A Different Roman Holiday

Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Travel Writer

We were in Apulia, lounging on beaches along Italy’s coastal heel, when it occurred to my husband and me that both we and our rental car needed to be dropped off in Rome — 400 miles and two metropolitan traffic jams away.

We could have booked an airport hotel and written off the last day as a multi-hour schlep. But we wanted to extend our beach vacation to the very last possible hour — and in doing so we hit upon some inspired, even under-sung corners of Roman charm.

“Why don’t we spend a night at one of the towns along the coast just south of Rome,” my husband suggested. While Rome itself is not on the water, its Fiumicino airport is.

“From the air, I’ve always thought that Fiumicino looked very cutesy on the beach,” Oggi added, conjuring visions of Rimini-on-the-runway. He actually used the word “cutesy,” while I cringed at the idea that someone might consider a romantic night in, say, Howard Beach before catching a flight out of JFK.

I was skeptical but agreed, on one condition: that we spend our last night in Trastevere, a trendy neighborhood of Rome close to its historic Jewish quarter. We’d drop off the car a day early, and maybe I’d finally experience Rome — a magnificent, intense but ultimately opaque city — in the intimate, neighborhoody way that has always eluded me in its sterile central hotels.

I was less optimistic about the idea of Rome as a beach resort. But off we set for the provincial city of Latina, gateway to the Lazian coast about an hour south of Rome proper. After weaving through pretty agricultural byways — where tall trees and canals bordered the main road — we hit the beach in Nettuno, a resort city of almost 50,000 whose nautical name sounded promising.

In the misty twilight after a day of lashing rainstorms, the drab modern towers of Nettuno were hardly alluring. But we parked anyhow, determined to have a look at the sea, where thundering surf made swimming out of the question.

We were delighted to find an attractive boardwalk along a clean, wide sandy beach, which leads to a harbor at Nettuno’s medieval core. It’s not in the guidebooks, but Nettuno’s historic center is an unexpectedly lovely, atmospheric piece of historic Rome hidden amid its modern-day suburbs. Out of season, the streets were empty as we wandered amid the inviting golden glow of trattorias and the harbor waves visible below.

Nettuno’s modern town is an appealing microcosm of contemporary Italy. There are wonderful restaurants where locals carefully guard their gastronomic tradition, immigrants from the Balkans and Africa, boardwalk gelaterias, murals of Pope John Paul II on his 1970s visit to the town. While hardly overflowing with postcard charm, Nettuno draws scores of Roman summer weekenders, and makes a cheap, fun pit stop for drivers en route to Fiumicino. 

Or, as it turns out, to points considerably farther west. More than one local told me that Nettuno’s strategic port had been the way station for thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees en route to the U.S. a few decades back.

I recalled a ride to JFK I once took with a Kiev-born cabbie, who waxed rhapsodic about the six months he spent in a beach town near Rome — likely Nettuno — awaiting resettlement in Brooklyn. (“If Italy was so wonderful,” I asked, “why didn’t you stay?” He gave me a you-gotta-be-crazy look in the rear-view mirror: “Come on. There’s New York, and then there’s everything else.” Agreed.)

In the morning we drove on to Anzio, on a scenic point just south of Fiumicino. With a beachfront promenade crowned by a statue of the berserk Roman emperor Nero, Anzio is sleepier but noticeably more posh. Where Nettuno has cafés and shops, Anzio has one pastel villa after another, with Ferraris and lush palm-fringed gardens and even a working synagogue (Tempio di Anzio, on Viale Claudio Paolini: +39 347 775 3545).

Either town makes a nice beach stop, and the drive north along the coastal road to Fiumicino reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway. Pretty, low-key beach towns gradually gave way to thick dunes and brambly seaside thickets, inviting the driver to pull over for a dip or a solitary beach walk.

Dropping off the car in Fiumicino — which is indeed cutesy, with a seaside boardwalk and more pastel villas — we headed on to Rome.

Trastevere has been touted for at least a decade now as the once-gritty, now-gentrifying artsy ‘hood where travelers can get a dose of local color.

Feeling a bit behind the curve, I took one look at the multi-lingual menus and realized Trastevere was less Williamsburg than West Village. But it is charming,  with a backstreet peacefulness elusive in Rome’s more central hotel zones. Trastevere’s lanes are narrow; traffic is light and atmosphere is heavy — especially at night, when vine-covered walls and cobblestone courtyards shimmer in the moonlight.

You can stroll, as I did in the morning, up into the hilly bourgeois neighborhoods where schoolchildren and dog walkers  fill the tree-shaded sidewalks, past orange mansions and tranquil parks far from the tourist scrum.

Or you can wander by night across the romantic bridge over the Tiber River to Rome’s more central east bank. It’s just 10 minutes to the cafés of the Campo dei Fiori and the wine bars along its narrow side streets, full of stylish patrons and tasty sangiovese. Just to the east, the historic Jewish ghetto — with its Grand Synagogue and Jewish Museum — are a short stroll away, making Trastevere a strategic base.  

If you’re planning a serious (or first) trip to Rome, I’d stay somewhere more central. And if beaches are the main focus, head directly to Rimini or Apulia.

But if you find yourself with a night to kill in Rome and a day to explore its outskirts by car, you could do worse than to hang your hat in Trastevere — and stroll the beaches of Nettuno and Anzio. 

The beach at Anzio, located on a scenic point just south if Fiumicino. Photos by Hilary Larson

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