Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Walking from Rome to Castel Gandolfo

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My friend Julia likes walking. She walked from Canterbury to Rome once (and wrote about it here) – a journey of 3 months and 1,600 km. I was there to meet her when she arrived in Piazza San Pietro, looking surprisingly well for someone who had spent more than 80 days trekking across France and Italy with a heavy backpack.

Last week Julia walked from Rome to Terracina (southern Lazio) on the Via Francigena with a group of students from her university. The journey is 140 km and takes only 6 days. Compared to the Canterbury-Rome journey, it’s a breeze.

I agreed to join Julia on the first stretch of the walk, starting at Circo Massimo and ending at the hill-town of Castel Gandolfo. 24 km is manageable, I thought. I occasionally walk to work (Testaccio to Montesacro – 11km in 2 hours), and doing just over double didn’t seem too ambitious. Although my boyfriend, friends and colleagues thought I was mad for wanting to spend my entire Sunday walking, I was sure I could do it. If Julia could walk for an average of 20km a day every day for three months, I could certainly cope with a single day of walking.

The route was another incentive. Most of the walk is along Appia Antica, perhaps my favourite place in the world. I usually reach a certain point of the road and then turn back, resisting the temptation to keep going on forever. This was a chance to discover what lay beyond…

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We met at Circo Massimo at 9am on Sunday – Julia and her fellow Kent students, miscellaneous friends, and me and my flatmate Tom. We walked past the ruins of Terme di Caracalla and through the ancient gate of Porta San Sebastiano which now marks the beginning of Appia Antica. The first part of the road was surprisingly busy, filled with Ancient Roman soldiers and people handing out flyers. There was a kind of “open day”, with everything from fancy dress to folk music to food stalls. On any other day I would have stayed to check it out, and spent more time exploring the archaeological sites, but we had to stay focused and keep walking. There was a long way to go…

We went past the familiar landmarks – the enormous, castle-like mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (daughter of a Roman general), headless statues, the lonely ruins of Villa dei Quintilli, the farmhouse that sits surreally on top of an overgrown tomb – until we reached a stretch of the road I’d never been to before.

Approaching Ciampino, there’s a strange blend of city and countryside. The road is lined with olive groves and fields, but you can see warehouses and the airport in the distance. When the planes are landing, they drown out the birdsong and the bleats of the sheep.

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(A side note – while most of Appia Antica is kept clean and well-maintained, part of the road near Ciampino is absolutely filthy. Beer bottles, paper plates, plastic bags and condom wrappers everywhere. It’s almost as if someone’s torn open a hundred bin bags and scattered the contents along Rome’s most beautiful road. Very sad…)

Beyond Ciampino, Appia Antica became more rural. In some parts the ancient cobblestones disappeared, and the road became a mere dirt track. Nothing but long grass, dirt, wildflowers, wind, and the midday sun. No other people, apart from the occasional cyclist. The last group we’d seen – a yoga class stretching on the grass in front of an ancient wall – seemed like a distant memory.

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It was around this point that I began to suffer a catastrophic hayfever attack. “Catastrophic” is not an exaggeration. It was an hour of sneezing my head off, sneezing until my throat hurt and my head ached and I could barely see the road in front of me.

Appia Antica comes to an abrupt end in the town/suburb of Santa Maria delle Mole. We stopped at a bar for lunch, though none of us were hungry. The heat meant that an ice-cold Fanta was a much more tempting option. Still sneezing, I considered the possibility of ending the walk and returning back to central Rome. I was such a wreck that I couldn’t imagine getting any enjoyment out of the rest of the walk, and the combination of physical tiredness, mental tiredness and the heat meant that I was reluctant to continue, especially as the rest of the walk would be uphill.

But it was obviously fate. Julia had Claritin, and I would have had to wait an hour and a half for the next train to central Rome. “Besides,” said Julia, “we’re nearly there. Only a few more kilometres.”

Those last few kilometres were the hardest. We were in the rural hinterland of Rome, an area that’s too close to the city to be considered true countryside, but which nonetheless feels like the middle of nowhere. We trekked through pseudo-country lanes, past sort-of-farms, very vicious dogs and countless signs giving directions to Damiano’s birthday party. At one point we reached a dead end that shouldn’t have been a dead end; the farmer had decided to block access to the main road by arbitrarily constructing a high fence. Half the group decided to take the risk and climb the gate, while the more cowardly half (me included), fearing possible dog attacks/angry farmers/fence accidents, turned back and went the long way round.

We climbed. We passed the villa where Damiano’s birthday party was being celebrated. Then we climbed some more. And then, at last, we saw the sign that said “Castel Gandolfo”, and we crossed the road to admire the view of Lake Albano – a very inviting shade of blue.

Then, because Castel Gandolfo was built by sadists, we climbed some more to reach the historic centre, before collapsing in the piazza and drinking some very well-deserved beers.

After nearly seven hours of walking, none of us really had the energy for sightseeing, but Castel Gandolfo is a pretty little place – the Pope’s summer retreat – and easily accessible from Rome. If you don’t fancy walking, you can get the train from Termini (40 minutes).

Those of us who weren’t continuing to Terracina got the train back to Rome. Typically, there was no ticket office, only a broken ticket machine. We explained the situation to the guard on the train, who sold us tickets with a mandatory 0.50 fine per ticket. He acknowledged that it wasn’t our fault, but apparently there was no way of selling us the tickets on board the train without including the fine.

That’s Italy for you. Dysfunctional, beautiful.

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Bring on the next adventure…

Canzone #7: “Tammurriata Nera” by N.C.C.P. (1981)

Music is everywhere in Naples. There are street performers all along Spaccanapoli, and shops blasting music at full volume on a Sunday morning, even in the sleepiest streets. There’s a piano at the central train station, and on my last visit a group of men – strangers, as far as I could tell – were gathered around the piano, singing traditional Neapolitan folk songs.

