Rome's hidden secrets brought to life in rockstar city

Peek through the famous keyhole to admire the secret gardens of the ancient order of the Knights of Malta and get a picture-perfect view of St Peter's Basilica. Picture: Shutterstock
Peek through the famous keyhole to admire the secret gardens of the ancient order of the Knights of Malta and get a picture-perfect view of St Peter's Basilica. Picture: Shutterstock

A keyhole that allows you to spy on St Peter's Basilica is just one of the secrets revealed on a Vespa tour, writes Teresa Ooi.

Visiting one of Europe's rockstar cities is all about what you know and who you know. And if you don't like crowds, it's also about knowing the best-kept secrets.

Rome would have to be the biggest rockstar of them all (though if you're French, you might disagree). Few cities can rival its cultural heritage - it is a city filled with priceless treasures, jaw-dropping frescoes and stunning sculptures.

Rome has reigned as the darling of European cities for decades, attracting more than four million tourists a year. Most throng to the Roman capital in summer when temperatures are high and museums, churches and the Vatican City are teeming. With so many people, it is hard to appreciate the ancient monuments without elbowing your way in.

So, the best time to visit is in winter when the streets are emptier and temperatures hover around 12-16°C - far more conducive to sightseeing. And one way to see this great place is on a vintage Vespa scooter on a Sunday morning.

Imagine 25 buzzing engines and parping horns driving through the centre of Rome's great roads. You ride pillion, holding tight to a complete stranger-cum-driver, your life in his hands as he meanders round the cobbled streets, beep-beeping away. Your only safety nets: a helmet, a red bandana and a pair of Saint Laurent sunglasses.

It helps that we are in a convoy of mostly first-timer pillion riders nervously giggling as outstretched hands take endless selfies.

We make a whistlestop at Piazzale Garibaldi on top of Janiculum Hill for a bird's-eye view of Rome. It's mind-blowing, as you spot the Vatican, St Peter's Basilica and the Pantheon.

We then stop by Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta and peek through the famous keyhole to admire the secret gardens of the ancient order of the Knights of Malta and get a picture-perfect view of St Peter's Basilica. The Renaissance church is located in the heart of Vatican City and is surely the highpoint of our three-hour Vespa tour.

A keyhole view of the Vatican.

A keyhole view of the Vatican.

We are told the Knights of Malta operate as a separate and independent kingdom with their own passports and rule of the land, uncontrolled by Italy.

Our final stop is the Santissima Trinita dei Monti, a Roman Catholic, late Renaissance church, best known for its commanding position overlooking the Spanish Steps which lead down to the Piazza di Spagna in the heart of the city. It is also the gateway to some of the best shopping streets in Rome.

Travellers who love to indulge in a bit of retail therapy often gravitate to the city's breathlessly expensive luxury Italian fashion houses, vintage clothing stores and impeccable leatherwear boutiques. There are handcrafted handbags in dozens of eye-catching colours and stunning shoes in all shapes, styles and sizes.

Roman hotels are as varied as the city and its shopping. There are the intensely and passionately Italian. Then there are the modern takes, as well as small guesthouses slap in the centre of the city and grand palaces fit for an emperor.

We stay at the Rome Cavalieri hotel, a Waldorf Astoria five-star resort, perched on the highest hill on Via Alberto Cadlolo, with magnificent views of the city.

You will love the hotel's old-fashioned grandeur: its marbled corridors, manicured gardens and palatial spa with an amethyst Turkish bath.

Rhe Rome Cavalieri hotel, a Waldorf Astoria five-star resort, is perched on the highest hill on Via Alberto Cadlolo.

Rhe Rome Cavalieri hotel, a Waldorf Astoria five-star resort, is perched on the highest hill on Via Alberto Cadlolo.

The Cavalieri's austere 1960s architecture is tempered by its opulent interiors displaying a collection of 1000 antique tapestries, paintings and sculptures.

Rooms come with an exhaustive pillow menu and the marble bathrooms are stocked with Ferragamo toiletries.

The downside? It takes 30 minutes to get to the city and, unless you can fit in with the hotel shuttle timetable, costs about $30.

The last time we were in Rome, the Trevi Fountain was shrouded in hoarding as it was undergoing a major refurbishment. So this time, we head straight to the fountain, scene of movie goddess Anita Ekberg's late-night dip in Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita.

A Roman holiday isn't complete without a stop at the Trevi Fountain.

A Roman holiday isn't complete without a stop at the Trevi Fountain.

It does not disappoint. Its flamboyant baroque collection of mythical figures and wild horses gleams brighter than ever. So we toss a coin into the water to ensure that we return to Rome again and again.

It starts to rain so we take refuge in a nearby trattoria and have a lunch of roasted vegetables and seafood linguini. It's deliciously authentic.

We walk towards Via del Corso, home to big, fast fashion stores like Gap and H&M. But at every street corner, there's an ancient statue or monument to admire. That's the joy of roaming in Rome - it's full of historical surprises.

We stop to buy a paper cup of warm roasted chestnuts at a princely price of $8. We are puzzled when the vendor staples an empty paper cup to the cup of chestnuts - it is for our peeled shells. Very clever.

We visit the Pantheon, the 2000-year-old temple, now a church and one of the city's best-preserved ancient monuments. Then we admire yet another historical site, the giant gladiatorial arena, the Colosseum. Today, it is still Italy's top tourist attraction - best to book in advance.

We decide to visit the opulent St Peter's Basilica at the crack of dawn and it is a brilliant idea. There is hardly anyone around except for the nuns and priests getting ready for morning mass at the largest church in the world. Entry is free.

No matter how many times you visit the Eternal City, you will always be able to gorge on more culture, history and art.

Fly: Singapore Airlines flies from Australia to Rome via Singapore from $1566.

Stay: Stay at the five-star Rome Cavalieri resort, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel and bathe like a Roman Emperor. Rooms start from $403 per night. See romecavalieri.com

Tour: Go like a local on a Vespa tour for a most exhilarating introduction to the Eternal City. Priced at about $260 for three hours. See dearomatours.com

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