Would you rather be born rich or lucky? If you’re lucky enough to be born rich that’s something else. I was lucky enough to be asked to flat sit in Rome for a month. I arrived on a damp October evening and made my way to the Campo de’ Fiori, the only square in Rome without a church. I knocked on the door and was ushered in. It was the flat of two sprightly, 70-something, ex-pat American professors, friends of friends. John and Peter, partners for nearly fifty years. John was dressed for a disco, Peter for accountancy exams. We climbed the seventy-eight slippery, stone steps, smoothed after five hundred years of use, to the flat and I began to be less sure I wanted to be there.
They showed me around a dark, uncomfortable few rooms. The kitchen was two hot plates and a sink behind a curtain. There was no tv and no wi-fi. They were proud of their fifty-five year old washing machine. We climbed a narrow, swaying spiral staircase to the roof, which they called a roof terrace. The view was glorious. I could see all of Rome glowing in the setting sun, flocks of starlings flying in their wondrous formations. St Peter’s was over there, the Typewriter building over there. They spent a very long time explaining what I’d need to do in the event of fire or flood.
We went to dinner in their favourite trattoria*. They were there almost every night. They’d been living in the city for forty years so it was going to be good. The patrone greeted them like they were cousins asking for money. I ordered carciofi alla guidia, (Jewish artichokes), a Roman speciality I’d been looking forward to trying. The artichoke is flattened and deep-fried. It looks like roadkill and has the crunch of beetle shells. I kept smiling. The bill came. John and Peter busied themselves with coats. It was clear the bill was for me. We hugged, they gave me a set of keys. I went to the hotel I was staying in that night and wept.
I’d only been to Rome once before, a couple of years earlier. I hadn’t enjoyed it. It may be fairer to say I hadn’t understood it. The city is quite opaque to visitors. It’s mysterious. You have to look hard. And while you’re doing that you’ll bump, a hundred times an hour, into tourists standing in your way, arms spread, holding a map. I’d rented a flat for a weekend in the district of Monti. Turn the corner and the Colosseum was looking you in the eye. My friend Camilla joined me for a couple of days. Her bed gave her spinal problems that lasted. There was another roof terrace up another narrow, wobbly, spiral staircase that was a mosquito sanctuary. We got stung for €30 each for mediocre pizzas. I don’t even like pizza. The very best moment of that weekend was when we sat with our itchy, bitten legs dangling in a fountain behind the Villa Borghese, in shade. Cool, cooling, sublime.
I ate at uninteresting restaurants on the edge of the Campo de’ Fiori. The cinema in the corner of the square was showing Mama Mia for the 43rd consecutive week. I thought about going home early. Instead I went to Florence for a few days. It takes two hours on the smooth, clean train. There are sockets at every table for you to charge your telefonino or computer. On the way North you pass through valleys, each with a micro climate, one misty, the next sunny, the next raining. I waked to my hotel in the drizzle. It seemed miles away in a suburb on the other side of the Arno. I had with me a thick book called Italy for the Gourmet Traveller. I looked up Firenze. It was a misty, Autumnal night and it recommended somewhere close. As I approached it looked closed. I pushed the door open a fraction and from the other side came light and laughter and delicious smells. It is always better to book at restaurants in Italy, but I was welcomed in, brought a glass of wine. I had a gorgeous meal – minestre di farro (spelt soup), lamb chops to follow. I was starting to get it.
Back in Rome I began to explore. There’s nothing like walking around a city and getting lost to help you know it. I joined the crowds in the Piazza Navona and in front of the Trevi fountain. I didn’t like the bombast of St Peter’s, but nothing can prepare you for the beauty of the Sistine chapel. Even parties of American students grow quiet in that room. I explored Trastevere and Ponte, Campo Marzio and Pigna on foot. The park is huge and beautiful and a fine place to watch Romans promenade on a Sunday. I went and looked at the things that everyone goes to look at in Rome; the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, then walked along less busy backstreets. I began to find my way around tourists holding maps. I worked out how to use the metro and the busses – easy, of course, but still a minor triumph in a foreign city. I sat down at roadside caffé by the pyramid. Yes, there’s a pyramid in Rome. I, ridiculously, asked the waitress for a menu. She tried not to laugh and told me there was meat and a green vegetable, did I want it? Oh, a BIG si, grazie, and a glass of vino, per favore.
The age of Rome is apparent everywhere you go. New metro lines are stopped because an ancient Etruscan settlement has been unearthed. Two thousand year old columns are lying around, just there, by the road. You can walk through the Forum and spot geckos hiding in cracks. People still live in homes built in the eighth century. You will see people climbing the steps of churches on their knees and praying, as people have done for centuries. It is old.
I took the bus to the train station every morning and the first train to elsewhere. I went to Bologna, but there was, of course, a farm machinery festival on so there were no spare hotel rooms. I ate a delicious ragu a la bolognese, walked around for a few hours in torrential rain, and returned to Rome the same day. Local trains are slower and dustier, but I had the best meal of my trip at an osteria* down some dark steps in Frascati. A ragu alla lepre, pasta with a hare sauce, prepared by a nonna in a blood-splashed apron in a tiny kitchen.
The Campo de’ Fiori has caffés and restaurants along ever side. Every evening I sat at a table in front of a bar I liked. On my last Saturday night there, before dinner at an enotecca* I like, I looked up from my book and my glass of Prosecco and let it all sink in. The square was busy. Groups of musicians take it in turns to entertain people. Jugglers and magicians, likewise. I watched other people sitting at the tables, each trying to make their companions laugh. The waiter nudged me and nodded at a pretty young woman he was interested in. It had taken the best part of a month but I finally got it. Rome, Italy, Italians want you to be happy. It makes them happy. It makes me happy. And that’s why I love Rome.
*Trattoria, osteria, enotecca, are all places to eat. You can also buy wine to take away with you at an enotecca.