It’s every London traveler’s worst nightmare: I’ve got a flight to catch and the M25, the highway that runs around the city, is backed up. The fact that it wasn’t in the radio traffic report was either really good or really bad: they either didn’t report it because it was relatively minor and they’d rather devote more time to interviewing blithering idiots or they didn’t report it because they feared admitting the severity of it would trigger mass suicide and they were desperate to avoid liability. Fortunately it was the former and we soon got through it and were able to put our foot down.
We had decided to splurge and use air miles to go club class on British Airways, so once we dropped off our bags it was straight through security so we could ensconce ourselves in one of Heathrow terminal 5’s 10 billion BA club class lounges. We went to one in the north side and were promptly but politely told it was a first class lounge and we needed to go to the club class lounge which we did, who promptly told us we needed to go to the south club class lounge to be close to our departure gate, which of course turned out to be on the north side of the terminal. Schlepping commenced and ended up with us at long last comfortably seated on sofas with nice drinks and nicer food.
I have to say that club class or above is the way to go if you can swing it. No screwing around trying to find 2 seats together in the terminal, no having to get in stupidly long queues full of wound-up parents managing manic proto-adults or having to elbow your way to the bar past stag parties trying to outdo the hen parties in unruly drunkenness. Instead in the lounge all is calm, serene, and above all, free. Actually it’s complimentary which means that you’ve already paid for it but why quibble? There are large piles of bacon sandwiches. Good bacon sandwiches! Large bottles of good whisky and spirits are lined up in back of rows of clean glasses and decent wines are lined up in temperature controlled buckets. The fridges are packed with quality beer and cold sodas. Your flight is announced not only for your convenience but so you remember the reason you’re there is that you had planned on going somewhere.
It’s amazing how much 6 inches makes when traveling by air, because that’s about all the extra width you get when in club class as opposed to economy, but it really makes a difference. Instead of having to fight with your neighbor for the high ground of the armrest you both have one. Instead of having to spend hours with your arms rigidly pinned to your sides for fear of an escalating elbow-war you can stretch out a bit. After all the grub I’d scoffed at the lounge I couldn’t enjoy the chicken korma in-flight meal but my wife Claire said for airplane food it was pretty good. They bring fresh bread rolls and all the drinks you want.
The taxi driver we had for our trip into Rome city center proved categorically that the clinically insane can be warm and friendly. In fact, that seems to apply to most drivers in Rome. I’ve never seen 2 lanes accommodate 4 cars at highway speeds before, and I wish I hadn’t as I was in one of them; the one driving on the shoulder next to the central reservation. Having grown up in New York I’ve certainly had my share of white-knuckle cab rides, but generally the drivers there are businesslike and have some desire for self-preservation. When riding in a cab in Rome you get the feeling what the taxi driver creed there is the same as a Klingon warrior’s: “today is a good day to die”.
Fortunately our time was not then and we made it safely to our destination, at least as close as a car could fit. From there it was a short walk over narrow cobbled streets past the Trevi fountain to our hotel, at least what we thought was our hotel. It turns out it was part of a chain and the one we were actually booked in was a short distance away. We were told it would be 5 minutes before the driver would get there to take us and we should go and have a look at the Trevi fountain for awhile. Let’s see, he’ll be here in 5 minutes so come back in 20. That’s Italy!
Our hotel was neither the best nor the worst I’ve been in. It was comfortable enough but no frills. The only flaw was that is was full of teenage tour groups from all over the world who fully enjoyed shouting at each other day and night. Still, it was pretty central and was a good base from which to sally forth into the city, which we did after a brief unpacking session.
The first thing that you notice in Rome is that the city has a very low sidewalk to street ratio, and that the concept of pedestrian right-of-way is well understood but completely ignored. There’s pedestrian crossings and crosswalks which the Romans do actually for the most part obey, but they aren’t everywhere and there are some places where to get across you either have to walk half a mile out of your way to find a crosswalk, or take a deep breath then pick your moment and run like you are Indiana Jones escaping a collapsing temple.
Providing you survive getting across Via del Corso, thereby going from the ridiculously touristy Trevi fountain area to a slightly less touristy area that locals could bear to let themselves be seen in you will then notice that in Italy everyone has style. The whole place exudes it. When you step on a cobblestone you can see style oozing up through the cracks. Even the bums look good. It’s impossible as a tourist to be a part of that, you just have to accept that you are separate from it. It’s like there’s 2 parallel universes in any very touristy place: there’s the reality of the tourist who wants to see sites and absorb a different culture, and then there’s the reality of the local person who at the end of the day just wants to get by you. Tourists are so absorbed with all the new sights, sounds, smells, and in Rome the overriding desire not to get smeared over the hood of a Fiat that they don’t really see the people around them. The Romans on the other hand have been dealing with tourists for over 2,000 years and are by this time genetically predisposed to simply tune them out. It’s like me when I navigate my way through Covent Garden market on my way to the tube every night after work: intellectually I know the tourists are humans, I just am so tired of having to squeeze my way past nutwads who don’t think to get out of the way before they go into gawk mode that I just don’t care. They become living, moving, unpredictable traffic cones and it becomes a game weaving around them. I suspect the Romans thought of us the same way especially since Rome has so many gawk-worthy sites.
