Rome in August is when Romans flee and Rome is your own personal trattoria

This was Via Marmorata, the main drag in my Testaccio neighborhood, last week at 5 p.m.
This was Via Marmorata, the main drag in my Testaccio neighborhood, last week at 5 p.m.

(Editor’s note: I’m away on vacation (yes, even retired expats have vacations, when they date Italians who work) and I’m re-running a blog from two years ago about the glories of Rome in August. Enjoy.)

Living in a tourist town such as Rome has its disadvantages. It’s crowded. Your view is often impeded by the silly white fedoras all the tourists apparently get at baggage claim. You’re often embarrassed to be American when some tourist walks into a cafe and asks, “Where is St. Peter’s? Thank you very much.” (How tough is it to learn the word “Dove”? It means “Where is?” And any tourist who says “Thank you” instead of “Grazie” should be made to swim the Tiber until infected by diseases contracted from rat urine.)

But in Rome, one month is hugely underrated: August. I recently ripped Rome in July ( . It’s hot, crowded, touristy. Everyone is sweating. An empty bus seat is a rumor. However, when I turned my calendar page from Il Vittoriano to Piazza Navona, Rome changed. Half of it emptied. I’m actually sitting on buses. I’m sitting on the subway. I’m no longer twisting my body in yoga positions to avoid roller bags and gypsies’ lightning-fast hands. I’m walking down the middle of streets downtown not worried about runaway Fiats passing idling cars stuck in traffic.

Rome, in August, is fabulous.

It’s shocking how fast Rome empties in August. It’s like every Aug. 1, the Allied troops invade. Romans flee as if Rome is burning again. It’s uncanny. The reason goes into the mentality of the Roman mind, a habit that has gone on since possibly the Renaissance. Romans love the sea. Rome is only 20 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea which has a coastline 620 miles long. Rome’s region, Lazio, is dotted with cute little beach towns such as Fregene and Sabaudia and Terracina and Sperlonga and Gaeta. About 75 percent of all businesses in Italy are family owned. Not only do their employees want to vacation at the sea, so do the employers. So they all close up shop for most of August. It’s the hottest month of the year. Schools are closed. It makes sense.

Piazza Testaccio is usually buzzing with people and activity.

It peaks on Aug. 15. That’s Ferragosto. It’s the major Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary and marks the biggest vacation day of the year. This is when you roam around Rome and see so many corrugated iron doors pulled down shut. My video store is closed. My enoteca is closed. My cleaners are closed. My tabacchi is closed. My vegetable stand in Mercato Testaccio is closed. My Piazza Testaccio is nearly empty, void of children kicking plastic soccer balls and couples kissing on benches. It is so quiet, Suddenly, my neighborhood has turned into North Platte, Neb.

Still, this is one of my favorite times in Rome. Last week I had dinner at La Cantinone, about the only restaurant open in Testaccio and home to the best lasagna I’ve ever had. I didn’t need reservations. I just showed up and I was about the only person on the patio, facing the old fountain in the modern piazza. I went to my subway station at Piramide, usually packed with commuters coming in from or going to connecting trains to the suburbs. The subway platform was empty. I had beers with friends at Antilla, in Trastevere, Rome’s old bohemian section so packed in July you must walk sideways down the narrow, windy, cobblestone alleys. On this day, we sat outside the tiny sun-splashed pub with our artisan Italian beers and watched whatever left in Rome’s world walk by. My randy Australian friend barely had enough women to hit on. The nights are even cooling.

The platform of my Piramide subway stop.

Despite the closures, August is a terrific time to visit Rome. Centro Storico, Rome’s historic center, remains largely open. Prices have dropped from the peak in July. Believe it or not, August is not considered part of Rome’s high tourist season. You can always find something open. You just may have to knock on a few more doors. And at least you can sit on public transportation while you roam the city looking for a place to eat. Bus and subway service is not cut one iota. The only negative is if you come to Rome to meet Romans, you’ll be stuck meeting only waiters and bus drivers. If you want to meet the locals — and that’s why I travel — go to the sea.

Or, better yet, come in the best month of the year to visit Rome. It’s when the days have cooled and the backpackers have left. It’s when the Romans have returned and so have their tans. Come when skies remain blue and the tomatoes still taste as sweet as apples, crushed on the homemade pasta you eat while sitting in a quaint garden trattoria on a cobblestoned alley. Come when it’s the Rome of your dreams.