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Rome: A living museum of antiquities

Paul A. FabryPhotographs by Elizabeth Fabry

For centuries, the grand tour of Rome included the Forum, the temples and fountains, the Colosseum and the Vatican. The monuments and history of the Eternal City brought Americans here generation after generation.

But today’s visitors to the metropolis will get an instant shock from the prices. Due to the drop in the dollar’s value, everything costs 15 percent more in euro this winter than last spring, and 40 percent more than a couple of years earlier. Yet, millions keep coming to see the Rome of the Caesars, the Renaissance and Baroque monuments, and what is left of Fellini’s lighthearted Dolce Vita.

Holiday shopping is in full swing in the Italian capital as my wife, Betsy, and I arrive for a week in November. But during Christmas week the streets will be empty; restaurants and stores close as Romans stay home. Only after the Epiphany Fair on Jan. 6 does the city go back to its normal rhythm and sensuality.With none of its old charm lost, Rome this year looks busier, cleaner and more mercantile than before. The spirit, noises, chaotic traffic and smells haven’t changed. Motor scooters by the thousands race down the wide boulevards. The police are all over, but mostly for decoration. The grandiose churches are lit up and the elegant boutiques are already dressed for Christmas. The mood is high-spirited, the city as theatrical as ever.Even repeat visitors cannot ignore the famous monuments like the Pantheon or the Castle Sant’Angelo, the fort of emperors and popes. But we spent more time in neighborhoods with peaceful parks, the cobblestone streets of the Aventine hills, crossing the Tiber to get lost in colorful Trastevere, visiting lesser known palaces and Renaissance courtyards of Janiculum, eating in the bohemian markets of the Campo de’Fiori, ending up – where else – on the Via Condotti’s trendy shops of Bulgari, Armani, Fendi and Gucci.

Every corner, every stone door or arch and stairway fits into the city’s fabled layers of 28 centuries past. There is little change in the old districts. But the traditional vendors of chestnuts now speak with Sudanese accents and Oriental peddlers sell the fake Prada bags. Vatican postcard salesmen make their pitch in Japanese and the moneychangers speak Russian. But the bel canto songs are still in Italian.Also somewhat out of place are the huge advertising posters on old buildings. A three-story picture of Gandhi, seemingly dependent on his cell phone, obstructs the lovely facade of the Trinita dei Monti, a 16th-century church on the top of the most photogenic spot, the Spanish Steps. Citizens are complaining, but commerce is winning.I look for the familiar bakeries and tavernas that are being passed down from father to son. The faces in Rome’s ancient districts don’t change much. “We take back the city for the winter months,” a merchant proclaims.

At the Café Greco we meet an old local writer friend, Christina Viragh, author of best sellers. She helps us decipher the dichotomies of a complex city that is pagan and Catholic, hedonistic at night and religious on Sunday morning, and strives to become one of Europe’s sophisticated trendsetters.In this old, somewhat dusty café on the pedestrian-only Via Condotti, the chairs are uncomfortable, service hard to get, the lines long, and customers mostly Japanese. But the biscotti quadrati, the nut squares, are as good as they were in my student years. Keats, Dickens and Rossini got their inspiration in the intimate rooms here, still a gathering place of Rome’s rare jeweled matrons sipping tea under some 150 paintings. Searching for the proper adjective for a city that has inspired more epigrammatic history than any other, Christina interrupts, “This cosmopolitan enclave cannot be described with simple words. Its mythological fame is such that even Stendhal and Goethe had problems with their travel reports. It takes time to learn the city’s libretto and it will defy you, too.”

We walk along the Corso, busy with Christmas sales, to our small hotel, the Locarno. Even in the mad evening rush people pay great attention to their appearance. “It is still the Roman habit to impress one another – to show off their bella figura,” Christina remarks. “Watch as they all promenade purposefully with a musical gait and gesture convincingly talking on cell phones.”The next day, the sun is warm and we sit alfresco at a small table to watch the attractive young strollers. They want to be seen and eat with as much gusto as they do their work or kiss with open sentimentality. A policeman in operetta uniform directs traffic with a ballet performer’s grace. Passing shopgirls give him an approving smile. Mimes and gypsy beggars abound. The city of 3 million is a permanent stage.Christina and her husband, Hanno, a Vatican reporter, join us for dinner at the Dal Bolognese at the Piazza del Popolo, the historic entrance of Rome. The in-crowd here is dressed, or undressed, to the hilt. Christina points to celebrities of the movie and fashion world, two key industries of the city: “Rome has always been a village where intellectuals, artists and Mafiosi know each other. If you are not greeted on arrival by the restaurant’s owner, you must be a tourist,” Hanno says.

The beautiful people in slim silk outfits come and go as if it were their living room. We order tagliatelle with fresh white truffles as a starter. All well, but we had not been forewarned that in Rome the traditional mixed fried platter, fritto misto, as a rule includes a mouse or two. Betsy had noticed her English menu listed fried “dormouse” and wished she had been able to make herself try it, but even the fine Chianti failed to provide enough courage. The dinner goes on for three hours and ends with the inevitable rich chocolate dessert and grappa.Walking out of the restaurant, the huge Piazza is lit up and in full glory. The pines of the Pincio hills in the moonlight serve as background to the Heliopolis obelisk. The square’s sparkling fountains reflect the two baroque Santa Maria churches for a perfect movie set.

Our hotel, the Locarno, is on a quiet street leading from the piazza to the Tiber. It is not a “grand hotel” like the St. Regis, the elegant Hassler or the Excelsior, favorite of Americans. But the small, art-deco family establishment with white marble interior and Victorian rooms put us in Zelda Fitzgerald’s faded times, away from the tourist hustle.Food is an ever-present subject in Italy. But one needs uncomplicated meals to stay alert for sightseeing. If pizza is too common for Americans, go to a trattoria for pasta specials or find a scoop of tartuffo, a divine concoction of dark chocolate with a core of darker chocolate. Even in winter, the correct way to slurp it is sitting on the edge of Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in the Piazza Navona, which was a hippodrome 2000 years ago.November is the right month for the vino novello that is brought to Rome from all parts of the country after the fall harvest. They are best tasted in a neighborhood enoteche or wine bar. For political gossip, they beat the Café de Paris or Doney, where Ava Gardner, Gina Lollobrigida or Truman Capote can no longer be found. Anyway, the glamour of these Via Veneto cafés is long gone, Hanno assured us.

The choreography in the streets changes by the hour. After dark, when traffic slows down and strolling lovers search for sustenance, a lot of tiny eateries come to life. In the old Jewish Quarter, the smell of fresh bread and pizza bianca (flatbread for crust lovers) in hot ovens of the bakers stops us. We continue walking to the Forum and Trajan’s Market under the Quirinale’s slopes. The still-lived-in parts among these ruins show the Italians’ stubborn continuity from ancient to modern lifestyles.Our week has run out and we haven’t explored any catacombs, the Tivoli, the Villa d’Este or Hadrian’s ancient villa near the capital. To visit the Vatican City’s vast art treasures would have required several extra days. Behind the glorious square with Bernini’s colonnades, Hanno tells us, power politics for the papal conclave goes on just as in American elections. Yes, the next pope is expected to be Italian, again. It was in the old neighborhoods that we realized that Romans really don’t live in history. They love life and live for the present. The show goes on in the crooked streets where the only time that counts is now.

We did much of what tourists ought to do; looked for the eternal, shopped in kitschy boutiques and walked through the imperial rubble. But as we fly out of Leonardo da Vinci Airport over the stone roads built for Caesar’s legions, we know that there is no way anyone can “finish” sightseeing in Rome.Paul and Elizabeth Fabry spend as much time as their travels permit in their old West End Victorian. They can be reached at paulfabry@aol.com. A collection of their recent travel essays can be found at http://www.traveldetours.com


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