Roma is an electrifying city. It is a mix of ancient and modern, of beauty and decay, and of the grand and the mundane. It is difficult to not fall completely in love with it in its uniqueness. I am always completely at home there; an unusual phenomenon for me as, generally, cities tend to drain me of my energy. This was never the case for Rome, however – it enlivened me down to my bones, pulsating with a strange magic that never failed to pull me under its spell.
Last summer, I was fortunate to spend six weeks studying in this city that I loved so very much. For the first week that I was there, I kept a very detailed daily account of my activities on a small online blog – what I did, where I went, and (most importantly) what I ate. If you’ve already read those anecdotes, I’m sorry to say that this entry will be a bit familiar, but I’m sure that they will be new to the majority of you and those of you that have already shared in them won’t mind a brief visit back to such a lovely city.
Though I become too busy to continue such a thorough journal once my classes started, what I want to share are some of the excerpts from those first few days – tiny observations, silly misadventures and fond memories from a place I love so well.
A Day One ‘Disaster’ – The Boiler, The Power and the Barrier (and Dinner):
Roma does not always welcome you without a few tests to make sure you can handle her quirks.
Finally arrived at my charming AirBnB near the Campo de’ Fiori, I was desperately looking forward to a shower to wash the day of airports and train stations off of my body. Unfortunately, for the life of me, I could not get the water to turn anything but ice cold, which my body shiveringly rejected. My baffled host and I went back and forth as I tried to increase the pressure of the boiler by turning a tiny nob that seemed merely decorative.
Finally, I begrudgingly conceded to a cold shower; at least I was clean and it was a hot day. The host would have a plumber come so the incident would not be repeated; only, as I looked around I noticed the electricity had gone out. My host texted me an incredulous ‘Oh my God’, as he couldn’t believe the luck I was having upon my arrival to Roma. He told me to go the the circuit box, but that happened to be behind a cabinet that was screwed to the wall, so no dice there.
No hot water or power is fine for now, I thought. I can just go out. A knock on the door broke my train of thought and I moved to open it, thinking the plumber had come after all, though what could he do with a boiler if the power was out, I didn’t know. However, it was only my downstairs neighbor, checking to see if I too had lost power. It was now that I discovered that I could not open to the apartment the door from the inside. I struggled in vain with the massive lock, probably looking like an American fool to the neighbor outside. After asking if I was ok, and getting an affirmative, he departed.
I fought with the lock for a good half hour. I contemplated what would have to happen to get me out of here – would they need to take me out if the window? Would the fire department break down the door?? Would a chainsaw be required??? I texted my host for help – telling him (jokingly) that I didn’t think his apartment liked me. To his great credit, he was desperately trying to be helpful, and, as I later found out, was also trying to celebrate his birthday in Ibiza. He decided to send someone up with another key. At least the power came back on in the meantime without any effort on my part.
Thankfully, the second key worked both inside and outside. My rescuer tested mine. No, he confirmed, it did not work inside. I nodded my head, glad to not be made (much of) a fool by a very old key. He also fixed the boiler. I wanted to hug him, but I just thanked him and let him leave. I didn’t put too much thought into what he must have been thinking.
Without hesitation, I grabbed my purse and headed out. It was time for a drink. However, as soon as I hit the street, the stress melted away. Rome had gone from confounding to enchanting in just a moment. The air smelled like the fresh blooming jasmine that spilled around store entrances. Bougainvillea sprawled overhead like a pink blanket, and the sound of lilting Italian conversations re-energized me almost instantly.
Every corner brought new delights and familiar images – the Angel Bridge over the Tiber, filled with tourists and street vendors; pastry shops filled with sweets that looked too pretty to eat (but I’ll certainly try), and dogs that just don’t want me to pet them despite me really wanting to (it’s just a Roman dog thing, I think; I tried not to take it too personally).
I ended up at Roscioli for dinner, a half specialty food shop, half restaurant. I took a seat at the bar and got my drink – a bright red Negroni, which was necessarily strong and delicious. I was determined to eat. My last meal was a very mediocre protien bar on the plane from Sweden that morning. So, I ordered with gusto – an appetizer of burrata with oven dried tomatoes and a plate of the Pasta Francescana, which was one of the house specialties. My waiter looked at my like I was ordering more cheese than was gastronomically suggestible (I was, but, you know, I deserved it) but decided to let me get what I wanted.
