We are spending nine nights in Rome in April of 2017 during an exhibition of Gregg Simpson’s paintings at the Arte Borgo gallery just around the corner from our lovely apartment a few hundred meters from St. Peter’s Cathedral. Click the link to view a video of the exhibition.
This trip marks the sixth time that both Gregg and I have been to Rome (although not all trips together!). Gregg’s first trip was in 1958 when he was eleven and my first trip was in 1974 when I was 18. We keep returning to Rome – and why not! Our first trip here together was the first trip back for both of us–in 1994 we brought our then eight-year old daughter Julia. I remember her melting down in the Vatican (and no wonder–the lines were horrendous!) and loving the Colosseum.
On this trip, we can relax and enjoy visiting some off-the-beaten track sites, secure in the knowledge that we’ve “done” the Vatican a sufficient number of times (fives times for me) and seen inside the Colosseum enough times to feel at one with the gladiators. It’s a very good thing that we do not feel the need to revisit the Big Two. The lines to get into St. Peter’s, even at 9 am, stretch practically to our apartment on Borgo Pio (okay, not quite, but close!). And as for the Vatican, the street ringing it is full to overflowing with trudging tourists. I prefer to stay on the lovely Borgo Pio pedestrian street where our apartment is located. Here, we have access to enough little sandwich places, wine bars, pizzerias, and tacky souvenir stores to keep us happy for days. Our apartment is on the ground floor and is a two-bedroom, cool-tiled oasis that we return to gratefully after hours of walking over cobblestones and dodging crowds.
Here’s a run down of how we spent our nine days in Rome!
Day 1-Thursday, April 20: We Drive Into Rome
Mamma Mia! We leave Siena at 9 am for the three-hour drive to Rome with not a little trepidation. We’ve driven once before into Rome and it wasn’t pretty. However, this time, I am armed with two GPS systems–the one that came with the car (we got an awesome car this trip: Nissan QashQai) and my iPhone. I need both to direct Gregg to the right exits and turns. When we are just a few hundred meters from our final destination, we get caught in a traffic jam that needs all Gregg’s excellent driving skills to maneuver.
We discovered that in Rome, the concept of not entering the intersection until it is clear, even if the light is green, is a foreign concept. The result is a kind of bella chaos! Motorcycles zip through impossibly tight spaces, massive busses lumber into the fray, and cars tumble and turn in an effort to move forward another few centimeters.
We finally head down a street that I know leads to our street which I also know does not allow cars. I have no idea where we will park and just trust the universe to provide. Gregg spots a blue parking sign to the right on the only part of the Borgo Pio that we can drive on. “Take it!” I yell and he wheels into the tiny underground parking lot. The attendant is cheerful and unfazed. My Italian is unequal to the task of telling him that we want to unload the car now but that we may leave it for nine days or may need to move it soon because the guy who manages the apartment has already reserved a parking place and we don’t know if this garage is the right garage. That’s a lot of Italian! Fortunately, he just shrugs–“Whatever, Signora.” We get our suitcases from the back of the car and leave the the boxes of paintings for Phase 2 of our assault on Rome. Promising to return, we set off down Borgo Pio to find the apartment. I haven’t given the parking guy any money yet, but he doesn’t seem worried. After all, he has the car.
We dodge hundreds of tourists and a lot of nuns and priests streaming toward the Vatican, our suitcases bumping over the cobblestones, my eyes everywhere at once. What a neighbourhood! We’re in Rome! We find the right door–a massive wooden one set into a stone arch–push it open, and step into a coolly serene courtyard. The only thing missing is the sound of a babbling spring, but we can hear birds chirping and the row of palm trees and air of genteel calm suits us just fine.
Our contact for the apartment–helpful and English-speaking Ludovico–shows up minutes later and ushers us into our apartment. Here’s the link to the apartment on HomeAway. Highly recommended for the location and size. The only drawbacks were a couch that was too low for my injured knees and a bathroom that had the distinctive Roman drains smell! Otherwise – the place worked out well for us.
After a quick orientation, we get back out onto the street in search of the gallery which I know is very close. Indeed, the living area of our apartment backs onto Borgo Vittorio, the street where the gallery is located. We find that the gallery is open and the owner happy to receive the boxes. Now the work begins. We have not yet figured out how we plan to get all the paintings the three hundred-odd meters from the parking garage to the gallery. Do we take them out of the box and carry them? Try to wrestle the whole box ourselves (it’s a big box)? Sit down in the middle of the street and weep? Fortunately, none of those options are required. I pay Parking Attendant Guy for nine days (200 euros which I think is a pretty good bargain considering we are in downtown Rome) and then proceed to help Gregg unload the boxes. Now what? Parking Attendant Guy to the rescue! He runs up to the street and returns a few minutes later with a sturdy dolly that is plenty big enough to carry both boxes at once. Score!
