When in Rome, Part I: Arrival, Wandering, and New Year’s Eve

Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.

The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.

I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.

Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.

I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.

I arrive also without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper bedtime*.

Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!


Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night

Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂

Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.

Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.

There’s always an elephant…

On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.

After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.

What steps? But a nice view from the top!

Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.

As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.


Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!

Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.

I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.

The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.

The finale of the NYE fireworks at Circus Maximus, Rome

Happy New Year!  Read more: [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.

**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).

Paris is always a good idea…

You cannot run away from your own mortality. As such, I did the next best thing. To celebrate this absurd and somewhat surreal 50th birthday, I conjured up the most preposterous answer: a weekend getaway to the birthplace of joie de vivre. Ah, The City of Lights, where Tango is danced (preferably for not the last time); absinthe and champagne flow freely; a moveable feast, where the definition of art and culture and fine food emanates from its every time-worn cobblestone and stone arch, from each outdoor café, fromagerie and brasserie. This magical, medieval maze of rues and avenues where Gargoyles watch from on high like grand bacchanalian overlords, egging on the tiny figurines as they revel in the daily appreciation of small-to-medium-sized indulgences. I had not been to Paris in 25 years.

Laissez les jeux commence… I needed that frame of mind when I realised, standing in the clusterf*ck otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle Airport immigration, it would have been faster to fly direct to Amsterdam and take a train to le Gare du Nord, where I was to meet my birthday weekend playdate. A preposterous 4 hours from the time my plane’s wheels hit French tarmac to those of my valise hitting the pavement on la rue Dunkerque, where an old stone building melts as a parody of itself, and my dear friend with his warmhearted smile waits more patiently than necessary for this sleep-deprived, travel-weary and absolutely famished birthday girl.

C has chosen a fabulous (and equally unexpected) B&B, essentially a guestroom in a lovely couple’s fantastic flat in the 10e arrondissement, a quirky neighbourhood that borders Le Marais, walking distance to everything else we’re to explore in the coming days. I’ll get out of the way that B&B Bouchardon was the most comfortable, charming, understated (whilst being utterly chic and meticulously appointed) bed and breakfast I’ve ever visited. The breakfasts were as delectable to the eyes as they were to the palate. The hosts, Frédéric and Jozsef, made us welcome as if old friends (C had stayed here a couple years earlier, and the mutual warmth clearly has not worn off). And so, almost immediately upon arrival, the champagne toasts commence.

I don’t drink much on the whole, and I’ve not slept or eaten in at least half a day, so we set off for a spot of lunch (Syrian Smörgåsbord, as it happened) and a wander around the neighbourhood to stave off the inevitable end-of-adrenaline, lest I fall over and ruin my own birthday party. We stroll the streets and into Le Marais with all its quirky energy and shops galore. Fresh autumn air does a body good, so we venture to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame to look for hunchbacks, find none, and settle for gargoyles. On the way home we pass a patisserie in whose window I see meringues the size of a smallish hedgehog (this alone should have been the giveaway), and I decide to indulge my curiousity. The real hint came when the store clerk asked what colour I wanted: pistache, naturallement, erm, vert. Tant pis, I think, as the non-pastry fails to live up to its potential; another day, another macaron.

My birthday draws to a close on this continent and with it I reach the end of my candle, so to speak. Luckily, it’s towards the end of an exceptional dinner at the unpretentious yet brilliant Restaurant 52; we’re at an outdoor table on a bustling but not overwhelming rue Parisienne…and there is a split-second realisation that there is nowhere on earth I’d rather be at this exact moment. Merci, C.

The first spark of birthday wisdom arises: one thing Parisiens do much better than the rest of us is savour…moments, fine food, warm smiles, small celebrations.


Vendredi: As if to thumb our noses at age, we set off the next morning to visit The Catacombs (not before indulging in the nothing-less-than-indulgent BBB petit déjeuner, which, on its own, is worth staying here).

