If you’re lucky and have a chance to travel you might be fortunate enough to find a special place that fills your soul. For me that place has always been Italy, Florence to be precise. Rome is a close second, but maybe a little too cosmopolitan to deliver the flavor of Florence, which is undeniably the place I wish I could afford to call my second home.
I have traveled to Italy extensively and when I was in my early 20’s tried to find a job there without any luck. My adventures, however, are etched in my memory like a bank account from which I can withdraw any time and never make a dent in my bottom line.
My journey always begins the same way and if you want to follow me to Florence, you’ll have to wait for Part II, because we kick off in Rome.
Hotel Near the Spanish Steps:
When I arrive, a taxi usually leaves me off at a small hotel next door to the famous Hassler Hotel atop the Spanish Steps in Rome. As soon as I stand on the street outside the hotel I suck in the air and allow the fragrance of the city, motorbikes and all, to fill my lungs.
I have often fought the urge to throw my arms open wide and burst into song, but usually catch myself in time! I have stayed in other hotels there but prefer this one with its garden courtyard and foliage.
Experience has taught me that in this hotel I can request a room with a small balcony and from this spot I can gaze to the right and down the Spanish Steps to the Piazza di Spagna at the base. From there it is possible to glimpse a sliver of the Via Condotti, where all the trendy shops are, but I usually reserve my funds for the wonderful outdoor markets in Florence.
My Rome Routine!
Like a trained seal I follow the same routine every time I go to Rome. I check into my room, put on my most comfortable shoes and find my favorite Gelatoria. I haven’t been back in seven years and I always wonder if I will still find it there nestled in between two large buildings on the long, uphill winding Via Veneto.
In advance of going in I already know which flavors of gelato I want. Rum raisin, which, for whatever reason, I only like in Italy, or chestnut. If they have both I order two large scoops. I usually use this occasion to test my limited Italian vocabulary.
“Vorrei una grande tazza di rum raisin, per favore, anche, chestnut,” I say, hoping I don’t sound too touristy!
With the first spoonful of gelato melting in my mouth, I always have the same thought. “Oh my god, how I needed this!” This is what I mean about filling your soul. It comes down to feeding your senses.
Perhaps I am afraid that encroaching commerciality will spoil my experience, but this city is forever beautiful and I think only time will ever erode the experience as more of Rome crumbles.
I have been to Italy eight times, four times alone, once with my ex-husband, another time with my best friend, once with a college friend and once with my stepdaughter and my mother. I have always enjoyed my time alone best of all.
Unless you are blessed with the ideal travel companion and are enormously accommodating, travel with another person can be hazardous to your mental well-being. That my best friend and I are still “besties” is a testament to that!
A Glimpse of History:
When I was 22 years old and traveling in Italy on my own, a Vatican security guard in St. Peter’s had allowed me to glimpse the excavation that was in progress under the burial chamber of the popes. He claimed it was the remains of the first Christian church upon which St. Peter’s had been built.
It indeed felt clandestine with earthen walls that smelled ancient and musky. The crude walls looked crumbly and forbidden and I could imagine people gathered there to worship secretly. I don’t know to this day if he was telling me a story or if it was true for I never heard anything more about it after that one glimpse.
Memories of Rome :
My memories of Rome are all wonderful and always whet my appetite for more. Many of them were forged during that trip as a 22-year-old.
I remember the man who dogged me on my way from the St. Peter’s Square on the Via Della Conciliazione. He tried to drive his car on to the pavement and I tripped in an effort to get away from him. My heel broke off and I had appealed for help to a group of old men playing cards in front of a small tobacco shop on the street.
Roman Prince Charming:
They tried, but couldn’t understand me. I scrambled to find the right word for shoe repair when all of a sudden a man’s voice behind me said, “I saw what happened. May I help you?” I turned to see a handsome man of about 30. He had wavy dark hair and was dressed in a tan suit with a briefcase in one hand.
I explained that I needed a shoe repair shop and pointed to my shoe. One thing I still remember was how nervous I was when “Carlo” ( I still remember his name) pointed to his small car, parked at the curb. “I am safe,” he had said. “I will just take you to a store near here that can help you.
I’m offering an apology,” he said formally. “Some men in my country can be very aggressive when they see a pretty woman.”
My instincts were good and we not only got my shoe repaired, but had lunch at a wonderful little restaurant on one of Rome’s seven hills. It was great to be 22, unencumbered and on my own, though in retrospect I took chances I probably would not take today.
