When in Rome, Part II: An audience with the Pope’s audience, world’s best tiramisu and Fawlty Towers – Rome edition

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]

Day 3: We wake up on the early side of New Year’s Day with a plan to see The Vatican. It turns out that we’ll miss the New Year’s Mass (which is fine by me, actually, since I’ve been a practicing heathen since I can remember), but we set out in that direction anyway, making a b-line towards Vatican City, which is technically its own country. It turns out they don’t stamp passports here, but we decide that would be a fantastic business opportunity should the winds change. I learnt some factoids this day: Vatican City is the smallest country on the planet, and its capital (essentially, St. Peter’s Basilica) is built upon an ancient Roman (read: Pagan) burial ground which contains St. Peter’s tomb and catacombs. VC even has a surrounding wall sporting grand archways and a passageway to secrete the Pope away (in the private sense) from any danger.*

On the way, we pass through the Piazza Navona and wonder at its magnificent fountains, the most impressive depicting the 4 Rivers (Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata, representing the 4 continents throughout which papal authority has spread) and boasting an Egyptian obelisk at its center. There is another fountain for Neptune, and yet another depicting il Moro, the Moor. Wandering the winding streets, with their ornate doorways, balconies and narrow cobbled alleyways, then bumping into weird and wonderful sights, away from the hordes of tourists, is what I’m liking best here thus far.

So it turns out that half the population of Rome, plus perhaps half the Catholics in Italy, also thought it was a good idea to try to see The Pope today. If the previous night’s throngs weren’t enough, they were all now out in broad daylight. The good news is that while maneuvering through the crowd to ask a guard what all the people were waiting for, we find out that The Pope is slated to do his New Year’s message of peace in just 20 minutes. Somehow, we then maneuver ourselves to the security line (it pays to have a co-wanderer that is a head taller than the crowd!) and into St. Peter’s square in time to see the Papal Rug unfurled and il Papa take his place at the window. While I’m not religious, nor do I understand Italian, I understand the word pace and think that this Pope is trying to guide the Church (albeit kicking and screaming) towards the 21st Century.

Audience with the Pope (erm, an audience with his audience anyway), check! Next stop: Pranzo. Reminded of the food hawkers in Jemaa el Fna, each restaurant here has a maître d’ out in the street, trying to woo customers. One is successful (l’Isola della Pizza) and we’re treated to some of the best roasted vegetables I’ve ever had, a very decent pizza al forno, and an outdoor table for quality people-watching. Nearly every restaurant or café here has outdoor seating and propane heaters to make a meal on a brisk afternoon both charming and much more comfortable.

A friend who lived here has given me recommendations for some of his favourites: food, gelato and tiramisu. It is the latter that we then go in search of (one benefit of traipsing across Rome and back by foot is that the exquisite food is somehow earned!). Another queue, but this one much shorter. Pompi is a chain of bakeries that touts itself as the best tiramisu in Rome. We concur, as we meander and devour our treats, we wander through the charming Piazza di Spagna, towards the Spanish Steps (still not visible) and through the Piazza Colonna, with its impressive monument to Marcus Aurelius, a column built in the 1st century, in a storybook style depicting the battles of the Macromannic Wars, not dissimilar to Trajan’s own colonna just down the street.


We’ve been wandering for hours and the sun begins to set, casting the buildings and statues around the piazza in a golden glow, setting fire to Victoria (Nike), as she rides the Quadriga atop the Altare della Patria.

We’d logged 20km this day, so we arrived back at the B&B both weary and starving. Thus, we were determined to find dinner close to home. What luck that we’re staying quite near a little square, somewhat removed from the din of the Forum and Colosseum, and we find a sweet-looking place nearby that looks bustling. Little did we know that Basil Fawlty had a long-lost twin who ended up in Rome and opened a pizzeria/restaurant 3 blocks from the Colosseum. The meal was decent (not the best nor the worst gnocchi I’d ever had), as was the wine. But it was the service to which I’d give 5 stars for its comedic value. It was like the Flying Karamazov Brothers met an Indian-Italian comedy troupe and decided to partner with Fawlty to open a restaurant. It went something like this:

Waiter 1: *leads us to a table

Waitress 1 (to Waiter 1), carrying food: Is this table 25?

Waiter 1: Sì.

Waitress 1: *goes to put the food down on our table, but realises we’ve just been seated and whirls away

Waiter 1: *vanishes, flustered.

Waiter 2: *arrives with menus and demands our order

C: un momento per favore. Una piccola caraffa di vino et l’acqua spumante

Waiter 2: Okay (English). *vanishes

Waiter 3: *arrives at the next table with a tray of food, offers it to us, then the next table over, realises it’s not for any of us and vanishes.

Waiter 1: *takes our order

Waitress 1: *brings one glass of wine

C (in English now): we ordered a small carafe of wine, please

Waitress: we only have it by the glass. *disappears

Waiter 2: *arrives with a bottle of water marked “still”

C (to any waiter who will listen): we ordered sparkling water. *we give the “still” water to the table next to ours, who open it to find it is, in fact, sparkling. They give it back.

Waitress: *appears as Waiter disappears, brings one glass of wine, which she then gives to the woman at the next table

Waiters 2, 3 and 4: *haphazardly shuttle food back and forth between the large table sitting next to us and other tables around the restaurant.

Other patrons: *confused and amused, watching the show

Waiter 1: *looks at our one glass of wine, then up at us. (At this point, I can’t help but envision Manuel the waiter)

C (straight-faced and I don’t know how at this point): can we have another glass of wine?

Waiter 7: *brings another glass of wine and a massive salad in a bowl with no serving utensils. We still have no forks or knives.

It continues somewhat like this until we have our meal. Placemats and silverware have also materialised. The large party next to us has finished and gets up to pay; one brave soul returns a moment later to look for a waiter who will give them their table number (this is apparently the only way to call up the bill on the electronic system). The waiters and waitress discuss table numbers amidst much pointing and looking over their shoulders. We finish and go to pay, only to find a small queue and a frenzied cashier trying to sort out which table got which food and which bill goes to whom. We do not know our table number. The cashier is going through every open bill with the couple in front of us. C and I exchange a look that confirms that we agree we’ve just eaten at Fawltius Torris. We track down one of the wait staff to determine our table number just in case.

C and I laugh as we walk off dinner, taking in the huge Christmas tree in front of the Typewriter, the structure looming as regally as it did when it was built: the center of most everything nearby, its spotlights illuminating the marble steps and statues that guard the tomb of the unknown soldier.

I fall asleep this first day of the New Year grateful for the experience of travel, grateful for the health and job and friendship and an acquired sense of adventure and wanderlust that make even small trips like this one possible. I giggle a little to myself as I replay the cartoon dinner we’ve just had.

Tomorrow we go back to The Vatican and try to get in.

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]


*This article had me rolling (ROFL and my eyes) when I read it upon my return.

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).