The burrata was exceptional, and I ate it all. It was served with a basket of bread the size of my face in which there were five different types of bread. Yes, I tried them all and no, I’m not ashamed. When the pasta came, I worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it. I had just eaten a mountain of the most sublime cheese and carbs, and here was another one, taunting me.
I did my best to work my way through the pasta, as it was perfect. The rigatoni was cooked just al dente and was in a sauce of butter and three kinds of Parmesan cheese, each made from a different breed of cow’s milk. It tasted like childhood. I could not finish it, try as I might, but I did my best. I ordered an espresso to finish, and was brought a complimentary dessert of anise cookies with melted chocolate to dip them in. I somehow found room for these. It was the perfect ending to a very eventful first day and I laughed to myself wondering what the next would bring.
Day Two: Never a Quiet Morning in Roma:
I was awakened just after seven by the rhythmic cooing of doves (or was it pigeons? Impossible to know). I had noticed what looked like a dove cote on the roof of my apartment building and assumed that the sound was coming from there. It was quite soothing, and I listened to it for a time, trying to fall back asleep to catch up on the hours of rest lost while traveling.
However, my efforts were in vain as the gentle cooing was soon replaced by the more cacophonous sounds of a Roman morning. It began with car horns, blaring often as the Romans tend to drive like they are on a racetrack. Next followed the high pitched beeps of delivery trucks backing up after unloading their morning orders. Then followed the noise of jackhammers and power tools; in a city as old as this one, something is always under construction. Finally, the sound of porcelain coffee cups being lifted up and down off of their saucers and the clinking of silverware reminded me that it was time to get up for colazione, or breakfast.
I walked a few hundred meters to Forno, which was at the end of the Campo de’ Fiori. Forno is one of the best known bakeries in Rome. It is a simple place; old fashioned in the best way. Cornetti and other pastries and sweets filled the display case, while breads of all types covered the shelves on the wall. However, what Forno is famous for, and what I chose to get that morning, was the pizza bianca.
Pizza bianca does not look like pizza at all. There is no tomato sauce, no cheese, nothing that would say ‘pizza’ to anyone. Instead, it is a thin sheet of dough that is dimpled and covered liberally with olive oil and coarse salt before being baked. When it is done, you get a thin and wavy pizza that is delightfully chewy in the middle and crunchy at the edges, flavored only with the oil and salt and by the integrity of the ingredients used in the dough. It is deceptively simple, but delightful. Plus, it cost less than a Euro for a large slice. And yes, this is considered a breakfast food as it is best when freshly baked. At lunch, they fill any leftover pizza bianca with an assortment of lovely things to make sandwiches – my favorite being mozzarella and zucchini flowers, showered with a bit of fresh black pepper.
Before taking my pizza back to my apartment (eating while walking down the street is frowned upon in Rome, with the only exception being, of course, gelato), I stopped at the cafe downstairs to grab a cappuccino. Coffee in the morning is a ritual in Italy and one I happily joined in on. Most Romans drink their coffee quickly while standing at the bar of the cafe; if you take a table, the cost of your coffee can double or triple. I followed suit – the cappuccino was only 1,20 Euro, so my honestly perfect breakfast didn’t even put me back $3.
Day Three: Like Riding a Bike:
I had decided to undertake a ten mile bike ride down the ancient Roman road called the Appia Antica (or Appian Way, in English), one of my favorite spots just outside the city.
The tour operator was easy to find. I was given a lightweight carbon mountain bike. Now, I have to say that it has probably been about ten years since I rode a bicycle. We were given the option of the bike I had chosen and another bike that had an electrical assistance mechanism on it, something I didn’t even realize existed. I briefly considered the electric bike, but my pride got the best of me. I work out regularly, I thought; I kickbox and do yoga, riding a regular bike should be fine, right? Plus, all I could see were the mountains of pasta and pizza (and gelato…and wine) that I had been consuming over the past few days. I wanted a workout, not a leisurely activity.
The rest of my group began to arrive and I noticed that they had all picked the electric bikes. My resolve began to falter. Then our guide, a humorous man named Bruno, asked me if I was sure I didn’t want an electric bike. He said that lots of tourist come and think they can just bike around, but after the travelling and the food, they need a bit of assistance. My resolve faltered further. However, pride beat the peer pressure and I stuck, although less confidently, with my original choice. Bruno shrugged and let me be. (Aside: You are probably thinking that I am going to eventually tell you how I regretted my choice due to having to pedal uphill too often, or that I was almost left behind due to the speed of the electric bikes. You’ll just have to read on to see…) (Second aside: I’m just kidding, no need to amp up the suspense. The regular bike was fine. It was, not to kill the cliche, like riding a bike.)