“Tammurriata Nera” is a Neapolitan song from the 1940s. Written during the war, it’s an ironic account of a local woman’s affair with a (black) American soldier. She then gives birth to a baby boy. The central theme of the song is the colour of the baby’s skin, which can’t be denied:

Ca tu ‘o chiamme Ciccio o ‘Ntuono,
ca tu ‘o chiamme Peppe o Giro,
chillo, o fatto, è niro, niro,

(Call him Ciccio or Antonio,
Call him Peppe o Giro,
Whoever made him is black)

In other words, you can call him whatever Italian name you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that his father was black.

Is it racist? Well, yes. According to James Senese, child of a Neapolitan woman and a black American solider:

Tammurriata nera è una canzone razzista, fai attenzione, non sentire la musica, ascolta le parole: offendono una donna bianca che fa un figlio con un nero. Insomma dice che ‘o guaglione è ‘nu figlio ‘e zoccola. Ti dicessi che è stato facile direi bugia. Dovevi conquistarti una tua dimensione e quando sei bambino non è automatico, te lo devi imparare a forza. Io mi guardavo e lo vedevo che non ero come gli altri. Figurati gli altri: “Sî niro”, sei nero, questo era.”

It’s a song where all the focus is on the child’s blackness, and so “otherness”. Yet it’s not entirely negative – although society’s response is to raise a collective eyebrow, there’s no sense of rejection. Just acknowledgement of an undeniable difference.

The lyrics are all in Neapolitan dialect, so unless you’re from Naples you probably won’t understand the majority of it. But even without any knowledge of Neapolitan (or even Italian), you can appreciate that it’s a powerful performance.

This version of “Tamurriata Nera” is performed by the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, a group that’s been performing traditional Neapolitan songs since the 1970s. I haven’t really explored their discography yet, but when I first discovered them – listening to a record a palla during a visit to Valeriano’s family home in Cassino – this song also caught my attention. Most of my favourite Italian music tends to be at the poppier end of the spectrum, so it makes a change to listen to something darker, stranger, almost Arabic. Can’t beat a bit of incomprehensible wailing in dialect, where virtually the only word you understand is baccala’ (cod)….

Mortacci tua, Carlone: restaurant adventures in Rome

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Valeriano and I agree about most things.

There are a few exceptions: Brexit; dogs wearing coats; whether Bob Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize; the dangers of electric fans; what causes various illnesses; bidets; eating out at restaurants

Valeriano is not a fan of restaurants. He prefers cooking, eating at home, and not being ripped off for a plate of pasta. It’s an attitude shared by many Italians. During a discussion with my teenage students about whether eating out in Rome was good value, I suggested that it was, “As you only pay something like €10 for pasta.” “10!” they cried, “That’s too much!” Their reasoning is that you shouldn’t waste money on a basic pasta dish with cheap ingredients. If you can make it at home for a fraction of the price, why order it at a restaurant?

But I live in Testaccio, where paying 9-13 for a primo is standard, and it doesn’t bother me. As an ex-Londoner, restaurant prices in Rome generally seem reasonable. 20 for some pasta, bread, a side dish of vegetables, wine and water? Sounds good to me.

On average, I probably eat out 2-3 times a week. Sometimes I drag Valeriano with me.

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This trattoria in Trastevere was recommended by a friend of Valeriano’s, who enthused about the enormous portions of pasta. It’s a smart, old-fashioned little restaurant in the quiet part of Trastevere, and we were lucky to get a table without booking. The waiter referred to Valeriano as my “marito“, which was a first.

Of course I was going to order cacio e pepe – the delicious, extremely comforting combination of pasta, pecorino cheese and black pepper that I practically live off. Valeriano decided to order it too, and for 26 (“mortacci tua, Carlone”) the waiter brought us an absurdly enormous dish of pasta to be shared. It was for two people, but it could easily have been shared by four.

Because cacio e pepe is such a simple dish, its few ingredients tend to be added in lavish quantities. Un sacco di cacio, un sacco di pepe. I always say there’s no such thing as too much cheese, but there is such a thing as too much pepper, as we discovered at Da Carlone. It seemed like the cook had taken inspiration from the videos on Tasty, dumping fistfuls of pepper into the dish.

Mortacci tua**, Carlone,” said Valeriano, gulping down water in-between mouthfuls. And to the waiter: “C’e’ tanto pepe.”

Si chiama cacio e pepe,” the waiter shrugged. “Senza pepe sarebbe…” Yeah, we get it. As the name suggests, pepper is a fundamental ingredient of cacio e pepe. But in this dish, Valeriano joked, there was enough pepper to hospitalize someone.

20 minutes later, an ambulance arrived. An elderly lady at another table was taken out for a check-up. Meanwhile, a band squeezed themselves between the tables and performed traditional Roman folk songs, serenading us as Valeriano coughed and I inhaled the remaining pasta.

Would Valeriano eat there again? No. Would I? Probably. I recommend Da Carlone if you’re extremely hungry and feel like a challenge.

A Japanese restaurant, Prati

Japanese food is very popular in Rome. For a long time, I couldn’t understand it. Why were there so many Japanese restaurants in Rome when there were hardly any Japanese immigrants? Chinese restaurants made sense – lots of Chinese people living in Rome. But as Japanese food is no better than Thai or Indian food, for example, the Japanese restaurants popping up all around the centre didn’t make much sense to me.

Even the Italian teenagers I know – those who firmly believe in the supremacy of Italian food, even distrusting foreign food as pleasant and inoffensive as hummus – can’t get enough of sushi. Why?

Another student of mine explained that the sushi trend began in Milan. One good Japanese restaurant opening in Milan was enough to create a trend in Milan, which has since been copied in Rome. Although I don’t deny that Japanese food can be really good, it seems that the prevalence of Japanese restaurants in Rome has more to do with fashion than the superiority of the cuisine.

Late last night, on a whim, Valeriano and I decided to try a Japanese restaurant. We were in Prati – the upmarket neighbourhood near the Vatican – and felt like splashing out, and trying something else for a change. I eat Japanese food occasionally, but Valeriano had never even tried sushi.