We deliver all the paintings to the gallery and breathe a sigh of relief. The entrance into Rome, the finding and getting of the apartment, the transport of paintings to the gallery–all have been accomplished with relatively minimal fuss. Phew! We are free to enjoy the rest of Day One in Rome.
First stop is a stroll past numerous touts trying to sell us tours to the Vatican to the piazza at St. Peter’s to view the Bernini columns–still as magnificent as ever. Well, heck, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The seat of Church power is definitely impressive, but on this trip I don’t feel inclined to join the crowds to see inside St. Peter’s. I doubt it’s changed much since the last time I ducked inside in 2011 when I visited Italy to research The Towers of Tuscany.
We end the day relaxing in our new apartment eating omelettes, happy to have landed safely in Rome and ready for the next day when Gregg will hang the show.
Day 2: Friday, April 21: Hanging of the Show and Book Delivery
Today is a day for business. I go in search of the nearest metro stop (Ottaviano) to buy a seven-day metro/bus pass while Gregg unpacks his paintings at the gallery and works with our lovely curator Adelina Allegretti and Anna and Antonio, the owners of the gallery, to hang the show. By the time I return from getting the passes (with a detour into a very nice clothing store where I pick up a new top), the hanging is well underway and looking wonderful. Gregg is not needed, so we set off to the Trastevere where I have arranged to leave some copies of The Towers of Tuscany in two English bookstores. The proprietors are friendly and pleased to receive the books (well, I am leaving them for free!). The Trastevere neighbourhood is touted as the new/old cool area of Rome, and we are duly charmed. Twisting alleyways, many hung with vines above shrub-shrouded cafes, fewer crowds, a feeling of timelessness–yep, the Trastevere district is definitely worth returning to.
We leave the Trastevere and walk across the Tiber into old Rome where we stroll through the Piazza Navona and on to the Pantheon (which is unfortunately closed).
In the evening, I cook gnocchi with pesto sauce purchased from the big market a few streets away. The apartment lacks a cheese grater, which we find a bit odd for the country that invented parmigiano cheese. In our week in Rome, my homemade meal is actually one of our best–and certainly the cheapest.
Day 3: Saturday, April 22: The Forum and the Opening
The weather is perfect–brilliant blue sky, sun just warm enough to toast but not burn, and an occasional cool breeze. We set off in the morning for a trip to ancient Rome by way of the Forum. Gregg and I are both suckers for ruins, and we are fortunate that the Forum is relatively uncrowded when we arrive. Imaging how the buildings would have looked 2000 years ago is a challenge which I quickly give up on. Instead, I concentrate on composing interesting shots of crumbling columns and time-ravaged temples. By the time we work our way from the bottom of the Forum up to the top where it spills out into the huge expanse of the Colosseum, the crowds have swollen and multiplied. We are in the middle of an Italian holiday weekend — Rome’s birthday was on April 21, the day before, and Liberation Day is Tuesday, April 25. Combine these holidays with Easter the week before and we understand why most of the holiday makers we’ve seen since coming to Italy are Italian.
Our ticket is good for the Colosseum, but we decide to pass on the long line up, and head instead back to our apartment for an afternoon of R & R before the exhibition “inauguration” at 6 pm. The opening goes well with several gallery artists coming by along with a friend of one of my friends in the US and her friends. The show looks amazing in the gallery.
Day 4: Sunday, April 23 – Ambling Down the Appian Way
After just two full days in Rome, we are happy to take a break and spend time in the pastoral countryside about a 40-minute Metro and bus ride from our place. Gregg has long wanted to stroll along the Appian Way and apparently Sunday is the day to do it because cars are banned. Why cars are ever allowed on the Appian Way–which consists of very large slabs of stone–is a mystery to me. Anyway, we have our hands full dodging bikes. Apparently the Appian Way is a popular destination for cyclists and walkers, but without a clearly agreed upon area for each, a lot of time is spent sidestepping bell-ringing bikers as they clatter and judder over the cobblestones.
