Rome first cast its spell on me in July 1986. I graduated in June from Ohio University and was ready to take on the world, via an internship at the Associated Press in Rome. That was such a great time in my life. Everything was new and different. I was living in this beautiful, chaotic, wondrous historical city that welcomed me with all its glory, and more than a few gypsies at the train station.
So here I was again, 29 years later, staying in my old neighborhood, right next to my old apartment. There’s my panificio. There’s my bus stop. There’s the shortcut to the Pantheon. It felt like no time had passed. This is the Eternal City, my friend Walter said to me when I was trying to explain this sentiment. You come back, you’re older, yet everything is still here. It’s always here. This place is forever.
Some things have changed, of course. Once upon a time, I was counting lira to buy a cappuccino and using a token to make calls at a public telephone. Friday I was walking around with a smartphone, sending texts to friends in Florida while eating roasted chestnuts in front of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.
I made my way to the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to see the three Caravaggios. I do this every time I’m in Rome. It’s obligatory. From there it was on to the Pantheon, to a very familiar scene: big crowd, some dude with an electric guitar playing Pink Floyd and children discovering pigeons. But, it’s the Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome, opened in 126 AD.
Also obligatory is a visit to Tazza d’Oro, the fantastic coffee bar known for its decadent granita’ di caffe’ con panna. Translation: a coffee slush with whipped cream. I ordered one, watched the barista fill the cup with the cream, a scoop of the shaved coffee ice then top it with more cream. “It’s a religious event, isn’t it?” said the gentleman sitting next to me, as he dug into his treat. Indeed, I said, and we both sat there, two very satisfied customers, enjoying every scoop.
When I arrived at the Piazza di Spagna, I saw my mother’s favorite restaurant, “Ristorante Alla Rampa,” lit up in Christmas glory. It sits next what seemed to be a headquarters for the Valentino fashion house. The building was covered in beautiful white lights, a big wreath over the front door and a huge Christmas tree in the middle of the piazza. Then I noticed that people were walking around with glasses of prosecco. I was offered one and gladly accepted. “Buone Feste,” I said.
Another highlight of my first night in Rome was stopping in a small enoteca, “Il Tino di Vino” where I met a fun group of guys, lifelong friends from Rome, enjoying wine in their buddy’s wine shop. One of them, Pietro, told me that he thinks Americans are great because, “They just go for it. They love life!” He continued, “I love how when you come here, you’re so in love with everything we have.” I felt as if he were talking about me. I drank some delicious wine with them for about two hours and we talked about all things Italy and America. In fact, Simone, the shop owner, gave me a list of some things I must see the next day, including another Caravaggio.
Saturday morning, I visited the latest hip-and-happening neighborhood Testaccio and then found myself in Trastevere, eating a wonderful plate of Cacio e Pepe alla Romana. This is a pasta dish of pecorino cheese and pepper but there’s an art to making it. I tried once at home and the cheese sort of turned into a clump.
Back on the other side of the Tevere River, I decided to go see the Caravaggio in Santa Maria del Popolo, per Simone. This church sits on one side of Piazza del Popolo, the big piazza at one end of Via del Corso, a thoroughfare in Rome. It was 5 p.m on a Saturday. People were out and about as this is Rome and that’s what you do. Has this ever happened to you? You’re heading in one direction and a sea of humanity is going in the opposite direction? And the smartphone-shuffle is here (shuffling along, reading your phone, walking into people), some even do it with a dangling lit cigarette in the other hand.
I made it to the church, injury-free, and walked in to find a choir in rehearsal, complete with violinists and a cellist. Harmonic voices, a soloist, violins. Again, just like a certain night in Siena, I sat in wonder at my surroundings– the music, the voices, the Caravaggio – and soaked it in.
I walked to the train station on Sunday, taking the long way around, so I could also visit the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Inside is a white marble sculpture by Bernini “L’estasi di Santa Teresa.” I walked in, right in the middle of the priest’s sermon. It was Sunday, after all. I stayed quietly in the back and admired the sculpture from there. What a lovely way to end my visit.
Arrivederci Roma. I’ll see you again soon.