I like Rome. The people are daggier than in Florence and an air of lusty decay hangs over the city. Paint peels, horns blow, and people grow green things on their balconies in defiance of acres of concrete, stone and asphalt. As I stepped off the bus in Piazza Vescovio, a green elliptical square in the north of town, I sensed that Rome is a city that is content with its place in life. After millennia of growth, expansion, flourishing and revolt, it’s happy to sit back and let the party come to it. And why not? It deserves it.
Angiola, our host, met me off the bus in Piazza Vescovio. Richie was arriving a few hours after me, fresh from a stay on a Tuscan farm with a fellow permaculture enthusiast, Elena. Angiola had a largess and charisma that matched her native city. Scriptwriter, filmmaker, art historian and heir to a crumbling farm estate in Molise, Angiola was magnificent.
After falling in love with Angiola I fell in love with the bedroom she was offering us: large, eccentrically furnished and abundantly serviced with chairs and desks – this was going to be an ideal place for Richie to finish his fourth diploma project and for me to catch up on my Florentine reading: Vesari’s The lives of the Artists and Mary McCarthy’s Stones of Floerence and Venice Observed.
Like all travellers who have spent long months living out of a suitcase, I luxuriated in the novelty of unpacking my ‘things’; finding spaces in the cupboards and drawers to lay my threadbare garments, whiffy hiking boots, journals, books, writing materials and precious MacBook.
Richie and I found Angiola on Airbnb – an internet resource for travellers who wish to rent a room or an entire apartment/house from a local: a much more personal and cost effective way of travelling than staying in hotels or even youth hostels. During the two weeks we stayed with Angiola a steady stream of interesting people moved through the apartment: a balding bug-eyed mime artist; an American opera singer with laryngitis; and a parade of anonymous scriptwriters who provided company and inspiration for Angiola in the wee hours of the morning.
As well as being entirely unpopulated by tourists, the suburb in which we were staying was abundantly endowed with cafes, gelateria, alimentari, green grocers and green spaces. Biopolis, an organic supermarket with a great selection of fruit and veg, pastas, cheeses and cereals, was a convenient stroll down the road, and next to it, a fresh produce market which was open from 7-12noon 6-days a week.
After each visit to the market I came home laden with enough colourful fruit and veggies to arrange tasty still lifes and prepare large platefuls of pasta and risotto. The red wine from Abruzzo was also very good, and for 2euro a litre, we couldn’t resist having a generous glass (or in Richie’s case – 2) with every meal.
After dinner we practiced our feeble Italian conversation skills, and as a result, found that like the Italians, we were much more skillful at expressing ourselves with gestures.
St Peter’s cathedral and a visit to the Museo Vaticano were our first experiences of ‘tourist Rome’. We arrived in Vatican City early on the holy equivalent of ‘cheap-ass-tuesday’ (first sunday of the month, free), and joined the queue that was already threading its way around the walls of the city. Having reached the front of the queue outside, we joined the back of the queue inside, and spent another two long hours shuffling our way, like incarcerated art-fiends, toward the Sistine Chapel.
Being shoved, like humanure into the bowels of the Papal Palaces was a novel experience for us. Shoulder to shoulder with copies of Greek statuary and barbarian tourist invaders, we bent our gazes to the roof, to the tapestries, to the views outside the windows, and to the faces of those around us – who seemed as intent as we were on looking, at not looking – eyes glued forward or dumbly fixed on the viewfinder of their cameras.
The sistine chapel was exquisite and overwhelming. As were the Raphael rooms, and the Pinacoteca. The rooms of the modern collection were sadly overlooked as people shoved and elbowed their way towards Michelangelo’s magnum opus.
Our memorable first day out in Rome was followed by several more extraordinary outings: a visit to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum; a day out in Ostia Antica, EUR and Testaccio; lunch in the Protestant Cemetery with Keats; gelato on the steps of the Pantheon and a visit to the creepy Cappucin Crypt.
Nina’s amateur-guided tour of the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina, the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo earned me a promising 8 out of 10 stars from my only taker, Richie – so I may yet have a career in tourism!
Strolls in Villa Ada and long lays in the grass at Villa Borghese – where Richie turned into a flower-eyed Pan – gave rest to our weary bodies and provided a much-needed dose of ‘nature’.
On days when Richie needed to stay home and continue his project work I took myself out to visit a string of beautiful churches and for a protracted visit to the wonderful Capitoline Museums.
The costs of our stay were kept to a minimum by eating all our meals at home (and packing a picnic for every lunch out), shopping locally, eating seasonally, skanking free bus rides, visiting museums and galleries on ‘free’ days, taking in unusual sights like the ‘square Coloseum’ in EUR, and doing a lot of walking. Gelato, coffee and the odd glass of wine were our only big indulgences.
Having seen the wonderful diploma work that Richie was doing (with his new pack of Roman colour pencils), Angiola invited us to follow up our fortnight in Rome with a peaceful break at her country home – a restored stone stable in a field in Molise – where we are now. The views are so beautiful that we look forward to waking up every morning, and a little sad at night when darkness comes and obscures it all. Tomorrow we will attempt a long walk to a distant village, and in a few days we will be commencing our final Wwoof in Italy. More pictures and stories to come…
Love to everybody at home!
X nina and richie