We certainly loved our unique (and delicious) time in Barcelona, and will never forget the cathedral, the lasagne(!), or those “brave potatoes”, but we were most certainly excited to be headed to the first of our three stops in Italy: Rome! Can you tell? Off we go!
Funny note: We tried our best to use what little language skill we had in each country, if only to say a lot of “thank-you’s”. So, we had to quickly switch on this leg of the trip from “gracias” to “grazie”. I must confess, I (Chris) said more than one “gracias” in Italy, and may have even said “grazie” instead of “merci” in Paris. Blame it on the jet lag, I say.
Our Intro to Rome: Gelato. Pizza. And a 2,079-year-old Bridge
After an uneventful hop across the Mediterranean, and a short train trip to Termini Station in Rome (equivalent to NYC’s Grand Central Terminal), we made the short walk to our hotel and immediately got directions to the best gelato in the city! We waste no time. Our hotel clerk made a smart recommendation and we got an introduction to the city while walking to our sweet treat. On the way we discovered some beautiful first sights, including this bright red Vespa motorbike leaning against a giant stone urn. It’s arguably Lisa’s best photo of the whole trip. See what I mean?
This pic just screams Rome, and is a perfect blend of the ancient and modern that crashes all around you as you explore the city. We also got to see the (in)famous building that some call the “Wedding Cake“. I think it was seen by many as too “modern” and ostentatious, competing with the majestic ruins of the Colosseum and Forum. It’s a monument that was completed in 1925. It does look a little cake-y, dont’cha think?
We also stumbled into a beautiful old church (whose name is lost to us, unfortunately) and got our first taste of some glorious architecture. Click for a larger image.
We even saw some cool lions hanging out by this fountain. (We also managed to miss both the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps while in Rome! But I think our Rome trip was pretty special, as you’ll see).And we finally made it to Gelateria Romana, a Roman gelato tradition since 1947. It was very encouraging to see a line out the door, late on a weekday afternoon, full of locals. We may have been the only non-Romans there. Let’s just say our hotel clerk did not steer us wrong. We each got a selection of 3 flavors, all of which were strong, clean and exactly what they were advertised to taste like. In spite of the crowd, the staff were all friendly. One even eagerly gave me an extra taste of one flavor when I asked about the ingredients (Lisa, the flavor whisperer, had correctly identified a subtle hint of lemon). We also got an amazing raspberry, almond and pine nut tart to go, which was filled with pastry cream. It was delicious, in spite of suffering a bit in the late spring heat of Rome by the time we got to the hotel.
We also tasted our first of several experiences with Roman pizza that day. Pizza shops abound, and all we tried had friendly staff and abundant rectangles of pizza with many different toppings that they would cut to order and heat up. The crust (for most of them we tried) was probably the most remarkable: light, crusty, blackened, and full of flavor. There can be no good pizza without good crust, and the Romans know what they’re doing here. Tempting, no?
Our introduction to Rome ended with a really magical evening. We strolled past the Wedding Cake and the Cololsseum, down to the Tiber River. I had seen pictures of this area and had earmarked a couple of traditional Roman restaurants that were located on Tiber Island in the middle of the river (“Isola Tiberina” in Italian). Across the river we knew lay the Trastevere (more on that later), but for this evening, we wanted to dine surrounded by the water. We chose the perfect time to come. We crossed over to the island on Ponte Fabricio (“Pons Fabricus” in Latin), which we soon discovered was the oldest active bridge in Rome, built in 62 B.C.!! It was a pedestrian bridge, and there were artists and musicians lining its borders, enticing the tourists like us. We met a lovely young artist (originally from Moldova), who had left the world of fashion design behind to focus on watercolor painting. She informed us of the bridge’s history and sold us two beautiful paintings, one of which was of the bridge itself. Lisa captured some stunning photos of the bridge before sunset, and we got a nice picture of the artist as well. The two-faced sculpture next to her is of the Roman god Janus.
Just across this amazing old bridge we found Sora Lella, which has been there since 1940, and is described as a trattoria serving typical Roman cuisine. It’s a family-run place, and the matriarch (the namesake of the restaurant) was a quintessential Italian grandmother who died recently at the age of 100! Her pictures are all over the restaurant walls of this cozy little place. It was fun & rather mind-boggling to wander in here to an Italian “tradition’ that was in its infancy compared to the bridge we had just walked across! Our waiter was fun (and teased me for my poor understanding of his accented English!) and we shared a delicious mozzarella salad to start. Then we each got a house specialty pasta–our favorite was a pasta with spring vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, and peas). A really delicious taste of old Rome.
After our meal, we got another terrific view of the bridge after dark. A really magical end to our first meeting with Rome.
A Taste of Roman History (or: We Should Have Paid More Attention in History Class!)
