March 30 – April 2
(I will address all the landmarks in their Italian names except for world icons like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, for which I will use their English translations)
Here I am, standing in front of the Colosseum, setting up my tripod for my unoriginal attempt to capture the Roman-era architecture with a light trail in the foreground. The Colosseum might not be the single most impressive monument in the world, but I can’t think of another two -thousand year old world icon that is situated right in the heart of a developed country’s capital.
Unlike during daytime, the surrounding plaza is largely empty. I press on the shutter. Counting down thirty seconds. Without any distraction, I look across the street. The Colosseum has noticeably endured much neglect over its long history. Large portions of the structure have disappeared, and what remains is in desperate need of restoration. The once thoroughly symmetric building is now a symbol of imperfection and deterioration, much like Rome as a whole. And it is this vulnerability that allows me to recognize what has been preserved has as much to do with human dedication as sheer luck.
I have been to Rome once before. It was almost twelve years ago in August 2000, the year of the Great Jubilee. A festive mood overtook the city as pilgrims and tourists alike flocked to Rome to celebrate the occasion. It was fun to be a part of this major celebration, but the flip side was we had to put up with an omnipresent crowd. Rome’s excessive summer heat only made us all the more weary of the theme park that the city had become.
Since my wife has never been to Rome, it is a matter of time before I would visit again. To make sure we see Rome at its best this time around, rather than diligently following a list of must-visit sites, I plan to be flexible and allocated most of our time for aimless wandering or revisiting places multiple times in order to photograph them under different lighting conditions.
In the comfortable warm weather, we are having a good time simply by focusing on doing the little things. Searching for pizza and gelato has been a delectable diversion. Shopping for food at local markets is another. Most unexpected of all, excluding the stretch between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, we are able to avoid the unbearable crowd of my last visit.
Not that we haven’t done some old-school sightseeing. On attraction alone Rome has to be the most blessed city on earth. Being the capital of the Roman Empire and the seat of the Papacy means the city contains a high concentration of Roman-era ruins and sumptuously decorated churches. The Colosseum alone is worth the airfare, and then there are the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Capitoline Hill, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Vatican and the Trevi Fountain, just to name a few. We pace ourselves by seeing no more than two or three sites each day. Otherwise the threshold of sensory overload is very easily reached, even (or especially) for some of the best sites the world has to offer.
Traveling is often a crapshoot. Many variables have to go according to plan for a trip to be enjoyable. The weather has to cooperate – all the more better if it is the low/shoulder season. Surprises and challenges are welcomed, but hopefully not to the point of affecting the entire itinerary. Everything more or less falls into place for us this time, which teaches me that for cities like Rome, it is safe to visit a few times before forming a definite opinion on it.
That’s the sound of the shutter. Time to check out on my newest shot.
While labeling itself as a B&B, Interno 9 (€68 per night), in the Portuense district south of Trastevere, is a three-bedroom apartment with a shared bathroom and breakfast is provided at a café across the road. The owner doesn’t reside at the apartment. The neighbourhood is very quiet without many dining options. To reach Piazza Venezia, the town’s major transit point, there is Bus 170 which takes around 20 minutes.
Rome’s historic centre is compact enough that we could get to most places on foot. The bus system, while not very punctual, was what we used to travel across town.
The subway is generally not very useful for visitors. The only time-saving stations are Termini, Colosseo and Spagna as these are right next to their associated train station or landmarks.
It is unnecessary to take a taxi. On our sole taxi ride to our B&B after getting off the airport bus at the Termini, we had the misfortune to hail one that resembled the notorious stereotype of Rome’s taxi driver. Agreed to base the fare by the metre, he suddenly turned the metre off despite my protest. He also drove like a madman who stepped on the gas and then immediately braked almost constantly. I negotiated with him for a few minutes before final settling on (€25) for the ride. I think the purpose of shutting the metre has less to do with trying to overcharge me than to evade tax. Whatever the reason I would avoid taking taxi in Rome.
A cup of morning espresso is as essential an experience when visiting Rome as seeing the Colosseum. The quality of the brew is quite consistent even at undistinguished looking neighbourhood café.
One of the more celebrated, and touristy, café is Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè near the Pantheon. I personally didn’t find the severely overpriced coffee to be markedly better than its more humble competitors’, but often the value of a historic establishment has more to do with its atmosphere and tradition than the actual offering.
That said, its chocolate-covered coffee beans are very aromatic and make a good souvenir.
The dinner on our last night aside, we didn’t have any sit-down meal in Rome. That doesn’t mean we were walking around town in empty stomachs. On the contrary, we pampered ourselves with a steady flow of fruit, gelato, pizza and pastry.
For pizza, most we did try were nothing to write home about. One thing I had noticed was the global “Thin Crust” phenomenon has yet to take place in pizza’s birthplace. After eating so many years of thin crust pizza, I needed a little time to adjust to Italy’s authentic level of thickness.
The only place I would recommend is the bakery Forno Campo De’ Fiori located obviously in Piazza Campo De’ Fiori. We really liked the eggplant pizza and the potato pizza. The pastry was also very good, although I don’t know the exact names of the ones we had.
My choice for gelato is slightly off the beaten path. It is not Il Gelato Di San Crispino, which I didn’t find to be anything special. I much prefer Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè, a ten-minute walk from the Spanish Steps. Located at the idle Piazza di Monte d’Oro, the shop reminded me more of a North American ice cream parlor than the typical Italian gelaterie. It offered a wide range of flavours in three different categories – gelato, sorbet and frozen yogurt. The rice gelato was our favourite.
We didn’t purposedly avoid sitting down for a proper meal. Rather we just didn’t come across one that made us eager to try out until the last night.
After watching the sunset over St. Peter’s Basilica, we crossed the Tiber River back to Rome. The sky was getting darker by the minute and we were starving. Trying to locate a restaurant near Piazza Navona with the address I had saved on my iPhone, our attention was caught by a small osteria on a dimly lit road called Via dei Soldati. Ten minutes before its evening opening hour of 19:30, a small crowd of people had already gathered at the entrance.
The menu was quite reasonably priced. We ordered two appetizers – green salad (€5) and prosciutto with melon (€12), two first courses – pasta Carbonara (€12) and seafood risotto (€12), and a main course of grilled sea bass (€18). We were also served some croquette and two servings of ricotta cheese, both free of charge.
The croquette was cold and the salad too salty, but everything else was delicious. The ricotta was unforgettable – it is extremely difficult to find fresh ricotta in Hong Kong.