There are cities. There are great cities. And then there is Rome.
Magnificent art and architecture with lip-smacking food. Tradition walking arm-in-arm with trends. It’s chaotic. It’s charming too.
In Rome, almost every street has a story to tell. After walking for an hour through the ruins of the Roman Forum – the commercial and political centre of ancient Rome – I reach a small, tin-shaded space walled from three sides.
It’s an eyesore in this cradle of history. But on the two small boulders inside, visitors have left coins and flowers as a mark of respect.
This is where Julius Caesar was killed!
The temples, the broken arches, the house of Vestal Virgins, Caligula’s home and this assassination point can take anyone to an imaginary flight to Rome’s old glory, when this place was the capital of the world. I feel guilty: should have been more attentive when Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was taught in school.
It’s easy to find the landmarks, but not the toilet. So, I head towards the Colosseum to use the loo (and, of course, to see it).
The largest of amphitheatres stands near a busy road – like the Eiffel Tower or India Gate. It demands at least two hours’ tour to do justice to its grandeur and importance. I spend three.
Convinced I have seen it all, I come out and munch on a panini from a nearby stall. But when the dying sun spreads a golden glow in the sky and I’m on the terrace of Vittorio Emanuele II monument, I realise I’m horribly wrong: the vast canvas called Rome offers a new, incredible view.
The ruins of the Roman Empire, the dome of the St Peter’s Cathedral rising above it all, the mountains at the horizon and the thousands of old houses – you can’t help falling in love with the eternal city.
When in Rome...
“Oh, it’s so difficult to be a house owner,” sulks Gianni, the owner of my B&B, “Even for changing window frames, permission is required from the municipality. I waited for four months to change a window.”
Demolition of old houses is out of question, no random colour to paint houses…he goes on.
“But it is this beauty of Rome that attracts millions of tourists every year,” I argue, tasting the Prosecco Gianni has offered.
I want to dine at a trattoria (an informal, cheaper version of a restaurant) which is the locals’ favourite. Go to Trattoria Vecchia Roma, I am told.
It’s more chaotic than a roadside dhaba. The only cool head seems to be the old lady supervising the kitchen. Her boisterous sons take the orders and serve.
The decibel level of Romans is higher than others. Added to it, the chatter of guests and street noise. My wife forgets her Rabindra Sangeet modulation to place our orders.
After we request for seafood, pasta and bruschetta, the elder son puts a glass and a pitcher of red liquid on the table. “Vino de la casa (the house wine)”, he announces. He can’t think anyone will dine without wine.
Before my better half can demand explanation as to why I’m drinking wine barely an hour after consuming a bottle of Prosecco, I take a long sip and utter a cliché: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Speaka da Bengali
When the food arrives, it melts our hearts. Amidst this disorder and drama, the mother’s kitchen has produced a superb dinner.
I try to talk as much Italian as I can, but why? Half of the people know English and the rest are Bangladeshis. I can ask for directions in my mother tongue.
Some places disappoint us. For, whenever you go, at least one monument, building or fountain is under repair. We saw scaffoldings and barriers at two top sites: Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.
Whenever we are on foreign soil, my wife and I invariably debate on whether we should walk or take public transport. In Rome, I lose the argument: most of the places are reachable only by foot.
Like Sant’Agnese in Agone – the majestic church housing Baroque art. After a brief tour of Baroque art we sit on the pew as a four-member team gets ready to present Baroque era music.
Paola Alonzi, the fabled soprano, starts singing in the near-empty church. Others accompany her with instruments from the lost era.
Just when Paola’s music lights up our evening, I realise the need to take out my Nikon from the bag. I try to make minimum noise but end up earning frowns from everyone, including, possibly, Paola.
Bus number 64 is particularly a favourite of pickpockets. But we take that bus because it is the easiest way to go to the Vatican City – technically, a different country – from Rome.
Assuming everyone else in the bus is a thief, I stand in a corner, where no one can reach my back pockets.
I get down safely, take a turn and find a sea of people in the greatest courtyard of Christianity. The queue is at least a kilometre long. I will take two hours to reach the steps of the edifice where architecture meets divinity. On my right, somewhere there’s the Sistine Chapel. I booked its evening slot expecting less of a crowd. But looking at the scene here, I know my strategy will not work.
I enter the St Peter’s Basilica, designed by arguably Italy’s greatest son, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Every inch of it is a gem of creation, just like the Sistine Chapel.
Visitors can hardly wait for the mass to be over. They rush towards the altar to see its intricate art.
And there in a corner, behind bullet-proof glass, stands Michelangelo’s Pietà: the body of Jesus on Mother Mary’s lap after Crucifixion.
The folklore is: Michelangelo asked a stonecutter’s family to take the massive sculpture to the chapel. The stonecutters saw the sculpture and didn’t say a word. Overnight, with great effort and many hours of backbreaking work, they transferred it.
Michelangelo asked them how much he should pay. The poor stonecutters lit candles, prayed before Pietà and replied: “We will take our pay in heaven.”
There’s no way I will reach heaven. That’s okay. I have seen the Vatican City and Rome.
Follow @SaubhadraC on Twitter
From HT Brunch, April 23, 2017
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch