48 hours in Rome - My own Italian Job
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Chaotic arrival and the taxi ride from hell!
It had been 22 years since I last set foot in Rome. No particular reason for not going since then but when living in London and having all major Western European cities within an hour or two’s reach by air, one tends to take it for granted; after all, there’s always some other long haul exotic destination to explore, a new hip city that needs assessing, so on and so forth. For that reason I left Rome in the backburner for such a long time.
The last time I was there, in fact the only time I had visited the Eternal City was way back in the eighties. Being in my early twenties, life’s priorities were different. I was young, wild and free and must honestly admit, veering toward the ignorant in all things cultural. I arrived in Rome from Florence in a Tour coach full of Latin teenagers embarked on a European Tour for their summer holidays. I tagged along thanks to my brother’s job as a tour operator back then. My main priority back then was to get laid, drink like a Cossack and have a good time – the order in which they were achieved was of no relevance. That said trip to Rome was meant to cement that ethos; history, museums, city sightseeing and all things cultural were to be confined to the elderly and the nerdy. Sadly though, things didn’t work out as planned. Although I drank like a lunatic, all I managed to reinforce on that trip was my celibacy.
Years have passed, and since those dark days I have achieved - or so I like to believe - some degree of maturity and now, a respectable family man and more versed in the cultural thing, I judged it was time to right that terrible wrong I made all those years ago.
Rome, the Eternal city, the city of the seven hills, birthplace of a once great empire beckoned; a visit long overdue.
My arrival would not be shy of drama and a degree of excitment. It was a Friday and with a scheduled departure of 19.20, I arrived at Gatwick airport by the skin of my teeth with 30 minutes to spare before take-off, thanks to overlapping work commitment, and dodgy train services. How I negotiated passport control, security and half a mile race from one end of the airport to the other, and got to the boarding gate in time, was beyond belief. The irony of all this was that after I was finally ensconced in my seat, wheelie bag tucked 23 rows behind me due to a packed aircraft and my breath joining me some ten minutes later, we were told by the captain that the flight would be delayed another 45 minutes!
Obviously that played a huge part in my accidental arrival into Rome, as we landed half an hour late into Fiumicino Airport, some six minutes before the last train left for the Termini rail station. Suffice to say, I never made it to the train. Here is where my hectic 48 hour in Rome adventure started.
I was debating whether to wait for the first coach that left the airport at 01.30 to the Termini rail station where my hotel was, or bite the bullet and grab a cab which would easily set me aside a good €60-70 fare. While weighing my options with eyelids as heavy as a ton of led and pacing towards the bus stop walking past a hideous queue of passengers waiting for a taxi to take them into Rome, I was spotted by a couple who sat behind me during the flight. Not being adventurous (or skint) as I was, they were patiently waiting for their turn to get a cab into Central Rome and after making our acquaintances for a second time - we had briefly exchanged some pleasantries during the flight- they suggested we share a cab. After a quick scan and convinced they looked respectable, I agreed to join them. The prospect of waiting another 45 minutes for a bus on a damp November midnight that would take God knows how long into town, wasn't the most appealing. We talked and exchanged reasons for visiting Rome while we waited to get to the front of this diabolical queue.
Finally, our cab arrived, about twenty minutes after joining my new friends – an Englishman with his Swedish girlfriend.
