Under a Roman Spell

‘Three days in Rome! Isn’t that one day too many?’ I spoke with what seemed like conviction. The better half, replied (quite assertively, if I may add) that there’s a saying that even a lifetime won’t do justice. And at that precise moment, I receive a barrage of mails espousing Rome’s many attractions from my other travelling companions. Three days, it is then. It seems I was the only one who’s yet to fall under Rome’s spell. Don’t get me wrong. Like the rest of the world, I hold the Eternal City in high regard. But my main overwhelming reason to visit Italy was to head to a region that has captivated me for more than a decade – the glittering stretch of coastline in Southern Italy known as the Amalfi Coast. Since we were landing in Rome, I thought we’ll quickly pop over to the Vatican, say hi to the Pope and then hit the road to Amalfi. 10 days in Italy with two days in Rome and the remaining days in sun-soaked Amalfi sounded fine to me. But as they say, the best laid plans don’t always go in the desired direction.

It was a fine morning when we drove out of the Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in a cab driven by an elderly gentleman who I think was driving undercover. He dressed like a professor. He spoke like a professor. He paused mid-sentence like a professor. After being confined in a flying aluminium tube for so long, we were not really in the mood to enjoy the cab’s AC. So we asked him whether we can lower the windows and breathe in some of the air that people are supposed to breathe. His answer was that we can do that but we might catch a cold as it was a bit chilly. And he's not interested in catching one either. So, there it is. He even said ‘no’ like a professor. I am sure he was driving the cab for some academic research on say why passengers at airports always wear the same I-know-I-am-new-to-this-country-but-I’ll-outsmart-the-locals expression.

As we hit the highway to Rome, we realised not all roads lead to Rome after all. They also lead to Florence, Siena and Naples. As we entered Rome, the city was stirring to life. Smartly dressed people waiting at bus-stops. Smartly dressed people driving to work. Heck! Smartly dressed people everywhere. We definitely felt a little under-dressed for Rome.

55 Euros later we were at Albergo Lucia. A homely little hotel within shouting distance of the Stazone Termini – Rome’s major transport hub (my companions had done their homework). Easy access to wherever we wanted to go. And there was no way that one could have got lost. Ah! You lost? Where are you staying – near Termini. Well then, hop on this bus/tram/metro. The last stop is Termini.

I immediately liked the neighbourhood. A motley collection of brick-red buildings with shiny shingles advertising various hotels. A tram trundled along sedately. Cafes with bright awnings advertised the day’s menu. There was a nice buzz about the place. The kind of buzz that says ‘Hey, we’re busy but you’re on holiday. So just take it easy, ok.’ I like places with this kind of buzz.
First stop, The Vatican. As we walked down a busy thoroughfare, I tried to remember long-forgotten history/geography lessons. The few facts that I could dredge up was that it is the world’s smallest country, the pope waves from a pulpit every Sunday and for some strange geopolitical reason, it is guarded by Swiss men dressed as if they are going to a pyjama party in Hawaii. Thankfully, the trusted Lonely Planet was at hand to fill in the gaping holes.

Awe-inspiring. There is no other word to describe Piazza San Pietro or St. Peter’s Square. Most guidebooks describe it as one of the world’s great public places. As one stands in the middle of the square, it’s hard not to feel a bit insignificant. Not that I feel very significant at any time. I doffed an imaginary hat to Bernini, the creator of this magnificent square.

As it turned out, I spent a lot of time doffing imaginary hats during the rest of my stay in Rome. To the grandest church of them all – St. Peter’s Basilica. To the incomparable art collection at the Vatican Museum. To the charismatic Trevi Fountain. To the lively Spanish Steps. To the lush Borghese Gardens. To the captivating cobbled alleys of Trastevere. To the grandeur of the Pantheon. To the opulence of the Palatine. And of course, to the biggest power statement of the ancient world – the Colosseum.

Rome symbolises art, culture and well, everything in between. I can’t claim that I am an expert on things that qualify as art and culture. Ok. I am being polite here. And maybe, just maybe, that was the reason behind my initial plan of ‘doing’ Rome in 48 hours. I sincerely believe Rome is for people who can nod knowingly on the nuances of Byzantine art versus Romanesque or can debate for hours on the influence of High Renaissance on Baroque architecture. And here I am, an absolute philistine staring open-mouthed at some of the most grandiose works of art. I mean I could appreciate that what’s before me has been created with great skill, labour and yes, copious amounts of love. But not to the extent that the couple next to me did. ‘Greg, isn’t this a fine example of Romanesque?’ And Greg replies, ‘Yes, Audrey, but you know, give me Imperial any day.’ I slowly walk away before Greg thinks about asking me for my opinion.

But the beauty of Rome is that anybody can ‘feel’ it. The city seeps atmosphere. From every single pore. The sense of beauty and history is overwhelming. Walk over a beautiful bridge over the Tiber. And one is informed that it is the Ponte Sisto Bridge built between 1473 and 1479. One cannot but stop and admire it from every angle.

And it wasn’t all about past glory. One morning, we made a delightful little discovery. Thanks to Adam, a content editor who also works as a walking tour guide. A young man with a studious air, Adam kick-started our tour from the Piazza Del Popolo, an erstwhile site for public executions. No, that wasn’t the delightful discovery. Adam literally took us off the beaten track and we ended up in Cento Pittori Via Margutta, a street dedicated to artists. Or rather, a street that has been a sanctuary for artists since WWII. A street where quaint and quirky pieces of art nestle comfortably amongst traditional watercolours. It was somewhat refreshing to find this quiet little corner which wasn’t weighed down by expectations that come with the usual marquee names associated with Roman art.

And then there’s that oh-so-casual yet stylish appeal about Rome. The bustling cafes where espressos are downed with flair by people wearing snazzy suits and cool sunglasses. The centuries-old piazzas where good-looking people come to watch other good-looking people. The street performers who pluck roses out of thin air or play jazzed up versions of old Italian classics. Cobbled alleys that whisper enticingly about hidden sensory delights. The lovers lost in an embrace in the middle of a busy street. The cheerful cries of the waiters as they move expertly between tables serving seductive gastronomic experiences. Pastel-hued Vespas that scoot merrily around corners.
I drank in everything hungrily. And felt myself thirsting for more.
The allocated three days in Rome came to an end. As we started looking up train timings to our next stop, Naples, it was with a shock that I realised that I am already missing Rome.

Well, I did ensure that I will visit Rome again by throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain. But I really wouldn’t have minded a few more days to savour Rome.

Or maybe even a lifetime is not enough.