Rome – what word comes to mind – traffic? Colosseum? Vatican? Yes, all of these, but here’s a surprise, my suggestion is parks/ nature reserves! Believe it or not, Rome is a green city. It is fourth in the list of European cities for green percentage – 34.9% green. Not a statistic one would automatically associate with the Eternal City, with its crowded, narrow congested streets, and especially since a large proportion of the population is apartment-dwelling so not a lot of yards and lawns as you go toward the center. In reality it is a somewhat comforting statistic if only because of the huge number of cars per person in this city; the more green, the more carbon dioxide eaten, and the more oxygen produced.
What I really appreciate, however, are the tranquil, fresh, cool spaces these parks provide in which to walk, bike, boat, think, and relax. Rome has several hundred acres of major park and reserve space to enjoy. Many of the parks were originally part of huge private villas, dating from the 1700’s, some so extensive that they included hunting reserves! Others go much further back in history, all the way to ancient Roman times. Some in fact are original tracts of land on the periphery of the city, set aside by emperors who recognized the importance of green areas and gardens in the public space. Because of the number of trees in Rome’s parks, they are perfect for the relatively new nature experience of “forest bathing”; put your hands on the tree and feel its living presence. Psychiatrists say that forest bathing is a mentally cleansing experience. Rome is the perfect place to try it out.
Let’s have a look at three examples of Roman parks I have chosen – one a villa park, one a former royal property park, and one a natural reserve. These are a sampling of the many green areas in Rome, and selected as representative of the different types of parks in Rome. There are many others just waiting to be visited.
Newly arrived in Rome many years ago I headed out by a “famous” bus, the 910, (check out a story of this bus in a future blog) to my first park experience – the Villa Borghese – to investigate this green phenomena.An example of a moderate-sized villa-based Roman park, and located in the upscale Parioli section of the city, the Villa was built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese as a party palace and a museum to show off his extensive and valuable art collection. Surrounded by almost 200 acres of gardens, walkways, lake for boating, and zoo, in its present form dates from the 1700’s. I continue to return to the park at least once a month to bask in its beauty. Weekends find it filled with a combination of tourists, residents, and families. (I once ran into theAmerican Ambassador giving his extensive family and wonderful Labrador Retriever a serious walk.) Not overly manicured, the gardens are a natural delight, dotted with small pools, waterfalls, several tiny dedicated art spaces, even an orangery. Your walk can be capped by a wonderful cafe by the lake which features musical performances on the weekends.
Typical of the former royal property Roman park is Villa Ada – again located on the periphery of Parioli (this area of Rome has a surfeit of park riches!). 450 acres in surface area, it is the second largest park in the city. Accessible by (one more time) the 910 bus or car, it is a central city location, and open to the public. Once owned by the Italian Royal House of Savoy from the mid 1800’s, ownership reverted to the Italian state in 1946. Although itcontains a relatively small private area housing the Egyptian Embassy, the public areas of Villa Ada are extensive, and contain winding walking paths, sport areas, a lake, small restaurant, and canoes, bicycles, even horses can be rented. While it does not have the tourist recognition of Villa Borghese, it is well used by the area’s residents, as well as serving as an outdoor educational locale for local schools. Because of its wide, flat green areas, Villa Ada frequently hosts music festivals during the summer months.
Last of my Roman park examples is, I admit, my favorite – the park of the Caffarella located on the southern, and oldest part, of the city. This 494 acre park (really, more like a natural reserve) has everything – extensive walkways, lake, small pools, gently rolling hillsides, ruins dating to ancient Rome, examples of and functioning ancient waterworks including aqueducts, many tombs of the ancient Roman elite, juxtaposed to the Garden of Life where current Roman families plant trees in celebration of family births, parts of the original Via Appia, and a functioning farm where wonderful mozzarella can be purchased on the weekends. Additionally, available to the casual walkers are several exercise and sport areas. If you notice a gathering of people and autos at the very southern edge of the park, you will find the end of the Aquedoto Claudia, where many Romans gather to fill containers with fresh, cool water from this ancient, still functioning engineering marvel.
The Caffarella is not a park in the sense of flower gardens and designed green areas, rather it is an ancient section of Rome left pretty much in its natural condition. You won’t find benches or special picnic areas; fallen trees and stumps, as well as slightly raised hillocks serve as seating; walking paths are unpaved. Metro A subway or bus lines marked for Colli Albani deliver you right to the entrance of the park.
You can get much more information on Rome’s parks on Google – lists, descriptions, activities, ticket information, etc. When you come to visit Rome, do make one or more of its parks a stop on your touring itinerary. You will be very glad that you did; your body and mind will be the better for it.
Text by: Kathleen Ventre