I wanted to see some ancient Roman ruins – not hard to do here; they’re everywhere. On our second day in the Eternal City, we hopped on the bus and got off when the Coliseum came into view. By this time, I had figured out that Rome might be home to the most number of stylish people per capita – from pensioners to prostitutes, and from schoolchildren to street dwellers, everyone shows at least some sign of having made an effort to look decent. Riccardo says Italian style is exemplified in the way peoples’ clothes fit their bodies perfectly, never sagging or bunching – and pointed out that even the city workers’ uniforms appeared to be sharply tailored. He was right.
Anyway, back to the ruins: ancient Roman ruins are as magnificent as you’d expect. I found it chilling to stand in the shadows of the Coliseum and imagine scenes from its long and sordid history. But actually buying a ticket to go inside was out of the question – we took one look at the teeming hordes and instead ventured off in search of an espresso. Lovely caffeterias with sunny terrazzos lined the street facing the Coliseum, but we persevered past them until we found an unassuming caffè charging the correct price for an espresso (1 Euro rather than 3).
Our next destination, the Vatican (home of the Sistine Chapel), was a good 45-minute walk away. We’d planned to take the bus but our aimless strolling in the sunshine along the Tiber led us there anyway. We had our first carbonara (spaghetti with egg yolk, pecorino and bacon) at a little trattoria with flasks of wine on each table, and when I asked for pepperoncini (meaning crushed dried chillie flakes), the waiter brought me a fresh green hot pepper and a knife.
Time got away from us as it typically does, and we found ourselves at the gates of St. Peter’s (the Basilica, not the metaphor for death) just past 3:20 pm. The trouble was that we’d actually bought tickets online and our reservation was for 3:00 pm. We were sure the Swiss Guard would turn us away, but in the end it all worked out and we were soon admiring priceless art in the halls of the Vatican Museum (we wouldn’t have dreamed of joining the queue for St. Peter’s, which was positively atrocious).
Riccardo, having studied fine art, was in awe, and I was an eager student – I highly recommend viewing works of art in the company of a passionate and knowledgeable art geek. Every so often, we’d subtly attach ourselves to some English, French or Italian-speaking tour group and pick up a fun fact or two. I was overcome with admiration in the Sistine Chapel, but not as much as one guy who decided the only way to appreciate the ornate ceiling was to sprawl out on the floor on his back. He was quickly ordered to his feet by an incredulous and wildly gesticulating Vatican security guard. Thanks to Riccardo’s enthusiasm and our chronic dawdling, we were the very last visitors to leave the Vatican that day.
With art and culture safely out of the way, it was time to meet up with Ty for an aperitivo in Trastevere. Riccardo and I shared a bottle of wine as we waited for him by Ponte Sisto, and then he took us to a fun spot to drink spritz (pronounced “spreetz”) while perched precariously on a ledge high above a narrow alley.
A couple of friends of Ty’s, also expats from Quebec, joined us for a fantastic meal at a trattoria where Ty knew the girlfriend of one of the owners (yet another ex-Quebecer). When he said hello to her, I immediately recognized her as having gone to the same elementary school as I did! Il mundo e piccolo, indeed. Dish after dish piled with beautiful food made its way to our table, but the most memorable of all was a pristine dollop of the most impossibly fresh burrata with anchovies and millefoglie (very thin crackers). I enjoyed it so much I ordered more for dessert, anchovies and all, while everyone else had cheesecake and tiramisu. I wish I were kidding.
People assume that visiting Rome is expensive, but here are my observations in that regard:
- Sales tax is a foreign concept. The price you see is the price you pay.
- Tipping consists of rounding up to the nearest Euro, if you feel like it. As for how servers make a living: their employers pay them a fair wage instead of leaving things all up to the whims of strangers. It’s really quite brilliant.
- Gas is expensive but cars are small and efficient, and parking and public transport are really reasonably priced. A bus ticket that’s good for 100 minutes in any direction in central Rome costs $1.50.
- Consumer goods seem to cost less than at home – especially local specialties like leather.
- Good food is plentiful and cheap.
- So is good wine, to the point where I weep for the pathetic state of the SAQ in Quebec.
But as at the beginning of all relationships, we may be slightly biassed.
A few parting shots:
Note: All awesome photos are courtesy of Riccardo Cellere. The less awesome ones are mine.