When in Rome...The Tiber
The Tiber is Rome's river in the same way that the Thames is London's, though not quite so wide, nor quite as feted. It's the reason Rome is sited here, specifically at the point where a thin island midstream made a two-stage crossing possible. One of the two bridges to this island is still in use, thankfully as a footbridge. The Ponte Fabricio dates back to 62BC, which is gobsmackingly ancient for a walkway that links a hospital facility to a set of traffic lights. Ninety percent as old is the Ponte Sant'Angelo, this a couple of bends to the north and linking the city centre to the castle of the same name. Again traffic is prohibited, as it has been along the northern bank since 2000, allowing a proliferation of Seine-like stalls to hold sway. And here again papal calendars are the order of the day, as well as academic paperbacks, plaster Colossea and fifty cent postcards, should you ever be in need.
The Tiber's defining feature is its depth, not specifically beneath the waterline but below the level of the embankment. Indeed the river carves across the city in a stone-walled canyon, far enough down that you have to make a really special effort to descend, via some not always entirely salubrious staircases. And this is a shame, because the ultimate cycle superhighway runs along the waterside perfectly segregated from the traffic, if only the average cyclist could be bothered to head down there. I passed quite a few, all things considered, and also a number of joggers enjoying an ideal urban course.
You'll know the concreteTiber-side road from Spectre, this broad meandering path forming a perfect private racetrack for James Bond and his pursuers. It's not immediately obvious from reality how they got down there, because vehicle access points are are deliberately infrequent, but 007 always finds a way. As for the river itself, its surface remains wilfully underused, the sole human occupant during my promenade a lone rower sculling back and forth, entirely untroubled by pleasureboats, barges, tourist craft, whatever. Instead the greeny grey waters of the Tiber rippled on beneath bridges old and new, generally out of sight and out of mind. [9 photos]
When in Rome...Food and drink
Italan cuisine is world famous, and seemingly very good for you - you rarely see an overweight local in Rome. Pasta is a staple, obviously, but the area around the capital also has its own specialities including pork and artichokes, with gnocchi saved for Thursdays and tripe the Saturday treat. Having experienced a distinctly bland cheese-soaked pizza on evening one, I stepped up the following night and ordered vaccinara which is oxtail, served in dumpling-sized lumps with a chunk of bone through the middle. The local very-soft cheeses I was rather less keen on, but the variety of processed meats was delicious, and a variety of ham-based snacks got me through the day. I'll not mention restaurant number one, but I can heartily recommend the authenticity of Osteria Numero 6 in the backstreets of trendy Trastavere, and the hearty service at the family-run Taverna del Quaranta near the Colosseum.
The other foodstuff that's everywhere in Rome is ice cream, or gelato, the Mediterranean climate allowing a broader window for year-round appreciation. A number of tiny gelateria exist across the city, some chained but the very best very much independent. Ice cream flavours range from fruity delights to something way beyond normal, with the end results rippled into serving tins awaiting your selection. You can ask for your unwhipped treat in a cone but purists favour a paper tub into which it's typical to combine several different dollops of your favourite confections. Taking online advice I headed to one of the pioneers of Rome's artisan ice cream scene, Il Gelato di San Crispino, hidden off a sidestreet near the Trevi Fountain in a shop so thin I walked straight past it twice. But wow what a selection, my chosen combination being (i) caramel meringue plus (ii) ginger with cinnamon, and wow what a taste too. Very much the ideal December treat, not least because the queue was non-existent rather than (I hear) out of the door and halfway down the street.
And let's talk about coffee. You'll know coffee as a quintessentially Italian drink, reflected in the terms venti and grande favoured by certain UK retailers. But it only takes one visit to Italy to realise that Caffe Nero, Costa et al are a fictional scam, serving up scalding froth no Roman would favour and at a vastly inflated price. Italians don't buy coffee to go, they order it at the counter and wait there while they down the lot. Their espresso is a strong shot in a tiny china cup, a caffe latte is essentially hot milk with coffee, and nobody ever drinks cappuccino after mid-morning. Even better an espresso sells at the flat rate of €1, currently about 70p, and an accompanying scrumptious pastry often for even less. The daily caffeinated charade we Britons now swear by bears no resemblance to Italian common practice, which is a shame because the authentic experience is so much more effortlessly tasteful. There are no Starbucks in Rome, they wouldn't dare.