On a Sunday in June, Bettie and I set out for Rome: our belly-belts stuffed with documents, currency and credit cards for our first to Italy (and Europe). We'd planned for months: plane tickets in December, accommodations in January, train seats in February, guidebooks, maps and traveler's Italian.
Our mantra was, "If you don't want adventure, stay home". Part one of our four-part story recounts our two short and memorable passes at Rome.
Rubbing Romans on the Metro
When we arrived at da Vinci International Airport, we were surprised that our plane parked on the tarmac; we boarded buses to the terminal. We claimed our bags, cleared passport control, customs and hailed a cab.
I handed the driver the paper with the name, address and general location of our accommodation (Piazza Barberini). We were off. We traveled on an expressway full of the smallest cars I had ever seen, through agricultural lands and past grazing sheep. However, the tranquility quickly turned into an Italian traffic jam at the first major interchange. After more stop and go, we reached the outskirts of Rome and exited.
Besides the endless scooters of all sizes and descriptions, we were impressed by the ruins of ancient Rome; the route to and from our inn led directly past Palatine Hill. After we reached our destination, the driver turned up a hill into a narrow street; Via della Purificazione, Hotel Modigliani was in the middle of the second block.
Although the building exteriors looked a little shabby, the lobby was modern and bright, and the staff attentive. They took our passports for the nightly police report. We were informed our room would be ready in four hours. We chose the closest bar for lunch; a narrow space with a high display case full of panini and dolci. The food was excellent.
We had one afternoon to "do Rome". I had my heart set on riding the metro. Rome has two metro lines for its 2.5 million people; the stations make the New York subway system look pretty. We used two lines to reach the Colosseum. We watched the tourists, noticed a photographer taking pictures of a bride and groom, and we saw a dozen expensive Italian cars pull up for an impromptu auto show. From a distance the Colosseum looks big, but up close, looking at the interior, it is huge.
Roma reveals her charms
We did the tourist things: Fontana di Trevi, the Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese. I liked the open space of Villa Borghese and I enjoyed standing at the top of the Spanish Steps, looking down at the two terraces, the piazza and the view of Rome. The steps were full of people; the piazza even more crowded. We then walked along "our" side of the street where we were staying; a series of bars and restaurants. The fancy ones were in glass houses built on the wide sidewalk. Diners could look out at the people and cars without having to listen to the noise; poorer folks like us could gawk at the rich.
After dinner, we returned to the Spanish Steps. About 9:30 p.m., "blanket vendors" started to appear. They spread their blankets on the terraces and arranged their goods. They kept coming until sellers outnumbered buyers. Fifteen minutes later, there must have been at least 40 vendors, but only 10 lookers. Maybe it was an off night
Having found the Spanish Steps with ease, I was confident I could locate our inn. Wrong! Our street only ran two blocks; one incorrect turn took us far around, along dimly lit streets. Bettie didn't want to continue walking down more dark streets. I suggested we follow the light. Not a good decision. That led to stairs that descended to Via V. Viento, above where we ate; another loop to our accommodation.
I have always enjoyed cities as they awaken. I was in time to join the early Roman commuters. Eight streets led off Piazza Barberini at different angles. Counting carefully, I picked the wrong one and headed off course. I came to a major thoroughfare, I turned right and watched cars and scooters zoom past in both directions. There were no traffic lights, but policemen stepped out holding up paddles to stop traffic. Not trusting my Italian for "Help me cross the street," I kept walking until I came to an official looking building guarded by armed sentries.
I watched the changing of the guard and the arrival of a high ranking official who parked, fastened on his pistol belt and was saluted by the officer at the gate. Later, I realized the soldiers were guarding Palazzo del Quirinale, built in 1573 on one of the seven hills of Rome; now the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic. I kept walking until I reached the Trevi Fountain. It was lovely in the early morning light; few tourists to obscure my view. By the time I returned to the Barberini, I had a good idea of how Roma wakes up.
Scent of the city
We returned to Rome by train from Venice. We had the same accommodation, but two stories from our original room and a balcony (only two rooms had balconies). We neared the restaurant where we wanted to eat; we heard a rumble, a minute later another rumble. We noticed we were standing above large grates in the street. That's when we caught the unmistakable scent of the Metro, many meters below; we were on top of a ventilation shaft. We wrinkled our noses, but when we were seated, the rumbles and the smell magically disappeared. It was our last night in Rome; we were determined to enjoy it. We had a full Italian meal, and silently thought about our long flight home.
After seeing Bettie to our room, I headed back to the Spanish Steps for the last time. I counted turns, memorized landmarks. There were knots of people on the terraces, but no crowds. Some people were playing guitars, softly singing American songs. I stood by the railing looking out over the city, and noticed a street sweeper at the bottom of the stairs.
I turned left, right, then left again and reached the inn in record time. Roma and I were at peace.