The taxi driver couldn’t be a more iconic and stereotypical Italian driver; dishevelled, brusque manner and quite intimidating, especially at that unholy time of the night. With my pseudo-Italian I managed to make clear who was getting off first and where – I did have the grace though to explain where this couple needed to go after. In good taxi driver style, as soon as he realised I spoke some Italian he immediately started chatting away, asking us where we were from, etc. He also asked if it was ok for him to light up. By the time Mr Englishman (can’t remember his name) and I digested his request and thought of a way of telling him not to, he had already lit up a fag and had half the car engulfed in smoke. Miss Swede gladly joined in, while both Mr Englishman and I had no choice but to roll down the windows in search of precious fresh air. As madman taxi driver careered through the Autostrada (motorway) passing car after car in a manic devil’s race, I seriously started debating my wisdom in joining the couple on this diabolical cab ride. Once we left the motorway, he seemed to take us through the scenic route, bordering the Tiber River where I caught a glimpse of the beautifully lit Castel Sant’Angelo which suddenly brought back memories of a certain part of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons book. Up Porta del Popolo surrounding the Villa Borghese until we finally arrived in Via Marsala where the quest to find my hotel began. We finally saw a sign advertising my Hotel Viennese. I thanked the couple for allowing me to share the cab and the midnight ride from hell and left €30 for my bit of the adventure. After seeing them off, I started ringing on what looked like the bell of the Hotel which I discovered was one of four other hotels perched inside the same old building.
After a few attempts I decided to phone them to see if I could get anyone. It was already past 2 am. Finally a grumpy looking night porter in pyjamas and all came out of the door and barked something at me. I explained that my flight had been delayed and I did try to call them to inform of my delay. A technical lie but what the hell, at that time of night I wasn’t in the mood to be creative. He said he was unable to get me a room at that time at the Viennese where I had my reservation but he would accommodate me at a sister property opposite. Next morning I would relocate to the proper hotel.
Not a bad room, with en-suite facilities at least and a comfy double bed. At that time, I was in no mood to be fussy. Once in-house it took less than 20 minutes to be fully bedded and knocked out for six.
Icons of the Eternal City
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Next morning, fully rested I had my shower, ready for breakfast which was included in the €45.00 rate of the room. Of course, I first had to get hold of that miserable night porter, at least to get my bearings.
He was sat in what I assumed was the office, watching an impossibly small TV and a fag hanging out of the side of his mouth. He seemed more agreeable this time around explaining the rearrangement and even apologising of the inconvenience. The weird thing was I had to pay upfront for this night as this was a different hotel. Once we sorted that financial/administrative matter we went to my proper hotel, across the road and on the third floor of a dilapidated looking building which looked more like a premise holding sheltered accommodation.
Despite all this, the building, very old but well maintained in the inside hosted as I mentioned further up some three different hotels or must I say hostels. We entered the Viennese and I was surprised to see a decent looking reception and waiting area. My room was even more surprising! Despite this being a One star B & B, the room was worthy of many three star hotels I’ve stayed in. Well appointed, comfortable double bed good space and decent bathroom.
Once I got my belongings placed I enquired about the breakfast as I felt a black hole in my stomach eating me from the inside out. My second surprise; I was given a hand written voucher on a complementary slip bearing the Hotel’s logo.
Mr Night Porter explained I had to take it to one of two ‘participating’ bakeries on the same road where I can claim a coffee of my choice and any pastry (croissant, cake or confectionary). Well, so much for Continental Breakfast I thought!
I strolled down the road to the aforementioned bakery, handed over my voucher and in return, I went for a cappuccino and sorry looking croissant. I felt I would need a refill pretty soon but the coffee was excellent I had to admit. After all, I was in Rome!
Now that I was semi-fed, I was able to plan my itinerary of the day. After finding my North at the Termini station which happened to be opposite my hotel, I headed towards Via Cavour which would eventually lead me towards the Roman Forum (Foro Romano), Imperial Forum (Foro Imperiali), the impressive Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.
Stopping for the obligatory photo calls at the two forums, I decided to leave the V E II Monument for last. This enormous monument was erected at the end of the 19th century to honour the first king of the united Italy, his equestrian statue proudly standing out in front. The building is also referred to as the typewriter due to its shape; a building very difficult to miss at any rate.
