I return to you as an émigré returns
to his own country and rediscovers it…
Pier Paolo Pasolini
My first time in Rome was a return to the city I had always known. Not because I live off its heels, or because I even really know Italian but because I am like everybody else: a Westerner. And to be a Westerner is to have a part of you conceived in Rome.
It is easy to assume (and the uber-media makes it all the easier) that America, the Kingdom of the States, is the fundamental, Western nation, where we can all go and feel – minus a change in landscape – as if we’re still right at home. McDonalds, Burger King, Coca-Cola, MTV; these are things we were all raised with and know as intimately as we do our local culture.
But those are all superficialities, veneers. If you want to feel like a true, profound, proud Westerner – then all roads must lead you to Rome.
On our trip we were encamped right across the Teatro dell’ Opera, making the optically diverse Via Nazionale our home base. The cultured avenue is flanked by two typically grandiose squares – the Altare della Patria and the Piazza Repubblica. Roman piazza life is the smoking womb of Mediterranean lifestyles. The Altare della Patria – the Wedding Cake as it is known by the food-obsessed Romans – is the Roman ode to the founder of Italy, King Vittorio Emanuele II. It is a neo-classical, overblown, glowering white monument with a statue to the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame surmounted by countless nationalistic sculptures that would have been Mussolini’s wet-dream. It is certainly full of Italian pomp, and when we saw it it happened to be carnival; the parades added to the triumphal, odious grandiosity of the shrine. For what it’s worth, it certainly helps you get your bearings. Due west is the Capitoline Hill, and all the wonders of Ancient Rome.
It was surprising to discover that the Coliseum was the least spectacular wonders in that entire area. Even if you haven’t seen it before – the thing is kitsch. Take nothing away from its breathtaking miracles of engineering and the way it bullies you into feeling minuscule – but no one really tells you about the hypnotizing Via dei Fori Imperiali.
The February rains added an eloquent gloom over that haunting street filled with the broad, expansive remains of ancient Rome. An endless parade of panoramic streets, markets, barracks, forums and temples – a limestone constellation that tires out your incessantly clicking fingers over the camera more than your thighs: this isn’t a street you want to rush through, especially since it’s been pedestrianized. Controversial little tip: do what we did, skip the long queues of the Coliseum and take a stroll down the Imperial road. There will be nothing to regret!
The bricks, the mortar, the cement, the blackened friezes, the mosaic roads, the ochre amphitheatres, cobbled streets and skyscraping columns: this is where the West was made. This entire road charters the transition between barbarity and civility. And you really do begin to understand how Romans could describe any non-Latins as ‘barbarians’ – you’re almost tempted to do the same, but 21st century ethics blunts your tongue. Besides, you feel a part of this heritage, how can you not?
From the Altare della Patria it is a short ten minute walk to the next of Rome’s Baroque piazzas: Piazza Navona. In the cold winds that drilled through the wide open square we were cajoled into huddling together for selfies to keep warm, looking up at the architecture only briefly. We paid our freezing respects then moved on, forced into a happy accident; the discovery of some of Rome’s chicest, Bohemian side-streets. In these narrow, Medieval channels you’ll find coffee-serving bookshops (where you can buy unfinished novels of Nabokov), organic cafes which you will want to try, clothes shops both for the rich and alternative, antique shops where you could buy maps or books older than any Tex-Mex joint, and discover discreet museums dedicated to various elements of Roman life.
We came to the Piazza Navona and the surrounding streets via the Castel Sant’ Angelo – built as Hadrian’s mausoleum, and later served as the Papal fortress. Once the tallest building in Rome, the cylindrical fortress commands a domineering position over the Tiber, the main river of Rome. Lined with old stone bridges and towering sculptures, the tranquil riverbank reminded me of the Arno in Florence. Except that the entire riverbank is dominated by the Big Brother scowl of the dome of St. Peter Basilica.
