27 January 2008
the eternal chaos
Despite the swarms of motorini and the rapid confusion of small European automobiles, Rome is nothing if not a pedestrian's paradise. You can walk absolutely anywhere and will find yourself tripping left, right and center over fabulous confusion. There is no grid in Rome. There are no straight lines. There are tumbling ruins and a veering populace and food fit for nightlong binges.
Turning a corner in this city turns back time. Monuments, fountains, and "very important places" lurk in plain sight, smack in the middle of our living breathing modern world. There are no introductions and no preludes. You turn the corner and there it is, and the surprise is as strong as if you'd peeked around a tree in mid-August and gotten a snowball in the face.
We walked and we walked and sometimes I knew where we were. It's a wild tumble, Rome. Its chaos spills up and over the curbs and its dust coats you in an invisible powder of the ages. Who can really understand what they're surrounded by in the Colosseum? Who can look at the layers of sun-warmed stone and imagine what it could have been - how it could have smelled - when this place was filled with man, animal, sweat, sand and blood?
And there are the cold Vatican Museums filled with so much cold marble and cold air, with mismatched stone heads paired with stone bodies from every age, halls of impossible tapestries made by a certain "Maria," and miles and miles of plundered loot. To see the Vatican museums is to understand how much you do not understand. About time. About art. And most certainly about power.
And the pizza at the Vatican... its mediocrity leads me to believe that the Pope doesn't dine in his own cafeteria. Maybe, instead, he picnics in St. Peter's, under Michelangelo's Pieta', wondering how he can get people to stop taking photos of the Sistene Chapel ceiling once and for all.
What happens in the Pantheon when it rains? How do they keep the rain out? Ah, but they don't. The rain has fallen through that glorious hole in the ceiling for centuries. And why does Sant Eustachio coffee taste so very good? Another good question but this one has no answer. Their "secret to perfect coffee" is a secret, but their coffee granita - so rich and syrupy, all concentrated coffee in slurpie form - can't be hurt by the thick clouds of whipped cream in which it rests.
The best restaurants in Rome are on the other side of the river, in Trastevere with its cock-eyed cobblestones and grimy alleys. I know of one of them because an Italian colleague with whom I was traveling wandered into a florist's shop and asked the owner where he eats. He said Trattoria da Olindo and so that's where we ate. To find it, I first find Trastevere, then I find the florist, and then I try to find the corner around which the trattoria hides. You wouldn't know it was there if - at just the right moment - you didn't turn yourself around to stare it straight in the face.
My other favorite was a friend's favorite. She's left Rome but it's still there. It's hard to find in the dark because before it opens it's closed up tight and quite invisible. We waited them out because we had a reservation and knew there was a table in there for us. The reservation turned out to be very important - people were turned away as we sat there loving our meals. But before Le Mani in Pasta would feed us our yolk-yellow magnificent carbonara we first had to kill some time.
In our search for something to do we found St. Cecilia's and a quiet chorus of nuns singing an evening's prayers. Some voices were sweeter than others and St. Cecilia, in cold hard marble, lay beneath them. St. Cecilia is known for the three knife strikes that would not sever her head from her body and this marble body, delicately crumpled and damaged by her attackers, lay serenely below the alter, drenched in muted song and prayer.
This, my sixth, was a nearly perfect visit to Rome. It would have been perfect - such wonderful company, such a heady itinerary, and the food, oh the food - except that in the first half hour of the 4.5 hour train ride back to Milan I poured an entire can of Coca-Cola into my lap.
I can point the finger at Rome's beautiful confusion and say I was just trying to maintain the same rhythm of discovery and surprise that had thrust us through three days in Rome. But, as you can probably guess, four hours of soda-soaked pants isn't quite as thrilling as the experience of turning a corner and coming upon the Trevi Fountain at night.
Trattoria da Olindo, Vicolo della Scala 8, 06/5818835
Le Mani in Pasta, Via dei Genovesi 37, 06/5816017