Living in Vegas for a number of years, I always had a hard time understanding demolition of great buildings just to make room for new ostentatious ones. (i.e. implosion of the Hacienda which I witnessed from the Tropicana, where I worked, on NYE 1996; later came Luxor on this property). Visiting Rome, certainly reaffirms the value of salvaging our history in architecture. It is easy to see pictures online, in print or on the big screen of the iconic tourist sites in this beautiful old city but until your eyes fall on these spectacular representations of ancient life in person there is no way to imagine the “awesome” they evoke.
Arriving at Termini, the main transportation station in downtown Rome, we exited the train and made our way to Hotel Luce, an extremely easy walk even pulling a couple roller bags each. Check in was smooth and easy and the front desk clerk was courteous in standoffish Italian style. We knew this 4 star accommodation was under 200 square feet as are all of the rooms we booked for this introductory Europe Spring Fling, but wow we didn’t imagine how tight the quarters would be! The room was clean, the water was hot (although my honey could barely fit in the stall), the included breakfast provided a hearty start to the day and we were a stones throw to the edge of the Old City so we were satisfied. Not thrilled exactly, but with the Euro exchange and the cost of goods we were definitely pleased with the pricing we had found via Hotwire for this lodging. We headed out as soon as we had done a little settling in. Our bellies were grumbling and just a block over from Via Magenta we found Capitello Ristorante. We strode past it after glancing at the menu as the man at the door commented “Come in, is very good.” After perusing a few more spots we felt something pull us back to this location and even as we wrapped up our Roma time we found this spot to be on the favorites list. Walking down a short set of steps, we saw the below street level dining room open up warmly before us. Traditional small, intimate, cloth covered tables allowed for about 28 patrons. Bottles of assorted Italian wines lined the brick shelf that was naturally formed by the infrastructure of the building as the decor. A DCOG Barbera caught my honey’s eye and we were off on part of the adventure of this trip that was significant to the plan, simply to discover old vine wines in their country of origin. We ordered an antipasti plate to start and were thoroughly impressed by the cured meats and cheese offered in this starter. As is the case with many restaurants throughout the eternal city, this spot offered a combo. It was priced reasonably at 13€. We opted for the spaghetti with tomato sauce and veal saltimboca and a pizza fromaggio with a plan to share these plates. We were thoroughly satisfied both with the taste bud explosion and the care and attention provided by our server. After, we opted out of dolce (dessert) and instead decided to walk off our mid-afternoon gorging after dropping off our leftover slices to our room.
Familiarity with our immediate surroundings was our goal. The streets were lively with hawkers, shops and cafes and then suddenly we were in the midst of a park adjacent to the Egyptian cultural center. I want to mention now that I have been using the Google translator app and I am thoroughly pleased with the ease of use. I simply snapped a shot of the sign on the side of this building and was able to be provided the information behind the words I could not read. I can also plug in the words or speak them in to the microphone to translate to or from any language I wish. I can also hear an appropriate pronunciation with a simple tap on the megaphone symbol. It has served me well. The park was alive with the sounds of children excited by the advent of Spring. We were enthralled with the environment of a new society. As we made our way on past the park fountain, we came upon a game of soccer being played by young men in their 20’s. Just as I jumped my way quickly past their play, I spotted before me an unexpected site. Just this easily we emerged onto a sidewalk that gave us our first view of one of this ancient city’s greatest landmarks, the Colosseum. Continuing down the walkway our visual became greater and I was simply in awe. We made our way to a bridged walkway that gave us a view of this wonder and the adjoining Forum. I felt as if I needed to pinch myself. No amount of internet research I had done prepared me for the beauty of the A.D. structure remains or the architecture of the dated buildings we passed. As we meandered back a different path to call it a day and seek some rest to prepare ourselves for the week of discovery before us we stopped at a Coop grocery to buy some fruit and water for our room which did have a frig by the way.