Whenever I’ve traveled to Italy I have almost always landed in Rome. On the two occasions that I took a connecting flight to Florence from Brussels, I regretted it. Nothing beats a jet and the large ones can’t land in Florence’s smallish airport. So my journey usually begins in Rome and my longing for Florence always sets in on day two.
The first time I came to Florence I was 19 and traveling with a friend from college, following, at least most of the time, a strict itinerary laid out by both our families and booked by a travel agent. There was no Expedia back then! We had entered the tiny city by taxi and the pull was immediate and intense. The city beckoned to me. When I left that first time, I wept in the taxi. It was like leaving home. Throughout the years it has never changed.
Every time I am in Rome, however, I vow to see something I haven’t seen before. On my last trip it was the ancient catacombs of St. Callixtus. Definitely not for the claustrophobic! I was always intrigued by the idea of seeing these very early burial sites, which had once contained the tombs of several popes, as well as centuries old frescoes, but they’re somewhat off the beaten path. The catacombs are along the Appian Way. It took about a half an hour to get there by taxi but from the moment I got there I felt as if I had stepped back in time.
There were massive Cyprus trees in the distance and lush vegetation and flowers all around. It was eerily quiet. One wall revealed a crumbling artifact of an old wall behind it. The air smelled subtly different. Was this just my imagination? I bought a ticket and was told to wait under a sign that read “English.”
No sooner did I wonder why, then other English-speaking people began to cluster around me and we were soon joined by a short, old man with white tufts of hair sprouting around his ears and a stern, unfriendly expression. Briskly he told us in heavily accented English that we had to wait for the previous tour to exit. He had other instructions for us: no questions, no talking, and no touching anything. He was rigid and rehearsed in his delivery as if brooking no bad behavior.
When our turn came the guide took us down a very worn flight of unpaved, earthen stairs; lower and lower we went until the air became cooler and smelled musty. As we followed the guide down a narrow unpaved walkway with a low hanging ceiling hewn out of stone, I began to see what appeared to be shelves cut out of the rock.
Resembling ribs of some long, giant animal, they were uneven and full of dust and powder. In a few I saw parts of bones lying in the dust, which I assumed was the remains of crumbled bone. Everything was a sandy, brownish beige. “Ashes to ashes,” I remember thinking grimly.
The guide explained how people earned the privilege of being entombed here and from what I could understand, these were not the bones of the masses, rather gentility, who paid to protect and conceal their bodies and those of their family from marauding armies. I mentally checked the catacombs off my “to do” list and headed back to my hotel.
The Trevi Fountain:
Before I leave Rome I always do the most touristy thing. I go to the Trevi Fountain. This amounts to a ritual pilgrimage for me and I have never left Rome without tossing a coin over my shoulder to ensure my return. I love the story of the fountain which was told to me and my ex-husband by an old Italian woman.
It seems that when the fountain was sculpted a feud had broken out between a barbershop owner and Nicola Salvi, one of the architects of the fountain. Their fiery dispute raged over a sign that hanged outside the shop. Salvi decried the sign as a sight that would spoil the splendor of his fountain.
Ace of Cups:
The fight escalated to such a blistering level that Salvi promised the barber he would never be able to view the grandeur of the fountain from his shop. True to his word, a massive slab of stone forming a sculpted vase, called the Asso di Coppe, the “Ace of Cups,” on the fountain’s outer edge, completely obscured the Trevi fountain from the shop window.
It was called Trevi because it sits at the junction of three roads (tre vie) which marked the end point of one of the aqueducts that had supplied water to ancient Rome. The fountain had been completed in 1762, long after Salvi’s death. He never lived to see Oceanus, the god of water, set in the central niche or the magnificent, rippling stallions that flanked him, looking as if they were ready to leap from the fountain. If you’ve never seen this up close, it is a must.
Last Stop Piazza Navona:
I lied about the Fountain being my last stop in Rome. My true last stop is the Piazza Navona, where I always head straight to a restaurant called Tre Scalini. They serve a confection called Tartufo, a form of gelato made entirely out of sumptuous chocolate. I learned about Tre Scalini from a fellow tourist, from Miami, whose name was Taffy.
I was 22 and Taffy’s itinerary had her leaving each city just as I was arriving. So, whenever I checked into a new hotel, I would find a note from Taffy waiting for me, pointing out the highlights of each city. In Rome, it had been Tartufo, but only from Tre Scalini. Such delicious memories.
But, Florence beckons………Be Sure To Read Part II coming July 11th at 9:15 am