Thursday, August 30, 2007

14 June: The Many Faces of Rome

We enjoyed a nice breakfast in Residenza Canali’s bright and cheerful dining room: a traditional buffet of sliced meat and cheese, croissants, fruit tart and several other pastries, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice, coffee and tea. It was above par for a European breakfast and I’ve decided that the Residenza Canali is a real find – quiet, charming, and a good value given its perfect location right next to Piazza Navona. (Our room was listed at 205 Euro but we saved 20 Euro per night by paying cash.)

One of the reasons I chose Residenza Canali was its location just off of Via dei Coronari, which I discovered – and fell in love with – on my last trip to Rome. This narrow cobblestoned street is lined with countless antique shops, art galleries, jewelry stores, and artisans’ workshops. On any given day you can peek in an open doorway and see someone restoring an ornate carpet or mending a Renaissance armchair – or even watch a man rolling an ancient marble bust down the street on a trolley, as we did (photo, right). Only local traffic is allowed, so aside from the occasional screaming scooter, it is a peaceful place to wander and window-shop. Mom and I set off around 10 a.m. with the intention of making our way down Via dei Coronari towards the Vatican, but we were immediately waylaid by a tiny jewelry shop that tempted us with a wide selection of Murano glass beads. We ended up browsing for over an hour; I came out with enough beads to make two necklaces and two pairs of earrings for a whopping 25 Euro. I think Mom and I both began to realize at this point that there are some serious advantages to traveling without our husbands…

We finally tore ourselves away from the beads and baubles and made our way down to the Tiber River, passing under the blind gaze of the angels lining the lovely Ponte Sant’ Angelo. We strolled past the street artists hawking their wares in front of Castel Sant’ Angelo and then headed down Via de Conciliazione to Piazza San Pietro. The line to get through security and into St. Peter’s Basilica was actually shorter than it had been at Christmastime and moved quickly. I had heard many stories about the summertime “clothes police”, who are on the lookout for women with bared shoulders or showing too much leg. Sure enough, there were two young men dressed all in black (poor dears, they must have been sweltering) who were picking women out of line and sending them away if they couldn’t come up with a shirt or sweater to cover their shoulders.

Mom and I were, of course, appropriately attired and followed the throngs into the welcoming coolness of St. Peter’s. We spent a long time admiring the vast interior and spectacular works of art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta. We decided to go into the crypt beneath St. Peter’s, since I had never been inside and figured I might regret it if I missed this opportunity. En route to the crypt, we drank from a fountain in the courtyard – holy water or not, it was certainly cold and refreshing! I love the fact that Rome is full of fountains offering a free drink when you need it. In the crypt we saw the tombs of countless popes, including that of John Paul II, where many visitors were stopping to pay their respects.

Back outside, we stopped in the piazza for more pictures (a nice American woman offered to take ours) and then made our way along the Tiber towards Trastevere. This was a long walk in the heat but fortunately we could keep to the shade of the trees lining the river. We took a dead-end street by accident and asked a couple of American kids (who looked to be college students) for directions. We quickly discovered why so many people love this neighborhood – Trastevere is a bit off the beaten track, but it gives you a glimpse of the “real Rome” that most tourists never see. We left the busy summer crowds far behind and got lost for a while on the narrow cobblestone streets, lined with scooters and framed by laundry drying on lines strung high between the houses (photo, right). We stopped at a jewelry store, whose young proprietor (actually the owner’s son), kept up a charming but insistent sales pitch. We found out he was a former judo champion and his sister owns an antique store on Via dei Coronari. I ended up buying a moonstone pendant from him, then we visited another bead shop but decided to hold off on any further purchases as we were anxious to find a good spot to have lunch.

We found our way to Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, dominated by the tall, square bell tower of Trastevere’s most famous church. We wanted to have lunch before we visited the church, as it was getting on in the afternoon. The piazza was gorgeous and relatively quiet, but none of the cafés looked appealing to us. We went in search of a restaurant called Lucia, which was recommended in one of Mom’s Italian cookbooks, but when we finally found it (with the help of a young man whom we stopped for directions), we discovered that it was already closed for the afternoon. A man standing outside the restaurant saw us peering in the window, so we asked him for another suggestion. He pointed us back towards Piazza della Scala, which we had walked through already, and we ended up eating at a lovely little place called Taverna della Scala (photo, right). We both had the ensalata mista (mixed greens, radicchio, corn, tomatoes, and olives with oil-and-vinegar dressing), shared a perfect pizza Cappriciosa (prosciutto, mushrooms, egg, olives), and drank down two entire bottles of mineral water and a half-caraf of white wine.

We lingered as long as we could under our umbrella, looking out at the charming little piazza, but it was so hot just sitting still that we had to get moving again. We retraced our steps to visit Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is considered the first official Christian place of worship in Rome, founded in the 3rd century. The church you see today dates mostly from the 12th century and boasts the most unbelievable mosaics by Pietro Cavallini, as well as twenty-two granite columns taken from the ruins of ancient Roman buildings. You can put a few coins in a machine to light up the mosaics for several minutes, but no one could make it work. An elderly gentleman sitting in a pew a few feet away said something to me in Italian, and I slowly realized that he was telling me to put in 50 cents (the sign on the machine was confusing, as it made it look like you could put in less money for less time). I dropped in the correct coins and suddenly the entire nave was bathed in golden light, reflecting spectacularly off the gold mosaic tiles (photo, right).

By now it was getting on towards evening, so we headed back to the river and crossed over the ancient Ponte Cestio to Tiber Island. Once the site of a temple to Aesculapius, the god of healing, the island has always been associated with the sick and is still home to a hospital, along with several old mills and the 10th-century church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola. As we approached the island we spotted the single remaining arch of the Ponte Rotto (“broken bridge”), which dates from the 2nd century B.C. and now stands forelornly in the middle of the river. We crossed the Tiber on the other side of the island via the graceful triple-arched Ponte Fabricio, the oldest Tiber bridge still in use (for foot traffic only), built in 62 B.C. (photo, right).

