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June 8th, 2008

Roman Holiday--6/5

The Eternal City. I haven't been here since I was a teenager, traveling with my mother in the 60's. I have very few memories of the place. We stayed outside the city proper, in an Intercontinental on a hill with Rome spread like an intricately-patterned rug at our feet. I remember driving around the Coliseum and visiting the Vatican and Mama being unimpressed by the Spanish Steps, and throwing a lira in the Trevi Fountain because that's what one does. But we must not have walked around much (there are pickpockets, you know) or eaten in the city. I had no coherent or sensual memory of the place, just some sights and a general sense of rush and crowd and hurry and Culture, snapped up ini passing.

Which is possibly why I've never agitated to come back to Rome.

That's changed.

We arrived about noon off an uneventful Alitalia flight from JFK whose main attribute was being so empty we each had our own row to curl up in and sleep. We took a train from the airport to one of the major train stations and a taxi to the hotel from there. By this time, I was a bit cross-eyed, but I retain some images of fields and cuttings glowing with poppies and vetch and flowering thistle blossoming among the green wheat and some very Italian-looking trees like the background of one of the less fanciful Books of Hours.

Our hotel is small, old, pleasant, and about two blocks from the Campo di Fiori. We were ravenous by this time, and were glad to be told of a salad restaurant around the corner, which supplied us with a lovely pile of greens and trimmings (sardines and Fontina in my case, I disremember what in Ellen's) and enough energy to set off Touristique. The farmers were breaking down their stalls by the time we actaully got to the Campo di Fiori, and Bernini fountain in the Plaza Narvona was surrounded by scaffolding and plywood walls while being cleaned and restored, but there were plenty of gawkers and a mime dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and a wonderful gelato place where we recruited nature with little cups of bitter chocolate, walnut, and cherry before setting out for Santa Maria Maggiore.

It turns out that we're in Tosca-land. The church of St. Angelo (where Tosca's lover, whose name begins with a C (Anne, help me out here) was painting frescos, is right around the corner, and just around the corner, and (in s slightly different direction, so is
the Palazzo Faranese, where Scarpia hung out. It's the French Embassy now and you need to make a reservation 2 months in advance to get in. Even if you're very, very charming and speak perfectly accented French. Which, i suppose, leaves us something to look forward to on our next trip to Rome. And there will be a next trip, believe you me.

Leaving Tosca-land behind, we struck out north towards the Spanish Steps. My nose was mostly in the map, but really, Rome is tiny, winding, charming street after tiny, winding, charming street. Everywhere you look, it's lovely. The houses are painted ochre and peach, and date from just about every period you can think of, including the early 20th century, although there aren't very many modern buildings.

We passed a church with an obelisk on top of an elephant in front of it, and (naturally enough) went inside. It was remarkable. Every surface that isn't covered with Fra Lippino Lippi Annunciations, portraits of Popes, pictures of St. Catherine of Siena (in glory and laid out under the altar), and assorted saints, is painted, gilded, patterned or marbled. Except for the floor and the whitewashed, highly carved surrounds to the memorial placques, there's no white to be found. A highly cheerful effect, which I like a lot.

The Trevi Fountain is big, wet, and swarming with Tourists of Many Lands. The Spanish Steps are not as big as I remember them (of course, I was 14 the last time I saw them), and also swarming with tourists. We climbed them to get the view, which was lovely, then came down to look for the B&B Ellen's parents are staying at. It took a fair amount of finding, and when we did, they weren't there. But we got to see a perfectly fascinating warren of apartments around three courtyards with shady little gardens and sweet-scented jasmine climbing up trellises and marble stairs leading up to galleries and cats sauntering around as if they owned the place.

There are cats in many of the ruins, too, curled like furry Ouroboroi under what might be dock weeds, if dock grew that big. We haven't seen a lot of pigeons, and Ellen's theory is that the cats have eaten them all. They're certainly sleek enough.

But I digress.

