From dusk to dawn in the Eternal City…
By Anoothi Vishal
Italy is a culturally rich country that attracts many visitors who want to visit Europe. You can now fly from India to Italy and book a hotel in Milan for an affordable price. From India, the flight to Rome is only 7 hours long and is definitely worth the trip.
I have been watching the Woody Allen film on the flight from New Delhi. And counting all the clichés it portrays under my breath all through. But at the end of it, I can’t scoff it off. We know how it’s going to end all right but there’s still a certain charm, a certain romance to the Eternal City that comes through, stays on, lingers and curls up around my head even as the plane circles to make its descent…
Will Rome live up to its reputation— propagated in part by Hollywood films, and gushing American memoirs; Eat, Pray, Love only the latest in the line of its image-builders? Of course, this is the city of amore and more than that, food. It’s a city where history comes alive, where you can’t help but feel a thrill of recognition each time you see yet another masterpiece by one of the gods of Arts. A city where time has stood still and moved simultaneously; where ancient architecture and modern retail happily coexist — stylishly. Where each ruin is a camera frame… But the problem is always one of expectations. I am a trifle scared to expect much from Rome. And as for history, the problem with coming from India is that yes, it is all over our doorsteps too!
I have one evening to take it all in and make my judgement: touristy trap or a city I could love? And one evening it all it takes…
St Peter’s Basilica is all aglow with the setting sun, as I stand in a queue inching into this holiest church in Christiandom. Something shifts in my heart; a flock of tiny birds descends just then in the open space outside where on Christmas and other days, we have seen those AFP pictures with thousands of devotees waiting to be blessed by the Pope. They circle over our heads and fly away. Is it a sign? The Papal windows are all aglow. Quietly inside, I stand staring at the Pieta, Michaelangelo’s only signed work. The Virgin surprisingly calm, stunningly youthful, holding the body of the Son. Something shifts in my heart again… At the altar, I pause, reflect, and have a quiet cry. Whether it is art or just the sense of atmosphere that surrounds such places on the planet, I can’t say. Or, perhaps, it’s just hormones!
My hotel is right in the heart of the historic centro; so I dump the bags and head out straight away. The Corso is a steady stream; couples, families, hawkers, shoppers, musicians, gawkers… it’s only slightly less busy than Chandni Chwok in Old Delhi. And infinitely better dressed.
The thing about Europe that I love the best though is that it is so walkable. There are maps and then there are the piazza that you suddenly come upon, unexpectedly, winding your way through the narrow lanes and via. It helps that Rome is particularly salubrious that evening; it always is, I suppose. And that’s its gift too. Piazza Navona is where I am headed, of course. I have seen the Trevi, chucked a coin and more; carefully sitting at the edge of the fountain with my back to it, left hand over right shoulder, making my wish… I have walked up to the Pantheon. No, not Greek, but massive alright—everything in Rome dwarfs you with its scale and beauty. And now, it is to Navona, the most famous of Rome’s squares, beautifully baroque, that I am headed.
Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the fountain of four rivers (1651) occupies pride of place. You may have seen it on posters and in films but you are still reverent when you see it. I silently do a historic comparision— the Mughals were at the height of their imperial, artistic genius in India then; this one’s built before the Taj Mahal—and am awed at the temporality of human life, as well as the abiding nature of enterprise and perhaps beauty. The Ganga is one of the four great rivers of the world depicted here, the Indian in me is gratified…
You can’t come to Rome and not have artichokes. I have some fabulous ones at a tratorria but also those lovely zucchini blossom fritters that seem to be on all menus. These are like our pakoras, just as soul satiating, with a glass of wine here. And the pizzas. The Roman pizzas are thin and crisp, slightly different from those celebrated thicker Napoleatan ones, but pliable enough to be folded over and eaten. Bliss, bliss, bliss.
I don’t know how we find our way to a gelato place some time later. I have no recollection of turning those corners, walking those streets, stopping to admire impossibly-heeled shoes in show-windows; there’s just the memory of being in Rome. Breathing, alive, excitable. I choose my gelato in unlikely flavours—a setting-your-teeth-on-edge lemon balanced by rich, dark chocolate. But the eating (and drinking) is hardly over.
The best way in Rome, Romans say, is to drive around on a scooter. Just find a friend with one and hop on. There is a scooter sure. But just one helmet. So we walk on, across the bridge, over the Tiber to its west bank: Trastevere.
As a neighbourhood, it is fairly celebrated—Julia Roberts traverses it in the film, for one. It has its fair share of tourists and the international crowd too. But it is a non-touristy place alright; often described as a “village within the city”, the last surviving quintessentially “Roman” place, perhaps. When I see it, I am reminded of Hauz Khas Village, my favourite place in Delhi. It has the same narrow medieval streets (here, they are cobbled), the same lived-in air, where domesticity coexists with creative talent. There are local artists, jewelers, tailors, designers all jostling for space and creativity. There are the cafes and the bars and bands playing music and no one really bothers you even late in the night. This is boho-chic, as I love it.
We stop yet again for food. This time for pasta in the typical Roman cheese and pepper sauce. It’s simple and elegant and my accompanying glass of Amarone is superb. Luckily no one insists on all that offal and intestines, regarded as delicacies in Roman cuisine but that I am too chicken to try. It’s possible to lose yourself here. The square in front of Basilica di Santa Maria, one of the oldest churches in Rome, never really sleeps. We wander around for a while, stop at the Ponte Sisto, and then find ourselves at Campo de Fiori, back in the old city centre.
Literally the “field of flowers”, this has transformed into a noisy al fresco bar late in the night from the bustling market place of the day. It’s party time at all the dozen odd bars dotting the place. The night has got chilly, so we warm our backs and souls once more… A glass of Shiraz has been bought for me and a toast of sorts is made: “…young wine for a young girl…” I raise my brow. But perhaps everything is young in the Eternal City. Has to be. By comparision!