When you speak of Europe and romance, most people automatically think of Paris. But I like to think of Roma. There is something more approachable about Rome. There is a realism and sensuality about this city that has endured for so long, and its people who have achieved so much.
Perhaps it is the beauty and accessibility and sheer passion of its language. Sure, French is beautiful but there is something about Italian that is more accessible and yet emotive. It is of course the language of music – adagio, andante, piano, fortissimo. It can sound soft and romantic and oh so sensual, or very passionate and energetic and excited and even humorous. Of course it can also sound violent and hostile, although you always feel that it cannot sustain prolonged aggression. That would simply be all too exhausting and unnecessary and besides, you have to calm down to eat and drink and love.
Arriving in Roma I was expecting an efficient European city like those in northern Europe (albeit with different architecture), but the train from the airport travelled through areas much more familiar to me in Asia. Tenements, graffiti and litter, dirt, buildings lacking maintenance, obvious poverty. Then the taxi from the airport travelled through narrow streets, the buildings with ochre coloured paint pealing off them, the ubiquitous Vespas weaving their way around the car at all times, seemingly reckless with their safety but miraculously avoiding collisions. Most of the time, anyway.
We had made the decision to stay centrally, so we could walk everywhere. All the main sites were nearby. If we stood on our beds on tiptoes and craned our necks to look out our room’s only window, we could look out onto the square and the Vittore Emanuele II Monument (also known as the typewriter or wedding cake monument), and were only a short walk from the Pantheon and the famous Trevi Fountain (disappointingly crammed into a small square full of tourists), and we were could walk to both the Coliseum and, in the opposite direction, the Spanish Steps.
The Tiber was not far that far from us either, and we even walked to the Vatican one day, but that will be under V is for Vatican sometime in the future.
Going to the Coliseum and the Forum brought lessons from my Latin Studies classes to life. The Coliseum is simply extraordinary, still standing after 2000 years, and yet so closely a part of everyday life in Rome, with dense traffic whizzing by it. Avoid the tourist trap photo opportunities outside – they’re only after a hefty tip – and go straight in. (Friends of ours, unaccustomed to tipping, had an ugly scene with a gladiator a few weeks later which coloured their entire perception of Italy).
I recommend exploring it on your own with an audio guide, so you hear the historical and archaeological details but have special, quiet moments alone to contemplate, to remind yourself what has gone on there, to imagine being there, and to have special moments with some of its newer inhabitants.
The Forum was equally amazing. Now simply a few ruins in a garden, it is surprisingly easy to picture it in all its glory, Vestal Virgins and Senators, power and worship and intrigue and betrayal. Et tu, Brute? Scenes from history lessons – which always felt like fairy stories, myths, legends – emerge from the ruins and come alive. These people really walked this same earth as I was now doing, admittedly in my sneakers and with my camera and with a sense of awe and privilege.
The Roman experience is more than its monuments though. Italians seem to do everything with gusto. We saw more public arguments in a week in Rome than you’d ever see in a decade in New Zealand, and we could finally understand the portrayal of the passionate Italians we had seen in the media. Two men roared at each other over a traffic infringement, face-to-face and almost nose-to-nose, gesticulating wildly, aggressive but never violent, then seemed to mutely agree that their honour had been assuaged by a suitable public display, threw their hands in the air in disgust, and jumped into their respective tiny cars and zoomed off.
It struck me though. How can a people with such a reputation as passionate lovers and rulers of the world be so small and drive such tiny cars? They must have a few other things going for them …
The most special moments though were the simplest ones. The Pantheon Piazza was our favourite, only a short walk from our hotel. We passed through it daily, and enjoyed our first meal in Italy there. In the alleys leading into the piazza, we bought pizza pizza – I tried a simple margherita pizza, simply topped with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil, which to me is still the best pizza ever, and my husband enjoyed his potato and sage version. They cut a square of pizza, slice it in half and fold it together, filling facing inwards, and wrap it in brown paper. The perfect takeaway meal – no cutlery needed, no mess. We at it on the steps of the fountain in the piazza, and looked around us.
The piazza was dominated by the Pantheon, but the bars were filled with locals and tourists alike. A music video was being shot one day when we were there.
The buildings were beautiful, warm welcoming earthy colours, and I envied those who lived around the piazza.
The gypsies preyed on the tourists there. In particular we watched an old lady, bent almost double, supported by a wooden stick, begging for money. She was there most days as we passed through, but one day we walked behind the Pantheon, where it was quiet and peaceful. There were dozens of cats there, and we watched them try and work us for some treats as effectively as the gypsies worked the tourists. The old lady appeared, and as the main piazza and crowds dropped out of view, she gradually grew more upright. She threw off her shawl, stretched her back, and raised her face to the sun. She was about 35, and appeared in the best of health!
I knew a couple who had been to Italy on their honeymoon, and had confessed to us before we went that they had their first meal in Rome at MacDonald’s in the same Pantheon Piazza. We craned our necks to find it, tucked away in a corner at the back, thankfully discreet. Well, as much as it can ever be. How could those golden arches sully such a beautiful piazza? How could the city authorities allow it to do so? How could tourists, in Rome on a trip of a lifetime, eat there when so many better options present themselves so easily? (Excepting of course, the primary rule of a traveller – there is always a bathroom in MacDonalds)
The pizzas were our daily lunch. Never over-filled, they have one or two simple fillings, so you can actually taste them. It was early November, but fine and warm, and so the gelato vendors were still out. I’ve always loved ice-cream, but Italian gelato brought me to new heights of dairy ecstasy. Each flavour was so intense, and so real – no artificial flavourings here. You could taste the fresh raspberries or strawberries burst in your mouth on a summer’s day. Bliss. And of course, I had to try as many flavours as possible.
Breakfast was taken standing up (like the locals, and it was cheaper) in the busy bars. The busier the bar, the better. I’d swallow my creamy latte (but not as quickly as the Italians having their morning espresso) and we’d eat our pastries carefully, afterwards dusting ourselves off, as try as we might we could not avoid covering ourselves with the icing sugar from the pastry. We ate pasta and salad for a long Italian lunch on a warm afternoon in a garden with a carafe of red wine after a busy morning sightseeing, and on a cooler evening we enjoyed seafood risotto and a pinot grigio in a cosy restaurant off a small alleyway. We drank lots of red wine, nibbling on the bread sticks which were always on the tables, to my husband’s delight. He was less delighted when he discovered they were not complimentary, but it did not stop him.
We did plenty of sightseeing, but on our last day we could not face going to see another sight, and we just walked. We sat on the Spanish steps with the lovers meeting up on a Saturday afternoon, we strolled past the fashionable shops knowing we couldn’t afford anything in them, we explored the winding streets and got snapshots of Roman life, and we looked at the doorways of the apartments and houses, wondering always what was behind. We fell upon a vegetarian restaurant which served the best marguerite pizza I’ve ever had (before or since) smothered with a mixture of cherry and beefsteak tomatoes and – there’s no other way to describe it – lashings of fresh basil over the white mozzarella, and we lingered over our wine and coffee, eavesdropping on the conversations around us and inventing stories about the people whose language we could not understand.
Rome had charmed us. Sure it was chaotic and dirty, and the constant noise of the tiny Fiats at high rev, and the need to dodge the vespas on the footpaths and alleyways, meant that it was not always relaxing. But it is alive, full of passion and love and colour.
You feel more alive there. More in love.
In love with life.