Thursday, March 31, 2011

When in Rome

Via Condotti, Roma
It is eighteen years since I was in Rome, and I have only the vaguest memories for the details of that visit, although vivid memories of the ambience. I do recall that my three young children were bored rigid by the Trevi Fountain but wildly excited by the candy-coloured gelati we bought for them nearby. I don’t even remember where we stayed, but I think it was near Piazza Navona where we ate expensive tourist-priced pizza and were served by satisfyingly rude Italian waiters in long white aprons. I recall being overawed by the acreage of piazza at St Peters, and by being able to actually see the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling through the heads and shoulders of the football scrum of tourists. I remember trailing with the children through the galleries of the Vatican Museum, eavesdropping on other peoples’ guides, but being daunted by the sheer size of the place. I remember arriving by plane from pristine, efficient Zurich and being depressed by broken ticket machines, dirty streets and inefficiency. I recall a wild cab ride where all five of us squashed in (the little guy was only seven – we squashed him in all kinds of places on that trip) despite the cab driver’s nervousness about being caught breaking regulations. I recall hundreds of stray cats at the coliseum, and that the tatty boulders signposted as ‘The Forum’ made no sense at all. I recall surviving Rome.
Today my arrival was also by plane, but from grubby, inefficient London, so the contrast wasn’t so stark. Nevertheless, Rome managed to seem as slovenly as I remembered. It wasn’t so bad really – the shuttle came eventually, the immigration and bag collection was really rather quick, and the car driver turned up after only a 20 minute absence. When he did arrive, he was nattily turned out in a sharp suit and designed spectacles, and he didn’t understand English so – luckily for all involved - I couldn’t tell him off.
The drive from the airport was long and uninteresting until we entered The Walls. We approached along the Via Ostiense, one of the eight great access roads, originally Roman built (by Ancient Romans, that is) that radiate out of (and, obviously, into) the old city centre. We slipped from the modern run-down suburbs into the old part of the city, not exactly through, but alongside, the Porta S. Paolo. This is the modern name of the ancient Ostienis Gate, but one of many surviving great gates in the Walls built by an Emperor named Aurelian in the third century AD. The Aurelian Walls are, in some places, built on older fortifications, but during the hey-day of the Roman Empire, when Augustus was at his height, Rome was an open city and feared no-one. It wasn’t until the Visigoths threatened the city that Aurelius flung up the massive Walls. Even then, the enemy cut the aqueducts in a cunning counter-move, and it was the beginning of the end.
You can read about the Ostiensis Gate here and this site lists all the gates.

The Aurelian Walls and Gates

Having entered the Roman Walls, the car took to a satisfying hill – Rome is supposed to be built on seven hills, right? – and then a massive pile of crumbling ruins hove into view. This was more like it. I searched for a name sign but could only see one which seemed to speak of a viewpoint and something about Romulus and Remus. This would need some guide-book investigation later, but clearly we were in Rome. As we neared the city centre, monument after massive monument reared around us. Was that the Quirinale?  The Villa Medici? Piazza del Popolo? None of these places are on my tentative sight-seeing list – good grief, you’d need months to do this place justice. What a monolithic assortment of palaces, museums, cathedrals and goodness knows what! Then the car swung down the Via del Corso and the shops came into view. It was about 7 pm and the hour of the passeggio, when the light afternoon is drawing to a dusky close and work is done. Everyone takes to the streets and walks up and down checking out everyone else, before drifting off home, or to a bar or restaurant for dinner. It is very communal. Many shops were still open for business, and foremost amongst that business on the Via del Corso was the display of some absolutely gorgeous clothes. Sadly, most of them are intended for people who still have waists, but I foresee some window-shopping ahead. A huge palace loomed, with perfect, restrained, handsome Ionic columns in its Classic facade. Inside – Zara, the upmarket Spanish clothes chain. And a whole galleria of expensive-looking shops. Clearly the motherlode.