I was a little apprehensive, convinced that he wouldn’t like it. While he appreciates Indian and Lebanese food, somehow I just couldn’t see him enjoying sushi. I couldn’t see him appreciating the restaurant either. It was a stylish, slightly pretentious place with black walls, dim lighting and an indoor fountain. In the toilets there was a fancy, waterfall-style tap and 360 degree mirrors that gave you a view of yourself from every angle. Seeing yourself in profile can be a bit disconcerting sometimes, and I’m not sure it’s the ideal bathroom experience, having a minor existential crisis while you wash your hands. (“Is that what I really look like from the side? Is that how other people see me? Who am I?”)

We were both a bit out of place, with our scuffed motorbike helmets, me accidentally wearing my cardigan inside out, Valeriano in his Joy Division t-shirt. He had no idea what to order, and I wasn’t sure either. I’m not used to sushi menus without pictures.

In the end we ordered miso soup, edamame beans, a rice dish with vegetables and fish, a sushi/sashimi mix and a bottle of white wine. Valeriano found everything disgusting apart from the wine, and, much to my surprise, the miso soup, which he declared buonissima. I thought everything was just about okay, but not exceptional. I’ve had much better sushi in Rome, and given the restaurant decor and prices, I’d been expecting something a bit more special.

Mortacci tua,” said Valeriano when he saw the bill. We saw our waiter not-so-discreetly snorting cocaine behind the bar. “No wonder it’s so expensive. Our money pays for the furniture, the fountain and his cocaine habit…”

To conclude: Valeriano’s first and last sushi experience. I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant, but Temakinho (Prati and Monti) and Sampei (Viale Regina Margherita) are very good for sushi. If you like that kind of thing…

** “mortacci tua” is a very Roman expression that could be translated in a myriad of ways – “fuck you”, “son of a bitch”, “bastard”, “motherfucker”. More literally, it means “fuck your dead relatives” and it ranges from extremely offensive to comical depending on the context. As an exclamation, it’s “mortaaacci tuuuuua”, uttered in a tone of outrage and disbelief. If you want to say “fuck their dead relatives”, it’s “mortaaacci looooro”.

Monte Testaccio and the Via Crucis

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For most people, Monte Testaccio means nightclubs, bars and restaurants – places like Flavio al Velavevodetto, Checchino dal 1887 and Alibi, which circle the base of the hill. When tourists ask me for directions to Monte Testaccio on a Friday night, it’s because they want to go clubbing, not because they want to visit the hill.

Monte Testaccio – the actual hill itself – should be a tourist attraction. It’s an enormous artificial hill made up of broken shards of Roman pottery – an atmospheric patch of wilderness in the heart of the modern city, offering panoramic views over Testaccio and beyond. The Ancient Romans used this spot near the port to throw away old terracotta vases, and over the years the pile grew into a hill. Surprisingly scenic, considering it’s essentially an ancient rubbish dump.

Why are there no tourists? The answer is simple – it’s virtually never open. I’m not sure exactly why it’s closed, but at least since I moved to Rome in 2013, the gates have always remained firmly shut. The most I ever got to see was a window at the back of a restaurant blocked by dense layers of pottery shards.

It was an intriguing glimpse, but I wanted more. After a few years of living in Testaccio, it was frustrating that the place that had given the neighbourhood its name was still off-limits.

While discussing my frustration with fellow Testaccio resident and blogger Isobel (Testaccina), she suggested I attend the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday. This is the one day of the year when the gates of Monte Testaccio are opened to the general public, and anyone can wander up the hill to watch the procession.

At 3pm on Good Friday, I passed through the gates and followed a group of elderly people up the steep, uneven path of Monte Testaccio, listening to them grumble about the climb. Although I spotted the occasional bewildered tourist, the vast majority of people on the hill were locals who had probably been attending the Via Crucis procession every year for decades, shunning the more famous Via Crucis (led by the Pope through the centre of Rome) for a ritual closer to home.

When we got to the top of the hill, there was some time to explore before the ceremony began. Walking through the long grass, with 2,000 year old amphora shards beneath my feet, I went to the far edges of the hill to admire the view. To the east, an industrial panorama – the slaughterhouse complex and the Gazometro of Garbatella. To the west, rooftops and greenery – the terraces of Testaccio, the cypresses and umbrella pines of the Protestant Cemetery, the Pyramid, the churches and monasteries of the Aventine Hill.

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The Via Crucis was conducted by a priest in sunglasses, backed by some Carabinieri, nuns and choirboys. As they progressed through the stations of the cross, some teenagers in jeans and t-shirts dutifully lugged the loudspeakers across the hill. Meanwhile, an archaeological lesson continued in hushed voices beneath the trees – cross-legged children studying pictures of Roman pottery, paying no attention to the familiar story of Christ’s suffering that blared through the loudspeakers.

I’m not Catholic, but I might have been tempted to stay till the end of the ceremony if it hadn’t been for a sudden, severe attack of hayfever. Besides, I thought to myself, it’s not as though there are going to be any surprises in the story of the Crucifixion – we all know how it ends.

After the strange, dreamlike atmosphere of Monte Testaccio, walking back along Via Galvani was a return to chaotic, real-world Rome, with men delivering towers of fruit and vegetable crates to the restaurants of Monte Testaccio, and motorcyclists crashing into each other and then hurling abuse at each other in the middle of the road, while cars honked impatiently. Rome is a city of contrasts…

For alternative accounts of visiting Monte Testaccio check out blog posts at Testaccina and An American in Rome.

Visiting Monte Testaccio

If you want to visit the archaeological site, you have a few options.

-Wait for the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday, like I did. The gates are opened shortly before 3pm.

-Sign the petition to open Monte Testaccio and keep an eye out for guided tours (in Italian).

-Book a private tour with Katie Parla.

-Book a group tour (in advance, on the phone).

You can also get some idea of the sheer size of the hill by walking around the base, with particularly good views on the Citta’ dell’Altra Economia side. While you’re there, stop for lunch at Flavio al Velavevodetto and order the cacio e pepe…

An A-Z of how Italy made me fat

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I’m not actually overweight. Well, that depends on who you ask. Valeriano affectionately calls me “cicciona”, while my family have been more blunt. But even if the title is an exaggeration, living in Italy has certainly made me put on weight. Happy weight. A combination of indulging in delicious food and alcohol and, considering that most of the weight gain has taken place over the past year, perhaps the inevitable weight gain that comes with being in love.