We started off riding through the streets of Rome, which I was a bit nervous about as Italians drive like they order and drink coffee, confidently, without hesitation, and very fast. However, Bruno took us down some streets that were less congested and let us get used to city riding. Luckily, we made our way without incident. I won’t say I was sorry though when we left the city walls for the countryside.
We stopped briefly at those Roman walls, where some ancient graffiti was carved into the archway. Graffiti has surprisingly ancient roots, although we tend to associate it only with modern culture. This graffito, depicting an angel, was very lovely and seemed to be as much a part of the wall as if it had been planned all along.
Next, we headed into the Catacombs of Callixtus. I have never personally been interested in catacombs. They seemed too morbid for a casual visit on a sunny afternoon. However, I very much enjoyed my visit into the cool underworld that once housed the remains of nearly 500,000 departed souls. I was embarrassingly pleased to find that the bones had long since been removed, and only recesses where the bodies once rested remained. Apparently, the catacombs were only rediscovered in the 1850’s, having been forgotten once abandoned in the the first millennia. The archaeologist who rediscovered them was, according to local lore, lost in their depths for three days. I did not have a hard time believing this as the narrow passage ways split into various alleys, some so long that the darkness seemed unending.
I was not at all unhappy to finally return to the sunlight. Our group, which was composed of two American couples, one English couple, and an Italian gentleman, headed off toward the Appian Way, an ancient road that was once called ‘the queen of roads’ due to the Roman’s ingenious engineering. The cobblestones were bumpy and quite uneven due to their great age, and we did our best to ride on the narrow bike path along side the road, so as not to jostle around too much.The countryside was lovely – the road was lined with cypress and the stone pine (from which come pine nuts) that is ubiquitous in and outside of the city. Gates to villas were found here and there, leaving me to wonder what sumptuous living quarters lie beyond the high walls that lined either side of the road. I was sad to leave it, and made a note to return again before I left.
We made our way back to the outskirts of the city, and into another park – this one dedicated to another great engineering feat of the Romans – the aqueducts. Tall and impeccably arched, these structures cannot help but impress. This park was a favorite to the modern Romans and was packed on this late Sunday afternoon. Families were picnicking, couples were kissing on blankets in the fields, children were playing and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was wonderful to see how something so old could be re-purposed in this way – as both a site of historical learning and of leisurely pleasures.After traversing the park, we made our way through another small neighborhood, and then onto yet another lovely park. Here we headed to a crumbling brick sheep farm, where we took a break and ate some young Pecorino cheese with bread and white wine. It was nice to stop for a bit to eat and get to know more about the people in the group that I was travelling with. Although I very much enjoy traveling alone, it cheered me to converse with this group. Everyone was kind and interesting and we all shared stories of our adventures thus far.
As we were on a farm, there were plenty of animals – sheep of course, this being a sheep far, but also two cream colored sheep dogs, who shyly came up for a pet, to which I graciously obliged. There was also an absolutely beautiful horse, who let me stroke his nose and, after some gently cajoling, posed to let me take the picture below.
It was a bit difficult to get back on the bikes after our repast, but evening was closing in and our six hour tour was reaching its end. We rode swiftly back toward the city, this time mostly keeping to the roadways. Once back inside Rome’s walls, we were gifted with a lovely overhead view of the remains of the Baths of Caracalla, which are of spectacular size. If you are unfamiliar with Roman bath houses, please do a bit of reading on them. They were fascinating microcosms of Roman daily life, not to mention structures of unrivaled opulence. It is unfortunate that only the shells are now left, but I am grateful to at least have some of the past, rather than it be forgotten all together.
These are only a few moments of my first week in lovely Roma. The following five weeks were just as wonderful in their own way. I will return again soon, I am sure – I always throw a coin in the Trevi, to ensure that my feet will find my way to Roma once more, walk her cobblestoned streets and breathe in the air of a city filled with memory, magic and unrivaled timeless beauty.
If have attempted to recreate (with some help) a favorite meal from this time period – a pizza bianca sandwich like the ones I had from Forno, stuffed with fresh mozzarella and zucchini flowers. You can find that recipe here: PANE, CACIO & FIORI – A FAVORITE ROMAN PANINO.