Perhaps as a result of the holiday, the area near where the bus lets us off has been turned into a Roman fair complete with Roman centurions, priests, merchants, Vestal virgins (well, I didn’t ask, but I think that’s what they were supposed to be) and various other Roman-dressed people doing Roman crafts, demonstrating Roman activities, marching about looking like fierce Romans with plumed helmets, etc. We are charmed by a young woman dressed like a gladiator teaching a large group of children armed with padded swords how to thrust and swipe, and how to run into battle against a row of shield-wielding centurions. It was hours of fun–and got me thinking about whether I’d ever want to write a novel set in Roman times. I don’t think so, although I have to say the Etruscans are calling me, but more on them later.
We finally leave the Roman fair to stroll through a thoroughly Arcadian landscape. Ruined tombs and statues and broken columns line the Appian Way under a brilliant blue sky. Our romantic sensibilities are on high alert. Gregg composes shots for a new take on his Classic Mode series of photographs and I take pictures like I always do. We may as well be in Arcadia, considering how much we are enjoying ourselves.
We end at the evocative Villa dei Quintili–an impressive pile of ruins built back in 151 AD by the Quintili brothers, consuls to Marcus Aurelius. Unfortunately for the brothers, the next emperor, Commodus, took a liking to the luxurious villa complete with thermal baths, a stunning view, and beautiful mosaics. The brothers were executed for treason and Commodus got commodious new digs. The villa is impressive for sure, even as ruins.
After getting back to our apartment in the Borgo Pio, I venture out for a stint of writing at one of the many sidewalk cafes. For some reason, surrounded by tired tourists and the steady stream of guys trying to sell stuff, I and my glass of vino bianchi manage to write a scene. I don’t know how good the scene is, but it’s certainly fun to write it in such an atmosphere.
In the evening, we take the metro and then a taxi to visit a curator Gregg has worked with in her home. She and her husband are very gracious and serve a lovely meal finished off with a tot of homemade crema limoncello. Good stuff.
Day 5: Monday, April 24 – Low Key Day in Rome
Our intention is to go to the Etruscan Museum near the Villa Borghese. We walk over one of the bridges spanning the Tiber and into a new neighborhood, stopping for lunch at a fairly posh outdoor cafe populated mostly by well-suited Italian business people. After a long and hot walk, we arrive at the Etruscan Museum only to find it closed. Ooops. My research skills fail. Getting back home turns into a bit of a struggle–we wait and wait for the streetcar only to get on it and realize several stops later that we are going in the opposite direction. Off we get and try to find a bus, but my iPhone is not up to the tasks. We give up and grab a taxi back across the river to the Trastevere to buy art materials. Sometimes being frugal just doesn’t work out!
For dinner, we grab sandwiches from one of the small joints on our street and settle down for a quiet night.
Day 6: Tuesday, April 25 — Interviews and Aqueducts
Our day begins with a walk to a lovely wood-paneled bar to meet a journalist who came to the opening of Gregg’s exhibition. She wants to interview Gregg about his art and me about my writing, and our connections to Italy. The interviews go well and will be broadcast sometime in the fall. I’ll put the details on my website once I know! We feel the need for more countryside and so after the interviews, we hop on the Metro for another trip out to Rome’s ancient outskirts–this time to wander among the aqueducts. It turns out that half of Rome has the same idea. It is a national holiday (Liberation Day) and the parkland surrounding the ruins of the aqueducts are teeming with Romans at play–barbecuing, throwing frisbees, riding bikes, hanging out in huge groups. It’s all very festive. We walk along the aqueducts for a few kilometers and then get back on the Metro for home.
Later in the afternoon, I meet Teresa, the friend of my wonderful editor Pam Conrad who is living in Rome and who also came to the opening, for a drink near our place. She works in the Vatican which is close by. It’s lovely to connect! In the evening, we walk back across the Tiber to experience old Rome–dinner at a famous restaurant that apparently invented fettucini (not as special as I had hoped!) and a stroll with gelatos in hand through the Piazza Navona. Yes, it’s romantic!
Day 6: Wednesday, April 26 – Borghese and Bernini
We booked our place at the Museo Borghese a week earlier and even then barely found a slot. It’s a popular place and only accessible with reservations that sell out quickly. We arrive early in the hopes of eating a bit of lunch before our allotted time comes up but alas, the museum website has steered me wrong. The ristorante is closed. We patiently line up to redeem our reservations, check my purse, and wait for the magic hour of 1 pm (our entrance time), tummies grumbling. The museum allows one group of people in every two hours. The wait is worth it for the main events–the many statues by Bernini who is responsible for a lot of how baroque Rome ended up looking. He is a dab hand with the marble, no doubt about that. I am fascinated by how he does toes. I mean toes are weird-looking at the best of times and Bernini really captures them in all their twisty, misshapen glory.
