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Discover the real Rome that lies beyond the silver screen

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Stylist’s photography and specials director Tom Gormer goes behind the scenes at the living film set that is Rome 

Rome is one of the most visually iconic cities in cinema. We have watched Audrey Hepburn eat gelato on the Spanish Steps in Roman Holiday, seen Sienna Miller in Vogue documentary The September Issue posing for Mario at the Colosseum, and been insanely jealous of Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett wandering the cobbled streets in The Talented Mister Ripley. So in a way I feel like I have been to Rome before I have even taken the two-and-a-half hour flight from Stansted. But nothing prepares me for just how beautiful the city is in real life. It really is like walking into a cinema screen. I want to see all of the sights, but I also want to discover a different side to Rome – the one that you don’t see on Netflix.

The word ‘hostel’, in the context of old-school Roman glamour, does look like a spelling mistake, and with its connotations you mightn’t associate it with a special weekend away. But this is all wrong. For the last six years, Generator Hostels have been popping up in major cities, quietly dispelling the ‘hostel’ reputation, and towards the end of last year it added Rome to a roster that includes Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Barcelona. 

Situated in the Esquilino neighbourhood in a vast corner building, Generator Rome offers 78 rooms (doubles from £70) across six floors, with two shared dorms (both mixed and single-sex) on each. I am impressed by the decor: industrial retro, with street-art murals, exposed lighting and wooden floors. There is no mini bar or TV, nor any fancy added touches, but we do get towels and a hairdryer. The dorms have a charger socket by each bed and lockable drawers. All of the rooms are en suite and wi-fi is free. Is this really a hostel? For an added €5 you can have a deli-style buffet breakfast and the decorative red bar, with wicker chairs and Chinese lanterns, serves snacks and drinks into the early hours. “The best Aperol spritz I’ve ever had,” I overhear someone in the group next to me say as I give my full attention to the ooziest mozzarella balls.

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After a great night’s sleep we are up early, and somehow I find myself outside the hostel wearing a cycle helmet. Scooteroma (scooteroma.com) offers tailor-made tours of Rome on the back of a Vespa. Immediately I think this could the beginning of an episode of Casualty (we are holding on to the waist of a driver, wearing just  a helmet for safety), but it’s possibly the most fun I’ve ever had in a city. And for those who might be a bit nervous, I felt safe at all times.

There are different trips available (prices start from €200, and tours begin at either 10am or 3pm to avoid rush-hour traffic); I opted for the street art tour, and asked for a few touristy extras to be thrown in. The time literally flew by: whizzing past the Pantheon, winding through the cobbled streets dodging tourists, up the hills via a secret ‘keyhole’ view of the city (atlasobscura.com); take a look, I don’t want to ruin it. And then over into the southern Ostiense district, where the street art scene is in full swing. 

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Graffiti in this district has been legalised, and the standard is incredibly high; it is literally a free outdoor exhibition of more than 30 works. I would recommend looking out for, and trying to name, the 26 spray-painted portraits of famous faces that mean something to JB Rock, Rome’s answer to Banksy, in his ‘wall of fame’. 

Tom, Rome

Tom, generating Instagram traction

Graffiti in this district has been legalised, and the standard is incredibly high; it is literally a free outdoor exhibition of more than 30 works. I would recommend looking out for, and trying to name, the 26 spray-painted portraits of famous faces that mean something to JB Rock, Rome’s answer to Banksy, in his ‘wall of fame’. 

Read more: Revealed – the 25 cheapest city breaks in Europe

There is so much to see and photograph. The 48 windows of a building that have been turned into colourful, kaleidoscopic faces are breathtaking. Your Instagram likes will go through the roof. For something more traditional, there’s a Monet retrospective opening at the Il Vittoriano this month. 

You can’t go to Rome without eating all the food. And one of the best places to do this is the Mercato Centrale Rome (mercatocentrale.it), the city’s Dover Street Market of eating: a 1,900 square metre space across three floors with 17 carefully curated, open-plan food stalls and 500 seats. Everything you could want is here. I eat my way through focaccia cooked in traditional ovens, every type of cheese, pizza, truffles and the best ice cream. I would definitely single out Alessandro Conti’s deep-fried artichokes – one of the best things I have eaten this year. 

Mercato Centrale

The world is your oyster - and whatever else you fancy to eat - at the Mercato Centrale

But we are in Rome, you have to be a bit of a tourist. In recent years the Trevi Fountain, arguably the most-visited attraction in the city, has had a major overhaul with fashion house Fendi paying for its facelift (you may remember the fashion show outside the fountain in 2016). This means you are no longer allowed to throw coins into the water, eat or drink in the vicinity or recreate scenes from La Dolce Vita and actually get in. Boring!

However, if you don’t want to stand and watch everyone take selfies, what many people don’t know is you can actually go under the streets of the fountain and take a journey back in time to how Rome and the fountain itself were first built.

La Città dell’Acqua, or City of Water, is just around the corner from the Trevi on Vicolo del Puttarello 25 (closed Tuesdays, €3 or €5 with a guide). The best bit is that the building also doubles as a free cinema, perfect to rest our legs and pretend we are locals enjoying an afternoon film.

Private rooms at Generator Hostel Rome from €40 per night, or €15 per night for a bed in a shared room; generatorhostels.com


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