Earlier this year I went back to Rome for three days of absolutely no plans other than to walk the city, eat food, shoot photos, and take in the city I first stepped foot into 22 years ago in 1989 when I left the USA for a year of living abroad. I had been back to Rome several times since then but mostly on business and never really with the time to just take it all in at a slow pace and with no agenda. I had 72 hours to move throughout the city.
As we were landing at Fiumicino airport it was great to see again the Italian countryside by air – it’s such a different look than all other places – terra cotta roofs, green hills, and smoke rising from some of the farms where they’re burning cypress wood. Just after landing and picking up my luggage I started walking over to the “niente da dichiarare” door when a street clothed Italian cop pulled me over to ask me if I had anything to declare. I thought I’d have some fun straight away because the Italian are fun to mess with) and so I told him I was walking through the nothing to declare line – because I-had-nothing-to-declare. If I had had something to declare, I would have walked through the other line.
He wasn’t amused. He asked for my passport, looked at my name and asked if I spoke Italian. I told him I did. He asked “you carrying any cigarettes?” No. “Any alchohol?” No. “Nothing to declare?” I told him… “Te l’ho detto non ho niente da dichiarare”. “You sure you don’t have any cigarettes?” I’m sure. “Va bene, vai...” Welcome back to Rome.
Once checked in and footloose in the city, the first thing I did was go to the very first take out pizzeria I saw and got a few squares of pizza with tomatoes and arugula. You can’t imagine how good this is. This is why I was here – flavor and texture permeates everything in Rome.
I was staying near the Piazza del Popolo, which has always been my favorite spot to start a walk in Rome because you get a great perspective of direction from this spot. In Piazza del Popolo there were many foreigners who were walking around mesmerized just being in this city. Rome has a weird affect on people visiting – it’s visual and aural overstimulation – it stuns them. Visitors walking in Rome (especially for the first time) have this look on their face like they can’t actually believe they’re there.
You know what you see in Rome? Life. People interacting on a totally different plane – the hands, the clothes, the cadence.
It was about 4pm by the time I set out for a first evening’s walk and I decided my destination that night would be Trastevere for dinner. I walked through time almost tracing the roads I lived in every day over two decades ago down Via del Corso with the indimenticabile smell of diesel in the air. I’ve always associated diesel with Rome in a nice sort of way. Passing by the Pantheon I heard in the air what has to be one of the best tango songs in the world, Libertango was hovering over the piazza played live by some anonymous bandoneon player. All around was the thick Roman dialect that just drips with a certain roughness that you can only appreciate once you can recognize the differences in regional Italian accents – trust me here, the Roman accent is very cool. It’s a mix of catwalk and redneck depending on who’s doing the talking.
I made my way all the way across the city this evening from Piazza del Popolo straight through Via del Corso, Piazza di Spagna, over toward the Pantheon for a quick stop in a classic spot – Giolitti. Giolitti is a bar/gelateria that is a bit overpriced and by now even a bit too touristed, but in any event when you have three days in Rome and you happen to be near the Pantheon you stop by Giolitti per una coppa. The scene in the surrounding streets on a nice May evening is an odd mix of cobblestone, sunlight, and surrealism. Rome is not a huge city but there is a certain grandness about it that simply doesn’t exist in any other European city – not even in any other Italian city.
It was getting late in the afternoon by now and I still had a solid hour to walk before making it to Trastevere. I continued over to Piazza Navona and toward the back side of the Capitoline hill before turning to head across the Tiber River to Trastevere. The sky was blue, the sunlight perfect for shooting photos, and the air was classic Roman springtime.
The cool thing about the Capitoline Hill is the view you get to the Foro Romano – it’s a dead center eye line shot from there to the Colosseo and one of the best places to take in a view that has existed longer than you can imagine. When you look over the Forum you can’t help but see that in some ways the ancient Romans had their act together more than the modern Romans.
I crossed the Ponte Palatino and approached Trastevere from Piazza in Piscinula down the Via della Lungaretta. One of the things I came to Rome for was Suppli’, a Roman “thing” that is essentially a cousin to the Arancino – a hot ball of cheese surrounded by rice and tomato sauce then formed into a ball, breaded and deep fried. On the way to dinner I walked past a small little bar that had a stock of these ready to go. I stopped in, ordered two or three and sat at the bar for the appetizer thinking to myself “you’ve got to be kidding me” – simple simple simple and ridiculously good – but only here can you get this.
One of the main reasons I wanted to make it to Trastevere that evening is because one of my favorite spaces in Rome is the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, a medium size square with a small church that has a golden mosaic on the front that shimmers when the lights come on and the sun goes down. Although there are usually many tourists here this piazza retains a certain quality that is unique, it’s right out of a old movie and a visually incredible place in the evening.
My goal that night was to find a local joint in some back street that could serve up the classic Roman primo Bucatini all’Amatriciana, a pasta dish made with guanciale (hog jowl), onion, san marzano tomoatoes and a touch of pepperoncini. Bucatini look like the kind of pasta you’d make with a Play-Doh machine when you press the Play-doh down with the handle and the long fat strings come out – and if you go to Rome this is a must-have dish.
After scratching the food itch for dinner and refueling it was time to head back to the hotel along the river. I decided to cross back over and move along the Tiber in order to be able to check out the Castello San’t Angelo at night (something I never once did in a year of living in Rome strangely enough). This is the place that is attached with underground tunnels to the Vatican residences and was used to defend the city and Popes. Today you can still enter it and check out the insane view from the rooftop terrace (which I planned on coming back to do first thing Sunday morning).
By now I was bushed – transatlantic flight, wired on espresso, full on pasta, 7 or 8 mile walk across the city in only a few hours, mezzo-litro di Rosso, some 200 photos, and a late night arrival back at the hotel. I needed sleep because I had two more full days to dive deeper into the city. Rome is the bomb.
Day 2 is here.