Travels in Rome. Part 2.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
Editor’s note: This is the second of a five-part series.
You want a travelogue? A sightseeing primer? Go elsewhere. I’d suggest a Rick Steves travel show on PBS.
Here, you’ll get something else, something about Rome that Rick Steves doesn’t discuss because he’s … well, he’s Rick Steves, the travel writer who puts out books fraught with information about places to stay and eat and sights to see. You don’t need me for that.
Instead, let’s talk about running in Rome. I did a lot of that, especially in the Trastevere section, which is where we spent our first three days. Here is how my wife described that area: “Trastevere is very quaint – human-scaled, with narrow, twisting cobblestone streets and little shops and outdoor cafes. Street scenes in Fellini’s ‘Roma’ were shot there.”
And it’s a great place to run. Oh, there’s great food and our hotel, the Santa Maria, was wonderful, and there are two amazing churches (much more interesting and less mercenary than the Vatican, about which I’ll tell you more in a subsequent piece) and the very best hot chocolate in the entire world at the San Calisto, just off Piazza Santa Maria. And there’s many things of interest – the Coliseum, the Forum, the Pantheon – are within walking distance. We walked for six hours one day and saw all those things and many more. I’ll tell you a bit about all that later, but first, running.
It’s a delight to run in Trastevere because there is a variety of routes, although running in the, as my wife put it, “narrow, twisting cobblestone streets” can be a bit dicey because it’s easy to trip over cobblestones.
But the Tiber is very near and the walkways along the river are wide and sans cobblestones. And the many bridges, spaced about a quarter mile apart, make it even better because you run for a quarter mile, then run up about 50 steps, run across the bridge, run down 50 steps, run another quarter mile, run up 50 steps … and on and on.
Meanwhile, you’re running along the Tiber, for crying out loud, not the Charles or the Hudson, but the TIBER. Caesars crossed the Tiber, popes crossed the Tiber, Cicero probably had something interesting to say about the Tiber. And while you’re running, because you don’t have to worry about tripping over the cobblestones, you can look at the architecture or the people, some of whom think, clearly, that running is for morons.
Once, of course, I got lost. I often get lost and it’s not hard in Trastevere. I had been running along the Tiber and climbed back up to the road to head back to the hotel, but instead of going to my clear landmark – the tram tracks – I saw what was surely a shortcut into the area that surely would lead to Piazza Santa Maria. Well, it was a fascinating run through dangerously cobblestoned streets but with lots of new sights and, 45 minutes later, I ended up precisely where I had started. So, I just ran back to the tram tracks and, finally, “home.”
I got lost a lot worse in Ostia, but more about that in a subsequent piece.
The best run I had in Trastevere also involved learning something about a remarkable woman, Anita Garibaldi, wife of Italian hero, Guiseppe Garibaldi. Her statue, and one of Guiseppe, are on the Gianicolo, a hillside that gives the best view of Rome. It also includes the Finnish Embassy and a lighthouse-like structure paid for decades ago by Italians who had emigrated to Argentina.
The run begins heading uphill on Via Garibaldi. As the street begins to curve, you climb a short set of stairs to iron gates leading into the Sapienza University Botanical Gardens, which never seemed to be open. From the gates, you run up another set up about 20 stairs to a long, pretty steep hill leading past the school for Spanish kids – I guess children of executives and diplomats – to a set of 68 stairs that take you onto the Gianicolo.
You run to the right for about half a mile and find a park and an overlook, but don’t stop there. Run past the Finnish Embassy to another overlook and there, laid out beneath you, is Rome. If you run too early in the morning, though, it’s all shrouded in mist, so wait until after 8 a.m.
Across the street is Anita’s statue and it is magnificent. Created by Mario Rutelli, it shows her astride a rearing horse, escaping from angry Austrians. Cradled in her left arm is her newborn. In her right hand, she carries a pistol. Rutelli doesn’t explain how she’s holding the reins.
Each side of the base of the statue features a scene from Anita’s life, including one in which she searches through the Italian dead, seeking the body of her husband. She didn’t find it, because he wasn’t dead. Yet.
Of course, if you are not a runner, you can walk to the Gianicolo or to the Tiber and certainly you can walk to many tourist attractions, but to me, the best attractions in Rome were the cafes and trying to speak Italian with people, and just looking at things and understanding, even on the run, that I was in the middle of history.
The Coliseum is a magnificent structure but if you want to go inside, be prepared to stand in line for at least 45 minutes or pay extra for a tour that gets you in quicker. I found the outside interesting enough because, down the road, you can see the forum for free and Piazza Navona, considered the most beautiful in Rome unless you’re foolish enough to look in the wrong direction and see the HUGE disgusting advertisement for an American cellphone company. Just look the other way.
We also liked Piazza Venezia, which was our landmark in our search for the Trinity College pub. Yes, Trinity College is in Dublin but has a branch, and a pub, in Rome where, as far as I could tell, no one spoke Gaelic but the Guinness was fresh, which it isn’t always in the States.
Trastevere was also an interesting place for food, although I have to say that gelato is overrated. It’s Italian ice cream and it’s fine but … really, it’s fine. But my wife said she prefers King Kone in Merrimack and she knows more about ice cream than do I.
Kathy had looked up places to eat and we tried several but my favorite is still Ombre Russo, a small cafe near Piazza Santa Maria where I had a fantastic insalata Greco (Greek salad) and a beer. Kathy had pasta and pesto and liked it but she thought the waiter was surly. I practiced my Italian on him and even asked him how to request the bill. I said (phonetically here): “Como say dechay may I have the bill?” He responded, “Il conto, purr favoray.”
The absolutely most delicious thing I had in all of Rome was at San Calisto, a little cafe on Piazza San Calisto, which is just a few steps from Piazza Santa Maria. Kathy and I each had a hot chocolate and it was brilliant. It was incredibly chocolatey and piled with whipped cream. I don’t ordinarily drink such things but I was glad I’d tried this. Fantastic (although Kathy prefers the cocoa at Burdick’s in Walpole, N.H. Philistine.).
That said, the best food I had was at our hotel, the Santa Maria. Weird, I know, but the breakfast was excellent with a wide variety of choices, from scrambled eggs to meat and cheese, freshly baked hard-crusted bread, and fruit pies. And the coffee? The absolute best coffee I had in Rome, and I had a lot. The espresso was made when you asked for it, as was the cappuccino and each morning, I had at least one of each.
And at night, they had happy hour: Buy a drink and eat all you can and the food was amazing. If I’d been on my own, I’d have eaten my dinner at the Santa Maria every night, but Kathy likes new things, so we always went out.