I love cities. I love everything about them: the noise, the energy, the bustle but most of all I love their endless possibilities. In a city you can go anywhere, be anything, change your hair style, your life style and your job without comment. Having grown up in a small town I loved the anonymity of London when I first arrived here and since then apart from a brief time spent between London and Suffolk I’ve always lived right in the centre, willingly sacrificing easy parking and a garden for the sheer joy of walking home from the theatre, having cafes open late into the night and busses, wonderful, frequent busses, that whisk you anywhere you want to go. When I came back to live in London full time a friend commented that she’d always thought i was too urban for coastal living. “Urban!” I cried” I’m Metropolitan” as I shook off my deck shoes and pulled on my Laboutins.
Even on holidays I am drawn to cities. I have little of the wanderlust about me, I care not if I sail up the Nile or see Matchu Pitchu at dawn, for relaxation I search out long white beaches choosing for preference those on traditional blue collar stretches of Florida’s Gulf Keys: Anna Maria, Bradenton, rather than those upmarket and up themselves places like Sanibel and Marco Island, where all is show and only those with money can eat with a view of the sea. And for what is now called “a break” I go to cities, especially Western European ones : Paris, Malaga, Lisbon, Sienna, Florence, Barcelona, Madrid. I have loved them all. All but one, Rome.
My visit to Rome, about seven or so years ago, was a disaster. The gloomy, self catering apartment that my husband booked was noisy, uncomfortable and very, very grubby. It rained pretty much all the time, horrid wet, cold rain. They were digging the street up out side the flat and we were obviously on a late night cut through for scooters which roared past till the early hours. I didn’t have a good time. I trudged, increasingly grumpily, from the Colosseum (big), to the Sistine Chapel ( over painted) up the Spanish Steps and round the Trevi Fountain. On every corner were people dressed as centurions and gladiators all trying to wring as many euros from the hands of visitors as they could. The food, one pizza apart, was poor, the famed Jewish quarter packed with formulaic cafes offering “traditional food of the Ghetto” and I came home swearing never, never to set foot again in such a harsh, unyielding environment so far removed from the Italy that I loved.
But time moves on, memories fade and needs change. My husband who volunteers at the Soane Museum had become interested in visiting Tivoli to explore Hadrian’s Villa and The Villa d’Este As he is long-suffering with my work I felt a little reciprocity was called for and , provided I booked the hotel, I was happy to go back. And I’m so pleased I did. I loved it. Everything about Rome was wonderful, amazing, beautiful. I’m afraid this is partly due to the money I threw at the project. We stayed at the lovely five star Visconti Palace Hotel not the most expensive place to stay but at €240 a night not bargain basement either! The rooms were modest in size but very comfortable, the roof top terrace a perfect place for a late afternoon read or a pre dinner aperitif and the staff a delight. Its amazing how much better your view of the world is when you’ve had a good nights sleep and a long hot shower! The hotel is in the Pratti district of Rome a pleasant upmarket residential area behind the Vatican and close to the Tiber.
I always feel that the first meal you have in a new city is often the most awkward. One has newly arrived and not got the feel of the place. In order to avoid beginning on a bad note I’d asked Twitter where to eat and then booked a table at Armando al Pantheon . We walked out of our hotel through Piazza Novona pausing for a Spritz and then on through the late afternoon sun to the Pantheon and Armando’s. No restaurant close to a tourist site, which essentially embraces the whole of Rome, will ever be entirely a local haunt, but hey, we were tourists and all I ask is good food well served. Armando’s was a delight with about half the customers greeted by the staff with fulsome embraces and half speaking English. I ate mozzarella with artichoke, pasta aglio, olio and peperoncini, veal with oven roasted potatoes and biscotti. We wove our way home through the ancient streets alternately grinning at the delight of everything and groaning at our over filled bellies.
Up early, off we went with the excellent Agnes Crawford who runs Understanding Rome We had booked a day with Agnes, who arrived at our hotel with a chauffeur driven car to whisk us to Tivoli and guide our steps round both Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. Agnes is a delight, wonderfully knowledgeable, she pitched the tour at exactly the level we both felt comfortable with: extra information for my husband and a good place to eat lunch for me! Lunch was at the Restaurante Sibillia which to Bob’s delight had as a feature the Temple of Vesta in the garden!
I won’t talk of the extraordinary size of Hadrian’s Villa or the magnificence of the fountains at Villa d’Este, which i thought better than Versailles, as that is not my forte but both were in different ways compelling.
Back in Rome, exhausted by the heat it was 30 C, we decided to eat locally and walked up to il Sorpasso a small wine bar/restaurant beloved by Pratti folk. It was rammed and having put our names on the list we watched the beautiful ragazzi check each other out, meet, greet and smoke while waiting to be seated. The one bad note was when the waiter tried to seat another couple before us but he had reckoned without dealing with me when I’m hungry! The food was wonderful, all the food we ate in Rome was wonderful, that night we had pasta with courgette flowers then steak: simple, delicious.
After that we spent the next three days just mooching about the city. We visited the Campo di Fiori market, looked at the frescos in the Villa Farnesina gloriously devoid of visitors, had another meal at Armando, ate the best pizza ever at Dal Panio, walked up to the Garibaldi Monument and then lunched at Grappo D’Oro on Sunday before we flew home, generally avoiding all the places which were crowded and noisy.
On the Saturday before we flew home we went to the opera. I’d googled ” what’s on in Rome tonight ” and found that a local opera company were performing La Traviata at the Teatro Salone Margherita. Along from the Spanish Steps, this small theatre was a delight: Art deco in style, the opera was beautifully sung: Violetta poignant Alfredo boyish and petulant and they serve pasta to the entire audience in the interval! I wept when she died, then walked home, wondering how I could ever not have loved this beautiful, complex place where everywhere we stopped, from street side cafe to smart bar, we were treated with charm, interest and courtesy.