Looking back through the photos of Rome it struck me that either my memory is getting worse or that there was something less memorable about the trip. Thinking again, I took this trip when I was preoccupied with desperately trying to find a job and had self-inflicted accompanying stress that along with that. For June the weather was also swelteringly hot, and tired stressed and hot are not the deal trifecta for the perfect holiday. Add to this my not preparing before coming and us getting frequently lost and flitting around town illogically only added to the turmoil. I anticipated that Rome would be larger than Florence, but didn’t quite understand the extent of the sprawl of the capital city.
This was again a holiday with my mother. For the above reasons I was quite snappy on several occasions. It’s interesting how when with your family or friends from school you can quickly transform back into your teenage self. I learned that my mother can be incredibly slow to do anything and I can be incredibly impatient, a combination that is far from winning. After one particularly dramatic argument, the air was cleared and the relationship restored: the storm before the calm. And a few short weeks after this trip I finally did get a job. Holy cities are powerful places.
In Florence our apartment was so central that we could see the Campanile from our window. In Rome, we were near the end of the 8 tram line on the less fashionable side of Trastevere. We arrived quite late on the first night, then on the second day didn’t quite anticipate how far we were from “central” Trastevere, resulting in a very long walk home and a tired following day. If you are holidaying with me, 10-15 mile walk days are the norm.
If you are staying this far out, you will undoubtedly be at the behest of the Italian public transport system. The final day saw a bus strike which led to crowded trams but empty streets – the only time during the trip when I didn’t half expect to die while crossing the road.
A man on the tram spoke to us about how corrupt the Italian government is, and that the public transport is a testament to this (strikes occurred nigh on weekly, he said). “I love Italy, but it is being ruined. Rome is our capital city yet look how far we are lagging behind other European capital cities.” He then went on to recommend going to Il Gesu at 5pm for the statue unveiling, which we did and it was a highlight of my trip and life that there is something so grand and unnecessary happening daily. Public transport may have its issues, but friendly Rome is quite in contrast to insular London.
We did get completely lost trying to change buses west of the Vatican. After half an hour of wandering in the dark, we gave in to the metro and tram links.
Aside from ll Gesu, Santa Maria in Trastevere was my favourite church. I may prefer Florence to Rome, but Rome undoubtedly has the finest churches of any city that I have ever been to. All you need is to be the centre of a religion for it to happen. We visited at around 5pm, when the sunlight shone through the altar window and bathed the gold church in an additional golden glow. Gold on gold on gold, how decadent, how Catholic. We stayed for part of the service, I nearly cried, mother decided we should leave during the sermon which was long and in Italian.
Sundays are for church and for families. The Parco Regionale Urban Pineto is, the guidebook told us, the park for the locals. The number of locals there likewise suggested that this was the case. Families came in their droves. Laughter, barbecued and music resonated through the air. Young couples stole afternoons under the trees. Lone runners young and old battled the heat for the good of their bodies; Rome is a very fit city. And children frolicked all around. It was busy but not crowded. Vast parkland will always be to the city’s benefit.
Rome is a city for tourists. Maybe this is why it is decaying, as the man on the tram told us (although he went on to say that this should be the contrary, with infrastructure improved to draw tourists in. Of course, there is plenty here to attract tourists so why waste tax money on their comfort). Mother and I aren’t very touristy tourists, preferring instead to wander on our own steam and try to find hidden gems or “where the locals live.” We do still enjoy looking on at tourists with their strange ways (queuing for hours in the can’t-even-think-straight-or-stop-sweating heat). The Vatican is the most criminally commercialized holy place, but it is a law unto itself.
From the age of 8, I largely stopped being interested in Ancient History. It is less solid than history from the early modern time onwards (medieval can still be a bit dicey), and I studied history to MA because I liked the logical rigour behind it. Ancient History seemed more like guesswork, with people being happy that their guesses were good enough. And it was so long ago, seemingly having no real connection with today.
Looking particularly at the Pantheon, Circus Maximus, and the Via Appia Antica, this ambivalence to the Ancient faded away. Here these buildings are, thousands of years old, still being, standing alongside our modern buildings and roads. It beggars belief that they are still surviving. Will our new buildings survive? Surely not this long. The Pantheon also shows how hardwearing concrete is, a material which is now hopefully past derision. Stunning and still standing.
While Circus Maximus is now for all intents and purposes a plain, it is amazing to think that many thousands of people sat here to watch the entertainment of the day. What a vast expanse it is! If from nothing you can still get the feeling of something, this is special indeed.
Of course, the Coliseum and Forum are worthy of a mention and on the top of most tourists’ hit list. Impressive indeed, but sullied by the crowds and traffic. The view from the outside is quite sufficient, and there are Roman remains all around (the wonder wears of quickly clearly). Lead me to the Renaissance!
A short train ride out of town, Ostia Antica offers an alternative to Pompeii. We were too late to gain entry for the day, but enjoyed candied nuts by the gate and the calmness of the Roman countryside.
