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Piazza di Spagna La Barcaccia (Rome, Italy)

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      23.01.2010 00:37
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      One of Rome's 'must-see' sites

      I lived in Rome for a couple of years. Many years ago now but it's still a place I love to visit and share with other people.

      One of the loveliest things about Rome is its human proportions. Apart from a couple of sights there is little that dominates physically or makes you feel small.

      One unusual sight is the Piazza di Spagna, or Spanish Square which is not a square and is not Spanish. But for all that, or because of that, it has a charm and interest that more conventional Roman squares lack. Traditionally, it has been a cultural centre where artists and writers met and worked. The famous Babington Tea Rooms are just off the square and a museum commemorating the poet John Keats is in the square itself.

      As far as the so-called square is concerned, a bird's eye view would show a butterfly shape, or two triangles that meet at their sharpest point. In fact, a few hundred years ago, it was considered to be two separate squares: the Spanish square and the French square. Its name derives from the fact that the Spanish embassy to the Vatican was located here. It is designed in the Roman Baroque style.

      From whichever direction you come, the focal point of the square itself is the Fontana della Barcaccia or the Fountain of the Old Boat. As the name suggests the bowl of the fountain is shaped like a long, low boat. Its low height means it is strangely out of proportion to the rest of the square but apparently it was forced on the designer by the low water pressure here. There is a story that the boat commemorates the flooding of Rome in 1598 but my friends in the city are divided on that particular story. Suffice to say, it's quite charming and looks as though it's floated straight out of a child's story book - very Peter Pan.

      It's the traditional place in the square to take photographs but you'll need plenty of 'pazienza' - people make themselves comfortable at the side of the fountain and it can be ages before you find a spot to record your memories.

      The most imposing part of the square is the impressive flight of stairs that leads out of it on the western side and up the hillside to the Trinita dei Monti church. These, for obvious reasons, are known as the Spanish steps. Many of the publicity photos show the steps covered in azaleas. In fact, this only happens in spring. The rest of the time you can admire the glorious 'stairway to heaven' unadorned. It looks like the perfect place to picnic but be warned - although a short rest is accepted, anyone who looks as though they are about to set out lunch will be courteously but firmly moved on to clear the view for everyone to admire.

      The other cultural sight for British people in the Piazza is the former home of the poet John Keats, which is now a memorial museum to him and to his contemporary writers. It is easily overlooked, being at the bottom of the steps at the right hand side but you really must visit. Keats was forced to move to Rome for the sake of his health leaving behind the love of his life. He never returned to her, dying in an upper room in 1821 from consumption. The museum is striking in its simplicity and the room where Keats died has been restored to look as it would have done 200 years ago. It's a serene and moving space at the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world.

      In 1986, locals and tourists were horrified when a McDonalds opened in the square. However, the backlash it provoked is credited with launching the Italian 'Slow Food' movement which promotes nutritious 'home-cooked' style of food.

      The other reason this area is so popular is because of the shops in the three streets that exit the square to the east. These are tiny shops by Oxford Street standards but the names are the greats of fashion design: Gucci, Bulgari, Bruno Magli, Dolce e Gabbana, Cavalli and Prada amongst others. It's a great place to window shop.

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