If history was taught as a travel adventure story rather than dates and names, I might have become an anthropologist. This day’s lesson is that the stone used to build much of Paris’ lovely architecture like Notre Dame and the Louvre was quarried from the vast limestone deposits beneath the city. A network of pillars and tunnels were created to bolster against collapse, but 500 years of mining began to take its toll. In 1774, Rue d’Enfer lived up to its name, opening a 30+ metre-deep sinkhole that threatened to consume a neighbourhood if something wasn’t done. It was decided to turn a portion of these underground tunnels into an ossuary to alleviate the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries (neighbours were complaining; perfume shoppes couldn’t keep up with the, erm, bouquet). Ultimately, somewhere between 2-6 million corpses were interred unceremoniously in what became The Catacombs. The place is fascinating, actually, these meticulously-laid bones, layered skull upon femur, bottom to top; Jenga-like stacks along the walls of the mine shafts. The sign above the passageway as you enter: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.

As you do after seeing piles of centuries-old squelettes, we wend our way to the Quartier Latin and a proper crêperie for lunch, people-watching as we sip cidre (the real kind!) from bowls. This day is like a postcard, vraiment, tho we’ve dubbed it Day of the Dead. We toast to not being quite ready yet. Next up, Le Panthéon. The building is itself a magnificently-carved statue; once a church, it is now a mausoleum, housing not only the likes of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Marie Curie, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Rousseau, but also Foucault’s Pendulum (I simultaneously rue and thank Umberto Eco upon seeing it). The panoramic view of the city from le colonnade is unexpected and spectacular; well worth the climb up the hundreds of steep stone steps. Who says you can’t earn adventure points* in Paris?

Views viewed, we wander across the Seine in search of Shakespeare and Company, a gorgeous, independently-owned bookstore near the banks of the river. It is because of shops like this that Amazon can’t ever fully win. Shakespeare and Company is situated at kilomètre zéro, essentially the centre of Paris. So, we did that too. And, later, wine and charcuterie and an encounter with some drunk Danish guys to round off the evening. Because, you know, Paris.


Samedi: Le Louvre, les escargots, le fromage, le tarte tatin, Les Tuileries, a climb to the top of l’Arc de Triomphe (the view from Le Panthéon was better) and tea on the Champs Elysées, finding the ones to which all other macarons aspire. Adventure points awarded for both the eating of escargot and the extraction of said snails from their shells with the bistro’s creaky snail tongs.

Le Louvre

Boston, where I live, is among the oldest established cities in the US, a mere infant compared with Europe. So being in a bustling Paris, where (centuries-) old meets (relatively) new every day and rides the metro to work, it’s like a history lesson of the evolution of Europe at each corner. In French. C’est chouette.

Perhaps we’ll dedicate this day to the iconic symbols of excess of la Ville-Lumière.

For the final dinner of birthday weekend, our hosts recommend Brasserie Julien, an exquisite classique Art Nouveau brasserie, mere blocks from the B&B. One does not have to do much more than swap out diners’ vêtements to imagine the likes of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel singing as their artiste friends fill the tables here. We indulge in an absinthe aperitif and beaucoup de champagne with our meal, which is as delectable to the palate as the decor is to the eyes.

 


Dimanche: A quick visit to Montmartre suits the final morning, where the smaller Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, seen during Sunday mass, did not fail to impress; diffused morning light streaming through stained glass onto 12e ciècle pierres (lit., stone), choir resonating in the hall’s towering ceilings…

After this, it’s trains, planes, and, unfortunately, delays, as I make it into my own bed by the stroke of 1 am. Visions of a fin de la semaine parfait dancing in my head.

 


Dernières pensées: An understandable amount of time was spent this weekend talking what-ifs and pondering what-nexts; reflecting on this place we find ourselves (metaphorically and literally), mid-way or more through the short time we have here…in Paris, in this lifetime, and is there a difference?

I feel a combined envy of, and something like inspiration from, the laissez-faire nonchalance in which revelling Parisiens congregate. At the same time, there’s a pang of melancholy for those things you can’t get back: youth, missed connections, crossed signals, diverging paths, bad timing, unspoken words. So I focus on the present moment, and a fantastic weekend with a wonderful human…where or whether we tango again is in the hands of a certain elephant-headed god**. 🕉️

 


*C and I devised the system of Adventure Points a year or so ago on a hiking trip in Sardinia.

**Ganesha, Indian god and remover of obstacles, metaphorically weaves his way into our lives, injecting humour and roadblocks; opening doors and shining light on possibilities. In the couloir of the B&B is a stone sculpture of elephants. There are always elephants. Sometimes they sit just outside the room.