Travel Diary: Rome, Italy
Rome was the sunset of our trip, and with it came terra-cotta hued afternoons, quiet strolls, and negronis al fresco. My first impression was that it was trippy, with modern-day life swirling around millennia-old ruins. I’d never seen so much classical history, absolutely everywhere, and it was surreal to witness locals walking casually past all of these historical sites, or zipping by on their scooters on the way to the next thing, as you do.
Maybe it’s easy to be overwhelmed by this colossus of western cultural history, this living, city-sized museum. It was pretty hot when we were there in mid-September, and there were so many people, including many tourists, teeming under a sky that hung low with humidity. As a result, the streets of Rome could feel stuffy and dense at times.
What I loved most about our visit, and what I wish we'd let ourselves enjoy more of, were the times when we found escape from the feeling that it was all too much. When we didn't succumb to the pressure to see the famous things that one has to see in Rome (and there are so many things) just because you're there.
The city felt more accessible and less harried in the little square where we gave ourselves the freedom of a few unscheduled hours, with a wine bar that felt like being let in on a secret. In the welcome hush I could actually hear the ice tinkling in my negroni and those of the people around me. Ruins felt less grave when we interacted with them, such as when we sat on remnants of a low wall on the grounds of the Roman Forum for a water break, just kids surrounded by ancient history. The grand was almost at hand from the comfort of my back, where Kev and I laid on a tufted bench at Galleria Borghese to take in the painted ceiling, somehow finding that we had the gigantic room to ourselves.
Rome also gave me two gifts that I will always be grateful for. The first was a renewed love for terra-cotta colored everything. The second was a brand new love for negronis.
Never previously a fan of gin, negronis in the afternoon became a thing for me there, so much so that for the three years since returning from that trip, our bar cart has always been stocked with the ingredients to whip one up. The afternoon negroni wasn’t day drinking and it wasn’t happy hour. It was a pause in the day, a long stretch of silence, a time to rest your feet, and a chance to sit still and take in the world from where you are.
I am reminded of Rome each time I make one and that pleases me.
Now on with my travel diary.
Arrival & AirBnB
We arrived in Rome from Dubrovnik in the evening, exhausted, some of us hungover, and headed straight to our AirBnB. The apartment was on the top floor of a building with a closet sized lift.
It was a duplex with a gathering space on the bottom floor. The room on the upper floor in which Kev and I stayed had the cozy feel of an attic. A little landscape oriented window opened onto a surprisingly rich view of the street. I enjoyed laying by that open window in the first moments of the morning and listening to the sounds of city life.
Our New York roots dictated that we use the stairs almost exclusively, and so we thundered up and down those narrow stairwells as a herd several times a day.
Our last first meal of the trip
After settling in a bit, we set out to find dinner. La Matriciana drew us in with an open door, a lively scene, and an amazing stock of fresh seafood just inside the front entrance. We discovered that the place was filled with people who didn’t speak English and that the menu was written only in Italian. We were sold.
This first meal was memorable for the food, sure. Fresh seafood pasta, perfectly al dente and perfectly seasoned. It was also memorable for how relatively quiet our table was among the general ruckus of the dining room. By this, our last stop, we were tired. We’d also become so comfortable as a group that we were okay sitting in silence. Kim recalls that our first cheers of this leg of the trip was done with complimentary limoncello, so I guess the food re-energized us somewhat.
The people & the service
I liked the vibe of the people. Locals were aloof, like New Yorkers, and took no bullshit. One fruit vendor we passed had strict rules for shopping his wonderfully stocked cart: no samples, no touching, and if you decide to make a purchase, no picking out your own fruit. Like New Yorkers, they weren’t overtly judgmental of visitors, they just didn’t seem to give us any thought.
Service in Rome was relaxed and welcoming. Patrons could linger at tables for hours, and we did. Food sometimes comes at a leisurely pace, and it's good to remember in those lulls between dishes arriving that there's no scenario in which you'll leave hungry, so take it easy why don't ya.
Sight-Seeing Aplenty on Day 1
On our first full day, we set out for Galleria Borghese to kick off some sightseeing, stopping along the way for a quick breakfast of pastries and espresso.
The Galleria is located in the beautiful and large Villa Borghese Park. Strolling up to it, you pass several manicured gardens including a gated ante-garden full of low, spindly lemon trees bearing impossibly fat and indulgent fruit that filled me with envy. Why can’t my trees at home, similarly diminutive, do that?
