To Rome with Love (and Back to Paris)
A couple nights before we got on the plane headed to Rome Friday morning to celebrate our birthdays together, my sister Diana, who is visiting from New Orleans, and I logged on to Netflix to watch Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love” to psych ourselves out for our weekend adventure. It was the perfect choice of a film, with each scene set in some spot in the Italian capital where we were sure to go, or would want to go.
Most of the film is in Italian and I suppose because we were watching it in France, the only subtitle choice was French, not English. That forced us to stop at every phrase in Italian, for me to read the French subtitles and translate them. A tedious task it was, but the dialog is so hilariously funny, particularly the storyline in which Leopoldo Pisanello, a clerk who lives a mundane life with his wife and two children, becomes a national celebrity with the paparazzi hounding him to know the most mundane things about him — what he had for breakfast, if he wears boxers or briefs, whether he thinks it will rain or which hand he scratches — that we “trudged” through it with tears of laughter in our eyes, even if translated from Italian-to-French-to-English.
The film certainly set the stage for our weekend adventure in Rome, the first time in Italy for my sister and a re-visit for me that goes back almost 20 years. I chose to book the Popolo Rooms and Suites Guest House on the edge of the city just outside the Piazza del Popolo that ironically was decorated with shabby chic country French decor. Our room had photos and drawings of the Eiffel Tower on the walls and a dress form for added decor with French written on it: “Maison Haute Couture 100% Cousu Main Fondée en 1906.” This wasn’t planned and it was jokingly surprising for a boutique hotel to cater to lovers of France who were visiting Rome. “Capisci?” I didn’t get it.
Once we landed and settled in, we headed out for a walking tour of the center city with the target goal of Piazza Navona, where we were to dine. The skies were a bright blue and the afternoon air warm, which was the same for the entire weekend. People were scantily dressed, as if it were summer. The walking tour went like this: Point A — Piazza del Popolo; Point B — Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps); Point C — Via Condotti (the best designer boutiques); Point D — Fontana di Trevi (the Three Coins in a Fountain Trevi); Point E — the Pantheon; Point F — Piazza Navona. Along the way we shopped, visited the various sights and rested over coffee and dessert. Trying to avoid the crowds was the toughest part of our Roman holiday — Rome seemed much busier than Paris, particularly in the “Centro Storico.” Almost everyone on the streets appeared to be a tourist and we had heard dozens of different languages.
Near Piazza Navona, we dined with one of my House Hunters International directors, Samantha Stubin, an American who lives in Rome, along with a few of her Roman friends. One of Samantha’s friends runs a nightly dinner “chez elle” via the website EatWith.com. If they weren’t so booked up, we might have scored a seat at the table for Sunday night, but fat chance. Their dinners take place in the “Trastevere” — an area of Rome on the west bank of the Tiber River once belonging to the hostile Etruscans. Today it’s a hot spot for tourists and Romans who love its charming narrow cobblestoned streets, restaurants, bars and boutiques. We spent a couple hours there roaming around on Sunday afternoon under the bright blue sky and warm sun.
Saturday, the day I turned a ripe 65 years old (hard to believe), we had tickets to see the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel first thing in the morning. Without thinking or checking, I asked our taxi driver to take us to the main entrance of the Vatican. Wrong! The entrance to the museum is on the other side entirely. Reaching it meant a 30-minute walk completely around Vatican City. I love that the police claimed it was only 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes passed several times as we hiked around. If you have ever been through the museum and followed the path through it to the Sistine Chapel, then you know that once inside, the walk through is miles long. I equated it to a tour of the catacombs — once in, you can’t get out without going through the entire maze. Of course, the collection of work and the elaborate rooms are well-worth the visit. I love the room of wall-sized painted maps, best of all — and found “Nizza” and areas of Provence and the Riviera, including Corsica, on many of them. Plus, the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” painting is one of those monumental works of art one must see in one’s lifetime if at all possible.
The guard in the Chapel was like a Gestapo agent ensuring that no photos were taken in the chapel and reprimanded me twice, even when I wasn’t doing anything but turning my iPhone to silent. Still, I managed to sneak a photo while he wasn’t looking after I saw someone else do the same thing. (Irreverent me.) We forewent a visit of Saint Peter’s Basilica then worn out from the walking to lunch at Campo de’ Fiori, a daily vegetable and fish market back in the city center that was previously held in the nearby Piazza Navona.
From there we headed east by foot to the Jewish Quarter and because it was the afternoon of the Sabbath, the Great Synagogue (“Tempio Maggiore di Roma”), the largest in Rome, was shut tight. I really wanted my sister to see the inside, which I had done on a previous visit, but no go. The Jewish Quarter is just at the edge of the Roman Forum, so the Coliseum was our next stop, before touring the Roman Forum. (Word to the wise: get your tickets in advance online to avoid the long lines at the ticket booth.) It helps, however, if you don’t make too many wrong turns, like I did, following the GPS so badly, wasting too much time and energy on all the wrong paths. It turned into a marathon day that would challenge even someone forty years younger, but we survived well enough to take a brief rest before dinner.
