Sunday, 2 June 2013

Roma - La città eterna

After a five-year hiatus, Cathy and I finally returned to Rome for this year's Internazionali BNL d'Italia tennis tournament. Back in 2008, we came for the entire week's tournament but this year we decided on a five-day trip, with at least two full days at the tennis. \

I'm well aware that my blogs can sometimes go on a bit so here's the short version (note that the word "short" might not be entirely appropriate by the time I've finished writing this):
We stayed at the wonderful B&B Bio in the far north of the city. As its name suggests, it had a certain dietary theme. It's entirely vegetarian, catering for all sorts of dietary requirements over and above that. There are only three rooms, all painted using only natural paints. The couple who run it, Michel and Barbara, are utterly lovely. They couldn't do enough to help us, providing dairy-free milk and gluten-free products for our breakfast every day, and regularly giving us a lift to Piazza Mancini, saving us a 15-minute bus ride (although on one occasion, due to a very important tunnel being closed, the car journey took 40 minutes, but it was the thought that counted!) Michel runs a health food store (La Madre Terra) so of course we had plenty to talk about and, on the day that we visited his store, lots of price and product comparisons to do. The only downside to the B&B was its rather remote location. From the city centre, we had about a 35-minute walk, then a tram ride and then a bus ride to get back. On two occasions, one of which really wasn't our fault, we managed to miss the last bus (midnight - how uncivilised) and had to get a cab which, we discovered, is not an easy thing outside the main city centre. 

We arrived mid-afternoon on the Monday and headed out of the B&B at nearly 6pm. We stopped for a first little drink at Campo de'Fiori, a square that we had somehow managed to miss on previous visits. When here in 2008, we had attempted to visit the Trastevere part of town which, according to the guidebooks, is lovely and quaint and a must-see. The last time we tried, we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up in a rather squalid, council-estate type area! This time we got it right and agreed entirely with the guidebooks. It's a lovely area with little streets, plenty of restaurants and bars, all clearly frequented by Italians - always a good sign. The B&B host had recommended Ristorante Da Augusto for dinner, but when we arrived at around 7.30pm, there were about 20 people queuing outside. Now that might be a good sign as far as quality is concerned, but when you've spent most of the day since 6.45am travelling, waiting that long for a table isn't an option. Instead we went to Osteria Margherita, a lovely little pizzeria down a side street and sat outside enjoying huge stone-baked pizzas and a well-deserved glass of wine or two. On the way back, we stopped at Mimi e Coco for another quick digestif. That decision may, of course, have been to blame for our first late-night taxi ride. 

On the Tuesday, we decided to take a side-trip. We had been tossing up between Tivoli, Ostia Antica and Orvieto. Due entirely to the contents of a well-timed article in the Easyjet in-flight magazine on the way over, we settled on Tivoli. What a great choice! An hour from Rome and only €3 each way on the train, Tivoli is a lovely little town with a splendid combination of old and new. We had a quick drink on arrival, failed to find the tabac where a passing German tourist had told us we could get a free map of the town, and headed off. After a couple of hours, we followed the brown tourist signs to Villa Gregoriana. What a find! After several devastating floods, the river Tiber was diverted in the early 1800s into this valley, creating several amazing waterfalls. There was already an ancient Acropolis there but by the early 20th century the whole thing had gone to ruin and for many years, it was a dumping ground for unwanted rubbish (including fridges, washing machines etc). Thanks to the Italian version of the National Trust, it was cleaned up and opened to the public in 2005. It took us about three hours to cover the whole thing - steep paths with lots of little diversions to panoramic views, grottoes, waterfalls, low and sometimes narrow passageways but it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Given that the temperature was hovering around 28 degrees in the sun, we were quite grateful for the shade of the trees and the relative coolness of the valley. We emerged at the Temples exit just in time to walk to the station and head back to town for some dinner.


For our first few annual visits to Rome, we stayed right in the centre at a little place called Planet 29. Right opposite, was a pizza place (La Famiglia) which we frequented probably a little too often. It had given us our first taste of risotto alla ortica (nettle risotto) and we had been able to check from our hotel window for a free table and then run down the stairs to claim said table. We had promised ourselves that we would try to get back there for a meal. After our Tivoli train pulled in to Termini, it seemed logical to pop just down the road to La Famiglia. Very little had changed. We nabbed the last table outside and were treated to some very familiar somewhat surly service. They're not rude exactly. They're just, well, down-to-earth! They don't try to be your best friend, they just do their job! In a nostalgic move, we both ordered nettle risotto, with a starter of deep-fried mozzarella balls and a litre of house wine. €8 for a litre of wine - who could turn that down? Like any other wine of that price, it tastes a lot better after the first couple of glasses! 

You might think that was the end of our evening. So did we. We planned to walk back to our tram stop via the Trevi Fountain and then get a relatively early night. The one thing we certainly didn't plan to do was miss the last bus again. Just round the corner from the pizzeria, we decided to buy a couple of postcards to write and post later. The guy in the shop, however, told us that if we bought SwissPost stamps along with the postcards, we could post them from a small postbox in the shop. Standing outside the shop scribbling our postcards, we were approached by an elderly couple who we recognised from the pizzeria. The lady asked us, in French, if we knew where Via Flavia was. It didn't occur to either of us that it was a bit odd to be asked a question in French in the middle of Rome by people who couldn't possibly know where we were from. We both replied (in French) that we didn't know but we had a map and could help. We finished writing our postcards quickly and then consulted the map. Via Flavia was only about 6 streets away but there wasn't a simple route for them to memorise so we offered to walk with them at least some of the way. We chatted away (still in French) all the way to the street with their hotel. They had left the hotel earlier in the evening looking for something to eat, wandered the streets, settled randomly on the same pizzeria as us and only when they finished did they realise they had no idea where they were or how to get back! He (another Michel!) was 77 and she (whose name we failed to get) was 75. They were originally from Paris, had retired to Cannes and were gradually working their way round Europe. When we reached the right street, we attempted to head off to our bus stop but then they invited us for a drink at their hotel. Initially, we resisted but they were so sweet and so keen that we relented. Off we went to the Hotel Marcella Royal and up to the utterly fantastic seventh floor roof terrace bar. We were met by a lovely barman who clearly liked his funny French customers who showed us to a table right by the fairy-lit outer wall with its view straight over to the illuminated St Peter's Basilica at The Vatican. Wow! We were so pleased we'd accepted. They treated us to a Campari Soda and a Kahlua (which they'd never heard of until then!) and far too soon we had to leave or we were risking missing public transport. I took a quick photo of Cathy with them on the roof terrace and we headed off.