We'd booked tickets before leaving the US, having heard that it wasn't too big of a museum (i.e. not exhausting) and that it's full of beautiful artwork. All true, and we found that it wasn’t too crowded, relative to other sites, which made wandering its vibrant halls so much more enjoyable.
After the gallery, we crossed through the park to go see the Spanish Steps. Cue the crowds.
I can imagine how lovely these steps are at dawn, with fewer bodies on them, and soft morning light hitting the almost 300 year old stone. But then, these steps were meant to be a gathering place, a meeting point, and so perhaps we saw them fulfilling their intended design.
A short 8 minute walk later, we were at the Trevi Fountain.
The Trevi Fountain had recently been restored by Prada in November of 2015. It’s truly gorgeous. The scale of it, the rich detail packed into every square inch, the blinding whiteness of the stone, the light aqua water. It also stands out as one of the biggest tourist messes I have ever encountered. (We skipped the Sisteen Chapel but Will and Vanessa went and reported that the scene there was worse.) I’m not at all mad about seeing it, but it’s definitely something I would suggest viewing at first light before the crowds converge, if you can swing the early call time. We went back one evening after dark and it was just as crowded, with people milling about waiting for the fountain's light show.
One key takeaway from Rome that we have employed on trips ever since: start your day as close to dawn as you can.
We stopped for a meal at Enoteca Corsi, a lunch-only wine bar and osteria. It was loud and fun, fast and casual, with good food and complimentary limoncello. Enoteca Corsi is situated very close to the Pantheon, which was our next stop. In fact, all of these stops that we made that day were within easy walking distance from each other.
Once we arrived at the Pantheon, we joined the crowd and ducked inside for shelter from some oncoming rain. This structure is a work of human genius, and awesome in the true sense of the word. It’s mathematically flawless in its construction, with each inset rectangle joining others around it to create a perfect dome in exacting proportions. I couldn’t stop asking, and I still wonder, just HOW they were able to build it with no rulers, no lasers, no technology. How did they get it so right? The New York Times recently featured it as one of the rooms that has most influenced modern design.
When standing inside the Pantheon, looking up at its skylight is amazing, even with tourist groups all around - that perfect circle of open space in the perfect center of a perfect hemisphere. It’s a truly impressive feat that’s worth a gander with your own naked eyeballs. If we could achieve that, suddenly one understands how man can be tempted toward hubris.
Now, already on this first day, we'd spanned the 2nd century (the Pantheon), the 17th century (art at Galleria Borghese), as well as the 18th (Spanish Steps & Trevi Fountain) and the 19th (Enoteco Corsi first opened its doors in 1926). And we’d only just eaten lunch.
After a gelato snack at Giolitti (which opened in 1890), we went to the The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument, also known as the Birthday Cake building (construction completed in 1935 - and now we've arrived at more modern history).
We rode the elevator to the observatory at the top and watched city traffic move in patterns around Piazza Venezia below us. We could see the Roman Forum in the distance. There were huge marble statues lifted atop columns just above us, silhouetted against the afternoon sky. It was all very impressive, but we'd just had ourselves a walking tour of some of Rome's rich history and we were pooped.
We descended to real life and went on to fuel up on a couple of pitchers of beer at L'Antica Birreria Peroni before dinner at Ristorante Angelina a Testaccio. The pasta came in absurdly large bowls, similar to the 6 quart bowls that I wash my vegetables in at home, but that was exactly what we needed after our packed day.
Slowing Down, Slightly, on Day 2
We went to the Roman Forum as our first stop of Day 2. The Forum is one of the sites I liked best, mostly because it felt like walking the grounds of a video game. Overgrown ruins. Green grass and old brick.
It's such a strange thing, to walk the same grounds and navigate the same structures as people from thousands of years ago. Every so often I'd remember that this place is from around 500 B.C. and my mind would be blown all over again. Every few steps I'd remember that this was the center of Rome when Rome ruled all, and the Latin nerd in me wigged out. It's history you can touch (my favorite kind I guess?). If we could do it again, I'd try to sneak in some snacks and wine for a little picnic - and be sure to take all of my trash with me when I left.
We spent a couple of hours there before we headed to our next stop, the Colosseum.
Although the Roman Forum is just a stone's throw from the Colosseum, we took a now inexplicable scenic route through Parco del Colle Oppio.
The line for the Colosseum started well before we arrived at the building. From a block or so away, the crowds begin converging and it’s simply a matter of following them. We approached the Colosseum from the northeast, descending down stairs from the park to get to street level. Encountering it from the hill, at a distance, was impressive.
