My first trip to Italy was in 1973 to visit cousins who lived then (and now) in Florence. With enthusiastic help and native insights from my cousins, I fell in love with Tuscany at first sight, and my heart still longs for all things Tuscan. Well, except for the cold, dreary, rainy days of winter in the region.
While there in 1973 I took the train to Rome and stayed for a couple of days to take in the sights, sounds, and food of the ancient city, and I enjoyed it. Rome was on my itinerary on many subsequent occasions when visiting Tuscany, but it was always an afterthought.
In late 2013, however, I took the advice of Joe Brancatelli and rented an apartment in Rome for a few days, a decision which opened my eyes to what a truly fabulous city Rome is on so many planes. It was like seeing the city for the first time.
First of all, the apartment was in the old Jewish Quarter, which meant it was dead central to almost everything one could want to see in Rome. We walked everywhere, only taking cabs to and from Roma Termini for our trains in and out. Not being dependent upon a car or public transit frees up the spirit and sharpens the senses to one’s surroundings.
Here are my real-time notes at the time on the experience:
- We’re here! I phoned the landlord from our train when we got close to Rome, and he met us as promised at the flat. I paid him the remaining €400 we owed (€200/nt). We love it and are about to find the market for basics. The taxi from the station was just€8.50. I gave him 10. After acquiring groceries, then lunch.
- Despar supermarket in the Quarter was closed. Hours are 0800-1330 daily. We didn’t arrive at the apartment until 1330. Later we found a slightly bigger Despar on Emmanuelle, apparently the biggest Despar in Rome. The cheese and cold cuts are perfect, and even the store-bought loaf of Italian bread is tasty and fresh.
- I liked the store, but that’s a flagship? Good grief! Even with the funky basement with dry goods, it’s not really bigger than the Red & White grocery store in tiny Absarokee, Montana where we shop when visiting my wife’s parents each summer. Rome has a lot of catching up to do yet to fully embrace the grocery chain experience.
- Had a fabulous lunch at Nonna Betta here in the Jewish Quarter, literally just steps away from our apartment. Their house wine is the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere. Tried to buy a bottle, but was told it only comes by the cask.
- These ruins of four Roman temples built starting the end of the 4th century B.C. in the Largo Argentina area of Rome are two blocks from our apartment. Julius Caesar was assassinated here near the columns in the photo in 44 B.C.
Caesar was at the time “dictator for life” and had many enemies in the Roman Senate because he’d effectively destroyed the centuries-old Roman Republic which was a patrician democracy (if you were rich and owned lots of land, you could vote). Some Senators killed him, and him alone, thinking they’d restore the old Republic but it was the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. A series of Roman emperors followed Julius Caesar until the collapse of the Empire in the 30th A.D.
The ruins in the photo were excavated in the 1920s by archaeologists after part of one of the ancient Roman temples was discovered when the area was being renovated for luxury apartments. Naturally they never built the flats after that. The ruins are very close to the Tiber River at the heart of Rome and only a long block from the Pantheon (126 A.D.) which of course is still standing. Instead of a hotel we are renting a great 2 BR apartment in the ancient Jewish Quarter 2 blocks from the ruins near the Tiber.
We were stuffed from our huge, late lunch and had only 3 pizza slices in the same area for dinner, plus 2 really good glasses of red (€1.50 each).
We stopped at the famous technically EU-unlicensed Sora Margherita and lucked out by getting 1230pm reservations for lunch tomorrow.
We didn’t give money to the cat sanctuary in the Largo Argentina, but we did walk on to the Pantheon and returned by Piazza Minerva to marvel at the ancient Egyptian obelisk (date unknown but excavated nearby) set atop Bernini’s weird elephant statue (1667). This place is crawling with layered centuries of history. Winding down and about to call it a night.
- They have a great LRT (light rail transit) here that terminates strangely at the Piazza Venezia in the city center where Mussolini used to harangue his fascist supporters in the 1930s.
- [NEXT MORNING] Walked to the Roman Coliseum:
- Lines to get in were endless. We were happy just to walk around it. It is beautiful and awe-inspiring. Factiods overheard about the Coliseum: There was so much blood that it was too slick to stand up. So they had to coat the surface with sand (“sand” = “arena” in Latin). They killed so many rhinos in the arena that they wiped out all them in north Africa.
Afterwards we walked by Palentine hill to the Circus Maximus which could hold 250,000 of Rome’s 1 million population to watch chariot races. I hate to admit that I thought of Charlton Heston as Ben Hur hurtling around the arena in his chariot in DeMille’s spectacular film
Sweet and sour experience at Sora Marcherita for lunch: Food was great (everything recommended by friends, plus fettuccine with butter and cheese for the kids–all tasty) + liter of red house wine + liter of water. But we didn’t order meatballs which came suddenly and the total bill was a staggering €81 for lunch. I should have been suspicious when all the Italians got written menus but we didn’t. I felt ripped off. Glad we ate there but I wouldn’t return. The house wine wasn’t very good, either, though I choked down what I could. Lots of folks waiting outside when we left who probably won’t be as particular as I am. I have the opinion that the place is just a money machine now.
