“Is not possible.”
This could have been the slogan for our stay in Rome.
Wifi in our hostel? “No.”
Directions to a supermarket and Laundromat? “Sorry, I’m not from this area.”
We weren’t having much luck.
I first went to Rome three years ago. On my second visit, the impressions left by the first were still fresh – I remembered the graffiti (though Rome was sparkling clean in comparison to Naples), the dismissive attitude of sales girls and the persistent men. I remembered how relaxed life seemed to be here, and felt as though Rome was a coastal city. I fell in love with the city when I sat reading on a patch of grass in front of the Foro Traiano and a man told me I had skin like mozzarella.
I remembered being blown away by the size of the monuments – I’d never seen anything as large as the Colosseum, each of the arches in the walls at least three or four times my height, and the walls metres thick. Surrounded by parks and the Foro Romano archaeological site, I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t on an empty, sandy plain.
Saint Peter's and Piazza
This time we sat outside the Colosseum (the line was too long to go in, and we didn’t want to pay for one of those ‘skip the line’ tours) and an old New Yorker sat next to us. Apparently he and his wife visited Rome 45 years ago – back then the Colosseum was free, the arches were completely open (now bars line them) and there were about ten people there feeding spaghetti to 300 cats.
Saint Peter’s Basilica was the largest church I’d ever seen, sitting behind Rome’s largest piazza, walled by a colonnade and with fountains and an Egyptian obelisk in its centre. Like Saint Paul’s on steroids, it was beautiful with elaborate mouldings of angels on the walls and ceiling, and light streaming in through the arched windows lining the top of the walls and circling the dome. The cavernous crypt below the basilica was like a maze – each pope’s tomb housed in a separate arch, and each unique.
I loved the history. Europe abounds in history, but this was the first time I’d seen ruins, both in Rome and a day trip I did to Pompeii.
The ruins of ancient Pompeii cover an area of about 70 acres, which means some places have large tour groups standing around, and other places where I could be completely alone. I spent four hours getting lost there on my first visit, never before having realised that this was a fully functioning city with streets, houses, spas, arenas, a brothel, parks and a beautiful villa. I loved that I could get so much closer than in any museum – being able to walk around the houses and under the arches, to touch the marble pillars and the fossilised furniture.
So my favourite part of Rome was the Foro Romano, Rome’s own archaeological site.
I was curious to see whether D would be as awestruck as I was.
To be honest, he didn’t seem to be (though he might just express it differently – after all, we can’t all walk around with our jaws hanging slackly and our eyes as wide as saucers). Not having internet had put a damper on our stay, and in Italy we’d started feeling swindled by entrance fees and the limited access they provided (can we see the Vatican City? Is not possible. Can we skip the line to look at prices? Is not possible. Is there a youth price? No).
However, the main objective for this trip to Rome was to eat well, and that we did.
True, we had some unfortunate supermarket food, and an old Panini, but when we ate out it was always a pleasure.
I bought gelato at L’Ourso Bianco, where you can get three flavours for €2.50, catching dribbles of the melting ice-cream running down my cone on my tongue. The biscotti flavour was divine. It was so much better than Rome’s oldest gelato shop, Palazzo del Freddo di Giovanni Fassi, in business since 1880. There the flavours weren’t labelled, and I felt rushed by the impatient sales girl who gave me strawberry sorbet when I wanted strawberry ice-cream.
Piazza del Popolo
When we searched for a decently-priced restaurant near the Spanish steps, we walked past Piazza del Poplo and found a place near Flaminio, which didn’t seem to have a name.
We entered and, immediately sensing we were tourists, the barista pointed us upstairs. We reached a restaurant filled with square tables covered in red and white checked tablecloths, the patrons largely Italian – a group of elderly ladies behind me, and a group of business men who could have been the mafia in a US television series behind D.
The bread was served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We were seated on the second floor, surrounded by tables of locals. D ordered a mozzarella and prosciutto appetizer, a tomato salad, and a penne arrabiata. I ordered a spaghetti carbonara and decided to see how I was feeling afterwards before considering the home-made tiramisu.
I’m so glad I did – it was the best carbonara of my life. The bacon was salty, smoky and crunchy. The spaghetti was still chewy in the middle. And the sauce was scandalously runny, steam escaping whenever I stirred the pasta. My mouth sang as I ate, and I tried to decipher the recipe, wondering how something so simple could taste so good.
D’s mozzarella was wonderful and the tomatoes were a deep, sweet red. And his pasta served the same dilemma as mine – I dipped some bread into his sauce and tried to figure out the ingredients . . . “tomato?” I suggested weakly. “Salt, sugar, chilli?”
The tomato sauce was as sweet as the salad and, although I didn’t get any chilli flakes in my sample, the spiciness had bled through the sauce in its cooking.
Halfway through my dish and I was stuffed, and mournfully declined the offer of dessert.
Realising that the cheapest restaurants were near the Colosseum, on our final night we returned to a small restaurant called Luzzi’s. The first time we were drawn to it by the blackboard on the street advertising their €5.50 lasagne (I don’t recommend it – picture a stack of cooked lasagne sheets with a tomato and meat sauce poured on top). However, D had an incredible beef Carpaccio and we decided to try it a second time before we left.
“Can I get the Bacala?” D asked, the one dish he wanted that he hadn’t found so far in Italy. It was on the menu, but last time it hadn’t been available.
“Is not possible. Only on Tuesdays.”
“Okay, then I’ll take the minestrone soup and the beefsteak,” he said.
“The minestrone is not possible,” the waiter opened the menu and pointed. “Only the soup of the day – is a bean and pasta soup.”
“Okay,” D shrugged, “I’ll have that then.”
“And can I get the prawn and cream risotto?” I asked.
“Is not possible. There is no rice today.”
“. . . okay,” I frowned at D. “Then I’ll have the spinach and ricotta ravioli.”
The waiter nodded and left.
Later I paused, my fork halfway to my mouth, “isn’t today Tuesday?”
D looked up as he thought, “yes, you’re right.”
“I thought he could only do your fish on Tuesdays.”
D shook his head with a grin, “I think we can safely assume, is not possible!” he cried in an accent that was closer to French than Italian.
I later ordered a tiramisu and, despite the lack of possibilities, it was blissful. Instead of using sponge, like I’m used to, they used some sort of biscuit – cake-like in the centre and crisp around the edges, like Madeleines, but thinner. The contrast between the crispy biscuits and the creamy mascarpone was heavenly.
As D finished, the rain bucketed down and we schemed a way to stall as the people waiting for tables glared at us.
“Coffee?” I suggested, as I’d promised to try it before we left Italy (as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a hot chocolate person.
But when we ordered: “is not possible. The machine is broken.”
We left laughing in the rain, me sheltering under my suede cap and D using our plasticised tourist map for cover, crying “is not possible!” at regular intervals.
An umbrella-seller approached us and sold D a baby pink umbrella for €5.
A few minutes later, the rain stopped.
So clearly, some things are possible.
View from the Spanish Steps