For my friend Deb’s first visit to Rome (and my 6th), I had prearranged a Vespa tour of the city because I thought it would be far more fun on the back of a Vespa than sitting on a bus. Right?
On the scheduled day, two Vespa guides picked us up at our hotel for our half-day ride around Rome’s famous sights. Helmets on heads, holding on tightly to our drivers, we first zoomed around the Colosseum area, the Baths of Caracalla and the Orange Garden… living our Audrey-Hepburn-Roman-Holiday fantasies!
Then we pulled into an abandoned, dead-end piazza in a part of town I didn’t know well. It also didn’t look like there was much to see here. The drivers parked the Vespas, instructed us to get off, and go look through the keyhole in a double door in front of a big marble gate. I was a little confused, and feeling a bit protective, so I asked why and the response from both gentlemen, now grinning, was “just go look”. Not terribly reassuring.
Maybe it was my conservative Christian upbringing kicking in, telling me there was something a little naughty (and scary) about looking through a keyhole without knowing (even knowing!) what was on the other side. I don’t think Deb was all that keen about doing it either.
Vai, vai! The guys kept encouraging us. As we gingerly walked over to this nondescript door, Deb asked if I knew what it was. I shrugged, as my brain flipped through my mental guide book, unable to land on any possible attraction that I seen or heard of in my many visits here. But maybe it was one of those secret things that only locals knew about? Hoping that was so, I said “when in Rome” and took a peek.
I gasped. I might have even swore.
I saw our guides laugh as I faced them with my jaw open to my chest. They must wait for this moment – when our little tourist minds get blown by this incredible surprise! Through the keyhole was a leafy trellised pathway, leading the eye to a perfectly-centred view of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The gardens and villa beyond the gate belong to the Priory of the Knights of Malta and the Malta embassy. It was once the home of the Knights Templar, but was turned over to Rome’s Crusades ally, the Knights of Malta, in the 14th century. There is no record of whether the gardens were planned to align with the keyhole’s viewpoint, but as this is private Maltese territory unavailable to the public, locals believe that it was purposely designed this way as a gift to share with the city.
So, when you visit Rome and are instructed by a local citizen to look through a keyhole, my advice is to disregard your initial reservation and GO FOR IT!
(Original painting sold)
(For great Vespa tours of Rome, click here.)