Love aside, these are the main culprits:

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Aperitivo
There are two kinds of aperitivo. The first is a drink with some nibbles – usually crisps and nuts. The second is a drink with endless food – bread, cheese, meat, salad, pasta. You would think that the second kind of aperitivo would be more dangerous calorie-wise, but it’s actually the first. The second kind replaces dinner, but the first comes before dinner, and is essentially an excuse for having a massive, salty snack before a proper meal.

My favourite places for aperitivo in Rome are L’Oasi della Birra (Piazza Testaccio) and Momart (Viale XXI Aprile, near Piazza Bologna). The second is particularly indulgent, and definitely a substitute for dinner.

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Birra
I never drank beer when I lived in England. The idea of drinking a pint of any liquid just never appealed, and I never craved it. Then I moved to Rome, discovered that it was acceptable to drink a small bottle of Peroni instead of a pint, got into birra artiginale, and found myself living around the corner from L’Oasi della Birra (“the oasis of beer”). Although I don’t drink large quantities of beer in one go, I certainly drink it a lot more than I used to. It’s especially hard to resist in the summer. In England it’s never hot enough to really crave beer, but once it gets to 30 degrees in Rome…

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Cacio e pepe
Aka the most delicious thing in the world. Cacio e pepe is a Roman pasta dish, usually made with tonnarelli, tagliolini or spaghetti, and liberal quantities of pecorino cheese and black pepper. It’s the ultimate comfort food. If I see it on the menu at a restaurant – which is almost always – I find it very hard to order anything else, and I’ve also learned how to make a decent version myself. Everyone has their own opinion about where to find the best cacio e pepe in Rome (see this guide by An American in Rome), but my personal favourites are Da Felice, Flavio al Velavevodetto, Il Cantinone (all in Testaccio) and La Taverna Romana in Monti.

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Cornetti
This is Linari’s fault. Cornetti are the Italian version of croissants – a breakfast pastry that accompanies coffee. They can be plain (semplice), filled with cream (con la crema) or wholegrain with honey (integrale). Depending on where you get them, they can be pretty unremarkable, but I have the misfortune to live near the bar/pasticceria Linari, which does excellent coffee and equally excellent cornetti. For my first couple of years in Rome, I had a cappuccino and cornetto at Linari pretty much every morning, but I’m trying to be more restrained these days. The barista used to automatically bring me a cornetto, even without me saying anything, until I told him I was a dieta. Incidentally, another barista at Linari asked me a while ago if I was incinta (pregnant). Not incinta, just cicciona.

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Formaggio
As you may have guessed from my appreciation of cacio e pepe, I really love cheese. All cheese. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten any kind of cheese and not liked it. I live near one of the most famous cheese shops in Rome, Volpetti, and normally manage to resist the temptation (thank goodness it’s so expensive), but every now and then I treat myself. Other local temptations include the cheese selection at La Fraschetta and the Sicilian food stall at the mercato that sells peppery goat’s cheese from Agrigento.

But if I had to choose one cheese, it would be mozzarella di bufala. So good. As that rare thing in Italy – a vegetarian – I tend to get offered huge amounts of mozzarella. While everyone else is eating meat, I stuff myself with cheese. Valeriano’s father recently served me up a massive ball of mozzarella at lunch, as a substitute for chicken. “I can’t eat all that!” I exclaimed. I then proceeded to eat all of it.

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Gelato
Gelato is the kind of dessert you pretend doesn’t count as dessert. If you pick a fruity flavour, it doesn’t seem particularly decadent, and in the summer you can find yourself eating it on a daily basis. Part of the problem is seeing tourists eating it all the time. They’re on holiday, so of course they’re going to treat themselves, but you can’t really behave like a tourist if you live in Rome. It’s not good for your waistline.

Gelateria of choice: Panna & Co in Testaccio, or Fassi near Piazza Vittorio. Flavours of choice: stracciatella, pistacchio, cioccolato, gianduia, mango e zenzero, pesche al vino

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Pane
I once shared a flat with a French boy who was very dismissive about the quality of Italian bread. In general, I’d agree that most Italian bread is nothing special – it’s more something to fill up on than indulge in. But an inevitable consequence of eating out at restaurants regularly is that I consume far too much bread, picking at the bread basket while I wait for my primo to arrive.

Bread is an example of love and food combining to make me fat. I hardly ever bought bread when I was single, but Valeriano insists that no meal is complete without it (and that wasting or throwing away bread is a mortal sin).

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Pasta
My excuse for eating so much pasta – I always get home late from work (9-10pm) and am starving. I need to cook something that’s quick, easy and filling, and pasta is the obvious choice. Ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, in butter and sage sauce. Pasta alla norma. Fettuccine with mushrooms and truffle. Cacio e pepe. Penne all’arrabbiata. Add a glass of wine and a side dish of cicoria ripassata and I’m in heaven.

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Pizza (romana)
Non-Romans don’t think much of Roman pizza. “It’s not real pizza,” they scoff, “More like a cracker.” Roman pizza is very thin, and very crispy. It’s delicious though, and less guilt-inducing than the thicker, more calorific Neapolitan pizza. I usually go to Il Grottino in Testaccio when I’m craving pizza. While I’m waiting I watch the pizzaiolo at work; it’s strangely hypnotic. Definitely an art. The pizza at Da Remo is equally good, and I go there when I’m the mood for the real Roman experience – brusque waiters, chaos, suppli and paper-thin pizza that melts in your mouth.

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Pizza (napoletana)
The Best. Nothing beats a proper, doughy margherita, made with the best tomatoes and the best mozzarella. If I lived in Naples I would probably weigh twice as much. My favourite pizzeria in Naples, Da Michele, recently opened a branch in London, and there was a lot of hysteria on social media. Neapolitan pizza has that effect on people. Although I do object to Da Michele being labelled as “the place where Julia Roberts eats pizza in Eat, Pray, Love”… So what? Neapolitans have been making spectacular pizzas for more than a century, and the famous pizzerias in Naples have had people queuing in the street long before Julia Roberts set foot in Da Michele.

