I love going away. I love Rome. So I took my wife away there for a long weekend the week before Christmas. It seemed the right thing to do, and so it turned out. We arrived at Fiumicino late in the morning, and as it would be different to getting the Da Vinci Express train to the city we decided to take a bus, which delivered us unscathed to the Termini station. A quick metro ride to the Piazza Barberini, where resides Bernini’s Tritone, forever in a deluge like an alabaster swan deity, and we were five minutes walk from our lovely hotel.
We decided to go and see the Trevi Fountain at dusk, and then wandered to the Spanish Steps and then around the city, taking in the rainbow highway of Christmas lights along the Via del Corso, the Via Veneto, the Piazza Colonna and streets nearby and various. We found a busy looking restaurant called al Piccheo back near the Trevi, and plunged in for our hunger was deep and grievous. The Peroni always tastes better in Italy than it does from the supermarket, so that was our preferred drink, with which we had seafood spaghetti, pesto linguini and a pizza with prosciutto. And Cappuccinos of course.
The last time we went to Rome we couldn’t get into the Pantheon as there was a service taking place, so on the next morning, after a hotel breakfast of coffee and cakes and pastries and light operatic arias unobtrusively impinging on our consciousness, we made our way there, passing on our way the Templo Adriano, a building which haunts me. It’s the facade of a temple, but it always strikes me as something which belongs in a dream rather than the real world. Anyway, we spent a while in the Pantheon, taking in the light and the statues and the space and admiring the nativity display, and I promised myself another return visit one day. Onwards we went, a few streets away to the Piazza Navona where the market was being held, and I had to try a plate sized doughnut, dusted with cinnamon. I had a stand off with a herd of pigeons, but emerged victorious and only slightly diabetic. There was a drumming band with a beautiful dancing girl dressed in blue and we dropped some coins into their collection cup. After admiring the fountains, we decided to go to St Peter’s as I wanted to climb to the top of the dome, which I’d been unable to do on a previous visit. Anita wanted to hang around at ground level.
But first we went to a pizza place where I had the finest Napoletana I’ve ever eaten, with juicy anchovies and tart little capers. And coffee. Always the coffee.
You get plagued by unpleasantly persistent Asian and African street vendors in Rome, who really began to annoy me when we tried to cross the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. I was trying to get some good photos of the statues of saints and angels which line the bridge, and I really didn’t want a horde of eager hands waving hookey scarves and handbags around and spoiling the view. Sharp words were exchanged. And I got the pictures I wanted. We made our way to the Vatican and went into St Peter’s and visited the papal crypts, always a top spot for a blinding day out with the spouse. It was her idea, anyway. She’s got a thing about the late John Paul II; you must remember we grew up when the Beatles were big. As it happened they’d closed off the section where he rests so that’s another reason to go back again some time.
I left Anita by the Baldacchino and headed for the stairway to the top. After 200 or so stairs you come to the main gallery, surrounded by a vast mosaic which encircles the void, and then see that you still have over three hundred steps to climb to reach the apex of the dome high above you. I climbed to the top and fell under the spell of a panoramic view of the city from the place where the Statues see all.
When we got back to the hotel late that afternoon, I couldn’t settle. Anita told me stop fidgeting and if I really wanted to get out on my own I better had as she wanted to have a long bath and then sit quietly for a while. So I went out for a long walk then took a couple of metro rides across town and went to the Coliseum to see it in the dark, and did some evening people watching. All good.
So that was Saturday. That evening we went to a place in the Via Sistina for dinner. I can’t remember what it was called, but I remember what we ate, and I remember the bill at the end of the meal. I started with spaghetti al vongole, followed by a juicy veal steak with rosemary potatoes and a mozzarella, rocket and tomato salad, and Anita had a minestrone followed by lamb chops and salad. We drank red wine, which was good. And then cappuccino, which was also good. The bill was worrying.
The next day was Sunday. I wanted to see the pyramid of Caius Cestius so we took the metro out to the Piramide station, and we found the pyramid to be almost completely swathed in scaffolding for a bit of refurbishment. Another reason to go back yet again another day, I thought. We wandered briefly around the neighbourhood and saw a car that had been crushed by a fallen tree. Something the Caesars never had to worry about.
When we got to the Coliseum for a daylight visit, we found that large areas were clothed in yet more scaffolding. We strolled around the building in a late autumn shower of rain, telling one particularly annoying Asian street vendor who chased us half way around the coliseum with a garish collection of dodgy umrella-ella-ellas ladie! to fuck off in three and a half languages. He eventually did so when my wife squared up to him in a threatening manner which did little for inter-racial harmony and understanding. As we left the Coliseum and walked alongside the Imperial Fori to the National Monument the rain stopped. The sun came out and it felt warm.
Have you ever seen the Roman National Monument? It is a vast building built entirely of gleaming white marble, dedicated to Vittorio Emanuel. I remarked to Anita that looking at the size of the building, there must be a huge hole in the ground somewhere, or at least a small mountain must have gone missing. “Looks like it might rain again,” she said. I though of the unfortunate street vendor and kept my thoughts to myself.
My wife had had enough of walking by now, so we went to Termini for a little lunch of pasta for her and artichoke risotto for me. Then back to the hotel for a drink or two, and after a while I decided to go out again as dusk looked like it might start falling soon, leaving her in peace for a couple of hours. I took the metro out to the Piazza Della Republicca, and as I emerged into the falling gloom, a vast cloud of starlings were wheeling in the evening sky, drawing swirling patterns of darkness against the deep blue. Crowds of people were standing and staring and it reminded me of Independence Day, but there were no huge alien ships hovering above us on a countdown to global destruction. Only starlings. Thousands of them. I went across the square into the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli i Martiri, a huge, cavernous space which was lit only in two small areas, a side chapel containing an intriguing piece by a Polish sculptor, and the main altar. I remained in an unlit chapel, soaking in the atmosphere and feeling kind of strange.
Then I made my way across town to the San Carlo Quattro Fontane, a little crossroads near the Quirinale, a place where it’s good to stand a while and absorb the history, and then up the Via 20 Settembre to the Santa Susanna area, and went into the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, for to gaze upon the statues and the paintings. It’s a small church, but it’s one of my favourite spaces. The Dream of St Joseph and the Nativity sculptures as well as the Ecstasy of St Teresa. I could have spent hours there, gazing and dreaming, but I was getting hungry. Food for the soul is good but the stomach must never be neglected.
We went back to al Piccheo for dinner. We started with charcuterie and grilled vegetables, then had pizza, I had gorgonzola and speck, Anita had tomato and rocket. We had Peroni again, and a good chat with a couple of the waiters. And cappuccinos. Always, always the cappuccinos.
Back into the night, a last evening stroll through the streets tinkling with light rain and glowing faces, and home the next morning.