The high point of Thursday, in many ways, was dinner with Giovanni di Fio, a writer and scholar of Italian and English lit, reading for his Masters at Reading University in England. He happened to be in Rome, and we happened to be in correspondence with him, and so we had dinner together. We walked through the Jewish section to a lovely little restaurant Ellen had found in a guide-book, Il Sanpietrino. It's tucked a in away in a corner, so it was pretty quiet, nice for conversation. And the food was delicious. Not high cuisine, but simple, typically Roman, nicely prepared. We all shared smoked salmon and swordfish on a bed of arugula, deep-friend veggies, and a plate of pasta with parmesan and pepper. Then Ellen had a kind of timbale-looking thing with spaghetti and eggplant and red sauce, and I had flounder (I think) baked with very thin slices of zucchini on top, and a lovely mushroom and marsala duxelles on the side, all washed down with some very lovely light white wine whose name I don't remember. Next time, I'll take notes. As it was, we were too busy talking about Mervyn Peake and Dickens and Zola and why Giovanni should read China Mieville and Cherie Priest and Michael Swanwick's essay on the Fantasy Archipelago immediately, if not sooner.

After, still talking hard, we walked across the Tiber to Trastevere. It was a deeply disorienting experience. I kept thinking I was in Paris. The banks of the Tiber are built exactly like the Seine embankment, and with the soft air and the 18th C facades and the flat bridge lined with guys selling designer knock-off scarves and handbags--not to mention the jet lag and the wine--I kept forgetting where (and a little bit when) I was.

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Fora et Populi--6/6-6/7

I had a post. A long, eloquent and informative post, all about the last two days, and Rome and ruins and flowers and how good Rome smells, even in the city. I hadn't saved it (I don't know why, I usually save posts), and when Ellen took it into Sloppy Sam's, where they sometimes have internet access, when they're not putting a charge through, to pick up my email and send my posts, my computer crashed. So, while you'll get an entry about all those things, it won't be the same entry.

It will, however begin with the same note. I'm not going to talk about stones, history, or monuments. There are pictures, there are guidebooks (I like Cadogan, for the attitude: "The Romans learn building and just can't stop"; "Rome, like old Assyria, makes a fine example of that species of carnivore that can only live by continuous conquest." Michelin is good on restaurants and history; Fodor's is good for maps). There are historians and literature. None of them (except the literature) tells you that Rome smells good, that there are flowers and cats amongst the ruins, that you can really walk almost everywhere you want to go (if you've got strong legs and sturdy shoes), that not all gelato is created equal, and expensive does not necessarily equal good.

We've seen a lot of ruins over the past two days. They're impressive (see guidebooks for details), but even more impressive are the unconsidered column fragments, partial friezes and capitals (mostly Corinthian), marble feet, and bits of pavement lying here and there around the city. This is outside the excavated bits, which are mostly red brick lacking the marble cladding, moved to the greater glory of God to decorate innumerable churches and noble houses throughout the city. Everywhere we walked today, we saw stockpiled marble which nobody has gathered or put in a museum because they're architecturally uninteresting and as common as the volcanic black cobblestones that line many of the streets near the Campo di Fiori, where we're staying. Stained, chipped, and filthy as it is, the marble is still beautiful, and it's remarkable to see so much of it.

I said that Rome smells good. It's jasmine season, and everywhere we go, we're suddenly arrested by its sweet, flowery, honey smell, even in the heart of the city. The ruins are overrun with flowers--poppies and creeping cranesbill, which is a deep purple-blue, and some tiny compositae with yellow flowers. There's a fragrant groundcover, some kind of herb that smells a little like mint and a little like oregano, and the leaves aren't minty at all and it tastes terrible. There's a lot of it on the Palantine, where Augustus had his palace. A school group was running around among the ruins when we were there, and the air was thick with it. Also the dusty, throat-catching scent of boxwood in the horticultural garden planted by the Farenese family. And, in the city, the smell of cooking, of wood-smoke that must come from the pizza places (which ain't L'il Caesar's, let me tell you) and garlic and cooking tomatoes. We just walk down the street, sniffing like dogs.