We got the tram OK but as we jumped off it at the bus station, we saw our last bus just starting to move. A man was hurtling across the concourse, banged on the door and the driver opened it, let him on, closed the door and moved away again. We were perhaps three steps away from the bus, Cathy managed to reach it and bang on the door but the driver just carried on and we watched our final bus disappear into the night. Grrrrrr. Getting a taxi was only a little easier than the night before. A tram driver kindly found us the number of a cab firm but he didn't know the code for Italy or for Rome, so we had to call Dade for the info! (This would all have been a lot simpler had I been able to access the internet using 3G on my mobile at all during the trip!) We finally got home around 1am again! 

Finally it was time for some tennis. Having grabbed our lunch on the go ingredients from the little supermarket down the road, we jumped on the bus to Foro Italico. We'd pre-booked tickets for Wednesday and Thursday day sessions so after the usual melée of people all trying to collect pre-paid tickets, we were in. It's certainly grown since the last time we were here. There's a whole new court! Campo Centrale (Centre Court) has gone from a somewhat temporary affair, with scaffolding and metal staircases, to a properly built concrete arena, holding probably half as many people again. The new court (SuperTennis Arena) occupies a space which, for the life of us, we can't work out what was there before. The lovely Pietrangeli court is still there though - an amphitheatre court, where you sit on marble steps, surrounded by Roman statues. Despite the forecast, only an hour of play was lost on the Thursday. The rest of the time we sat in temperatures of high 20s and glorious sunshine. Our combination of tickets meant that we didn't get to see Nadal, Djokovic or Federer but it didn't matter. Over the two days, we saw a succession of talented players, including a fairly new guy on the block - Jerzy Janowicz - he saw off players much higher up in the rankings. Our only disappointment really was that, despite having booked the tickets in mid-January, our seats on both days were in the very last row.The people who showed up on the day and rocked up to the ticket office got better seats. We weren't to know that though and we didn't want to risk getting all the way out there and finding it was sold out.

On the Wednesday evening, we walked back to our old stomping ground from our 2008 trip, the little area on the north side of Ponte Milvio. Even though we ate there almost every evening for a week back then, we couldn't really remember much about anything. The main thing we'd forgotten was that there were really only two restaurants! We ate at La Pallotta, which has a massive outside area (which was lovely until it started to rain on the pizzas - I was OK because I was under an umbrella but the waiters came over and moved our table - and Cathy - under the umbrella too!) It was very busy and there were plenty of Italians in there. Very tasty food and house wine that was almost as cheap as the night before! Even better news - we managed to get the bus back!!! Mind you, spotting where to get off on a residential street with no streetlights, whilst being whisked along by a bus driver who was the reincarnation of Mario Andretti. Cathy managed to spot a building just along the road from our street so we managed to leap up to ding the bell and got off not too far past the right place! 

On the Thursday evening, the tennis went on quite late so we ventured even less far! We crossed the road from the tennis stadium and went into a funny little pizza place that looks almost temporary. It's more like a pizza shack! We sat in the plastic-sided "outside" area. It might have looked cheap and nasty, but they made mean pizzas! Despite it being our last night, it was also our earliest and we were back at the B&B before midnight. 

Friday morning rolled around far too soon and it was time to pack up our stuff and decide what to do with our day. We had contemplated going to the tennis again and just buying a ground pass. However, the tournament had reached the quarter-finals stage so all the interesting matches were on the two show courts, not covered by a ground pass. That made our minds up! Tourism day it is! After a lift from Michel and a nose around his health food shop, we walked through the local market where there was some kind of TV show being filmed. No matter how much we darted or dodged, we kept finding ourselves in the camera's line of sight. Who knows? Maybe we're Italian TV stars now!
From there, we headed to the lovely Pantheon:

From there, we jumped on the tram down to Piazza de Popolo and walked to the Trevi Fountain. We bought a delicious ice-cream (pistachio and stracciatella for me) from the lovely gelateria overlooking the fountain. Then we made our way down to the fountain and threw the obligatory coins backwards over our shoulder into the water. If you don't know why, look here

and then on to Piazza Navona. It was buzzing with people, the sun was shining so we did the perfectly obvious thing - we stopped at a bar and treated ourselves to a glass of Prosecco. It was so nice (the sun, the atmosphere and the drink), that we were obliged to stay for a second one! As we left, we spotted these fetching portraits of a couple of Popes, some archbishop or other and ... er ... Obi Wan Kenobi:

We had a last wander through the little cobbled streets nearby and then headed to the Metro up to where Michel was picking us up to take us to the airport, and before we knew it we were waving goodbye to the Eternal City. 

It had been an utterly wonderful five days and we remembered why this used to be an annual trip! Roll on Rome 2014. 

If you want to see all my photos from the trip, click HERE.