We stopped off at Ostia on our way back from the Lido. June is not yet the peak time for beach visiting. Considering the heat of the week, we picked probably the least good weather day to visit. Nonetheless, a swim in the sea is invigorating. Mother got so into it that her sunglasses were swept away, an eternal present to the waves. It wasn’t a relaxing or even very pretty beach, with vendors badgering you occasionally and the best spots saved for those who are willing to pay. The sun worshippers seem largely unconcerned by other people, leaving you to still find your solitude in the public areas.
On departing the train, it isn’t obvious that there is a beach nearby and the streets offer very little of interest. Still, if you persist, sun, sea and sand will be your reward. And, for us, pastries too.
Rome is not the most fashion-conscious city. The people of Rome, while among the friendliest that I have encountered, have somewhat of a world weariness about them. Maybe it’s the heat. Regardless, they still have some impressive shopping spaces.
Around the corner from this arcade is Santa Maria in Via, a church where there is supposedly the miracle of water that has been running for centuries. Around another few corners is the Trevi Fountain, closed for maintenance on our visit (which still didn’t stop the selfie sticks being out in force).
I mentioned the Via Appia Antica earlier but have saved the story until now. Reach the old Roman superhighway on the 118 bus, which you can also take for good views around the main attractions in the city.
A man stopped us along the Appian Way, attracting us into the ruins of an old Roman home. The other ruins along the Way hadn’t let us down so far, and we were interested to see some more typical domestic architecture than the religious and vast estates that appeared earlier up the road. On exiting through a different door, he ran back over to us and started trying to chat up mother. He got her email address (she can be naive) and we left. The heavens suddenly opened and we stood under a tree. A car pulled up; it was the man. Mother got in. Not wanting her to be kidnapped alone, I joined her. Riding the bumpy road in a small Fiat in the pouring rain is a fleeting way to see one of the Romans’ great feats of infrastructure. The man thought that he had found a new family. I was praying that we weren’t going to die. He asked us to meet him the next day; I said we would (if he thought we were meeting the next day he would let us out this day, so the logic went). The old road turned off into the new road and we were in civilisation again. He dropped us off in a bus stop – mounting the curb, physically stopping within the bus stop.
“Why did you tell him we would meet him tomorrow? We have plans. I don’t like lying.”
“So he would let us out. Why did you get in the car with a stranger in the middle of nowhere?!”
“It was raining.”
Life lessons with mother. It did save us walking and wetness.
He later sent her a series of desperate emails and underwear shots. Never give your real details out.
Back in the city, love is everywhere. The Italians are a romantic folk, if not always the smoothest.
Of course, love isn’t always the root to happiness. In one of the most popular (and cheapest) restaurants in Trastevere, this bride looked none too pleased at her life decisions.
In this restaurant we tried the Roman specialties of carbonara and tripe. The carbonara was exceptional, the tripe too rich for me and I had to swap with mother’s steak as I couldn’t finish it. I’m sure my hardened palate one year on would easily be able to consume all of the animal’s innards in the deep tomato sauce.
Elsewhere in our food journey, the Roman pizza with its crisp base and more daring ingredients than the usual Neapolitan offerings (figs!) was satisfying, though mother wasn’t too impressed by the size of the al taglio, so we got a delightful Neapolitan-style pizza with a side of suppli from the only suppli restaurant we could find in Trastevere. Mother was exceedingly satisfied with this culinary stopping point. Such a shame that it was on our last day.
My favourite district is that in the area of the Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori. Some (I) would say that this is the most Renaissance/Florentine of Rome’s districts, and possibly the most romantic and/or Italian. Mother dropped €70 on truffle oil which took up her entire liquid allotment in her hand luggage and which still hasn’t been opened. This was a tourist stall. The locals got their groceries from the other stalls. Watching people shop is fast becoming a favourite past-time of mine.
We refilled our bottles (never pay for bottled water. They have your back) and had one of the best wandering days of the trip. The streets are still difficult to navigate, but the whole district was charming so it was an enjoyable confusion.
Nuns and priests abound! Of course, being the holy city. I mentioned to mother that it made me happy to see nuns. She asked whether I would ever want to be a nun and then seemed genuinely disappointed when I replied to the negative. She got talking to an African priest in one of the larger, gaudier churches while I looked on at the nuns, the original and the best #squad.
The banks of the river are unimpressive during the daytime but come alive as the afternoon drifts into evening, with live music, bars, entertainment and restaurants all lining the banks of the Tiber. The river doesn’t feel to be the heart of the city in Rome, merely a boundary between north and south. When there is so much history, culture and religion throughout an area, nature becomes relegated. There is still a draw, but the lifelessness during the day was quite striking, especially when compared to England’s capital
I thought that my memory had failed me, but this was a packed trip. The mysteries of Rome are still yet to be fully uncovered. In eight days, we didn’t even come across the modernist district (EUR) or the late Zaha Hadid’s great masterpiece, MAXXI. But out with the new and in with the old, the Vatican, high concentration of sensational churches, and regular punctuation of ancient monuments and ruins will forever be Rome’s great draw.
A gelato a day makes the tensions melt away. I continue with my preaching on the healing powers of gelato (and a smothie) and how it is a great symbol of all that there is to be enjoyed in life. Eternally. In the Eternal City.