Because we're only here for three days, and have been horribly jet-lagged for two of them, we haven't been doing much in the way of fine dining. We have, however, had two perfectly respectable dinners, the one Thursday night with our friend Giovanni, and last night at a place built around the same ancient theatre our hotel is built on. Veal with tuna sauce (I have a recipe for this at home, and used to make it for company. And will again, now I'm reminded of how good it is), risotto with zucchini flowers, orichietti with shrimp and porcini mushrooms, all washed down with a half-bottle of a very nice Greco del Tufo. Other than that, it's been sad sandwiches on slightly stale panini, scarfed down while sitting on some antiquity or other, washed down with the remarkably good water available from one of the numerous public fountains. The water runs constantly. We drink, fill our bottles, splash our faces, and move on.

Things I want to remember about Rome:

The teenagers coming out of school on Friday afternoon in the Jewish district. The boys poured bottled water over girls' heads--a couple of particularly popular girls were soaked to the skin by the time Ellen came out of the Jewish pastry store where she'd ordered half a ricotta and cherry pie that morning, while I was still asleep.

Walking over the Tiber on the Sistus bridge, both by night and by day, and taking pictures to prove that it looked just like the Seine, because I just couldn't believe it.

The look on Ellen's face when she tasted the caramel gelato at Fonte della Salute, in Travestere. It was my caramel gelato, also my peach gelato, and she liked them so much that she abandoned the melon and rice pudding gelato she'd ordered and got another little dish of peach and caramel for her very own. How good were they? Very, very good indeed.

Seeing Bernini's actual Apollo and Daphne and Rape of Proserpine at the Villa Borghese. He made marble look soft and malleable. About the Borghese Gallery? The collection is remarkable, the building so far over the top you need binoculars to see it. Gold, marble (faux and real), statuary for days (ancient, Baroque, hybrid, trompe d'oeil), paintings (masterpieces and not so much). The man knew what he liked, and acquired it, even if he had to threaten the current owner with prison to get him to sell. Not a nice man. Determined, though. And the Berninis are gorgeous. The gardens, too. There was some kind of reception being set up behind the museum when we came out, and three guys and a pianist practicing a trio. It sounded operatic--I didn't recognize the music. We sat on the edge of a fountain and listened. It was lovely.

The Gay Pride Parade was today. We sat at an undistinguished trattoria on the Campo di Fiori with Ellen's parents, surrounded by happy Lesbians drinking prosecco and holding hands. The food was respectable--fresh and nicely cooked, if considerably overpriced--but the atmosphere was great.

We're leaving tomorrow. I don't know when we're coming back, but we definitely are. Rome is one of those cities that define "City." And you all know how I feel about cities.

Semi-Grande Luxe: 6/08

OK, I'll admit it. My idea of sea voyages is thoroughly out of date. Steamer trunks, varnished teak deck chairs with plaid lap rugs, evening gown and jewels to dinner, a Captain's table and the social outer reaches of the lesser crew, champagne in the cabin, and at least three murders between ports.

There are deck chairs on the Noordam. They're not varnished but, they have little ships carved on them: a stylized steamship with a clipper in full sail superimposed. There's champagne, if you order it, at far too much a bottle. There are two nights when you're supposed to get all dressed up to go to dinner, but I'm guessing the evening gowns are going to be almost as few and far between as the tuxes. There's no room for a steamer trunk under the bed, but there are lots of cunning little drawers and shelves and cabinets for our stuff. And a veranda. And two swimming pools and uncountable bars and a library with a cafe attached and a gym. And more distractions than you can shake a stick at, including a nightly Friends of Dorothy drinks meeting in the Ocean Bar.

I've never experienced anything quite like this in my life. Kind of like day camp with plenty of liquor and en-suite bathrooms.

And lots of food. There's nothing wrong with the food on the Noordam, but it's like good hotel food--kind of "fancy" without being particularly distinguished. There's a restaurant where you can get pizza until 10 pm and tea and coffee any time of the day or night. Still, I find myself missing crispy Roman pizza and all the Roman dishes we heard about but didn't have time to try. Well, next time.

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