I think you’re safe getting a pizza pretty much anywhere in Naples, but I’d particularly recommend Da Michele, Trianon and La Locanda del Grifo (pictured above). I was too traumatised by the queue at Di Matteo to go back. The pizza was sublime, but waiting an hour for the table and another hour for the pizza made me too angry to appreciate it properly.

The best Neapolitan style pizza I’ve had in Rome was at O Sole e Napule (Via Aosta 17 and Via Olevano Romano 67). My first attempt to try the pizza at O Sole e Napule was with Valeriano, early on in our relationship. I was coming down with some kind of horrible virus that evening, but I was so determined to enjoy my pizza that I went ahead and ordered anyway, despite my increasing nausea. The mere smell of the pizza made me feel worse, so we got it to take away instead, in the hope that I’d feel better later. I didn’t. I ended up getting out of the car and, much to my mortification, throwing up in the street. I think Valeriano ate my pizza cold the next morning. Since then, I’ve been back several times and had much better experiences…

tiramisu

Tiramisu
In general, I don’t really have a sweet tooth, and I find it fairly easy to avoid the temptation of sweets, chocolates, etc. Tiramisu is the exception. During my first month in Rome, a friend (thank you Giulia!) introduced me to Pompi – essentially tiramisu heaven. As well as the classic tiramisu, they do pistacchio tiramisu, strawberry tiramisu, and banana and chocolate tiramisu. Elsewhere, I’ve also heard of “birramisu” (beer tiramisu), though I’ve never tried it.

My ex-boss inadvertently cured my tiramisu addiction by turning up at the office one day with several boxes of Pompi tiramisu. I find tiramisu is one of those things you have to actively crave. If you don’t actually want it, eating a large tiramisu can be something of a chore. The experience of feeling compelled to eat tiramisu just to be polite put me off for a while. Even though a branch of Pompi recently opened in Testaccio I have yet to visit.

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Vino
Wine goes well with pasta. I eat a lot of pasta. I drink a lot of wine. I’m not much more knowledgeable about wine than I was before I came to Italy, though when I meet up with my friend Luca – a sommelier-in-training – he shows me how to swish and sniff and taste, rather than just gulping it down.

Some of my favourite places to drink wine include:

Il Goccetto (Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14) – Cosy enoteca in the centro storico with great choice of wine and nibbles. Extra marks for having a very pretty ceiling. It’s friendly too. I once got a round of applause after coming out of the toilet, with everyone cheering my name (for no obvious reason).

Fafiuche (Via della Madonna dei Monti 28) – Another cosy enoteca, this time in Monti, specialising in the Piemonte region. There are more than 600 kinds of wine, and the aperitivo is very good.

La Fraschetta da Sandro (Via Galileo Ferraris 5) Very very Roman. This is where old men go to get drunk in Testaccio. The clientele is 99% Italian men – hardly a tourist (or woman) in sight. It’s something ridiculous like 2 euros for a generous glass of vino sfuso, and the food – bread, cheese, cold cuts and vegetables drenched in olive oil – is similarly good value.

Testaccio blackout

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I’m walking home after work at around 9.30pm when I bump into my flatmate, Tom, on Via Marmorata. He’s standing in the street, looking slightly confused.

“What are you doing?

“I’m looking for a shop that sells candles. But nothing’s open at this time…”

It turns out that there’s been a power cut. Not just our flat, or our building, but the whole block. Part of me is excited – I’ve never experienced a proper power cut before – but I’m also disappointed that my cooking plans have been thwarted.

As we climb four flights of stairs in the dark, we pass our neighbour, the Actor (his motorino was the only one to survive the Motorino Inferno of 2016), and exchange greetings. I ask Tom if he’s talked to any of our other neighbours about the blackout. He hasn’t. But there’s nothing to say, really – we just have to wait it out.

Stumbling around in the flat, guided by the light of our phones, we find a few candles – a couple of scented candles from my room, and some dusty tealight candles in a kitchen drawer. I think of that episode from Friends where there’s a power cut, and their improbably spacious flat is filled with an improbable quantity of candles. Who has that many candles? It’s another example of their unrealistic luck and privilege – gigantic apartments, successful careers, a coffee shop sofa that’s always reserved for them, and 50 candles in storage.

Determined to cook, I light the scented candles in the kitchen and begin preparing something simple – spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and chili). I step out on the balcony and see all the darkened windows of the neighbouring buildings – it’s slightly eerie, how it’s all pitch black. Then I hear the familiar miaow of the neighbours’ cat, Gedeone. This chubby Siamese is a regular visitor to our flat. In fact, I don’t think he understands that he doesn’t live here, as he seems to view it as an extension of his own home. Whenever he sees one of us on the balcony he wails, demanding to be let in.

I open the front door and Gedeone runs in, rubbing himself against my legs. He has a habit of walking between your legs as you try to walk, which is particularly perilous when you’re cooking in a candlelit kitchen. An accident waiting to happen. I shoo him away from the candles and the frying pan and get back to cooking. By this point the mixed smells of the candles (red berry and cinnamon, spiced apple) is overpowering, and slightly off-putting. When you’re eating pasta, you want to smell the pasta, not choke on the aroma of scented candles.

After dinner I go to my room and wonder how to pass the time. No electricity means no internet, no light to read, no hot water for a shower. My laptop is fully charged, my phone at around 50%. As sources of light, they’re not much good, but in this moment they seem like the last, fading remnants of civilisation.

From my bedroom window I can see the street lights, the windows of the enoteca illuminated. The blackout is only affecting my small corner of Testaccio – a dark island surrounded by street lights and bright windows. It’s dark here, but it’s only temporary, and elsewhere there’s still plenty of light.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like in Ancient Rome. Back when night really meant darkness, when there were only candles and torches. Instead of brightly illuminated rooms, the occasional patch of flickering light.