My daughter and our friend were meeting us a few days into this stay so areas they had not mentioned they were planning to visit were on our agenda until they arrived. Borghese Park was our first destination on the second day in the city. I had hoped for the museum on these grounds also but upon our arrival we found this free admission location “sold out” for several days. Be forewarned that if this is part of your itinerary, do your research and make your reservation ahead. The park itself was reminiscent to me of wandering in Central Park with many statues, a zoo, bicyclists, dog area, entertainers working for tips, small snack areas and beautiful trees. We did wander into one smaller art display building housing replicas of famous sculptures and other old memorabilia. It added some interest but when we exited the overcast day had turned in to a rainy day. As a word of advice, Rome in spring can definitely call for the need of light jacket, a cap or even an umbrella! We did not allow the wet weather to dampen our spirits but did wonder our way back to the hotel for an afternoon nap to see if it would pass. One observation we made is that even though we had the slow progression of losing eight hours over the Transatlantic travel it was not easy for the body to assimilate. Imagine the lag you feel from Daylight Savings Time being repeated eight times over fourteen days! By the third day in Rome we felt we had finally caught up to ourselves. This evening we ate late at a spot we found called Alfredo. We were satisfied with it but not wowed by it. We also discovered that the bulk of Rome’s full service restaurants had a similar style menu featuring appetizers and starters, “first course” pasta options, “second course” meat options, pizza and dolce.
Caffe Cavour was the start of our next day’s trek. We brunched on the sidewalk enjoying pizza, club on focaccia, Cappuccino’s and some great people watching. Refueled we made our way to the Tiber River, catching our first distant view of Vatican City, and through the neighborhood of Trastevere. This is a wonderful neighborhood with many shops and restaurants and is said to have quite the nightlife scene. Wandering back out via another of the many bridges crossing the Tiber we stopped to listen to the beauty of the street musicians playing here and to take in the serenity of spring along the river. Il dolce far niente is a saying I had come across in my trip research. Meaning the sweet art of doing nothing, we found ourselves stumble into this mode many times in these days as we stood in awe of the beauty this country holds. Feeling the need for some fortification before making our way back to our own neighborhood we stopped for wine and cheese at a quaint little spot on the old city edge. As we rounded a corner on this return we found ourselves in the Piazza Venezia and before us was the huge building, the Monument of Victor Emmanuel II. I had of course seen pictures of this monstrosity with its horseman and duplicate chariots which I have now found out are driven by the Goddess Nike who represents victory. Time and time again in these travels I have felt in awe of the sheer amount of historic knowledge there is to glean from this world. This monument also contains the tomb of the unknown soldier. Ascending to the midpoint allows for incredible views of the entire city. There is also an elevator to the top for 10€ but we opted only into the free aspect which was quite awe inspiring, similar to rising up to the Empire State Building in NYC or the KL Tower in Kuala Lumpur which provide these types of 360 degree views. It’s a great way to get your bearings for the landmarks you wish to visit when you travel to these large cities. Amedeo Ristorante near Termini was our choice for dinner on this evening. We sat outside and made friends with a couple from Belgium and another from Chicago. The food (our favorite was the Ossobucco) and service were both excellent. We were “rolling” so we went in search of a bar with live music to hang out at. Finding nothing that caught our attention in the immediate area we made our way to a place we had spotted earlier on our cheese and wine stop. Black Market had no music this evening but offered something we had not experienced before. We ordered our wine and found an open settee amongst the cool vibe living room type setting of this lounge. Soon, we discovered it was a make out bar on evenings of no live music. Quite an experience although short lived as it was closing time but alas we made friends again, this time with the staff. They allowed us to hang after hours with them which was quite fun as it led to some social/political debates. On the way home we heard a boisterous crowd on our path via Termini and although we certainly did not need it, we stopped for a “night cap” at Twins Bar whose crowd totally had a gangster feel. It was a night we will reminisce over I am sure.
Finding ourselves in need of a semi easy day we woke later and lounged for quite some time before making the decision to be bums by taking a tour on the hop on hop off bus. While this service does provide a great overview of the city and is a good value after 3pm with a reduced price, we were disappointed. We are walkers and so to get by all these same landmarks was easy with this week long stay. What we were after was recognition and names of these icons. Sadly, we did not gain this knowledge. I take responsibility for myself and therefore should have done more homework but this tourist business was not satisfactory because the timing of the audio to the drivers flow with traffic and the language barrier presented by the street and landmark names simply made it impossible to follow completely. The other challenges are minimal on/off locations and the difficulty the skinny old streets make for the routing. We rode the entire loop and enjoyed the fresh air and the ease of looking but that was it. There was not enough value for the ticket. If you decide to use it when you travel to Rome I hope they come up with some fixes. Lacking any real energy (did I mention they had completely dug up, done pipe work under and relaid our cobblestone street outside the windows of our hotel room while we were there? #hardtogetgoodsleep); we ate close to home this night at a Halal Indian spot with dish up style food which was simple and good and went back to the room to watch a movie on the laptop.
The adventure of the day to end the week involved a quick walk over to Termini to grab our rental car. We headed out of the city to Tuscany, taking the opportunity of proximity to explore some of the old vine wine region and get a feel for the countryside. Hectic is the best single word I can use to describe the experience of getting out of the center of this city. Of course we used maps on our phone to guide us but the unfamiliarity with Italian street names and the app being behind quite a bit led to some confusion. At one point we were in the process of turning down a street when we saw a man in a white car coming our way wagging his finger back and forth as if lecturing “ah, ah, ah, wrong way!” and then we realized, indeed; one way! Thank goodness for a small Euro car with a tight turn radius, my honey reacted fast and we did a “u-ey”, laughing hysterically. Finally, the streets began to widen and soon we we entered the on ramp of the freeway.
The trip itself was beautiful with the Italian countryside feeding my curiosity. The farmland was fresh with the green of spring followed by the walled cities sitting gracefully along the hillsides, the clock towers and church steeples of the small towns gracefully perched amongst the rolling hills of olive orchards and grape vineyards; it all thrilled me. If you plan to do a road trip on your visit be sure you plan for steep fuel prices ($6 gal approximately) and tall toll fees both going in to and out of the city. Our tolls for travel to and from Montalcino totaled €24.
Montalcino attracted us for its ease of proximity; within about two and a half hours of Rome and because it grows one grape and that vine only grows in the dirt surrounding this village. Brunello is the wine that brought us up the curvy road to this walled town of 5000 tucked in to the top of the hillside. As we exited the car, we heard a loudspeaker blasting rock music and the cheers of the players at a soccer field adjacent to the towns original fort. The cobbled streets and sidewalks led us past shops, restaurants and churches with stairwells that offered peek a boo views of the fields below. Great wooden doors (twelve to fifteen feet in height) all adorned with a variety of metal knockers (see my previous pictorial post) were the entries of the residences and businesses in the heart of this quaint city with its clock tower set as the anchor to the piazza. It was storybook worthy without a doubt. We found most restaurants closing shortly after we had done a decent job of inspecting the city. The bulk of the eateries closed at 3pm and reopened at 7pm but then we stumbled across Enoteca Bacchus. A sixteen seat hole in the wall operated by a father and son team. The son’s sommelier credentials proudly hung on the wall in prominent view alongside a variety of the regions Brunellos representing multiple wineries. A soccer game played on a television set near the entrance. We ordered a wine flight for our first tastes of the pride of the region to accompany our mushroom ravioli, antipasto plate and tomato and mozzarella salad brunch. Shortly, we were joined by a young American couple living and working temporarily in the country near Napoli who we struck up great conversation with and toasted to a wonderful day. We ran into them again later as we were at the wine shop of the fort where we participated in a tasting with a very knowledgeable representative. As we tasted, he shared the story of the poverty that had stricken this small leather producing village and the pharmacist who had arrived to the area to prove the ground with its layers of ancient volcanic ash and its underground caverns was just the place for the Brunello vine. His stories, the beauty of the day, the promise of free shipping, the ridiculously low per bottle prices, the nuances of the flavors and the romance of the passion my own sommelier has for the art of wine found us soon selecting bottles to fill our case…cases to be shipped home. 😉 We killed some time before driving (we had consumed a fair amount tasting about a dozen vintages) by chatting with our new friends and then finally decided as the sun made its way to the final stages of this day that we should be off. Our travels back were livened by the animal life making their way to cover as darkness fell. We saw the cutest little striped piglets scamper into a ditch alongside the roadway with their wild boar mother. Kittens, raccoons and deer all crossed our path as well adding to the magic of this Spring day. Arriving back in Rome, we held our breath as we navigated the one ways and made it back to the parking garage of Budget Rent A Car. This was a totally worthwhile excursion which will be the temptress of a future trip to meander the wine country by car and experience more of the culture. (Fingers crossed!)