When in Roma
Mar 28, 2006
David Rich 1200 Words
W H E N I N R O M A
I was working to describe the Eternal City in one word or less, traipsing around Rome for the first time in ten years, fascinated with all the changes. I was even more fascinated with those things that hadn't changed, and may never change, in eternal Roma.
You won't mistake Roma for Rome, because the locals speak little English. On the other hand, it's not France, so the Italians won't bristle and their President duck from the room, if English is spoken. The Italians don't care what you speak, which is why I recommend Rome to those who know a few words of Spanish. Enthusiastically waving hands and arms, while muttering in Spanish, is pretty much the same as speaking Italian. The word was fun.
Italians still smoked like chimneys, vigorously supporting the tabacchis on every corner. But the killer traffic of Rome had all but disappeared. When pedestrians poised to cross the street, cars slid gracefully to a halt. What country was I in? Was this Italy, or had something happened to the world's most maniacal drivers? Maybe it was something in the water, which had also changed. Rome water was potable and the bottled stuff was cheap to buy, a fizzy 1 ½ liters for .15 Euros (18 cents). Things were looking up.
It only got better. The fabulous cappuccinos were .90 Euros ($1.08), less than a third the price, creamier, and tastier than the rip-off American coffee chain sweeping the world with dinker cups of coffee, $4 and up. But hotels were astronomically priced, two stars $108, or 90 Euros. Perhaps the word was bankrupt. And the rooms were tiny, very nothing fancy, a place to lay one's head in a city to send one's head spinning.
Begin with the eternal food: Biscotti, chocked with almonds, and cinnamon, uniquely inexpensive in an expensive city; a hundred kinds of olives, including Kalamatas from across the bay in Greece; succulent olive oils, and pate of olives in chili to scorch the palate; dripping hot pizza; gelato, the best and most expensive ice cream on the planet; every kind of cheese, succulento; and oh, the wine. I immediately stocked up on Chianti, my favorite. Yes, Mr. Deliveryman [gesturing, gesturing], slide that case of Chianti into the corner, but not too far away, so it's within reach, at all times. I frenzied the closest supermarket, blitzing the proscuitto, the Biscottate, a brand of Melba toast, the perfect fruits, the deli, and the espresso coffees. Maybe I'd start looking for an apartment. But I skipped the fanciest McDonalds on earth, the one seemingly carved from marble and crammed with Roman statuary, Big Mac Meal, $10. The word was mostly yummy.
March found Rome in springtime, flowers and trees blooming, brilliant sunshine and marvelous weather, of course rousing dormant allergies. Old Europe owes much to the unparalleled efforts of George W. Bush in promotion of global warming. By the Ides of March all of Europe was warming up, an experience totally at odds with ten years previous, when Europe in springtime meant frostbite. Fudging up to two words, the talisman could have been King George.
Tourists celebrated the weather, blanketing the streets with Euros, in mere days attempting to see everything, an impossibility made pleasurable in confrontation with a deplorable lack of maintenance. Half the city laid in ruins.
Revisiting the antiquities was a Roman holiday, prancing around the Coliseum, snapping shots of locals dressed like Roman soldiers in brush-cut headgear, challenging women tourists to press swords to their breasts. All historic sites, including the Colosseum, were fronted by tables of plaster statues, identical to those I'd bought in my youth. The word was kitsch.
The triumphal arches of Constantine and Hadrian led to the Forum, the granddaddy of all earthly ruins. I clambered up the hill to see the Vestal Virgins, selected in antiquity from those between the ages of six and ten, increasing the odds of verity. The Virgins kept the sacred fire in the sacred kitchen for preparation of the sacred pasta, fetching water from the sacred spring and considering themselves emancipated. Perhaps the word was eternal. The Typewriter memorial to Victor Emmanuelle II grunged the north ends of the Forum, housing the National Museum, outside of which sat the bronze of Romulus and Remus with their wolf-mom.
Except for the Coliseum, Palatine Hill and the Castel di Angelo, entry to Roma's antiquities was entirely free, bargains in a city hyper-inflated by the Euro. While Americans cry and bewail gasoline (petrol) prices at home, Roma fuel ranged from five to six dollars a gallon (1.20 to 1.30 Euros per liter). I suggest buying stock in Dutch Shell or Standard Oil of New Jersey, the latter ultimately renamed Exxon after avoidance of an ancient anti-trust decree.
Modern-day Romans dress oh so spiffy, Italian fashions setting the standard for the rest of the almost-civilized world. Names roll off the tongue like trolling for spumoni: Givenchy, Sacchi, Prodi, or was he running for Prime Minister? In any event, the local men looked like George Clooney, sort of, and the women like Audrey Hepburn with a touch of tan. It was enough to make you plop down five euros for a set of Roman Holiday stamps, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn astride motos in their long-ago youth. Rome makes anyone feel right at home. Definitely elegant.
I strolled to the Trevi Fountain, determined to insure another return to Roma, surrounded by mimes in orange and red, gold and white, and uncountable tourists jockeying for the once-in-a-lifetime photo. They were surely not coming back.
The horde flowed onward, to the Spanish Steps, shrouded as usual in scaffolding. Then the Pantheon, colorfully dressed horse-carts waiting out front to roll the tired tourist to Piazza di Navona, the most colorful and romantic of the many in Rome. Navona is blocks long, skirted by outdoor tables with colorful tablecloths for quaffing beer, wine and cappuccino amongst art, artists and caricaturists, fronted by a string quartet, or the occasional accordion. Cultura café.
The Tiber was full, and clean, flowing past the Castel di Angelo, a couple of blocks from the Vatican, where a four-abreast line snaked towards the Sistine Chapel. I ducked through churches with corpses of dead Popes, Cardinals and architects, tastefully displayed behind glass. The Tiber splits around the Isola Tiburina, providing an exit to the Stone of Truth on the way to the Caraculla Baths. I caught glimpses of kittens on postcards, draped across monuments and statuary, and a cat sanctuary, wondering whether this was a spill-over from the Pretty Kitty phenomenon. Human-sized wooden Pinocchios sat on rustic benches, appearing precipitously around unanticipated corners of columns, caves and catacombs.
Only a single word could describe Rome: elegante.
When you go: Go soon, before the astronomical prices rival an orbital shot. Fly to Rome from anywhere outside Europe for less than $1000 roundtrip, and from within Europe for $100 with advance planning, thanks to the plethora of newly cut-rate airlines. The internet will find hotel bargains for $200 a day and up, or cramped B & Bs from $70, nicely situated in the historic center. Don't miss the gelato, cappuccinos, wine, shopping and sheer elegante.