21st century Rome may be much brighter than Ancient Rome, but there’s at least one place that would have been brighter in the past. After dark, the monumental ruins on the Palatine Hill practically disappear. Unlike the illuminated columns and archways of the Roman Forum, there are no lights here – just a vast, shadowy outline against the night sky. What would it have been like 2,000 years ago, when it was home to the emperors? I imagine rows of torches, banquet halls blazing, candles burning late into the night in the frescoed study of Augustus.

There are no lights now. Go to Via dei Cerchi – the street that divides Circo Massimo from the Palatine  – late at night. The street is lined by lamps, but on either side you’re surrounded by the dark remains of Ancient Rome. It’s like walking down a brightly lit pier, in the middle of a black sea.

Back in Testaccio, peering at the dim screen of my computer, I become aware of the hall light miraculously turning on. The blackout is over. While I’m relieved to have electricity again, in a strange way, I enjoyed the blackout. A few hours of darkness puts things in perspective.

Time to stock up on candles…

Canzone #6: “Albachiara” by Vasco Rossi (1979)

I have no idea how to explain Vasco Rossi.

I think he’s one of those phenomenons that can only really be understood if you’re Italian. Perhaps. He’s the Italian equivalent of certain kinds of British humour (Withnail & I, for example, or The League of Gentlemen). If you’re not British, you probably won’t get it, so you probably won’t like it. All right, Vasco Rossi is a singer-songwriter, not comedy, and music is supposed to more universal than comedy, but that’s the best analogy I can think of. To an outsider, he looks a bit like a wild-eyed, middle-aged mechanic having a go at karaoke. In other words, if you don’t understand Italian, you may not understand his appeal. It took me a while to properly appreciate him – his talent as a songwriter, his importance as the “rebel” of Italian popular music.

I like Vasco Rossi, but I don’t like Vasco Rossi like the Italians like Vasco Rossi. Italians love Vasco Rossi. Especially Italian men of a certain age. But he has plenty of female fans too. Valeriano once gave me a mix CD of Vasco Rossi songs – all of them were about women. Songs like “Silvia” and “Jenny e’ pazza”. Some of them are love songs, while others are more like portraits – scenes in the life of a teenage girl, or reflections on a woman’s nervous breakdown.

I think “Albachiara” was the first song I heard by Vasco Rossi, and it’s still my favourite. An anthemic tribute to a girl chiara come l’alba, fresca come l’aria (“clear like the dawn, fresh like the air”). Self-conscious, shy, studious. Day-dreamer. Masturbator. “Albachiara”was apparently inspired by a teenage girl Vasco often used to see in the street. When the song became a success and she found out that she was “Albachiara”, she was more embarrassed than pleased…

E quando guardi con quegli occhi grandi
forse un po’ troppo sinceri, sinceri
si vede quello che pensi,
quello che sogni….

Qualche volta fai pensieri strani
con una mano, una mano, ti sfiori,
tu sola dentro la stanza
e tutto il mondo fuori

Artemisia Gentileschi at Palazzo Braschi

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(self-portrait of Gentileschi as a lute player)

When I was a child, I had a Dorling Kindersley book about great artists and paintings. The painting took up most of the two-page spread, and was surrounded by little annotations, pointing out details and symbols, and providing historical context or biographical information. That book was my introduction to art – the book that made me fall in love with Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and sparked my interest in Artemisia Gentileschi.

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One of the paintings was Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders, painted when Gentileschi was only 17 yeas old. Susanna sits by the water, naked, turning away in disgust from the two clothed men who ogle her, whispering to each other. Although I was too young to understand exactly what was going on – the lechery, the threat of sexual violence – something about the painting grabbed my attention. I’d already realised that nudity was everywhere in old paintings – nudity for nudity’s sake – but here it had a point. It made sense, given that Susanna had just been bathing, and it added to the sense of discomfort and vulnerability. And then there was her expression – the look of anguish on her face. It was a painting that told a story, a painting with emotions. At the age of 9 or 10, that was all I really wanted from art.

When I grew older, I read more about Artemisia Gentileschi, and became fascinated by her life as well as her art. There weren’t many successful female artists in the early 16th century – she was a respected painter, and the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti in Florence.

She was also a rape victim. At the age of 19 she was raped by a friend of her father’s, Agostino Tassi. Over the course of a seven month trial, Gentileschi was subjected to humiliating medical examinations and tortured with thumbscrews. It emerged that Tassi was not only guilty of the rape, but had also been planning to murder his wife, and was having an affair with his sister-in-law. Although he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, he never served the time. Tassi was also a painter, but history has remembered him as a rapist first, artist second.

The rape has, in a way, also defined Gentileschi and her career ever since. It’s impossible to look at the gory Judith Slaying Holofernes (painted just a year afterwards) without seeing it as a kind of revenge fantasy.

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(For more about this painting and Gentileschi’s life, read my blog post here).

For the last few months, this image has been plastered all over the walls and bus stops of Rome. I’d seen Judith Slaying Holofernes up close at the Uffizi, but I’d never seen any other works by Gentileschi in real life before, so I was excited by the prospect of an exhibition dedicated to her.

Valeriano and I went together one Saturday afternoon, queuing for 45 minutes. Although we grumbled about the queue, I suppose it’s a good sign that so many people are interested in her…

The exhibition at Palazzo Braschi was larger than I’d expected, taking up several rooms. The name of the exhibition is actually Artemisia Gentileschi e il suo tempo (“Artemisia Gentileschi and her time“), and I’d say the exhibition is roughly a 50/50 split between works by Gentileschi, and works by contemporary artists who painted similar themes, with a similar style. The result is that it can feel a little repetitive at times – a succession of penitent Mary Magdalanes, pensive Cleopatras and bloody heads.

It’s definitely not for the squeamish. In addition to all the versions of Judith and Holofernes, there’s also Gentileschi’s painting of Jael and Sisera. Sisera was an army commander mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, who was killed by Jael. She hammered a tent peg into his head with such force that the peg went through the other side, pinning his head to the ground.

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Thank god she decided to paint the “before”, and not the “after”.