Inside, there were large crowds as expected, but somehow they lent the space a revelatory air, perhaps similar to days past. As a stadium, it’s impressive, massive, and elegantly designed. But I couldn't help but remember that this building, a symbol of power the size of an entire city block, is a reminder of the cruelty that one person can inflict on another, that a culture can inflict on a whole group of people. The underground halls and rooms where slaves were kept before their gladiatorial battles were in diametrical opposition to the light-filled and airy space above ground, particularly when exposed to the sun through structural decay.
In the second half of the day, our group had plans to split off, with Will and Vanessa heading to the Vatican and Kev, Dennis, Kim, and me wanting to wander the streets of Rome some more instead. We shared a lunch at L'Asino d'Oro (The Golden Ass), since closed, and went our separate ways.
My portion of the group went back to the AirBnB first to figure out our plans. We stopped at Verde Pistacchio Roma because it was an entire gelato joint dedicated to pistachio, my favorite ice cream flavor. It was right next door and it felt meant to be. I got a flavor called pistachio pistachio.
We also discovered a covered market in Campo de' Fiori, a small square. Stalls were nestled under a flock of wide canvas umbrellas, with restaurants with outdoor seating all around. The market offered dried fruits, olive oil, honey, and all sorts of herb mixes. We asked a question about one of the mixes, and the stall keeper ran off briefly only to return with the chef who'd made the blend.
Safely tucked away down a side street, but not too far from the market, we came upon Verso Sera, a wine bar that would become significant in my memory of Rome. We would find ourselves drawn back there the next, our last, day as well, bumping into Dennis and Kim who also wanted a little more time there.
Verso Sera is the aforementioned place that felt like being let in on a secret. From our table out front, with Aperol Spritzes and negronis and the occasional plate of charcuterie, we watched the afternoon stretch before us. Knowing the bustle of the market was just around the corner, the quiet atmosphere of this place was a welcome delight. It wasn't just the food and the drink that charmed me, it was also where it is, how we found it, the people I was with, and the time we spent there that so warmed my experience of Rome.
After what may have been three hours, we reluctantly departed toward our dinner plans. A short walk away was Piazza Navona. This piazza has a special place in my heart. We spent one entire evening there. We arrived as the sun was setting and our group again split up and headed off down different side streets toward various dinner plans.
Dinner that night was at an adorable place called The Library. It was date night for Kev and me. The place has since closed, unfortunately, but I saw plenty of lively restaurants with tables spilling out into the evening.
We all reconvened back in the piazza as each meal wrapped up and spent another while sitting on the chairs set up to face the center of the square. There are two fountains in the long piazza. They provide focal points for the space and light up beautifully after dark. Kids ran around and vendors showed off their gadgets that lit up when you launched them skyward. They would then float down with a gentle, otherworldly grace, like dandelion seeds.
Day 3, Our Last of the Trip
On our last day in Rome, we explored Trastevere, which is on the other side of the Tiber River from where we were staying. As the trip was coming to an end, we thought about packing and about what we'd like to bring home, so on this day we did some shopping. Kev and I brought back a spice mix for pasta from Campo de Fiori, painted and carved wooden picture frames that we'd end up using in our wedding the following year, and a simple black leather bag from a flea market that I accidentally haggled down from 45 to 18 euro after I’d decided I really didn’t want to buy it. (Funny enough, I now use it all the time.)
Trastevere was colorful and green, with vines all around. Our group split up into pairs and we each explored the walkable streets and the little piazzas at our own pace, bumping into each other from time to time, keeping in touch all the while on our phones.
Kev and I visited the Basilica di Santa Maria, dating back to the 3rd century. There's a small and lively square just in front with a fountain ringed by steps that you can take a quick breather on if you're so inclined. We grabbed pizza and beer for lunch, then continued to wander and wander until we burned off our lunch and felt like we were running on fumes.
We passed Piazza Trilussa which faces the water, and though we didn't, I recall being more than a little tempted to linger. The atmosphere was lively, the view was sweet, and there were several establishments nearby that we could duck into for refreshments.
We made our way back to Verso Sera, that new favorite place. It's the last memory I have from the trip, as I'm not sure what we did that night and I don't have any pictures to reference. But what a wonderful memory to end on, settling at a place where we could rest and reflect on two full weeks of travels.
More pictures from Roma:
Read about our other stops from this trip at the links below: