We Spent 18 Days to See What Wasn’t Built in a Day: Rome

By Jean and Peter Richards

(This was written after a trip to Rome in late February and early March 2010)

Rome is a city made for wander and wonder. It had been almost four decades since our last visit. The lovely thing was that so little had changed. Rome is still a feast for the eyes, the spirit and stomach.

It is a gift to wander The Forum on a sunny, warm day even if fees have been imposed, remains have been fenced in and maintenance crews take a laissez faireapproach to the weeds. We tourists are more casual, too.

Once, I wouldn’t have appeared on the Via Condotti without high heels, a proper dress, scarf, handbag and jewelry. Now I look as scruffy as anyone springing the doors of shops where goods of lesser quality command higher prices. Fortunately, shopping wasn’t what lured us back to this city of great art, beautiful spaces, satisfying food and welcoming people.

Hey, Claudius, that you?

The ancient Gaul is still dying magnificently in Rome’s Capitoline Museum where Marcus Aurelius now sits astride his horse in a specially built room, but it is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio who is drawing the crowds this spring to an extraordinary exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

A mere 24 paintings, judged to have been painted by the master and not one of his followers, have been gathered from around the world to be presented in close quarters and stark surroundings until the 13th of June. The exhibit spread over two floors begins with “Boy with a Basket of Fruit” from the Borghese and is climaxed by “The Annunciation” on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nancy. The Kimball Museum Fort Worth has provided “The Card Sharks”, the Metropolitan, its “Musicians” and the Uffizzi, its 1597 “Bacchus.” These alone would be worth a journey, but there is so much more – a rare and early still life basket in which the fruit is at the height of its ripeness and a vine trails tantalizingly to the edge of the canvas; depictions of Emmaus, Judith and the taking of Christ by the Praetorian Guard are all represented along with Paul, Jean the Baptist and a Deposition which belongs to the Vatican.

It was delightful to see a pint-sized teacher squat on the floor before a group of 9- or 10- year-olds actually interested in her animated explanations as they moved from painting to painting and nearby to hear a French father lovingly translate the descriptions to his young son as they viewed the works.

This small exhibit is a blockbuster with an extension. At the 16th century St. Luigi dei Francesci, the official French Church in Rome near the Piazza Navona, Caravaggio’s splendid Saint Matthew triptych hangs in the chapel to the left of the main altar. Exhibition goers are urged to see it and do.

It’s easy to spend weeks in Rome’s museums and we did, becoming so sated by Roman, Greek and Etruscan art in the Palazzos Altemps, Massimo, Giulia and others that we welcomed long lunches in what’s left of some of the city’s traditional trattorias and small restaurants.

Giggetto makes edible still lifes out of carciofi giudia, whole artichokes with globes

flattened,deep fried. Matricianella’s homey atmosphere is suited to its pasta dishes such as Fettuccine alla Romana with chicken livers and carciofi Romana, artichokes in a mint and lemony sauce. Roscioli makes one of the great spaghetti carbonaras — silky with egg and studded

Carciofi alla Giudia, Da Giggetto

with guanciale (pig cheeks). Trattoria Dei Monti can produce a memorable duck in a deeply flavorful orange sauce with crunch and bite and a red onion tortini with gorgonzola sauce which deserves its reputation.

Legend has not served Tre Scalini well. The tartufo ice cream ball rolled in chocolate shavings and topped with cream which seemed so decadent decades ago still draws in Piazza Navona, but it’s really not very good anymore. The lover of sweets would do better to find Moriondo & Gariglio on Via del Pie near the Pantheon, where the polished wood

and deep red decor are as much a confection as the sugared almonds (mandarole) which did stand the test of memory. The handmade jellies and chocolates are a treat.

Time has not been kind either to the four fountains at the intersection of Strada Pia and Strada Felice from which the Borromeo’s undulating San

Moriando & Gariglio

Carlo alle Quattro Fontane draws its name. The church is an exquisite and complex example of the Baroque and well seen with Bernini’s San Andrea just down the block. Rome, of course, has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to churches and their art, be it the trompe l’oeil ceiling at Gesu, the Byzantine style mosaics at Santa Maria in Trastevere or Santa Maria Sopra Minerva with Bernini’s wonderful elephant bearing an Egyptian obelisk in front.

No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Vatican. St. Peter’s may not be the most beautiful ecclesiastical building, but its setting compels as do its riches and Sistine Chapel. Memory can be faulty, but it did seem that Michelangelo’s masterpiece, wonderful as it is, had lost some of its mystery in its bright restoration.

San Carlo alle Quattre Fontane

Late winter is not the best time to wander Villa D’Este’s gardens in Tivoli or to climb the long hill to nearby Villa Adriana where the remains are on a grand scale and the wind chills the bones.

A pleasant Sunday drive through the nearby countryside from Castel Gondolfo where the pope takes his leisure above Lake Albano, down to Ariccia and up to Velletri yielded a serendipitous feast at Benito al Bosco. The restaurant’s pretty and slightly formal dining room was more than full and had a waiting list by the time we left after having spaghetti with seafood, a lasagna with artichoke and a fritto misto of scampi, baby octopus and calamari so large that we took a doggy bag. A contorni of grilled vegetables which were undercooked and cold was the only disappointment. The 47€ bill was a bargain. We would like to have strolled waterside Nemi and an antiques market at Frascati, but both were so crowded that we couldn’t find a parking space on a glorious afternoon with a foretaste of spring.

The French hotel group Accor is debuting an apartment hotel in Rome — Adagio Roma Garden in the “Mussolini modern” EUR zone. For the traveller who can read a map of the city’s excellent bus system, is willing to be 20 to 30 minutes from the center and captures a good rate on the internet, the Roma Garden can be an excellent choice. We had a duplex so commodious and comfortably fitted for 69 € a night off-season in March that we stayed nine days longer than planned.

Guide books on sale near the Pantheon mirror the diversity of tourists coming to Rome

Copyright © 2010 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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