Our destination that day was the Pantheon, the home of the gods. A humble monster of a church that had served as a Roman temple to the gods, now the burial site of Italy’s founding god – not Romulus and Remus, but Vittorio Emanuele II. The church needs a lot of restoration, and the steep piazza Rotunda outside is patrolled by Roman soldiers who will assault your wallet in return for a legion of selfies, can make the area feel underwhelming. But it only takes a small effort of will to remember that this timeless structure inspired Brunelleschi to build the Duomo of Florence, the Pantheon of Paris (wherein are buried the greatest minds of the Enlightenment), the US Capitol and the Jefferson Memorial; and then you are awed into humility by the idea that you are standing within the very seed from which sprouted the rose of the civilization we live in now.
But Rome isn’t all about grandiose, static architecture. A few blocks away from the Pantheon, walking down past the Piazza Navona we came to the Campo de’ Fiori, the Field of Flowers, where a bustling market, as colourful as any suq invites you to taste the flavours of a civilization.
The square of the market is bordered by busy restaurants – forget about eating here without any booking – but you would do well to avoid this at times unsafe area, and venture back into the centre of Rome for something safely Roman to eat. The usual rule applies: avoid the main piazzas as they are mostly tourist traps. Try the side-streets, and Rome, blissfully, sticks to the secret adage of rowdy-is-best. Restaurants and bistros frequented by high-standard, low-key locals are where you want to be. We found one such gem – though hardly a kazin – Ristorante Alessio in the Via del Viminale. This happened to be close to our hotel, around the corner from the Museo Nazionale and the Termini station, so we indulged ourselves to repeat visits.
Guided by our culinary Virgil – our man, Federico – we sampled the best, most genuine dishes Rome had to offer. (All the while we felt we were being let in on a grand secret.) Here we sampled excellently prepared dishes like Jewish-style artichokes (luckily, February is the season for them – artichokes I mean, not Jews!), cacio e pepe pasta, bistecca fiorentina, saltimbocca (veal), courgette flowers, roasted pork and crackling, pork cheeks, tiramisu, crème Catalan… sorry for over-listing, but really, you want to try all of these staple dishes. Being there makes you proud to be a hedonist not a monk… makes you relieved, even, you weren’t born into some Amish family, and are able to enjoy these subtle delicacies life and Rome (which here one and the same) have to offer!
Speaking of guides and religion… I have to do my duties and talk about my compulsory visit to the Vatican (I cannot escape it, just as the travel writer in Cuba has to mention Hemingway, or, should anyone ever make it out of there: Orwell in North Korea). At first I was dead-set against visiting the place, not only out of disdain for the institution it represents but also on the basis of pure traveler’s common sense: come on, it’s too obvious! I was even more put off when I saw the mile-long line that awaited us. But, we, I, submitted – one does not like to be the spoil-sport abroad – and we signed up to a private tour that would allow us to skip the lines of purgatory to enter the pearly gates. We waited for over half an hour for the tour to begin and I began to get very cold feet. But then, after having a pulled pork panina and witnessing a Roman car-crash, our guide arrived and off we went.
Like our guide in Alessio’s, this Italian, tall, goateed eccentric turned out to be the visit’s saving grace. Hoarse from an entire day of guiding (and smoking, no doubt; bless!) he brought to life the Vatican museum with a mix of flamboyant stories, comic observations, and technical expositions on aesthetics and architecture.
Suffice it to say: the museums within the Vatican were breathtaking. It was a triumphal sojourn into the greatest art the classical world had to offer. I was mesmerized, drugged into a cultural vertigo I would awake from only once I remembered what hidden treasure the Vatican must be hoarding for itself in its hallowed vaults! This cynicism is of course post-fact. At the time, I was entranced. Floating from corridor to corridor, hall to hall, I felt like I was tangoing with the gods. (Watch out for the tapestry of the last supper which seems to move angles, literally like a movie, as you walk away from it.) And it didn’t hurt that this marble orgy climaxed when you suddenly found yourself, silent and reverential, inside the mythical hall of the Sistine Chapel – with all of Creation above you.