In addition to a lot of sculptures, the Museo Borghese has paintings and these amazing mosaics.
In the evening, I am sorry to report, we decide we can’t face another plate of pasta or pizza and go down to the McDonald’s on the corner. Well that’s a mistake! I have been known to enjoy the odd McDonald’s hamburger in my time, particularly in Europe where sometimes the different ingredients increase the edibility quotient. But not this time. The slab of chicken in my chicken burger literally tastes like plastic–and with the same consistency. I give up after a few bites and content myself with a handful of chips and a gelato on the way home. Oh well, the meal is certainly cheap which turns out to be a good thing considering our dinner out the next night.
Day 7: Thursday, April 27 – Churches, Nia, Etruscans, and the Big Rip Off
I decide to branch out on my own this morning and see some of the famous churches, while Gregg hangs out in the apartment and draws. I’m not a huge fan of churches, but Rome is kind of the place for churches so it seems wrong to leave here without touring at least a few. I set off first for San Giovanni in Laterno which is a fairly long subway ride right to one of the city gates in the old city wall. The church is meant to be one of Rome’s oldest and I am impressed by the mosaics which vaguely remind me of Ravenna. I dutifully take a few photos and trudge off to San Clemente which, according to my Rick Steves guidebook, was built on the ruins of a fourth century church that in turn was built upon the ruins of a Roman Mithraic Temple. Now we’re talking.
As I walk, I notice stencils on the sidewalk indicating, I presume, the pilgrim’s route. Well, they appear to be going where I’m going so I follow them. At San Clemente, I pay my ten euros and descend two thousands years into the past. The first level is the fourth century church with some suitably scratchy frescoes barely visible in the very low light. For some reason, the people in charge of the excavations think that tourists have x-ray, see-in-the-dark vision. They hand out an interpretative guide at the top of the stairs and then plunge most of the site into virtual darkness to ensure no one can actually interpret the guide. After prowling through a few rooms of the 4th century church that I’m not sure the significance of, since I can’t read the interpretive guide, I descend still further to the Roman excavation. I must be at least two stories, maybe more, below street level. In the darkness with the narrow passageways and round arches leading from dark room to darker room, I get a few Roman-inspired chills. I hope for some shiver of historical resonance, but mostly I just kind of want to get back up to the light as soon as possible. The bottom level is pretty much empty, dark, and claustrophobic. I am happy to re-surface, but a little bummed that I didn’t get much of a Mithraic buzz–not that I know anything about the cult of Mithras or what a Mithraic buzz would feel like.
After San Clemente church, I walk about a block to emerge in front of the Colosseum–just as grand and imposing as it’s been for two thousand years. Those Romans sure knew how to build a sports stadium. I take a few photos and walk on–still not inclined to join the line-up to get in, particularly because the two-day ticket we bought a few days ago to enter the Forum that is also good for the Colosseum has expired. I’m not feeling flush enough to fork over thirteen euros twice. There is a limit even to my touristic largesse.
Up a few flights of stairs and along a couple of narrow and blessedly empty streets leads me to San Pietro in Vincoli. I really love that name. Vincoli–so much more evocative than chains. I’m not really sure why. Anyway, the claim to fame for the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains) is the statue of Moses sculpted by our boy Michelangelo. I remember the first time I saw it on my first trip to Rome in 1974. I seem to remember it being darker–maybe not cleaned up? The current Moses positively sparkles, like someone’s taken Comet to his muscles and then followed up with a good strong buffing. The expression on his face–kind of world weary and old–sums up aging perfectly–that and the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. I guess leading a whole people to the Promised Land does that to a guy.
Three churches in less than two hours–I’m on a roll! But there’s no time to stop into Santa Maria di Maggiore which is touted as one of the finest churches in Rome after St. Peter’s (the big one, not the Vincoli one). I’m to go to a Nia class many Metro stops away from where I am, but close to where we are staying. I find the address and climb three flights of stairs to a locked door. After a minute of panic, I ring the bell and am let in by the receptionist of the dance school. She doesn’t speak English and my Italian (what little of it there is) fails. I’ve been really working hard to complete my daily Duolingo lessons in Italian while in Rome, but so much of what they teach is kind of useless. For example, when will I have cause to say The monkey reads the book?, which if you’re interested, translates to La scimmia legge un libro. Seriously–that’s one of the sentences I had to type over and over. Odd.