Fate would have it that while I was happily searching for that perfect angle to picture the aforementioned building, I would bump into the couple that in some way saved my night at the airport. All three of us were equally surprised at such a fateful re-encounter. While going through our stories on how we finally hit the pillows after the taxi ride from hell we decided to enter the building to check out its architecture and archives. A half hour later inexplicably, we lost each other. I always had the impression Mr Englishman decided to lose me for some reason; in hindsight I sensed he was not very comfortable for the way Miss Swedish girlfriend who I must admit was very kind to the eye seemed to express a more than comfortable friendliness towards me. Hard to say whether it was my good looks (not) or just her Scandinavian laidback personality, but after thinking about it moments later, I did sense some tension while we were together. In all honesty, couldn’t see myself redeeming myself on this trip for my lack of luck in that department 22 years ago. Probably better so, as I had a lot to cover in just two days.
From there I headed off to the Coliseum, or what is currently left of it. One of Rome’s most iconic sites, it is certainly one of its most recognised symbols. Commissioned by Emperor Vespasian, it was completed in the 1st century AD. At its height it was able to seat around 55,000 screaming, blood-thirsty fans, it was mostly used for popular bloodthirsty spectator sports, gladiators being the main stars – or victims. It took a mere four centuries for gladiator combat to be banned and also changing public tastes led to it falling out of use by the 6th century.
After travelling back in time and returning to the 21st century I continued my walks towards Il Circo Massimo of which like the Coliseum, there is not much physical evidence left of it. It is not difficult however to make out the tight oval curves the chariot riders had to negotiate when competing in this ancient racetrack. It also had it bloody side to it hosting wild animal fights, mock sea battles (flooded for the occasion) and mass executions. Other sights visited amongst many others that day was the world famous, romantic, endearing but madly over crowded Fontana di Trevi. I obviously did the ‘throwing the coin behind my back’ thing, if only to ensure I return to this great city. Under the watchful eye of Neptune, I didn’t see anyone doing the Anita Ekberg scene (where she immerses herself into the turbulent water in the film Dolce Vita). What I did indulge in was a lemon gelato which regardless of where you buy it in Rome just tastes celestial. That completed, followed by a proper espresso and watching the elegant Romans pass by telefonnino in hand and exuding that carefree elegance only Italians have the grace of doing rounded up that part of my sightseeing experience. Another fountain which is illegal not to see if in Rome is the Bernini’s fountain at Piazza Navona.
Another challenge was trying to not get knocked over by the many Vespa and Vespino that graciously but dangerously run riot on the Roman streets. That and the normal car traffic just give you that edge to your senses.
I took a bus that left me at the bottom of Via Veneto with its chic boutiques, classy restaurants and bars, again bringing those images of the swinging 60’s Rome seen in La Dolce Vita. It was mid afternoon when the dark spectre of hunger made its appearance over me. Most of the over-priced restaurants, trattorias o pizzerias that lined the Via Veneto surely looked very classy and well groomed – probably with prices to match! But ever the adventurer (and skint), I ventured on to one side street and discovered this small Ristorante/Pizzeria on Via Lombarda. I decided to eat alfresco so found me a pleasant table looking towards the street, ordered a half litre carafe of house Valpolicella and a Margherita to die for! Ah! Bliss don’t come any better than this, and all for under €10 including an espresso and tip.
Down Via Veneto and on to the Piazza di Spagna as always crowded with tourists despite the cold drizzle that started trickling down. The sweeping Spanish steps that grace this piazza were designed in 1720 to connect it with the French church of Trinitá dei Monti. The reason for the name comes from the fact that the Spanish Embassy used to be here in the 17th century. One famous resident was Keats who lived and died in an apartment just here.
Again I ventured into one of the back streets off the piazza and was lured into a bar which was more a hole in the wall than a proper premise. At its fullest it couldn’t hold more than six punters, seven at a push. The smoke stained and cracked walls within it only helped to reinforce its more than likely ancient origin which gave it that extra charm. A couple of grappa later and this little joint picked up an atmosphere of its own.
An uneventful metro ride took me back to the Viennese hotel for a good night’s kip.
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Arrivederci cara citta!
