Rome apparently has seven hills and we seemed to have climbed at least eight in our first few hours alone . The Trastevere district where we had hired our apartment was very hilly, it transpired, but none of these hills were one of the actual seven. The neighborhood's sidewalks were roughly paved, disturbed where the roots of the Mediterranean stone pines had heaved upwards fortissimo. The leafy streets were flanked by town houses, standing proud and lean in gardens and terraces shaded by spiky palms, lemon and orange trees. The houses were balconied; wrought iron in deep black, set against the earth tones of each facade. Not newly painted; not peeling, shades of fawn and burnt siena, wooden shutters always a degree lighter than the stucco and framing the window. Even for someone like me - probably a good deal colder than the balmy sun-warmed stone around us - it was not hard to imagine Juliette stepping out onto a balcony and calling out to Romeo on the street below. Maybe because that was Verona there was no one out on the street except my sister and I, entranced by the green and the walls and the climbs.
We'd heard horror stories of entrance queues for any famous monument so arrived early at the Roman Forum, with the Circus Maximus and the Colloseum under the same ticket. The Forum and Circus were almost eerily empty before the tourist buses arrived, the complex much bigger than I imagined. The ancient Romans got around, that was clear, and they liked building things. Red, dusty earth swirled under our feet as we padded through the remnants of the government and financial heart of the ancient city. It was signposted, but there was no clear route and the Romans didn't seem to have ease of understanding for foreign visitors centuries later as their main concern. Some say to get a guide or an audio tour, but a bit of imagination and rusty roman history seemed to be enough. Cream swathes of material; togas and laurel; twins raised by wolves. It was no later than 10am, best, and the temperatures were pushing 34 Celsius. The kind of arid heat that moves over the ground in a haze and dries it to a blushing shade of auburn red, and the trees to muted olive green that appears brushed by a sepia overlay. We stopped in the shade of a cedar, for a drink. I held out the bottle of water to my sister. Et tu, Brute, I said to her, and we moved on.
There were crowds in the Colosseum in chaotic groups waving selfie sticks, which seemed a pretty fair re-enactment of the real thing, perhaps without the selfie sticks. So instead we walked, as we always do, up a hill, since this was Rome, there was at least a one in seven chance you'd be climbing, but the climb also seemed to filter out a good chunk of the tourists. There were walled gardens, loosely attached to convents and monastaries, where the sisters ambled in the shade, bright white contrasts against the walls in their spectrum of pinks and reds. The shades were like wine glasses on a connoisseur's table, and probably in the hands of more prudent tourists on the buzzy terraces below. The local primary school had come to the park for games, nannies played with their toddler charges in the shade of orange trees and the views stretched far over the River Tiber, the sky so blue it was almost gray, punctuated by the domes of St Peter's Cathedral and the Vatican in the distance.
We had not particularly intended to hit up every tourist site in Rome but I wanted to see Via del Corso, the famous shopping street, and it happened that the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps were in walking distance of each other. The ancient Romans' renaissance counterparts seemed more forward looking in terms of their town planning. We went first to the Pantheon and we might as well have started by being shot in the head. Nothing would have the same impact. It was so foreign but familiar, so silent when the marble on the walls seemed to scream so loud, the handful of tourists inside moved in slow motion but with a sense of urgency, because it was like the whole building was a dream, and if you woke up it would all be over. There had been a sign which baffled Layla and I on the way in - it told visitors not to lie down. Who would go into a monument and lie down? But we could then see why, there was an odd power in the way white light seemed to flood through the dome and reach every corner of the building. Visitors wandered out, slower than they had entered, back into the piazza and shielded their eyes with their hands, blinded by morning sun. The carabinieri, a police-military hybrid that seem to hang out, benignly, on every street corner in Rome, must have got a real kick out of seeing the smugness on pretentious tourists' faces transformed into a blank look of total awe when they emerged.
The streets around the Pantheon and Via del Corso seemed to pump all sorts of blood through Rome - financial, artistic, historic, the fashionable edge. I had warmed to our temporary Trastevere home, but it was defintely the more 'boho', young, neighborhood, and I had been amused and impressed - the local-produce stores, trendy cafes and the raw food place were so, well, LA. Via del Corso was where the shiny Italian designers congregated in the old Renaissance buildings and was a study in Italian street style, so lessons from the best. A man in a sharp blue suit and polished leather loafers lit a cigarette on the doorstep of Valentino, a white Vespa leant against the wall of D&G, a salesgirl with skin an enviable shade of caramel eased the shutters off the door to Salvatore Ferragamo, all in a days work. The stereotype that Italians know how to dress was remarkably accurate; girls all in black linen and white shoes, the male uniform of blue suits, all rode shining Vespas, most were dark haired, no one looked tired and no one was pale, maybe there's something in the coffee. Despite this also being the tourist heartland there was not a single Starbucks or chain coffee shop to be found, in general far fewer than I had expected, but you could smell the freshly roasted beans from each hole in the wall cafe and wafting out of ground-floor apartments. The modern Romans, it seemed, lived well in their charming Renaissance buildings, gestured enthusiastically while talking, had the most cute and cheerful bambino, drove their Fiats with fervour and took their dogs wherever they could.
I took a half-hearted jog up to the Piazza Garibaldi early one morning to see if I could beat the tourists and the heat to a sunrise view. The rising sun was partially blocked by the night blanket of cumulus puffs, on their way out but the skies seemed painted by streaks. The clouds were heather gray and soft lavender, girly peach and sweet caneteloupe, breaking to the lightest blue in parts. The domes of the Vatican bloomed round and classic in pale beige, the huge war memorial of the Piazza Venezia a solid slab of pillared white marble, the rest of the skyline punctuated by the pixel-squares of townhouses and cathedrals unchanged for centuries. Doves swooped and plunged in the middle distance and church bells rang, each chime bringing to life the stories of empire, demise, rebirth, creation. The metallic notes made me realize that one thing we forgot to do was to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, which would supposedly meant a certain return to Rome. But then I knew I'd be back. There was still a fog of cobbled squares we hadn't yet touched, there were hushed streets where dogs barked from behind iron gates, there were lines of cypress trees against the titian facades of sunkissed villas, and morning light would still stream through the shaft in the roof of the Panthenon.
hello all :) Rome was, in all honesty, one of the most beautiful European cities I've visited. We did so much more than I talked about here (we even went out to the countryside one day, but that's a post in itself) and I could just go on about the beautiful buildings and people and sunshine... if you're jealous I get it. Anyways now we're back, I should hopefully be baking again soon, since aaalll the summer fruit is here and I have a few plans for this space over the next few months.
Hope you're all enjoying these warmer days. Ciao xx