Anyway, I am saved from too much conversation by the arrival of the teacher who I had corresponded with earlier and was expecting me. I join her class and as always enjoy dancing, although I have to say that so much walking has made my legs feel like two pieces of thick lead pipe. It isn’t until the next day that I realize, to my horror, that I never paid for the class. Ooops. I have emailed to make amends. Very bad form indeed.
After I walk back to the apartment from Nia and have a short rest, Gregg and I set off again for the Etruscan museum. We are determined to see it! Well, what an amazing find. The place is deserted except for a few tired-looking attendants, but the exhibits…! Holy Early Civilization! We are entranced walking from case to case looking at the very Greek-influenced pottery (but way cooler in my opinion) and a ton of other household goods including an amazing selection of women’s mirrors. I feel a stirring of inspiration–could I even consider writing a book set back in Etruscan times? My writing colleague at Lake Union Publishing, Elisabeth Storrs from Australia, has done just that with her wonderful trilogy. I can see why the civilization interested her. For one thing, women had a great deal more freedom in Etruscan society than they had in Roman times.
Thoroughly awestruck by the Etruscans, we go in search of dinner and fall into the one negative experience of our trip so far. A long walk through a neighbourhood with no restaurants (a rare thing in Rome) brings us to the Piazza del Popolo. Following the needs of our stomachs instead of stopping and doing a quick Yelp search leads us to a lovely restaurant right on the Piazza. We arrive just as the heavens open. The very professional and friendly waiter seats us immediately and cannot be more attentive short of adopting us and taking us home to Mama. I am lulled into a false sense of security when I order a glass of wine without checking the wine menu. He suggests Chianti–I say why not? To be fair, the Chianti (both glasses) is spectacular but that’s when I thought it cost a reasonable number of Euros. The food we order is good although a bit on the skimpy side. Still, I don’t want to break the budget and so we stop at one salad and one shared risotto plus one beer for Gregg and two glasses of the Chianti (well, they are pretty small amounts in very big glasses) for me. The waiter continues to be friendly and joking – where are you from? Ah, Canadese, yadda, yadda. Then the bill comes. I estimate maybe 50 euros since I know the salad and risotto together is about 25 euros. I also know there will be a service charge (the posh ones always have one) and the Chianti is a wild card so I am willing to guess it’s about 8 euros a glass (high for me but it really was good). The bill is 111 euros. We’ve been scammed! I look at the itemized bill — 20 euros per glass for the Chianti and another 17 euros for the cover charge (more than either one of the dishes we ate). Ouch! Well, what’s a nice Canadian girl to do? I pay up of course and then go home and write three really scathing reviews on Yelp, Trip Advisor and Google. I then discover that I am not alone. The average star rating for the restaurant is two, with a great, great many one star ratings that all say the same thing–scam alert. Well, live and learn. We pride ourselves on being smart travelers (what would Rick Steves think?) but pride goeth before the fall. I will be more careful to check reviews in future.
Day 8: Friday, April 28 – Trastevere and I Give in and Go to St. Peter’s
Our last full day in Rome dawns cold and grey. We have had an amazing time in this wonderful old city. I think of Rome as embodying the three R’s: Romans, Renaissance, and Religion. I confess I’m a bit more drawn to the Middle Ages and Etruscans with a bit of paganism thrown in. But I decide that when push comes to shove, I really cannot leave Rome without walking the five hundred meters from our apartment to St. Peter’s. Gregg demurs and after a last foray into the Trastevere for lunch (a good one) and more art materials, I leave Gregg at the apartment and set off for St. Peter’s. The line encircles the entire Piazza but it moves quickly and I join in. For 45 minutes I amuse myself with my Duolingo Italian lessons (The shark is an animal–Lo squalo e un animale) and people watching. the wait is worth it. St. Peter’s is, well, magnificent. I’m not a huge baroque fan but it’s pretty hard not to be impressed by a cathedral the size of Montana. It really is massive. A service was going on so I was able to record a few seconds of soaring organ music. I don’t think anyone could fail to be moved by such sounds in such a place. A highlight, apart from the heaven-touching ceilings, is Michelangelo’s Pieta. I’d forgotten just how beautiful it is–the face of a mother holding her dead son. The way the body of Christ drapes across Mary’s lap really is remarkable.
And so we spend the last few hours of our last evening in Rome getting packed up and ready to hit the road again tomorrow. We have to take down the show, pack it back into the car, and then head north to Sestri Levante. I keep staring at the route out of Rome and hoping the traffic will be manageable and the turns easy to understand.