Next morning, a quick shower – mainly because the hot water as I discovered the previous day, didn’t seem to last very long and down to claim my majestic Continental Breakfast, voucher in hand. After completing my nutritional needs to a mere basic, I embarked on my second day of discovery. A metro ride took me to Piazza del Popolo. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, this would be the first sight tourists would encounter when entering Rome. It also was the scene for less glamorous happenings like the execution of condemned criminals. It is overlooked to the east by the Pincio gardens, which offer glorious views over the historic centre and towards the Vatican. I walked through the Via del Corso with its old edifices that reflected the once grand style of traders and craftsmen past of this historic old thoroughfare, I took one of the side streets to reach the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River). From there on I bordered the river passing by the many bridges that join both sides of the Tiber such as Ponte Cavour, Ponte Umberto I, Ponte Sant’Angelo, until I reached Ponte Vittorio Emanuelle II which I crossed in order to get to the Cittá Del Vaticano (Vatican City).
Being Sunday, there was already a crowd brewing in readiness to hear Pope Benedict XIV give his Sunday service, which I decided to at least stay and listen to. Not that I am a practicing and devout Catholic but who knows when I will ever have the chance to see the leader of the Catholic Church live and direct.
I strode through the Via della Conciliazione towards Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) where the multinational crowd had started to gather. As always in heavily touristic areas, best to fill your nutritional needs before arriving here as anything from a bottled water to a sorry looking (and presumably) tasting coffee will cost you an arm and possibly a leg if not more. Not happy with all the wealth held in the Vatican coffers, prices here in this independent state within a state can reach dizzy and stratospheric heights!
However, a few minutes into the Sunday Mass, I considered my spiritual needs duly satisfied and retreated back towards the bridge I had crossed earlier on.
Once on the other side of the Tiber, I walked down Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II stopping to explore the sides of Chiesa Nouva (New Church). While scurrying through the impossibly narrow cobbled streets behind this 17th Century Church, I once again discovered a quaint and friendly looking eatery, at the corner of an equally narrow back street. Not badly timed either as already past midday, it was high time to replenish my digestive needs.
This little trattoria was empty bar an elderly couple sipping espressos while reading their Sunday papers, him simultaneously balancing a cigarette in one hand while she was fidgeting with her mobile phone. Despite that, the aroma of basil, mixed with the smell of pizza dough and the pungent burning scent of olives and capers just grabbed my nostrils and floated me towards the first available table; one can only but resist temptation. As I took seat at the second table from the main door, the couple silently acknowledged my arrival with a lazy nod of the head and a half intentioned smile. This is the kind of silent hospitality that screams volumes.
Again, I went for the simplest of life’s culinary pleasure; a half-litre carafe of Chianti, a bowl of mixed green and black olives (complementary by the way) and a perfectly circular, thin as an X-ray crusted Margherita pizza.
It could have been the wine, the celestial pizza or the blissful scenery of a dilapidated back street pizzeria, brimming with noisy and mischievous children running past, a young couples walking by hand in hand, the distant clanging of church bells announcing the next half hour, all this occasionally interrupted by the odd Vespa screaming past mounted by an elegant Roman probably half an hour late for his date. Maybe it was the old couple sipping on an eternal espresso but I felt I was the luckiest man in Rome. The simple pleasure of life, eh?
Back on earth once again, I found myself walking the roads and paths of the Eternal City, still thinking of the many gems and treasures yet to be discovered but with the satisfaction of having found my little plot of culinary paradise in this beautiful city.
Yes, there were still many sites to visit but Sunday was almost drawing to an end, I had a flight at 6.30 next morning and work beckoned soon after at 09.30.
Of course, whether I made that deadline to the office or not was beyond my control but what the heck! This time I planned to sleep until 2.30 am, check out from the Hotel Viennese, cross the length of Termini Station and queue up to catch the 3.15 bus towards Fiumicino airport.
My arrival was dramatic and stressful, why should my departure be any different?
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