along with dessert and coffee for two for about $75.It’s next door to one of my favorite gelaterie — Giolitti — Rome’s most famous (Via Uffici del Vicario, 40). Gelato tip: Be sure to try the unusual combinations like fig and crème plus any of the fruit combinations; the fruit is always fresh and full of flavor. I love to combine or “marry” the flavors like chocolate and lemon. PrayFor Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Vatican City is a must-see. This tiny but impressive place (officially called The Holy See) is home to the pope and to Roman Catholicism worldwide. Vatican City, the world’s smallest country, has its own supermarket, pharmacy, heliport, railway station, publishing house, newspaper, radio and TV station, and bank and post office with its own stamps and currency.Since taking the reins from Pope Benedict in 2013, Pope Francis and his humble, gentle ways have attracted huge crowds. You can see Pope Francis, if he is there, each Sunday at noon when he appears at his study’s window overlooking St. Peter’s Square. Each Wednesday, he conducts “general audiences” for the public. You will need a free ticket if you want a seat. Apply in advance to Prefecture of the Papal Household, 00120 Vatican City State; the Vatican’s website, www.vatican.va, has additional information. Be sure to click on “Prefecture of the Papal Household.”The Vatican Museum, with its more than four miles of treasures of art and architecture, is certainly worth spending some time in. Michelangelo’s newly restored Sistine Chapel cannot be missed. The museum entry cost is 20 euros via the Vatican website; buy a ticket in advance or endure long lines to purchase when you arrive.While there is free entry to St. Peter’s Basilica and the crypt, you must pay 5 euros to climb to the top of the famed dome; for a spectacular view of all of Rome, it’s worth every bit and more. Try to arrive before 10 a.m. to go faster through the security checkpoint and avoid long lines. Or head over around 4 p.m. just in time to attend the daily Mass at 5 p.m. Dress code hint: no shorts, short skirts or bare shoulders, even during the hot summer months. I always have a lightweight sweater in my backpack, just in case. Nearby, one of my favorite walks in Rome can lead you to the finest view of all — atop Gianicolo Hill. The panoramic view of Rome is worth the winding and steep climb. Making your way down the hill, through sweet-smelling vines and cascading flowers, to the cobblestoned Trastevere neighborhood below is a stunning and somewhat spiritual adventure in itself. Trastevere is a medieval neighborhood that is the rustic, colorful and more “real” side of Rome. After the strenuous hike, a long lunch in a small mom-and-pop trattoria boasting 100 years of serving their best vino and pasta is the big payoff.This is truly the Rome I love. ShopWhen I arrive in Rome, my inner fashionista always takes over — fast.Rome is the place to shop for the newest and boldest fashion, whether you prefer the expensive boutiques along the Via Condotti or quaint boutiques and antique-filled shops near Pizza Navona — which, with its fine craftsmen shops of baskets, frames, antiques, glass, jewelry and clothing, is a true shopper’s delight.Check out the streets along Piazza del Gesu for inexpensive clothing shops. Silk, cotton and wool has been made and sold along these streets for decades.This is also where you will find my favorite “shopping street,” Via dei Coronari. It’s lined with small, one-of-a-kind boutiques selling wares from antiques and clothing to fine linens. One of my favorite finds is Anna Maria Quattrini (Via dei Coronari, 185/186). Owner Anna Maria Quattrini, who counts herself friends with Italian politicians including the country’s president, personally selects clothing for her clients. I have discovered many new styles thanks to her keen fashion eye. Check out her separates that you can mix into your vacation wardrobe. You will find dozens of designer shops along the Via dei Condotti, near the Spanish Steps. Dior, Gucci, Valentino, Louis Vuitton, MaxMara, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Giorgio Armani — all the big boys of design are there. Prepare yourself, though, for the hefty price tag that comes with shopping in the design capital of the world, because these designer looks don’t come cheap. After you’ve gotten over sticker shock, don’t be surprised if you feel pressured to make a purchase. Most Italian shopkeepers take a personal interest in fitting you in what they think is best and will sometimes even follow you around the store to do so.If you don’t make a purchase, expect a disappointed reaction. In Italy, the shopkeepers are passionate about their merchandise, from paintings to designer bags, and it shows in their disappointment if you don’t select their recommendations. Italian shopkeepers have a genuine interest in assisting and helping you find the perfect item to proudly wear when you get home.Take note that most shops open at 10 a.m. and close at 1:30 p.m. for the daily siesta. Italians take their siesta seriously. Years ago in Venice, I was abruptly ushered out of a store when siesta time rolled around. I did not get to make my purchase until it was over. However, most shops stay open with later evening hours ranging from about 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.Always remember your manners while shopping in Italy. When you enter a store, greet the shopkeeper with a “Buongiorno!” (Good morning!) or “Come sta?” (How are you?). On the way out the door, an “Arrivederci” or goodbye is customary. Even if your Italian is basic, give it a try. Don’t worry about your pronunciation skills. (If they can like my “Southern” twist to the Italian language, they can welcome anyone speaking Italian.)Like clothing, jewelry is everywhere in Rome. I always make a point to visit Magda Nica (Via dei Coronari, 136) for some beautiful, unique jewelry at good prices. I recently purchased a wide bangle with rows of tiny chain links encasing the wide band that was handmade by Magda herself.Another one of my favorite places has a uniquely Southern name, Cotton Club (V.S. Caterina Da Siena, 56), and is filled with gems that look like Etruscan treasures. Delio, the owner, began selling jewelry on the Spanish Steps back in the 1960s.When he started, it was simply to make enough money to buy his beloved vino. That story is one of the many reasons I love him and his city, and can’t wait to go back each time. Salute!
Susan Huston is a freelance writer and stylist and the owner of Susan Huston Fashion Concepts. www.susanhuston.com