Rediscovering Romes timeless joys
The Spanish Steps at night are awash with flowers and tourists. Photo by Denise Flint/Special to The Telegram
It had been many years since I threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, but the promise of a return visit to Rome was finally being fulfilled. xxThe plane into Leonardo da Vinci Airport was full of soccer players and Catholic priests, and I saw that as a good sign that I would immediately be immersed in the real Italy.
The last time I had visited was during the surprisingly cold days of February. I stayed in a youth hostel across the Tiber and tramped into town every day to see the sites and soak in the atmosphere of a city that was millennia old before my home country had even been established.
This time, my family and I were staying in a small hotel, or pension, on one of the narrow streets that spoked out, seemingly at random, from the Spanish Steps. I looked forward to being able to step out the door into the heart of the city.
The first thing I noticed when we got off the Metro from the airport was the noise and the lack thereof. With brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the high 20s, people swarmed everywhere in numbers I wouldnt have thought possible when I visited in the winter.
The Steps, among the oldest and widest in Europe, are named after the embassy that still sits upon them. The artists and models who traditionally flogged their wares of one kind or another have long since abandoned the place, but the brimming pots of flowers which have replaced the posies models used to sell, and the hordes of picture-taking tourists, more than fill the space.
What was missing was the once-ubiquitous sound of car horns blaring. Italians no longer drive with one hand gesturing out the window and the other one on the horn. I must confess, it did make me feel less apprehensive about sharing the roadway.
And sharing the roadways is a natural part of moving through Rome. Via della Croce, where our hotel was situated, was a ribbon of cobblestone separating the flower-decked buildings on either side. The street is happily and successfully shared by pedestrians, bicycles, Vespas, cars and delivery trucks, as well as a road construction site that was the focus of all eyes, and which never progressed beyond the digging of a hole and the inspection thereof the entire time we were in residence.
The good life
When one is staying in a centre of tourism, its never difficult to find a restaurant, and the area around the Spanish Steps is no exception. Every block and side road is marked by a plethora of outdoor tables. Higher-end places boast flower-box and wrought-iron-encircled patios. The vigilant proprietors of trattorias, cafes and bars will quickly add another table and chairs to the collection on the street whenever a potential patron shows signs of slowing down in front of their establishment.
With the seemingly endless months of a North Atlantic winter still fresh in our minds, we were more than ready to dine al fresco. We settled ourselves into chairs that all tilted at different angles depending on the configuration of the individual cobblestones upon which they teetered dove into the bottle of vino del casa perched precariously on our little linen-covered table, and prepared to savour la dolce vita.
A proper Italian dinner starts with antipasto and continues through several courses, including but not limited to soup, pasta, fish, meat and dessert. Hackneyed though it may have been, on my first night back in Italy I wanted pizza. I believe Italians have something in their genetic makeup that leaves them incapable of producing a bad pizza, no matter where they are. But when the mozzarella cheese and the tomatoes in the sauce are native ingredients, the result is always great and sometimes spectacular as it was that first night. I savoured every bite.
Easy to see
We set out to explore the city the next day. Despite a population of well over two million people, Rome is very accessible for tourists because the galleries and historic sites lie, with some exceptions, within a few kilometres of each other, although for those who dont want to walk everywhere, the Metro and bus service are efficient and, at 1, inexpensive.
The most difficult part of exploring Rome by foot is making progress. More than once I found myself stopping to stare in wonder at a piece of ancient architecture or a faded fresco on a back-street building.
My daughter was enchanted one afternoon when, while weaving our way through the twisted maze of restaurants and antique shops that lay between Vatican City and the Pantheon, we turned a corner and found a single pillar. It stood in a tiny square shadowed by enigmatic buildings and may have been 200 years old, or 2,000. We had no way of knowing, and it remains a mystery. It was one of the joys of getting lost and reinforced our belief that those who limit themselves to following tour guides may learn much but discover nothing. For us it was a seminal moment.
During the course of the next few days, we saw as much of Rome as we could fit in. Tourists swarmed everywhere, but eventually they began to seem as much a part of the city as the Coliseum and the cypress trees, and we stopped moaning about how much quieter it had been in the middle of winter all those years ago. In fact, we thought nothing of it when we entered St. Peters Square and saw thousands of people milling around. It wasnt until my daughter pointed to the steps of the basilica, where a small figure dressed all in white stood flanked by men in black robes and scarlet sashes, that we realised wed stumbled upon the popes weekly public audience.
So the trip went, full of unexpected surprises no matter how carefully we thought wed planned our visit.
Before we left, we made sure to once again throw coins in the Trevi Fountain.
Rome will always leave visitors yearning for more. Perhaps thats why its called the Eternal City.