Full disclosure (in case it wasn’t obvious): this trip was all about the food! And maybe some art. But we did embrace as much of the history and architecture as our hungry selves could stand. It became embarrassingly obvious how little we really knew about Roman history when we wandered up Capitoline Hill (one of the Seven Hills of Rome, which we knew nothing about!) and got a breathtaking view of the Roman Forum (which we had heard of, but couldn’t have identified if you had given us free gelato and pizza!). As luck would have it, a tour guide and his eager group stood right next to us and narrated the view, which included Palatine Hill and the main structures (ancient political, pagan, and Christian all in the same place). Here’s the view we saw, along with an obligatory selfie:
You can read all about what’s there in the Forum, but the detail the tour guide shared that probably stood out the most to us was the fact that Marc Antony gave his famous speech over Caesar’s freshly dead (!) body on some steps that we could just barely see in the lower right of this picture. We got a better view on our tour of the Forum later. Here they are (at the base of the reddish building, behind the big columns):
We did explore the Forum and Palatine Hill the next day, and had a really nice time, in spite of the crowds and heat (glad we were there in May and not July!). Here are some selected photos of our wanderings there. Click for a larger image.
We also toured the famous (understatement!) Roman Colosseum which is right next to the Forum. Fortunately, we did know a bit about the most iconic of Roman landmarks. Seeing it was rather awe-inspiring (and a bit disturbing, when you ponder its original purpose!). Next to the Colosseum is the huge Arch of Constantine, which was dedicated in 315 A.D. to commemorate a Roman military victory, and is the largest triumphal arch in Rome. Here are some selected photos of our Colosseum and Palatine Hill experience (including some iconic pines of Rome and an orange tree!). Click for a larger image.
Who Needs Roman Ruins When There’s Food Like This!
Our most memorable Roman food adventure happened truly by accident. We ended up at a place that was on our list to try, but at the time, we were actually looking for a famous open-air market called Campo di Fiore, that turned out to be closed when we got there (thanks Google!). Along the way, we saw some beautiful narrow pedestrian streets and quaint squares lined with cafes and shops:
I really think the best part of being in Europe is wandering the oldest parts of any town, where the streets are car-less and you never know what you’ll see next. That’s what we were doing when I saw someone pass by, eating something delicious wrapped in paper–and I recognized the logo on the wrapper as being from a place I knew we wanted to try, called Roscioli (which has both a restaurant and a take-out counter and bakery). So we doubled back and found it by pure luck (again, thanks Google, because your map said we weren’t even on the same street!). How could you not want to go inside and eat here?
We ended up having quite a little feast of porchetta, roasted potatoes, faro salad, and an amazing ricotta and chocolate chip cheesecake which we devoured over the next several hours and the next morning! We could have stayed there for days, and come back for more. The baked goods were abundant and beautiful, and their pizza was also a sight to behold. Here are some shots of what we ate (and what we wanted to eat!). Click for a larger image.
(Um, sorry, we two greedy gobble gannets dug into the cheesecake before we thought to take its picture!). It’s one of the things we ate on the trip that I think we can still taste in our minds, and could eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
A Hilly Walk and a Surprise Stop at the Vatican
We had read and seen a lot about the neighborhood called Trastevere across the Tiber River from the most famous sights in Rome. It’s an old, quiet area, and many residents never set foot across the river to the busy heart of the ancient city. We decided to head there for an afternoon and see what we could discover. While we ended up having a completely different experience than what we expected, it turned out to be a fascinating and fun adventure. And we walked. A lot. Luckily, there was pasta at the end!
I’ll go ahead and share our dirty secret about dinner first. We ate at Eataly, which is Mario Batali’s huge Italian food emporium (the original is in New York, and we’ve been there. It’s pretty swell. And apparently it’s got several U.S. locations in addition to stores in Italy and across the world now). But the fact that Eataly was in ITALY kind of gave us one of those “Huh?” moments and seems just, well, wrong. But, we had a nice pasta and pizza (cacio e pepe pasta, and and arugula and prosciutto pizza–both quite delicious). And Romans were eating there, so I guess they decided it can’t be too terrible. So, here’s the evidence. Click for a larger image.
OK, now that that confession is out of the way, here are some highlights of our Trastevere adventure, which ended up in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican! We wandered the streets for awhile, catching some charming sights, and ended up climbing a steep hill with view of all of Rome, and coming upon a small church. There was a wedding party taking pictures next to a really neat vintage car that Lisa decided needed its own photo shoot. There was a beautiful field next to the church with a great view of Roman pines. Here’s some highlights of that walk:
We realized that we were on the same side of the river as Vatican city, and asked a local how to walk there. With some vague but enthusiastic directions, and the help (sorta) of Google maps (it tried to send us into a parking garage), we found ourselves walking right into St. Peter’s square right when the sun was going down and the tourists were clearing out. It made for a really special and peaceful experience. The buildings around the square were magnificent, and adorned with regal statues of all the previous pontiffs.
The Vatican guards in their almost court-jester colorful costumes were fun to watch, and we got to see a changing of two guards for the late shift. The last picture is of Chris bravely drinking from an ancient public fountain. We discovered that in Rome (and other places in Italy), these public fountains provided really clean, cold, delicious water. It would have been neat to know the full history of this fountain, which was right at the edge of the square.
Rome turned out to be a great intro to Italy (if a somewhat hectic and dizzying one–I didn’t even talk about how crossing the street in the city center was a bit like playing Frogger–crosswalks and lights were usually nonexistent!). We braved both buses and the subway, and it was pretty easy to get around overall. Again, we are glad we missed the height of summer tourist season! We were definitely ready to head to Florence and a calmer pace. It did not disappoint, as you will see.
But to say goodbye to Rome, here is the next installment for Lisa’s collection of “The Doors of Europe”!