Italy: Roaming in Roma

By Justine Tyerman

Justine Tyerman keeps a promise made nearly three decades ago to make a pilgrimage to Rome, The Eternal City.

Rome's Trevi Fountain. Photo / Thinkstock
Rome's Trevi Fountain. Photo / Thinkstock

Twenty-eight years ago, a Roman we met in Florence pleaded with us to visit his city. With tears in his eyes and his arms outstretched, he implored: "You musta go to Roma, you musta visit la Città Eterna!"

On that occasion, running low on time and funds we did not go to Rome, but last year my partner and I kept our promise to him.

Five days at the tail-end of four weeks in Croatia and Italy cannot do justice to such a city - but then nor could a lifetime.

Still, it was long enough to become enthralled by the history and architecture, to fall under the spell of the Roman people with their easy charm and enviable style, and inspire a deep longing to return - sealed, of course, by the traditional tossing of a coin into the Trevi Fountain.

Keen for an authentically-Italian experience, we shunned the tourist hotel scene in favour of a privately-owned apartment. As we nervously booked and paid a deposit for our accommodation online from Gisborne months earlier, little did we know we would find ourselves in an exquisite part of central Rome, seldom frequented by tourists, yet close to all the must-see places.

Our spacious, fully-equipped apartment was in Via dei Banchi Vecchi, a cobbled backstreet crammed with tiny shops and studios dating back centuries. Artists, sculptors, jewellers, antique and bookshops in shoe box-sized premises were sandwiched between pizzerias, cafés and warmly-lit wine shops where the walls were lined with bottles from marble floors to vaulted ceilings.

Nearby, the bustling Campo de' Fiori markets dating back to 1869, sprawled across the wide piazza, six days a week from 4am.

Our landlord, the gorgeous Giuseppe, said this much-cherished traditional fruit, vegetable and fish market had been tainted by tacky tourist stalls but to the foreign eye, the square was an intriguing mix of the authentic old and the fake nouveau.

The dazzling array of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, meat, fish, flowers and plants, all beautifully displayed, added a delicious riot of smells and colour to the piazza while the trinket and souvenir stalls offered some irresistible bargains.

We bought long skinny green beans, spicy Italian sausages and shiny new potatoes to cook in our lovely kitchen as a respite from a month of pizza and pasta, along with strangely-shaped but incredibly-sweet peaches, huge olives and cheeses, wines and oils of every description. We lingered longingly over the sea of aromatic herbs and spices, pondering whether to gamble our luck with New Zealand Customs and take a few bags home for future Italian dinner parties.

The flower-sellers kept their gorgeous blooms refreshed in an ancient fountain, la Terrina ("the soupbowl") that once watered cattle. The fountain also provided a popular romantic meeting place for young people after dusk when the piazza's many cafés and restaurants overflowed with diners.

On the fringes of the marketplace, nervous young men from Senegal and the Ivory Coast sold "Gucci" sunglasses and "Prada" handbags, ever watchful for the carabinieri who rounded them up on a regular basis. Their wares were displayed on portable boards or sheets for a speedy getaway.

There was street theatre in abundance - dancers, magicians, acrobats, human statues and artists. We marvelled at their amazing talents.

A huge bronze statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, which presided over the piazza, was a reminder of the dark function the lively Campo de' Fiori once served. The most famous victim of the Roman Inquisition, Bruno was burned alive for heresy in 1603, on the exact site where his statue now stood. Many so-called heretics were executed in this square over several hundred years.

We explored all corners of the ancient part of the city on foot using quiet, shaded backstreets and parks as our passageways rather than main thoroughfares where the heat, traffic and crowds were formidable. This enabled us to glimpse the lifestyles of those who live there - Romans emerging from private courtyards with beautiful fountains, gardens and sculptures, enclosed by heavy doors and high walls.

The surprise and excitement of discovering for ourselves such treasures as the cool, green Borghese Gardens was another delight. Emerging from an alleyway, rounding a corner, climbing a hill or crossing a bridge to find an iconic landmark suddenly and unexpectedly in our sights was a huge treat.

I loved the casual way the Romans live with their history and antiquities - like life in a vast museum. Active archaeological sites, of which there were hundreds, were well-protected but elsewhere, life went on in and around ruins thousands of years old. Traffic roared endlessly round the Colosseum while in the shade of its iconic towering pillars, street venders sold souvenirs and "gladiators" fleeced tourists who were gullible enough to pose with them for photos; Roman Catholics attended mass at ancient Christian churches built upon pagan temples which were in turn constructed over Etruscan dwellings dating back hundreds of years before Christ; and contemporary buildings incorporated the odd ancient Roman column into their walls. It's all normal to the Romans where any building less than two hundred years old is considered "modern".

There was a downside to Rome but it was not the notorious pick-pockets and ingenius scammers you are warned of in the tourist books - rather it was the crowds and the heat, even early in the summer.

Rome's world-famed tourist meccas were indeed breathtaking but it was sometimes difficult to summon the reverence such places demand when sharing the experience with thousands of others.

We struck a throng of several hundred American students perfoming their college chant beside the spectacular Trevi very late one evening on our second attempt to have a quiet moment at the world-famous fountain. The noise was such that the ever-present armed carabinieri blew their whistles, looked stern and moved them on several times.

Similar crowds swarmed over the Spanish Steps, Pantheon and St Peter's Square even though the Pope had gone to Croatia the day we arrived.

Forewarned of the legendary queues and yearning for some space and peace to absorb the history and atmosphere, we opted for small-group guided tours of the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter's Basilica.

Despite some puzzling politics and rivalry among guides and officials - especially at the Vatican - the tours were well worthwhile and provided a depth of knowledge and historical anecdotes you just don't glean from guide books - and respite from the crowds.

But we adjusted to the hot, hectic city with its constant street music of sirens and horns, and the blasts of heat from passing buses and trucks. And despite the terror of being flattened while crossing the road, we learned to do as the Romans do - make eye contact, offer a wave and stride forth as six lanes of traffic miraculously come to a halt.

Rome is ultimately a paradox, both humbling and uplifting, wondrous and daunting, impressive and oppressive. There is something seductive about The Eternal City which draws you back. I hope the legend of the Trevi Fountain comes true for me.

- nzherald.co.nz

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