We stumbled on the Jewish Ghetto pretty much by accident, as we spotted the imposing Synagogue, constructed in 1904, looming across the street. There has been a Jewish community in Rome since the 2nd century B.C.; their persecution began in the year 1556, when all of Rome’s Jews were crammed inside a highly unsanitary, walled-in neighborhood that came to be known as the Ghetto. The practice of driving the Ghetto’s Jews to the nearby church of Sant’ Angelo in Pescheria to listen to Christian sermons was not abolished until 1848. Thousands of the Ghetto’s inhabitants were rounded up and deported to concentration camps during World War II. Many Jews still live in the Ghetto today, and it is now a pleasant neighborhood of quiet alleys, secluded piazzas, small shops, and family-run restaurants, not to mention several of Rome’s most impressive, but lesser-known, ancient monuments.

We found two of these monuments within a few minutes – the first being the Portico d’Ottavia, all that remains of the massive rectangular portico that once enclosed the temples of Jupiter and Juno. Built by Augustus in honor of his sister Ottavia, the portion that stands today is the grand central atrium, once faced with marble. The dome of Sant’ Angelo in Pescheria rises above and behind the portico; the church was built on the ruins of the temples. If you approach the portico from the Tiber, as we did, and turn right, you cannot miss the massive curved wall of the Teatro di Marcello, the Theater of Marcellus, also built by Augustus and dedicated to his beloved nephew and son-in-law (and hoped-for heir), who died in 23 B.C. at the age of 19. (These ruins were particularly significant to me as I was reading the new biography of Augustus by Anthony Everett, which I highly recommend.) All that is visible of the original amphitheater are two levels of imposing stone arches. Over the centuries countless buildings have been constructed within and on top of the ruins of the theater, including the 13th-century fortress of the Savelli family and the 16th-century Orsini palace, so the structure now displays an amazing patchwork of architectural history.

We walked around the theater ruins for a while and came across some workers setting up a stage and chairs for what looked to be a private concert, with the ancient arches of the theater as a backdrop. A young woman with long black hair was sitting in one of the chairs, watching the proceedings with great interest. When Mom and I stopped to watch a black grand piano being rolled out onto the stage, I saw the woman smile, but thought nothing of it at the time. A little while later, we made our way to a higher vantage point with the intention of taking some pictures of the theater. Imagine our surprise when the very same young woman took a seat at the piano and began to play. She was obviously warming up for a concert later that evening, and we stood there for a long time watching and listening as strains of Chopin floated up to us, echoing off the imposing arches, the whole scene bathed in an ethereal golden light. We felt incredibly lucky to have happened upon that spot at the right time to witness such a special treat. I would give anything to know the pianist's name (and what piece she is playing)! (Watch and listen below.)

We wandered through the quiet streets of the Ghetto, stopping to peek into a gorgeous courtyard at what was clearly an important building, its stuccoed walls lined with sculptures and friezes. We made our way back to Campo de’ Fiori, lined with ancient, crooked houses – all glowing in the evening sun in shades of peach, pink, and yellow – and decided to eat dinner at La Carbonara. Unfortunately we ended up being disappointed with our meal. I had heard about the famous “Jewish-style” fried Roman artichokes called carciofi alla giudia and saw many people eating them on this trip, but we were not impressed; we found them very prickly and rather bland. Mom ordered a fried sampler platter, which she thought was going to include fried shrimp and calamari, but it ended up being only vegetables and what we later determined to be fried lamb’s brains! The taste we could live with, but the texture was, well, rather unappetizing. I had fried zucchini flowers with mozzarella and anchovies, another Roman specialty, but they were too thickly battered and not very flavorful. To top it all off, the service was slow and the waiters very brusque. Despite this disappointment, we enjoyed the people-watching while downing a full liter of the house white wine, which only set us back 8 Euro!

After dinner we walked back to Piazza Navona and watched the street performers. The same opera singer was still captivating his audience and we watched a lengthy magician’s show which, if I described it, would sound extremely silly, but we were laughing hysterically the whole time. Let’s just say you had to be there.

We went back to our room to wash up and unload our handbags, but despite the fact that we had been on our feet for 12 solid hours, we weren’t quite ready to call it a night yet. So, in a totally spontaneous girls'-night-out frame of mind, we decided to return to Piazza Navona for some drinks and entertainment. The piazza had quieted down a bit (it was 11:30 on a Thursday night, after all) but a group of guys that we had heard having a guitar jam session last night looked like they were getting ready to play another set, so we snatched front-row seats at the neighboring restaurant. I ordered a Bacardi cocktail and Mom got something with secco and Campari from the extravagant drink menu. The guys played rock ‘n roll classics, including “Hotel California” and “Sultans of Swing” (Dire Straits), which happens to be a favorite of John’s, so I filmed a short clip of them on my little digital camera (see below). When we asked for our bill I was dismayed to discover that it came to 21 Euro, including a 3 Euro cover charge, because we had left our wallets at the hotel and I had only brought a 20 Euro note! Now I was really grateful for just how close the Residenza Canali is to Piazza Navona, because I left Mom at our table and literally ran the 200 yards or so back to our hotel to get some more money. I think the guy at the front desk got a good laugh out of my antics as I raced up and down the stairs.

Suffice it to say that this was an incredible first day in Rome and, despite the heat, Mom was having a great time and I couldn't wait to show her more of my favorite city!

Here are short video clips of our private piano concert in front of the Theater of Marcellus and the late-night Piazza Navona jam session:

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