- Now at St. Peter’s. Never seen such crowds in Rome . It’s like mid-June. Only the Pope is allowed to say mass under Bernini’s masterpiece, the bronze Baldachin. I am always awed by its stunning beauty:
At a spot just beyond the altar in 1976 I took a beautiful slide of my brother gazing up into a ray of sunlight coming through one of Bernini’s windows just beneath the dome. We had the basilica almost entirely to ourselves then. Not any more, as the photo proves.
- [FOLLOWING DAY] After a good breakfast in our flat, we found the famed “burnt bakery” open this morning in the Jewish Quarter and bought samples of things for later. It had a queue but was very efficient.
- We then walked to the Spanish Steps, which a is a fair distance, stopping at the Pantheon once again to see it in daylight and at several Roman temples along the way.
- Took this at the Piazza Spagna by the Spanish Steps. Rome is jammed with people everywhere [December 27].
- Circled back across central Rome to the Piazza Navona, home of another Bernini masterpiece, the famous fountain. It began to drizzle just as we found nearby Enoteca Cul de Sac, our choice restaurant for lunch. And what a choice! Within five minutes I was imbibing the indescribably delicious Nobile Di Montepulciano TREROSE “Tenimenti Angelina” 2010 (Toscana), shown here in the menu:
- Bravo, bravo! Enoteca Cul de sac is the most fabulous meal and best wines I’ve ever had in Italy–and I haven’t yet had a bad
meal or wine in this country. As I said, it’s close to Piazza Navona and only a block north of the Corso Victoria Emanuele II, down which runs one of the light rail transit lines.
- The Enoteca has over 1100 wines to choose from and must have one of the most varied selections in Rome.
- The red wine I chose was from Tuscany: Nobile Di Montepulciano TREROSE “Tenimenti Angelina” 2010 (Toscana). To say it was heavenly would be an injustice. It was a wine to remember all one’s life.
- And the food was a perfect match. Here was our banquet: superb Italian bread with the best olive oil and balsamic vinegar any of us had ever tasted. Pheasant pate with truffles – with LOTS of truffles. A to-die-for duck ravioli. Pasta with just butter and parmigiano which our teenage son raved about while wolfing it down. Homemade lasagna – I had visions of paradise with every bite. Good enough to make me return to Rome by itself. Black rice with mussels – our young daughter didn’t want to share a single bite until she’d had her fill. Tiramisu so good that my wife, who was full already, consumed it with gusto. Chocolate mousse with fresh whipped cream – if only I could make this at home! Homemade ice cream (“crema” flavor) – scrumptious, and the perfect finish to the perfect meal.
- Enoteca Cul de sac is narrow but long, with tables on both sides of an aisle. All serving proportions were appropriately modest, which meant we didn’t get overfull. I had 3 glasses of that unearthly Montepulciano I described above. It wasn’t enough, but I had to stop.
- Incredibly, the bill for all four of us came to just €72 (about $95) total. Rarely in my life have I been so perfectly sated or enjoyed eating and drinking as much as at Enoteca Cul de Sac. I say again: Bravo, Enoteca Cul de Sac!
- We enjoyed our repast there a bit past 1:00 PM after first walking this morning all over Rome again to catch some of the things we’d missed the past two days: Campo de Fiori, the embarrasing bourgeois carnival atmosphere of Piazza Navona, the Pantheon (for the 3rd time–it never fails to awe), the Roman Temple Adriano, the over-rated and crowded Trevi fountain, the even more over-rated and equally crowded Spanish steps, and window shopping along the fancy Via Borgognona.
Yesterday in St. Peter’s basilica people were so thick that it was shoulder to shoulder. It felt like a Black Friday sale at Target. You almost couldn’t move in St. Peter’s even as large as it is because of the crowds. It was stressful, just the opposite feeling one would hope for when visiting that magnificent space. We had to wait in a very long queue even to get in the basilica (after going through an airport style security screen). A large Italian family jumped the queue close to the entrance; I loudly berated them for their rudeness, but they were not the least bit penitent, in my opinion just the wrong sort of attitude to be entering one of the holiest places on the planet.
However, experiences like today’s meal and wine relax the mind and revive the spirit, washing away the stress. And even a lax Episcopalian like me was deeply moved, despite being in the midst of a sea of humanity, to enter St. Peter’s basilica yesterday.
- You literally can’t put a stick in the ground anywhere in the city without hitting something ancient and historical. If they applied our NEPA (environmental) rules here in Rome, you couldn’t change a light bulb.
In summary, staying in the apartment in that particular location, within walking distance of everything, made me feel like a Roman for the first time in 40 years of visits to the city. I can hardly wait to return!