Piazza Navona was a short walk from my hotel by the Pantheon. It’s become much more crowded since my first visit to Rome in 1985, so the best time to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the fountains and surroundings is in the morning (when I took this photo). Later in the day it’s wall-to-wall tourists.
Piazza Navona was originally built in 87 A.D. as a stadium for athletic contests, including mock naval battles (don’t ask me how they got all that water in there). Like many historic sights in Rome, over time more building ensued. Today, it is a beautiful example of Renaissance and Baroque architecture – the Sant’Agnese in Agone Church, designed by Boromini, is behind the large middle fountain.
Pope Innocent X (from the Pamphilj family), hired renowned sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini to ‘make a splash’ by designing a monumental fountain for the middle of the piazza (to replace a smaller fountain that was there). Constructed between 1647 and 1651, Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain (La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) is a Rome landmark (and another popular movie location, including a Tom Hanks’ scene in Angels and Demons).
Rome is one of the best cities to see paintings by Caravaggio (one of my favorite artists, known for his groundbreaking work with shadow and light, chiaroscuro, and the realism of his subjects). Just east of Piazza Navona, France’s national church in Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi, houses Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s three paintings in the famous St. Matthew cycle (the Calling of St. Matthew on the left, St. Matthew and the Angel over the altar, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew on the right). They are in the last chapel on the left (Contarelli Chapel). To illuminate the paintings, you put a euro coin in the machine on the right. I was happy to see that there were guards posted in front of the church (pictured below) to protect the priceless art.
[Note: A block north of this church, you’ll find another Caravaggio painting, Madonna del Loreto, in the early Renaissance Church of Sant’Agostino (first altar on the left).]
After all that stimulating culture and art, it was time for a coffee break. When I’m traveling, I seek out a ‘watering hole’ that I can frequent each day to soak up the city’s rhythms and mingle with the locals. Gran Caffe (65 Piazza di Pietra) is that place for me in Rome, and it happens to be across the pedestrian walkway from my hotel (Albergo Cesari). Each morning, locals cozy up to the bar for their first espresso before heading off to work.
I went in late afternoon for a caffeine pick-me-up. I can’t tell you how many beautiful Italian women I saw walk in wearing stiletto heels and form-fitting skirts (in high 90-degree weather) on the arms of well-dressed Italian men in sports jackets. It’s definitely a local hangout, even though it’s on a major tourist path between Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.
Gran Caffe specializes in Neapolitan coffee (in the pot pictured below). Water is added to half the pot and fine ground coffee is put in a separate metal filter basket. When the water boils, the pot is taken off the stove and flipped over, so the water will drip through the coffee. The pot makes a great presentation at the table and is fun to pour. Of course, I had to pair it with a canoli dessert (which originated in Sicily and is also known as “cannoli siciliani”). La Dolce Vita never felt so good.
More interesting background on Piazza Navona:
List of all Caravaggio paintings and their locations:
Gran Caffe (no company website, this is Google site):
[Note: These are solely my opinions and experiences. I did not receive any compensation for my comments.]
CAROLINE O’CONNELL is the author of five guidebooks on Paris and southern California, and she has written numerous travel articles covering Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, among others (website, www.CarolinesTravelTips.com).