Rome was a live theatre. Whistling lotharios passed me by, chic women kicked their heels and rested tired feet in sidewalk cafés, the carabinieri dipped into pots of gelato (the Italian police too need their share of happiness), Rastafarians plied their trade of rainbow coloured beads and men spray painted canvases on streets with fascinated bystanders looking on. Some wove carpets in quiet alleys. Others sold cones of piping hot chestnuts. Not to overlook the old man with the accordion and the woman with the cello at street corners, or the young boy’s raspy crooning of the same song over and over again to the strumming of his guitar.
Modern day Romans set the tone for Roma as they lovingly refer to their city.
Just as effortlessly ancient Rome steps into the fray. The Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon ratchet up the quotient of its rich past. The ruins encapsulate in them the pagan past of the city when Roman emperors stomped around in hauteur; of bloodthirsty crowds and gladiatorial combats that the Romans indulged in, inspired by the Etruscans who ruled ancient Roma; and the initials SPQR that appear carved in historic walls in tribute to the Roman Republic. Senatus Populusque Romanus is Latin for The Roman Senate and People which came into existence in 510 BC after the rape of a genteel woman called Lucretia.
Even the alleys in the historic districts of the city exude atmosphere. It was difficult for me to imagine that once upon a time Rome used to be a crowded city, dirty, smelly and filled with beggars and slaves. The masses in the city meant that Julius Caesar forbade the use of carts during the day. So, the nights used to be noisy with horses clattering down its cobbled lanes, drawing carts laden with goods.
On a bus heading to the southern coastline of Italy, I met a Hollywood film distributor. She was meeting her girlfriends for a hiking holiday. We were heading to a picture-postcard location, yet the moment I mentioned Rome, she went into raptures.
The first night, when we made our way to the hotel in Rome passing by ancient gates and monuments bathed in golden hues under the halogen of the street lights, my bus friend’s words came back to me.
The historic centre of Rome is crowned by the smallest city-state in the world and the bedrock of the Catholic faith.
The Vatican was a step back for me into the world that I had a glimpse of through the historical-fiction drama show, The Borgias, many moons ago. Actor Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, the ambitious patriarch of the Borgia family who became a pope in the 15th century through avarice and simony. Tales of incest, bribery, assassinations, poisoning, adultery, theft are a legacy of Rodrigo Borgia’s reign as Pope Alexander VI, yet the Borgias were determined patrons of Renaissance art. That comes through in the group of six rooms that make up the Borgia Apartments inside the Vatican. They were sealed off after Alexander VI’s death because the Borgia family was quite despised for all their many intrigues.
The Sistine Chapel was spellbinding. The Last Judgment by Michelangelo and the Renaissance frescos by Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Roselli send you into a trance which not even the guards in chapel can break with their spiel of ‘no photography’ and stern shushes issued from time to time.
Beyond admiring the papal residence and St Peter’s Basilica, I was taken in by the costumes of the papal Swiss guards in their doublets, flat white collars, breeches, boots and black berets. They were straight out of the sets of a costume drama. Yet they are as real as the Honour Guard who stands within the Pantheon. When I beheld the Honour Guard in his capacious robe and beret keeping guard inside the temple, next to a huge guest book where people seemed to be diligently putting down their signatures, I was mystified. It turns out that he is a voluntary guard, a part of an institution called the Honour Guard to the Royal Tombs of the Pantheon, that has been keeping watch for about 130-odd years over the tombs of the Savoy Kings who ruled Italy. One of these kings was King Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy. But the Savoy family was exiled in 1948 from the country for supporting the Fascist Mussolini and then not only falling in line with his anti-Semitic laws but also fleeing German-occupied Rome for Puglia. The ban has been lifted since 2002 but the chequered tales of the current heirs are enough for the family never to recover their tainted reputation.
When River Tiber showed up, so did the cylindrical Castel Sant’Angelo along with the bluish bronze statue of archangel Michael standing atop the castle. The archangel cut quite a militant figure with his sword and there are many legends about him, one of which is related to pagan worship in the city and the destruction of pagan sites by Pope Gregory I.
