Location: Rome, Lazio, Italy
I won’t attempt to characterize Rome- its history or its grandeur- or how the ancient capital intertwines with the modern in such peculiar and unexpected ways. It’s a giant, frozen in time. You’ve undoubtedly heard the legends and the stories of emperors, conquerors and kings. I won’t tell you about those.
I will, however, tell you about some contemporary Roman surprises.
I will also inform you of the proper way to select gelato.
In our fast-paced ever-shrinking world, a traveler brings so many preconceptions to every country and city they come to. I want to begin by saying this trip was an unexpected delight for us. It was a gift from my aunt who suggested we join her for a portion of her tour of Italy. We decided we couldn’t turn down her offer (and I was thrilled at the prospect of being with her!), but we were skeptical of Rome going into it.
Honestly, Italy (especially it’s capital) was not on our bucket list. It’s one of those cities where, at first glance, the “cultural image” of what you see on the internet or in film outweighs the “experiential image” of what it’s actually like. We are constantly bombarded with photos of every fountain, statue, relic, and cathedral that I questioned what the point in visiting was. Not to mention the recent development of the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon. Everyone is clamoring to go to Italy and have their own spiritual experience. And there would be tourists. So. many. tourists.
But we were wrong. We gave in to the art, the history, and the people.
Early fall is the best time to visit Italy. The weather was perfect with no humidity and sunshine nearly every day! Although there were certainly tourists, it was after the summer holiday rush—they/we did not overrun the city. Rome is incredibly pedestrian-friendly, and you can walk the entirely of the Roma I metropolitan area (basically the city center) with relative ease. The cobblestone streets are broken up by narrow alleyways and frequent piazzas where people can gather and cars dare not travel. It’s a human-size city.
After a fair bit of solo wandering to try and stave off the jet-lag, we visited all the quintessential places. We were lucky to have an absolutely amazing guide who took us to the Piazza del Popolo, the bustling market at Campo dei Fiori, through the Roman Forum and inside the Colosseum.
Many monuments have seen increased wear and tear caused by the recent increases in yearly visitors. The two most photographed monuments in the city were re-opened just in time for our arrival! We were lucky enough to see the Trevi Fountain- now glistening white- after 17 months and 2.4 million dollars of restoration.
The Spanish Steps were another iconic sight that have been undergoing conservation work for nearly two years. Roman officials cited heavy tourist foot traffic as the primary reason for their deterioration, as well as invasive plants causing cracks as they force their way through the marble. However, the Steps were unveiled once again to a concert and a crowd of 10,000 people on our second night. It was awe-inspiring to see how important this event was for so many!
We split our time staying in two places on opposite ends of the city. The first was a hotel on the north end near the Villa Borghese. The third largest park in Rome (which has a surprising amount of green space), the Villa was built for Scipione Borghese, who used it as a party house on the edge of Rome, and to showcase his art collection. Remade in the 19th century, it has an extensive former 148-acre vineyard today turned gardens, which visitors are free to roam through at their leisure. Although they were always informally open, the Borghese Gardens were officially given to the public in 1903. The Villa also has several accompanying museums and the Galleria Borghese.
The second was an Airbnb in the old Jewish Ghetto, just down the street from one of the oldest synagogues in the world. The Jewish Quarter is situated across the Tiber River from the Trastevere neighborhood and right next to the new, trendy, Monti neighborhood. I highly encourage a long stroll and a coffee al fresco in both places.
But, Rome’s beautiful in its dilapidation, a moldering old thing like Chicago but thirty times older. You don’t get to stay in an apartment older than your home country (with original ceiling beams!!) every trip. Parts of it reminded me of the urban blight of Detroit, with spray paint everywhere. Except in Rome, the spray paint was on a seven hundred year old archway. But, the Romans literally invented graffiti, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
There’s a vibrant food scene in Rome, one that’s existed at the nexus of different civilizations and cultures for thousands of years. It’s impossible to escape the smell of the Tiber River or the sounds of a thousand different languages, but you also can’t escape the food. Naturally, we indulged in copious amounts of pizza (try Trieste!), pasta, red wine. We went to Ba’ghetto for the traditional Italian breakfast of cappuccino, croissants, and fresh squeezed orange juice. Staying in the Jewish Quarter, we had an opportunity to try out some Kosher treats, particularly the signature fried artichokes at Nonna Betta (as recommended by Anthony Bourdain). We visited one of the oldest bread bakeries in Rome, Antico Forno Roscioli, for constagnole and giant meringues. We even had some focaccia that ruffled some feathers and effectively redefined what the dish was (after a couple hours of intense debating and interviews with kitchen workers).
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: how to select the best confection at the ice cream parlor.
The middling gelateria will show you a cascade of pretty colors and textures glinting in the sunlight, as you can see in the photo. However, a great gelateria will hide its concoctions underneath a lid. The practical reason is to keep it cool, but there’s another reason at play here as well: their gelato is primarily for taste, not for show. Our best gelato came from a place where we couldn’t see the stuff, and the flavors’ English names were only approximated through translation. However, there are some gelaterias that fall in between—-like Grom, a popular chain with delicious cookies and cream gelato.
By the end of the trip, did we see Rome for what it really was? I don’t think so, which means another visit! Being in a place with that much history was reminiscent of our time in China–the history becomes wallpaper at a certain point. But when you’re seeing infrastructural decisions made a thousand years ago that are still influencing the way people live and move today, you begin to pay attention. The fact that this city still exists and operates today is an engineering marvel, and I’d suggest visiting for that alone.
We were sad to go. All we know is, this Roman holiday was a good one.
Stay tuned for our posts about Vatican City and our Tuscan travels,