There are also a couple of extremely gory paintings (not by Gentileschi) portraying the myth of Apollo and Marsyas. The satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest, lost, and was skinned alive as punishment. I’ve never understood why it’s such a popular topic in art – in sculpture as well as painting. Who wants to look at a work of art depicting someone being flayed? It suggests something of a sadomasochistic streak in the artistic tastes of our ancestors. The 17th century equivalent of the Saw films, perhaps.

If you’re in the mood for some caravaggesque drama, I recommend a visit to Palazzo Braschi. It’s a unique opportunity to see several paintings by Gentileschi displayed together, and to explore the darker side of Baroque art.

By the time we walked out into Piazza Navona, we were quite happy to have a break from all the weeping, flaying and decapitating, but we both came out with a renewed interest and appreciation of Gentileschi – a prodigal talent who created a career for herself against the odds.

The Gentileschi exhibition runs until 7 May 2017 at Palazzo Braschi, Piazza Navona.

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Before the Befana

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The Befana arrives on the night of 5 January – an old, witch-like woman who travels across Italy on a broomstick, filling childrens’ socks with sweets and presents if they’ve been good, or coal if they’ve been bad.

Befana and the Epiphany are celebrated across Italy, but there some regional variations. I spent the holiday in Cassino with Valeriano’s family, and was confused when I heard them talking about “pasquetta”.

“But isn’t pasquetta Easter Monday?” I asked

“In Cassino we celebrate Pasquetta Epifania – pasquetta on the evening before the Befana. Tonight we’ll see if we can find the band.”

Although I’m generally keen to experience local traditions, initially I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea of staying out late for pasquetta. It was absolutely freezing – gelido – and I was quite tempted to stay inside, curled up on the sofa. But in the end Valeriano convinced me to come out, to join his friends for a drink and a search for the pasquetta band.

At midnight we were roaming the streets of Cassino, shivering. The cold in Cassino is particularly unpleasant; you can feel it in your bones. We weren’t exactly sure where the band was, but as the streets were more or less deserted, we thought we should be able to hear them even from a distance. But we saw them before we heard them – a large group of cloaked figures gliding past the end of the street – and rushed off in pursuit.

The pasquetta band wear long, purplish cloaks that look black in the dark, emblazoned with a picture of the Befana. Every year, on the afternoon of 5 January, they gather in Cassino and walk the streets until late at night. Every few blocks the brass band stops outside a palazzo and plays a song, sung by the band and a few hangers-on. Traditionally, the residents of the palazzo come out into the street and give the band leftover food and drink from the festive season, giving them fuel for their long, cold march through the city. The band then continues on its way, and the same routine is repeated again and again throughout the night.

The video above – pasquetta in 2011 – gives you some idea, though the crowd is significantly bigger than the pasquetta I experienced. Perhaps it was filmed earlier in the evening, in a more central part of town.

As we followed the band throughout the empty streets of Cassino, I was struck by the futile, even slightly melancholy nature of the tradition. I’d been told that traditionally, the band was given food and drink, but for the time that we followed, we didn’t see anyone come out of their homes. No food, no drink. I think everyone could have done with a drink. The band plodded on, stopping every few minutes to play the same, repetitive song to a rapidly dwindling audience. The first time I heard the song, it seemed pleasant, rousing. But after half an hour in the freezing cold, it had become almost mournful.

Partly because I kept pestering him with questions he couldn’t answer, Valeriano started chatting with a member of the band. He asked him a question about the origins of the tradition, and why they were doing it. The band member didn’t really answer the question, but responded with a vague reflection, and a comment on how the band had once covered Cassino in its entirety. Now the town was bigger, they stuck to the centre.

Even those born and bred and Cassino  – even those who actively take part in the tradition – don’t seem to know how it began, or why people do it. It’s tradition for tradition’s sake.

Perhaps the answer lies in the one thing that we do know. The tradition pre-dates the Second World War. The war that destroyed large parts of the town and its surroundings. Walking through the town today, it’s hard to find a trace of anything pre-1950. Given the devastation caused by the war, it’s not surprising that people cling to one of the few old things that remains. It may not have an obvious purpose, and it may not be particularly enjoyable for those who participate, but at least it’s something that’s survived.

At 1:30am the band was still going strong. There weren’t many people watching now, though a few residents had decided to pursue the band in the warmth and comfort of their cars, driving through the town at a snail’s pace. Following in a car seemed absurd, but following on foot was starting to become an ordeal. Frozen to the bone, Valeriano and I went home.

When I woke up late the next morning, I found that the Befana had visited (in the form of Valeriano’s father) – a sock stuffed with Kinder chocolate hung from my door. I hope that all members of the pasquetta band also got rewarded, in some way or another. After their long walk through the freezing streets, they certainly deserved to indulge on the 6th…

Capodanno

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I don’t care about New Year’s. I think it’s overrated, and am still traumatised by the memory of my one attempt to “go out” in London on New Year’s Eve (fireworks hidden behind buildings; cold; drizzle; horrible drunken crowds; a never-ending queue to get home). I’m quite happy not to do anything at all for New Year’s – to stay in, stay warm.

I told Valeriano that this year, we’d be together no matter what. If he had to work, I’d join him. He works as “welcome staff” for a holiday apartment rental company in Rome, doing check-ins and check-outs at various apartments across the city, and holidays are a busy time of the year. He was working all day yesterday – and all night – and I agreed to join him in the evening. Besides, it’s not like we were really missing out on anything special. The annual New Year’s concert at Circo Massimo had been cancelled (sponsors pulled out due to the usual political scandals) and our friends were scattered all over the place. We would celebrate together, somehow, in our own way.

*

8pm. Valeriano picks me up at home. I stick a bottle of Prosecco in my handbag, grab my helmet, and jump on the back of his borrowed motorino, ready for an evening of rushing around Rome. If we’re lucky, we’ll be finished by midnight. If we’re really lucky, we may even have time for dinner.