The original structure of the castle had been erected by emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame) as his mausoleum. It did contain the ashes of Hadrian and his family members till it was looted during the 410 AD Sacking of Rome by Alaric, king of the Visigoths.
Now, the Rome that you see in the films and its iconic edifices of the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain are thronged by crowds. In the blistering summers when it is inevitable that one should get baked slowly but surely, one needs an escape route from the numbers. During the sultry midday hours, we therefore indulged in long walks through the leafy atmospheric quarters of Rome, away from the crowds.
One noon we had a beautiful view of the domes and campaniles in the city from the Gianicolo, the Janiculum Hill that is scattered with references to one of Italy’s battles for independence when in 1849 Garibaldi and his army had defeated French troops. At the top of the hill, we soaked our feet in the icy cold waters of the 17th century Fontana dell’Acqua Paola or the Gianicolo fountain and the tiredness of the day was washed away in its white marbled glory.
Further exploration led us into the cobbled streets of the Trastevere neighbourhood, dotted with rustic osterie and trattorias that serve up cacio e pepe and traditional paper-thin Roman pizzas. Old basilicas show up in its alleys and more vine-clad eateries pop up on the sidewalks where people seem to have all the time in the world for noshing and the good things of life. We sat in a quiet alley and gorged on pizzas and then tucked into some fabulous gluten-free gelato from Fatamorgana, one of the hip n’ happening gelatarias in Rome. It does have a quirky range of flavours. Sample this: Goat cheese and coconut, black cherries and beer and chocolate-tobacco flavours.
A short walk from the Trastavere is a little island on the Tiber, Isola Tiberina. In times of antiquity, a temple of Asclepius (ancient Greek god of health and well-being) stood on the island but it is home today to the Fatebenefratelli Hospital. When the Nazis occupied Rome in 1943 and started rounding up Jews, Dr. Giovanni Borromeo, a surgeon at the hospital, saved Jews by putting them into a ward that he labelled “Il Morbo di K” (K disease or tuberculosis), a highly contagious illness that kept the SS away.
Early evenings meant aperitivo o’ clock. Cooling off with camparis and beers in sidewalk bars became a ritual for us. Aperitivos, in my books, are the best of all Italian rituals apart from the gelato and the paper thin pizzas. The idea behind the aperitivo concept is that post work when you are hungry, you grab a drink and sate the appetite with a buffet of little snacks. One of our favourite spots for aperitivos was on Via dei Banchi Vecchi.
Off the Ponte Sant’Angelo on the Tiber, the Via dei Banchi Vecchi is a street that has been named after the bankers who lived and worked there. It has Renaissance buildings, their facades decorated with silhouettes of cupids and heads of women, and the Palazzo Sforza Cesarini, a building commissioned by Rodrigo Borgia before he became pope. But most importantly, it has small and friendly aperitivo bars that charge anything between 8-10 Euros for a drink, accompanied by unlimited refills of a line-up of snacks such as pastas, pizzas, risottos, salads and small tarts.
We spent time soaking up the night life in Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori, catching up with local friends and hearing fantastic stories of their lives, and guarding our bags with lives. For you know, thieves are a smooth lot in Rome. They can apparently whisk you away and you would never know.
On our last night in the city, we wound up our Roman adventure with queues at pizzerias and gelatarias. When a friend, a local, had pointed out that they were two of the best things to do in Rome, how could we not give in?
We queued up outside Pizzeria Baffetto, an old pizzeria that serves up tasty, no-frills pizzas and makes you share tables with strangers. After a substantial wait, we found ourselves seated with artichoke and ham pizzas, as paper-thin as they could get, with a lovely French couple. Now as we exchanged travel notes, a few women passed by shrieking at us. It turned out a big fat mouse had taken a liking to our part of the pavement and decided to adopt us.
Right opposite Baffetto was another institution, Frigidarium. If you take your gelato as seriously as we do, a queue here cannot put you off its creamy offerings. In the old days, Romans would bathe in large cold pools called frigidarium and there we were doing our own version of it.
At the end of those glorious four days in Rome, I could see why it was dubbed the Eternal City. Ancient Romans had this belief, you see, that no matter how many empires came and went, Rome was invincible. That it would live forever.