Leaving our hotel in search of culture, enlightenment, and above all food turned left onto via Quattro Fontane which quickly becomes via Sistina, a street with a great variety of shops. A good deal of them were shoe shops, mostly closed thankfully as they would have seriously tempted my wife’s resolve to seek out sustenance as soon as was realistically possible. We both saw seriously good possibilities for future aquisition of sartorial accessories along this stretch of road and filed it away for later. We both saw things we liked in windows and best of all the prices of many of the shops were less than an Apollo moon landing.
The shops thin out after a few blocks and soon you find yourself strolling casually along a nice stretch of picturesque street. Don’t get excited at this point if you’re new to Rome as just about everywhere in the historic city center is picturesque. A good guideline for Rome is that if you find yourself in an area where you aren’t thinking about camera angles you should start thinking about your personal safety. Anyway, soon you reach the Spanish Steps, in Italian the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, which I personally think look at their best at night. On any night when gigantic pieces of ice do not rain from the sky you will find romantic couples blocking your way all along the generous proportions of what is described as the longest and widest staircase in Europe. There’s a restaurant at the top we didn’t go to as the prices made our eyes hurt, but the views from the top looked fantastic and apparently it’s gotten good reviews so it would be a good choice of place to splash out if you’ve got something to prove or want to propose.
At the base of the steps is some of the most expensive shopping in Rome, but once you get a short distance away from it you get an interesting melange of shops where you alternately wonder where a decimal place has been miscalculated to where you desperately hope where a decimal place has been calculated. In the first type of place I often see things I like but have to talk myself into buying something because it’s so cheap I think there’s something wrong with it and in the second I back out slowly with my hands in plain view while holding my breath for fear of getting charged for the air. Interspersed with the shops and boutiques are the entrances to the local residences and plenty of bars and restaurants. It’s an area with something for everyone and we loved it.
After a bit of window licking and note taking for future reference we found an Enoteca Antica, a bar-restaurant that was recommended by our best friend the Lonely Planet. Inside was a very Italian-rustic feel with lots of wood and fresco-looking decoration that all worked to make you feel comfortable and ready for some good simple cooking. The staff were very friendly and spoke enough English to get past my non-existent Italian. They had a very extensive wine list with both extremes of prices the majority of which you can have by the glass. If I said I could remember what I drank I’d be lying because I can’t remember Italian wine regions but I can certainly remember the food as it was some of the best I’ve ever tasted, bar none. I started with Gnocchi pomodorro e basilico, potato pasta with a simple tomato and basil sauce and it was excellent. The Gnocchi was light and perfectly cooked and the sauce was full of good tomato flavor. Claire had meat ravioli with mushrooms and it was mouth-watering, even for me who prefers mushrooms to anywhere else but in my food. It was my second course of pork rib that really blew my mind. It was so tender I could eat it with just my fork, and the flavor was staggering! It must have been slow cooked for a week to become that savory and mouth-wateringly delicious. Fabulous.
After a truly excellent meal it was time for a leisurely stroll back to the hotel via the Tiber river where we had the unexpected opportunity to burn off some recently indulged calories. The night was more beautiful than you can expect for November in Europe, the sky was mostly clear with just some wispy clouds, and it was warm enough that a light jacket was plenty. The moon was out and hovering directly over the river, casting a luscious ambiance over the historic fortresses and bridges on the opposite side. As we walked under the huge trees lining the river we were happy to realize we were completely alone, no other tourists or locals had thought to venture this direction. This stretch of the river was ours and ours alone.
Actually, it turns out we had company: about 10 million starlings that make the center of Rome their winter retreat. During the day they go far and wide foraging for tasty morsels like olives and grain, but in the evening they like a sense of community and a frightening number of them shack up together for the night. In trees. Along the river. We gradually became aware of the racket of an enormous number of birds squawking above us.
We had company, lots of company with full digestive tracks.
As we walked felt some sort of impact on my head. Any thoughts of it being a nut were quickly abolished when my fingers encountered what was undoubtedly starling-shit. I immediately made that noise that is part blech, part gaaa, and all yech as I flung the offensive excrement off my offended extremity, followed by several choice words. I also may have invoked a deity in a non-religious context.
Once the first one had let go all the others got into the act like teenagers who just saw their friend get away with something naughty and a torrent of avian feces began to drop around us. There was nothing to do but leg it until we were out from under the tree cover, pelting down the lane as we were pelted by guano, alternately shouting words of encouragement to each other and swearing at the squadrons of feathered fiends poo-bombing us. Once clear we both agreed that a shotgun concession at that point would be a runaway money-maker.
After this unexpected exertion we had to replenish our calories so on the way back to the hotel we were forced to stop for a gelato. We swung back via the Trevi fountain, which was built in the 18th century mark the end of an aqueduct. The baroque edifice is situated in a fairly close square surrounded by pure touristiness. I fully expected not to like this overdone monstrosity but when I tried to put that expectation into practice I realized I couldn’t as I actually like it. It may be way too big for the space and also rediculously over the top but it’s also creative and graceful, and some of the touches are fantastically imaginative. Looking at the corners you see that the fountain is designed to look like it’s grown out of the facade of the building behind it as if it grew organically by the will of a god. At night it’s lit from below making the water seem to glow as it flows out of the fountain’s many chutes and flutes.
Our hotel may have been full of a billion loud teenagers from 5 continents all trying to get into their respective olympic screaming teams but after midnight amazing they all went to sleep, so I guess they were all exhausted from their exertions and everyone in the place performed a coordinated crash.