First, an apartment in Trastevere. While waiting for the guests to arrive, Valeriano debates whether to whizz over to another apartment near Ottaviano (the Vatican) – the location of the next check-in- just so he can turn on the heating before the guests there, so they won’t complain about the apartment being too cold to stay in and flounce off. Apparently that happens a lot. But going from Trastevere to Ottaviano just to turn on a radiator, and then returning to Trastevere, and then going back to Ottaviano to welcome the guests (Russians), seems like a cazzata, even though I can understand his reasoning, and his reluctance to upset the Russians. I convince him to wait for the Spanish arrivals in Trastevere.

The Spanish arrive, the check-in goes smoothly, and we speed towards Ottaviano to await the Russians. The booking has been made by a Russian woman, so Valeriano thinks she may be a prostitute – many of the Russian guests are. But when she arrives she turns out to be an economist, accompanied by her husband. The Russian Economist speaks charmingly stilted Italian and is delighted with the Christmas decorations in the courtyard, though disconcerted by the fact that two of the light bulbs in the living room are broken. She wants someone to fix it the next day, but there’s not much chance of someone rushing over to replace a couple of light bulbs on New Year’s Day.

As Valeriano and I are leaving the building the Russian Economist rushes after us. What about the wi-fi? Valeriano goes back to the apartment to track down the modem and wi-fi password, and discovers that there is no wi-fi in the apartment. The Russian Economist is distressed – she and her husband are there for a week and want to communicate with family. She starts to cry. It’s one of those awkward situations where there’s nothing Valeriano can do, except apologise for something that isn’t his fault. We leave.

It’s cold on the motorino. Really cold. The streets are strangely empty; everyone must be inside, drinking or dining. We speed along the deserted Lungotevere, watching the blue lights from the bridges criss-cross over the night sky, beaming from the angels of Ponte Sant’Angelo. These blue spotlights are the only sign we see of Rome’s public New Year’s celebrations, and they’re not particularly festive. They’re a little sinister, actually, as though they’re sweeping the sky in search of enemy planes.

Now we’re hunting for the apartment on Via dell’Orso (near Piazza Navona), the final check-in. Valeriano has been given conflicting information about the location of the apartment, and it takes 15 minutes of phone calls, dashing up and down stairs, and inspecting doors before we finally locate it. “We must look like thieves,” says Valeriano.

It turns out to be the apartment we’d dismissed before, because it didn’t look real. It’s hidden away on the ground floor of the palazzo, and looks more like a storage room or a place to leave the rubbish. It’s hardly inviting, and hard to believe that it’s the entrance to a holiday apartment.

Valeriano unlocks the door. Five seconds of an ominous beeping, and a glimpse of unmade beds. Then the burglar alarm goes off.

After the initial shock wears off, we stand outside the apartment, beside the bags of rubbish and the old bicycle, the alarm incessant and deafening, and wonder what to do.

By this point, Valeriano – who has been working 12 hour days for six days straight – is understandably fed up. As he phones various colleagues and bosses, all of whom are at New Years’ parties, I can see the repressed “vaffanculo” written across his face.

Over the next half hour we wander up and down Via dell’Orso, trying to get through to someone at his company to find out what to do. It’s 10pm. The Argentinian guests are arriving in half an hour and the apartment they’ve booked is unusable, because it’s essentially a dirty shed of an apartment with an alarm that can’t be switched off. What to do?

We make the most of the “break” to have dinner – a panino and some pizza from a forno that’s miraculously open. As we eat standing in the street, Valeriano is given his orders – “Go to the office, get the keys for an apartment in Trastevere, and take the guests there instead”.

So it’s back on the motorino, back across the river. Park the bike. Go to the office. Pick up the keys. Get back on the bike. Back to Via dell’Orso.

The Argentinians aren’t answering their phone. That means we have to wait for them on Via dell’Orso, outside the unusable apartment, just so we can tell them, “Sorry, you’re not staying here”. While waiting for the Argentinians I try to keep our spirits up by making Valeriano buy me a light-up pink tiara from an Indian street vendor (not exactly a bargain at 5). We dance in the street to keep warm.

The Argentinians arrive, suitcases in tow. They’re two young women, and they look tired. They got here using public transport, not a taxi. They’re understandably upset when Valeriano breaks the news.

“But we chose this apartment especially for the location! We wanted to celebrate New Year’s in the centre of Rome! Where’s Trastevere?”

I try to convince them of the advantages of Trastevere (“lovely neighbourhood, very lively, really not far out at all”) while Valeriano tries to hail a taxi. After wandering the streets in search of a taxi, we finally find one that’s free, and send the girls off to Trastevere. We walk back to the motorino, and then we’re on the road again.

The new apartment is in a quiet part of Trastevere, towards the Gianicolo. It’s not exactly party central. The girls arrive a few minutes after us. Valeriano says he’ll cover the taxi fare. “14.50,” says the driver. One of the girls peers at the metre. “But it says 14.20!” The driver rolls his eyes and goes on a very Roman rant at Valeriano about the girls’ stinginess. “I could have charged them 1 for the suitcases and I didn’t, and now they complain about 30 cents…” He’s right to be indignant, given that it’s 11pm on New Year’s Eve. Valeriano gives him 20 and tells him to keep the change.

The apartment – thank god – is pleasant and clean. The girls seem happy, even though they have no idea where they are. After check-in the four of us leave together. I put on my tiara. I had taken it off when the girls arrived at Via dell’Orso, as it somehow seemed in bad taste to be wearing a tacky light-up tiara in the company of irate guests. But now it’s 11.30pm, work is over at last, everyone’s happy(ish) and it’s New Year’s Eve.

After dropping off the Argentinians at a restaurant, Valeriano and I find ourselves a table outside a bar, snuggled up by one of the heaters.

Suddenly, it’s midnight. Our drinks haven’t arrived yet, so I whip out the bottle of prosecco from my handbag, and we swig from the bottle, then kiss, then drink some more. Fireworks. Prosecco. Kisses. Contrary to all expectations, the night has turned into a conventionally enjoyable New Year’s Eve.

If living in Italy has taught me anything, it’s that often, the most beautiful moments are the ones you don’t plan…