It’s funny how some places never seem to lose their magic, regardless how often you revisit them. To me, going back to Rome is like getting to know someone a little better each time we meet. I feel it has been too long since I last walked its streets and drank the always wonderful, strong espresso – or, simply, ‘caffè’.
What has struck me right from the beginning is how many of the ancient monuments and historic buildings are part of daily life, not curious visitor attractions or protected museum pieces fenced off. They are as much part of the modern living city as the fashion boutiques or coffee bars. I sometimes wonder if a site like the Roman Forum is simply a (magnificent) backdrop for the locals when they drive past it on their way to work. Personally I was almost in awe when I touched the still solid wall of the Colosseum for the first time and walked down the beautiful cobbled Via Appia Antica. It felt like a real, physical connection with ancient history.
Traffic! Everything you have seen or heard about it is probably true! People drive fast, constantly honking their horns. Although to an outsider the traffic looks chaotic and outright dangerous, a local code of conduct enables it to run quite smoothly. A lot of the cars I’ve seen, old or new, seem to have scratches or little dents but nobody is bothered. Beware of the vespas though: they can move from the street onto the pavement and back again if that is the fastest route.
Crossing a busy road for the first few times was a nerve-wrecking experience, even at a pedestrian crossing. If you don’t start walking, nobody will stop but as the cars and vespas whizz past incredibly fast, you don’t dare step on the road. The good news is, the cars will stop just for long enough for you to pass, and the vespas will simply dodge you. I was once told to follow a nun or a priest as nobody would run them over but I’ve never seen one at the right time. (Speaking of nuns, did you know they carry mobile phones, at least in the Vatican? I didn’t. No reason why they wouldn’t but it’s not something I expected to see.)
A blonde with a strong foreign accent, I stand out as an obvious visitor but I love how Romans let me try to blend in. When I ask for a coffee standing at the bar, they may ask if I’d rather sit down but never try to force me to have the more expensive table service. I’m allowed to order the coffee or a slice of pizza in bad Italian and the locals seem genuinely pleased that I even try. At least I don’t need to ask for water: the city is full of drinking fountains so it’s free refills for the whole trip.
On one of my first trips I got ushered into a tourist trap restaurant where the food was ok but prices extortionate. When I happened to mention it to the owner of my B&B he seemed almost personally offended that a fellow Roman could have charged so much! Since then, I’ve always looked for the simpler eateries where the locals would gather for the evening. My favourite, Trattoria da Valentino, is family run and welcomes diners as well as their dogs. Once you are in, the table is yours for as long as you want, regardless how many people are waiting in the queue.
I remember going to Valentino’s on a day when the sale of alcohol was banned because the night before local football fans had got into serious fights with Liverpool supporters. The owner clearly thought the ban was ridiculous and bad for business: I was offered wine with my meal, and a pleasantly surprised English lad was sold beer to take away and even asked if he needed a carrier bag.
Some of the best coffee I’ve had (although it hasn’t been bad anywhere!) has been at a coffee bar at the main railway station. At first it seemed strange but of course, a lot of people grab an espresso on the way to work, and having bad coffee first thing in the morning wouldn’t be a promising start. That’s my theory anyway.
I’m always puzzled by the street vendors’ ability to change their stock so quickly: a sunglasses seller can become an umbrella seller within minutes after the weather has changed.
Years ago a visit to the Colosseum meant seeing cats with their adorable kittens roaming the ruins. Now I appreciate the efforts the local animal charities have made to neuter the countless stray cats of the city. A large, volunteer-run cat sanctuary is set in the famous ruins of Torre Argentina, where Julius Caesar was stabbed. My first visit there was after I ended up spending extra days in the city in April 2010 as the volcanic eruption in Iceland disrupted air travel. Let’s just say, there are worse places to be stuck in, even if the trip home turned out to be quite eventful. That will be a story for another time.