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Monti: Where Roman Armies Kicked Back

Personal Business: CITIES: ROME


The city's oldest quarter is now its most charming

Essential stops on any Roman holiday are the Colosseum and the Forum. But rarely do visitors venture into the narrow cobblestone streets of the neighborhood sandwiched between the two landmarks. In ancient times it was known as the Suburra, or great slum, home to prostitutes, gypsies, and thieves, and the place Julius Caesar sent his troops to unwind after battle. More than 2,000 years later, despite the area's gentrification, Italian police still raid the illegal brothels tucked away there. Now called Rione Monti, Rome's oldest quarter is regarded by many as the most authentic and tourist-free district in the modern city.

In the square-mile neighborhood of Monti, you're likely to see snippets of Italian living from a bygone era. Residents of top-floor apartments, reluctant to climb three or four flights in the heat, let down wicker baskets from their windows by ropes and yell down to nearby shopkeepers to fill them. Once a month, a man circles the streets with a tiny motorized cart to sharpen dull cutlery and fix broken umbrellas.

Despite its location at the city's center, Monti is a safe island of tranquility. You can wander through the vicoletti, or alleys, and examine architectural treasures without the traffic and noise in much of Rome. Buildings on the tiny Via degli Ibernesi on Monti's southwestern edge represent a cross section of architectural history. For centuries, residents have added floors to existing structures. You might see a medieval palazzo built on ancient Roman foundations, with a third floor from the Renaissance and a 1950s' concrete roof terrace.

A woman I know owns a house near the Forum that has columns from a Roman temple in the basement. In fact, Monti is built on top of scores of unexcavated Roman-era temples and monuments, and smugglers and bandits are said to have created a network of secret passages through this netherworld. Over the summer, archaeologists began uncovering ancient Roman treasures in the part of Monti that borders Rome's main square, Piazza Venezia.FORTRESSES. In the Dark Ages, the warring families of the city built fortified towers to show their wealth. By the end of the 13th century, Rome had 200 such towers. Today, only about a dozen remain--five in Monti. The most famous, the seven-story, brick La Torre delle Milizie, was built 800 years ago as part of a fortress by Pope Gregory IX.

Many of Monti's street names reveal secrets from its past. Piazza degli Zingari (Gypsy Square) is built on the site of a medieval nomad encampment. The Vicolo delle Carrette (Carriage Alley) is named for the area of Renaissance Rome where horse-drawn carriages brought barrels of white wine from the Castelli Romani grape-growing region 20 miles away. As you stroll these byways, it will be hard to miss the aroma of traditional Italian cooking. On the main street, Via dei Serpenti, the Pasticceria La Licata makes a fabulous ricotta cheesecake and an unforgettable honey pastry said to come from an ancient Roman recipe. On Via Madonna dei Monti, Pizzeria Le Carrette has perhaps the city's finest pizza and exemplary antipasti such as fried olives stuffed with meat (olive oscolane).

Before World War II, Benito Mussolini tore down part of residential Monti to build the broad avenue called Via dei Fori Imperiali, which connects the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia. He thought the avenue would move Rome toward modernity, but the construction destroyed about 30% of the neighborhood. Despite this wound, the district has maintained its flavor and today attracts people looking for affordable homes in a unique neighborhood. With relics from Julius Caesar to more modern times, Monti is one more reminder of Rome's eternal character.EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN

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