By Anita Kando
At the age of 59, having traveled throughout most of Europe since the age of 24, I hardly expected to develop a new love affair with a city. After all, I've not lived in cities, except for my birthplace, San Francisco, and I've never been a big fan of the noisy bustling metropolis way of life. Nevertheless, the unexpected did happen; Rome entices, it seduces, it compels you to fall in love.
My first trip to Rome, when I was 32, was enjoyable, but we stayed in the suburbs at the hotel where my husband was attending a conference. There were a few trips to various places, Frascati, the Vatican, a group bus tour of central Rome (where the bus just parked overlooking the Forum, with no time for getting out of the bus -- truly the worst , most frustrating way to visit the Forum). Upon exiting the city toward the next leg of our trip (Austria), we spent an afternoon walking around Rome – the Coliseum, the catacombs, the Via Apia. But it was very hot, the children grew restless, we had a car to fuss over (never a good idea to have a car in Rome), and we simply left without absorbing all that Rome offers.
For many years, Italy was not part of our travels. Pity, because my children, being partly of Italian extraction themselves, never really developed a knowledge of that part of their heritage. Hopefully they will explore Rome and the rest of Italy on their own. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to travel there with them, and hopefully some day tour the Forum with my grandchildren.
When I was 56, after spending a couple of years adding to my fairly extensive library of Roman history, we used our Marriott points toward a week in Rome. The Rome Marriott on the Via Veneto was luxurious and comfortable, and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay. It's not that I'm ungrateful, but the Via Veneto is not my favorite part of the city. I prefer to be as close as possible to the Forum, Trajan's marketplace, etc. This trip was in March, and Rome was incredibly cold – an unexpected icy wind blew for the entire week we were there! I wondered how on earth the ancients managed when such weather happened. Even though it was brightly sunny, the cold was relentless. My California wardrobe did little to abate the frigid air, so I bought a wool high-neck sweater from a very pleasant lady on the Via Corso. Even so, that night I shivered through La Traviata performed in a beautiful stone church. After the opera, we (and all the Italians in the audience) made a mad dash across the street to the coffee bar. How on earth do the Italians manage to sleep after consuming so much espresso at 11:30 p.m.? Luckily, the the coffee bar was kind, having camomile tea on the menu for wimps like us who need a full night's sleep.
At the age of 59, I returned to Rome. I am still trying to figure out exactly what it is about this city that makes me to feel so "at home.". Genetic memory? More likely it's the combination of antiquity and historical interest, architectural beauty, more art than one can ever view, incredible food, and a people who are friendly, welcoming, tolerant and accepting of visitors. They look happy, they smile a lot (even when they are on their scooters in heavy traffic or crowded together on a bus or subway). Without bragging or being oppressive about it, they are proud of their city and they offer it to you in a delightful way. The seduction by Rome began the moment I landed at Fumicino. The light was that perfect golden hue and the sea pines were already within view. Ahhh, I felt, home. Strange feeling, not at all what I usually feel so far away from where I live.
We stayed at a small Rick Steves-recommended hotel, Il Giardino, run by a charming British woman and her Italian-British sons, just 5 minutes walk from the Forum. For me, it just doesn't get better than that for location. Across the street was another Rick Steves recommendation, a little mom-and-pop restaurant open until very late at night. I think I had their tortellini en brodo soup four times over the one week we were there. It was just fabulous to be able to walk through the Forum almost every single day, to walk around the Coliseum and cut across Trajan's marketplace to get back to our little hotel, stopping on the way for olives, cheese, and salami the quality of which I simply can never find at home. Now what's not to love about days like that?
On this trip, having a much greater understanding of Roman history, I absorbed more than ever as we visited various antiquity sites. We climbed up the Palatine Hill, visited the Domus Augustus (although I must return because I did not get to visit the Domus Livia). We saw the still vivid red and blue decorated ceilings of the Augustan era, we walked out into the courtyard overlooking the Circus Maximus, just as Augustus and Livia must have done over 2,000 years ago. If only we could turn back the hands of time a couple thousand years. It was thrilling to imagine how it must have been in all its glory as we stood high above the circus maximus looking out in the distance to the Baths of Caracalla. Later that evening, we ate at the Ulpia Restaurant, which is encrusted right into one of the walls of Trajan's Marketplace. What a hoot that was, savoring authentic minestrone, made in the simple style for which Roman food is so famous, while overlooking Trajan's marketplace. I commented to the handsome older silver-haired waiter that this was the very best location of any restaurant I'd ever been to – he smiled gently, and replied, "Yes, one of the best in the entire world, madam". I stood there for a long time, trying to envision what the marketplace looked like in its heyday, as the first "shopping center" ever built. Earlier that afternoon, we had also enjoyed Rome's incredible thin-crusted pizza and a salad at the Trattoria Gladiatore right across from the Coliseum. It is entirely Rome's fault that I now search in vain for the same type of pizza at home.
The next day I returned to the Forum alone for the afternoon. My husband was suffering from a bad sore throat and needed a nap. As I walked to the Forum, I passed the statue of Julius Caesar, and again saw bouquets of flowers lain at the base of the statue. On our last trip, we were there on the Ides of March, and there was a four-foot-high pile of flowers then. The Italians told us that this is the case every year on March 15th. Interestingly, even though it was not the Ides of March on this trip, Julius Caesar's actual cremation site in the Forum also had flowers placed in that small chamber. I took my sandwich, my book, and found a very pleasant place in the sun right in the middle of the Forum, settling atop of a piece of Roman column, for lunch and reading. It just does not get better than that for me, and it was difficult to tear myself away.
The next day we visited Ostia, another thrill. The Roman port is very intact, and offers a view of what life was like in the busy port city, with gorgeous mosaics in the marketplace, a well-preserved amphitheater and apartment buildings, and more. It's so easy to get there – just a short tram ride from the heart of Rome. Next time I'll bring a blanket to spread out a picnic – great location next to the Tiber.
We made sure to visit some of the magnificent museums that we had missed on earlier trips. For me, the apex was standing in a dimly-lit room viewing the wall coverings taken from a villa just outside Rome that belonged to Livia Drusilla. Gorgeous blue color, with birds and trees -- mind blowing, to be sure, and I wondered if I was truly there or just dreaming.
This rather sums it up: A day or two after returning home, my husband muttered as he was walking upstairs, "I miss Rome." I knew exactly how he felt, exactly what he meant. The city grabs you, it owns you, and invites you to return – and hopefully we will.
© Anita Kando 2014
leave comment here