The Chapel felt surprisingly smaller than what you would expect. But I guess it’s about perspective: the jostling crowds that left hardly enough space for a pin to squeeze through, seemed to shrink the space. But space or no space: there is no denying the spiritual impact the paintings force on you. Whether you are Christian or lapsed, an agnostic or follow some other creed: you can’t helped but feel humbled at this great aesthetic triumph of Man. This is in the same category as poetry and bonfire tales, it seeks to establish man’s place within creation – but this Chapel is in a different league entirely. It must be worthy joining the priesthood and becoming a Cardinal to be able to have just a few minutes of quiet reflection in that cosmic space.
After the museums and the Sistine Chapel, the St. Peter Basilica does feel like something of an anti-climax. The church is large alright, but too large to make you feel any glory or intimacy. It is certainly not the most beautiful churches in Rome – to me that honour goes to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore – and it is certainly not the most serene – that crown goes to the golden, pre-Medieval Basilica of Our Lady of Trastevere. But the place is redeemed when you step out onto the verandah of the Basilica and gaze out, feeling shrunken by the panorama, on Vatican square – literally an entire country spreading itself before you, its borders lined with pilgrims rather than migrants, and its guards those Swiss men with the feathered hats. You can just feel the opulence, the power and wealth, and, whilst you’re there, you allow yourself to be seduced by it. You forget all your principles, your anti-dogmas, your clever arguments, and just sigh: for God’s sake!
Just as, after a high-energy exercise session you need to do a cooling-down segment, so, after the euphoria of that euphoric country, you need to visit the down-to-earth, disgustingly alive Trastevere. This is the young heart of Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber, a labyrinth of old cobbled streets, shaded squares, and a kind, bustling street-life.
My one regret in Rome is not spending more time in this pulsating quarter of Rome, which in the sixties and seventies attracted musicians and filmmakers from all over the world. Here the flocks were international, owing in part to the many foreign universities present, but they all succumbed, submitted, to the osterias, the gelaterias, the basilicas, the book-stalls… and live a life that is purely Roman, and quintessentially us. The place feels exhilarating.
And around the corner are beautiful, endless walkways along the Tiber, where the river flows as it has done since Roman times, the flanking architecture a fortress of timelessness, and a plethora of decisions crucifying you: go west and into the Trastevere for a no-frills meal, or go east and walk towards the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. You could even keep walking and find yourself at the Boca della Verita’, and full-circle back to the Altare Della Patria. The geography of Rome is beneficial to the traveler (though the hilly landscape often makes for steep walking) and every major piazza or street or monument segways into another. And after your first visit you will feel perfectly orientated and at home.
Our first visit to Rome was hectic: Rome is a city festooned with sights that you can’t miss (though, if you had to miss out on some I would nominate the Coliseum and the Vatican – more impressive and quieter Roman ruins and churches can be found), but it’s a city that you will want to come back to. We didn’t get the chance to chuck a coin into the Trevi fountain as it was closed up for restoration. But we needed no such charming superstitions to promise ourselves we’d be back. Yes, all the monuments and ruins are the fetus of our entire civilization, and that is heart-warming, but what you really want to savour is the Roman lifestyle.
The place that most exemplified this lifestyle for me were the Spanish Steps. And at dusk – at dusk it is lit up like an open-air palace of fireflies, tourists and locals alike mingle, loiter, relax around the fountain, on the steps, on the threshold of the Keats house. Spanning out like a cobweb from the Steps are some of the richest, intimate streets of Rome. And the exclusive luxury, of Pradas, Knights and VIP’s, does not feel off-putting in the least. Rome makes you feel rich, unabashedly so!
A simple, Epicurean lifestyle oozing with luxury – a paradox that leaves you thinking and questioning. Living like a Roman is a mystery you will want to solve by going back again and again, back, to Mamma Roma.