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It is not often you feel sorry for someone in a limousine but our whole family did during our Rome 500 Experience sightseeing tour. When we stopped at a popular sightseeing spot, another tourist standing next to her private chauffeur looked longingly at our hot pink vintage Fiat 500, known affectionately as ‘Sophia Loren’. We all knew what she was thinking: “I wish I had booked that car instead of the limo”. Our family of three probably had more in common with Mr Bean than Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the film Roman Holiday. However, this didn’t stop us getting caught up in the romance of ‘the Eternal City’.

It came down to a combination of sexy Sophia and our guide, Alvise, whose in-depth knowledge of Rome was exceeded only by his genuine warmth and sense of fun. Our tour began just down the road from the Colosseum at the Rome 500 Experience garage where we piled into a vintage Fiat and set off on our ‘7 Hidden Gems of Rome Tour’. I was a bit dubious when we booked the tour and Alvise insisted we could all fit into the Fiat. However, he was absolutely right. Even though my husband is 6ft 4” tall and my 12 year old son is nearly the same height as me, it was surprisingly easy.

Hanging out with Sophia Loren
Hanging out with Sophia Loren

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While we did drive past a lot of Rome’s major sites such as the Colosseum, our three hour ‘7 Hidden Gems of Rome Tour’ was more about going beyond the famous tourist spots and getting an insider’s guide to Rome. I don’t want to spoil the surprises so have outlined just a few of the highlights of our tour below. Our first stop was a spot overlooking Terme di Caracalla, a vast outdoor historic site where you can walk through Roman public baths which were built between AD 212 and 217. While we were there Alvise took the photo above. We had to hold the pose for ages because a tour bus pulled up beside us and everyone wanted to take the same pic. Our Fiat, Sophia Loren, was the kind of girl who attracted a lot of attention everywhere she went in Rome.

We also visited the tranquil Garden of Oranges, also known as Parco Savello, which had fantastic views across Rome’s rooftops. St Peter’s Basilica is perfectly framed at the end of the park although, through a unique optical illusion, it seems to get further away the closer you get to it. This is a popular spot for couples to go strolling and people to have their wedding photos taken. We didn’t see any lovers but I did manage to capture a guy gesturing with his hands while talking on his mobile phone. You can’t get more Italian than that!

Watching St Peter's Basilica 'shrink' at Parco Savello
Watching St Peter’s Basilica ‘shrink’ at Parco Savello
View of Rome from Parco Savello
View of Rome from Parco Savello

In the park Alvise showed our son how to ‘drink like a Roman’ by holding his finger over the nozzle of a nasoni (big nose) Roman fountain so the water came out the top in a convenient, easy to drink spurt. Those who drink out of the nasoni like a tap are instantly identified as ‘tourists’ by the locals. Outside Parco Savello we took a photo of Alvise and Sophia in front of a statue of the River god Oceanus who features on Giacomo Della Porta’s fountain. Alvise explained this mask had previously been in a few spots in Rome including the Forum and Lungotevere Gianicolense before it ended up here.

Can you see the 2nd spurt of water?
Can you see the 2nd spurt of water?

One of the things we loved most about our tour was the way Alvise brought Rome’s history to life with his engaging story telling. Being able to hold the attention of a 12 year old boy for three hours is not an easy task but Alvise did so with ease. He also took us to join the queue to see St Peter’s Basilica through the keyhole at the Palace of the Cavalieri di Malta, located in Cavalieri di Malta Square on the Aventine Hill. This is where we saw the lady who wished she had hired ‘Sophia’ instead of a limousine.

Alvise and his vintage Fiat, Sophia Loren
Alvise and his vintage Fiat, Sophia Loren
Thankfully the queue to look through the keyhole moved very quickly
Thankfully the queue to look through the keyhole moved very quickly

We also went to Eataly, a multi-storey food hall that encapsulates the Italians’ love of food. While this isn’t a typical ‘tourist attraction’, it should not be missed if you want to learn more about Italian cuisine (and pick up some great, affordable food at the same time). In addition to stocking all sorts of cooking ingredients Eataly has an on-site microbrewery, fresh pasta shop, dedicated butcher, cured meats emporium, etc, etc, etc. There are also multiple gelato shops including one that is dedicated solely to chocolate gelato. Of course, we had to try this in the interests of research. Can you see the liquid chocolate coming out of the taps in the photo?

Specialty chocolate gelato shop at Eataly
Specialty chocolate gelato shop at Eataly

Eataly was doubly exciting for my Fiat-loving husband because this is where Alvise let him drive Sophia Loren. It reminded me of when you are learning to drive as a teenager and your parents take you to a supermarket carpark late on a Sunday afternoon to practice. Alvise chose a spot in the vast Eataly carpark with not too many cars and gave my husband a quick driving lesson then he got out and my husband took our family for a spin.

Alvise pretending (or maybe not pretending) he is scared before the driving lesson
Alvise pretending (or maybe not pretending) he is scared before the driving lesson
Driving lesson in progress
Driving lesson in progress
Now it was our turn to look scared (while my husband looked absolutely delighted)!
Now it was our turn to look scared (while my husband looked absolutely delighted)!

He must have done okay because after that Alvise offered him the chance to drive us around on the streets outside but my husband wisely said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’ However, if you are braver than he is, you can do a self drive trip around Rome in a Fiat 500. You take one car and a guide takes another and you follow him around the streets of Rome, with commentary (and directions) delivered via a two way radio. We finished with a trip to a pyramid embedded in the ancient fortified walls in the heart of the city.

Alvise explained that at one point Egypt became rather trendy in ancient Rome and the wealthy residents started collecting Egyptian artifacts. However, if you were a powerful local like Gaius Cestius, a magistrate and member of one of the four great religious corporations in Rome, it was even easier to indulge your passion. You simply built whatever Egyptian artifact you wanted. In the case of Cestius, this was tomb shaped like a pyramid which he constructed in 18 BC.

Yep, that's a pyramid alright
Yep, that’s a pyramid alright

We discovered a lot more than the ‘7 Hidden Gems of Rome’ promised on our tour. Alvise (and Sophia Loren) gave our family an understanding of Rome that was much deeper and far more meaningful than anything we could have found in a guide book.

Disclosure: The writer was a guest of Rome 500 Experience.

If you are heading to Rome and looking for some other things to do, we really enjoyed touring the Colosseum and also the food tours we did. One focussed on the area around Campo di Fiore and the other explored Trasevere.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.