I had reserved in advance at a restaurant that I had first been to in 1979, the first time I was in Rome, then come back twice more over the years — Ristorante Giovanni 1933. I could remember it perfectly, particularly the old lady who sat near the front and spoke to everyone entering. One time she sat briefly with my mother, daughter and me on one of our dining occasions there and chatted. Saturday night we were virtually the only diners for most of our meal and wondered why the restaurant wasn’t more crowded. The waiter blamed it on the beautiful evening when most other diners wanted to be “al fresco” (dining outdoors). I had an opportunity to speak with the owner of the restaurant, a man of about fifty-ish, about the old lady with whom we had come to know a bit and learned that she had been his grandmother. He loved hearing how lovely she was to us. The meal was exceptional on all levels and quite reasonably priced, especially with the discount we arranged by booking it on “The Fork.” (If you don’t know this site/app, then it’s a must, for finding great dining bargains worldwide.)
Giovanni is located on the Via Marche, a small street just behind the Westin Excelsior Hotel on the Via Vittorio Veneto. That gave us an excuse to finish the day by strolling down the grand winding avenue under the tall trees to the Piazza Barberini where we could catch a taxi home and call it a day.
We taxied and Ubered all over Rome rather than maneuver the public transportation. Call it lazy or call it a treat — but it was a time-saver in exchange for an added expense. Both are more expensive than in Paris and it’s tough to tell which of the two is really the least expensive in Rome. One thing that happened more than once during our weekend was when an Uber driver took us on a seriously circuitous route (but interesting) in order to pad the bill — but the taxi drivers did not. A complaint to Uber via their website fixed that immediately and the bill was reduced in each case. They were redeemed.
The first time I traveled to Rome was in a car as we trekked across Europe. Our “pensione” was located at the top of the Spanish Steps, but because of a barrier at the beginning of the street we couldn’t manage to reach it. We learned then that it was impossible to travel anywhere in Rome directly — that all roads led to Piazza Vinezia where one had to circle and then pivot out again. That moment, in 1979, we circled three times before I simply got out and moved the barrier so we could pass. We found that to be true, even this time taking the taxis and Ubers — around the Piazza here we go again. By the foot at the top of the steps, I recognized the very spot where the barrier once held us back and the street on which the pensione was located. The memory of the incident came flooding back when I recognized it making me chuckle.
Sunday seemed like the perfect day to visit the Galleria Borghese, inside the park surrounding the Villa Borghese. It houses works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Agnolo Bronzino, Antonio Canova, Caravaggio, Raffaello, Perugino, Lorenzo Lotto, Antonello da Messina, Cranach, Annibale Carracci, Pieter Paul Rubens, Bellini and Titian. It is unique in the world with regard to the number and importance of the Bernini sculptures and the Caravaggio paintings.
Personally, this isn’t my favorite genre of art, but the collection is important and it was my first visit. Booking tickets online was a chore, because they only allow a small number of visitors into the museum at any one time. All the tours with an English-speaking guide were sold out as much as a week earlier, so I booked a tour in Italian, expecting not to take the tour at all. At the ticket desk, I suggested to the vender that they change their ratio to accommodate more Anglophones — an obvious thing to do given the glut of Italian tour tickets, but he just responded that half are in English and the other half in Italian and that’s that. I might as well have been talking to a wall with such sales and marketing ideas and I realized then that it’s tough to get capitalistic Americanism out of one’s bones.
This doesn’t apply to the museum giftshops, however. Regardless of how badly maintained or displayed great works of art can be in Italian museums (I’ve witnessed shameful care in many of Italy’s greatest galleries), one can bet that the giftshops will be plentiful and filled to the brim with goodies their patrons can’t live without. Shopping in Italy, in general, is a pleasure, with such highly-styled and beautifully made goods at ridiculously reasonable prices. The shoes in the display windows are as sinful as the pastries in a French patisserie. We oohed and aahed our way through Rome and I even tried on a few. (My favorites were steps from the Spanish steps, looking like black birds perched in the trees, at Herzel de Bach, Via del Babuino, 123. Lingerie rivals the French for style and price. Leather goods abound at every turn, of course.
Diana and I finished watching To Rome with Love and then rented the 1953 Oscar-nominated film “Roman Holiday” on Netflix for our nightly fix of a flick. An expatriate American reporter for the “American News Service” based in Rome, played by Gregory Peck, falls in love with a runaway princess (from an unidentified country) rebelling against her royal obligations, Audrey Hepburn. He finds her asleep on a bench on the edge of the Roman Forum late at night. The film was shot entirely in Rome on location, unlike “American in Paris” that was shot lock, stock and barrel in Hollywood. In their efforts to escape the authorities who are searching high and low for the princess, they find themselves in all the usual places in the Italian capital.
The film, only one year younger than me, reminded me how much has changed or stayed the same in 65 years…in the city of Rome as well as on the person. Would I move that barrier today given the chance? Not so sure.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
P.S. Don’t miss the next episode of our team on House Hunters International (see the ad at the top), but here’s a teaser for another brand new episode to air in November. More information to come, so stay tuned!