The Spanish Steps

I fetched up eventually at my hotel, and here I sit ensconced this evening. The hotel is accessed through a small doorway and corridor running between a fancy-looking tea shop (tea shop?) and a Cartier outlet on the Via Condotti. It is approximately fifty paces from the base of the Spanish Steps, thus earning its name, The Inn At The Spanish Steps. Here is the hotel's website. It looks nothing like this. It also cannot possibly be 'five star' since it doesn't even have a restaurant on the premises, much less anything as exotic as a swimming pool. But that is merely to highlight the false and misleading advertising - the room is cheap. I also have a large canvas decorating my wall, depicting Classicaly-draped nymphs playing various musical instruments. And the bathroom is nice.
At first I thought I might have made a mistake in choosing thriftily (Roman hotels seem very expensive), but what the room lacks in size and view (think narrow slit of an alleyway – but at least there is a window) the establishment makes up for in eccentric friendliness. Carlotta on reception cheerfully explained the eight or ten forms I was required to sign in order to check-in (Italian bureaucracy in full flight), explained how to buy a train ticket, drew lots of directions on a map, and booked me into a restaurant around the corner. The doorman-cum-bellman-cum-jack-of-all-trades, whose name I do not yet know but feel that I soon will, showed me to my room, went back to fetch the bag (the elevator could hold me or the bag, not both at once); then sat at my computer fiddling around with the internet connection. Soon there was quite a convivial party going on. Apart from Gino (or whatever his name is) on the computer, in popped Maria to turn down the bed. The phone rang – Carlotta wanted something or other. It was all go in Room 113 at The Inn At The Spanish Steps.

Room 113. It's OK.

Feeling hungry after all this making of new friends, I set out on a five minute walk around the corner to the restaurant recommended by Carlotta. Possibly this was run by her brother-in-law or other close relative, but what the heck. Immediately I felt a surge of contentment and goodwill as the charm of old Rome hit me (in a pleasant kind of way). I stumbled over the rough but picturesque cobbles, dodged taxis driving down streets barely wide enough for them, let alone them and me. The little shops displayed fabulous clothes, kinky underwear, Murano glass. Every second business was a restaurant or a bar, lively by now with customers, candles and Chianti. But on I pressed to the far end of the alley and Carlotta’s recommendation, the strangely named La Buvette. I have since discovered that this French word means a barroom, taproom or tavern; I can report that the establishment is entirely Italian. Locals sit at the bar and drink espresso from teensy little cups, or sit at the bar and drink large glasses half filled with red wine. The women all look elegant. The men all look handsome.

atmosfera at La Buvette

I checked reviews for La Buvette and found that diners had given it 2.5 stars for cucina, and 3 stars for atmosfera, servizio and qualità. Personally, I enjoyed the food very much – but that might have been because the very expensive dinner I had last night at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in London was an example of everything the British do badly with food. The atmosfera at La Buvette was perfectly fine – stage-set Italian bistro – and the service was friendly but slow (again, England has begun to inure me to this). In fact, one of the waitresses, watching me read my book by the light of the candle and seeing my new iPhone 4, recommended that I download an app which turns the iPhone into a torch. Excellent suggestion. My book, by the way, is called ‘A Time in Rome’ by Elizabeth Bowen, an Irish gentlewoman who wrote novels and spent three months in Rome to write this book, around 1959. It was she who alerted me to the Aurelian Walls. She has not so far mentioned the kinky underwear or any useful iPhone apps.
When I left, the waitress at la Buvette gave me a ticket entitling me to a complimentary glass of vino should I decide to return for lunch or dinner. I may have found my local. There is a lot of competition around the Via Condotti, so I guess you need all the smart marketing ploys you can think of.
My other new Roman friend, Daniela, phoned while I was at dinner, to discuss the interesting matter of hotels on the Amalfi coast. I have planned four nights in Rome, but after that I don’t have any bookings – just a vague idea of going off southwards on the train. A few weeks ago this seemed footloose and fancy free, bohemian, lazy and adventurous. Now, I have decided to book ahead. I know, I know – it is wimpish, but in the end I didn’t fancy arriving at the stazione in Naples, hauling my bag and having nowhere to stay. So Daniela the travel agent is on the case, and will find me a temporary home, or two or three.  She was still in the office at nine pm, which puts paid to any notion that Italians are lazy workers.
On my way in from the airport, reading billboards, I mused somewhat grumpily on Berlusconi: what a creepy man, I seriously dislike him, what an embarrassment he is to his country, what I would say to him given half a chance, yuck yuck yuck, etc. But I had to stop that sort of thing – there is a lot more to Italy than its ghastly current leader, and it will be best if I put him from my mind and enjoy its delights. Speaking of which, I have a date at the Vatican at 10.30 am tomorrow, so I had best get my sleep.

The task ahead.

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