Tuesday, May 19, 2009

from Rome: first approach

My feeling has always been this: Rome is a mammoth. It’s impossible for me to find her pulse. The city’s intractable. Even as I had a fierce youthful crush on Italy (what young woman hasn’t), I’d stop by for a handful of days here, shrug my shoulders and move on. Half a dozen visits later I still feel that I know her least well of all the major European capitals. I don’t mean the sights – I checked those off dutifully. But the heart of the place remains a mystery.

And so it was a thrill to have my younger daughter tell me that she would love a week in Rome for her annual European vacation with me. Like me, she loves Italy. Like me, she studied Italian in college. Like me she felt that we had, on past trips here, not gotten enough of Rome.

A Roman holiday.

My thought on challenging cities (that is -- ones where you typically spend more than a dozen hours out walking, and it’s hot, and there’s a lot of noise and traffic) is that, at the end of the day, you need to return to a room you love. And for people on a strict budget, this is a city where inexpensive food is often great, but a lovely room for less than a small fortune is nearly impossible to find. But perseverance and luck often work wonders. Not a great name (in my opinion), but perfectly fantastic rooms, all hidden on the upper floors of an old building, a short stroll from the Centro Storico: Suite Dreams. (You may thank me for this tip someday, if you travel here.)

We have come prepared to do the city right: many books, a daughter who actually studied Roman history, a love of reading about destinations before getting to them, pages and pages of restaurant reviews – all that, we have all that. And still, I cannot help it. I ask the hotel proprietor for help just on this first day. He’s a restaurant man (he runs his own on the outskirts of the city). He looks at my lists, frowns, shakes his head at half the choices we’ve so carefully identified, finally nods his head and points to one.

That one. Tonight, you should eat there.
This is a city that so loves to eat that even now, in the shoulder season, you need to book a table at the popular places. And so, our first Roman act is to book a table at the Maccheroni.

And now the trick is to stay awake until the hours when Romans set out to dine (you show up before 8 and the place will either be closed, or full of British guests, whose stomachs demand food before the sun sets).

We walk.


Up one street, down the next. To the Spanish steps, remembering when nearly twenty years ago we struggled to stay awake right here, on our first day in Rome with two very little girls. The girls have grown, the views have stayed the same.


On this first day, we don’t dare sit down. We watched movies the whole flight over and somewhere in that time on the plane, we forgot to sleep.

And while I’m on the subject of the flights over, do you mind if I throw in these two photos from the flight out of Paris (where we connected to Rome)? Because never is it more obvious that l’Etoile (the place where the Parisian Arc de Triomphe stands) means "star" than when looking down, on a flight over the city.


…and never is it more obvious that Rome is a Mediterranean place than as you look at the countryside on the approach, also from up above.


…and I may as well throw in here that our ride from the airport was also in train cars that could only be Italian: on the older side, but very colorful.


Now, back to our stroll.


Except now it is evening and we are hungry and sleepy and dinner is still hours away. We sit down at Piazza Navona – which is sort of the equivalent of sitting down on Piazza San Marco in Venice or della Signoria in Florence: people watching nirvana.

We sip prosecco and eat ice cream (if the idea of eating ice cream just hours before dinner strikes you as odd, you haven’t traveled with people who love to eat local stuff at any and every opportunity; besides, I’m talking about some serious hours of walking).




And then we stroll some more. Just for that elusive first grasp. And again, luck is with us, because I think in those evening hours, Rome began to slowly poke out. In the dark streets of the old town, in the opening restaurants, with tables stuck in every conceivable spare corner…


...in doors, opening, people stepping out -- for a pause. To chat, to get a sip of water...




… in the fading light by the Tiber river, with the dome of St. Peter’s on the other side.


Finally, we are at a decent eating time. We make our way to the Maccheroni, so very aware that we are at the height of artichoke season…


…and in general, in the very midst of the Mediterranean growing season.

The food is delicious, copious, simple but heavenly: artichokes done in the Roman way, pasta stuffed with zucchini flowers, a carafe of wine and jugs of water. All very very fresh and honest.



The cook tosses pasta in the visible to us kitchen, then smile as we wolf down platefuls of his creations.


It is a fine, fine evening.

We walk back to our crisp, white room. I throw myself on the bed and barely remember to take off my shoes.