Friday, June 13, 2008

A Roman Romance

“What would you say to a weekend in Rome?”

Having sworn off short haul air travel, trying to save some money and bearing in mind we’d been there before, I did not hesitate.

“Sure, that sounds great, let’s go.”

But to go to Rome without the children, to go, as they say, “a deux”, that would be a new experience. This was to be a travel story about romance, about ardent emotional attachments, about dreamy, imaginative habits of mind. We were going to Rome for 48 hours in search of romance but would we find it?

We got off to a bad start thanks to the inexplicable failings of Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. Leaving aside the confusing signage (don’t they test this stuff), you can’t convince me that queuing for 30 minutes for security at 6 o’clock in the morning in a flagship terminal that cost 8.4 billion dollars and 100 million man hours to build is anything short of pathetic. We were told there were problems with both the machines and staffing but this is what got me mad. EVERY store in the beautifully appointed and glamorously lit mega shopping area, including Prada, Dior, and Gucci, was fully staffed at 6:00 am and open for business. So how come the security staff can’t make it on time but the Prada and Gucci staff can? I’m sure I’m not alone in saying - I don’t want a damn handbag, I just want to get on my flight. After cursing air travel in the 21st century and promising never to buy anything at Heathrow ever again, we finally took off for our romantic weekend in Rome.

Things instantly took a turn for the better when we arrived at the atmospheric Hotel Locarno, a 1920s time capsule located on a small street just off the Piazza del Popolo. The Locarno is so bathed in sepia tones, so “out of time” and has so much faded charm, that you can’t help but think you have stepped onto a film set. In a way, you have, something that was recognised by the film director, Bernard Weber, who made the hotel both his home in Rome and the star of his 1978 film, Hotel Locarno, about a collection of characters who sought refuge from the modern world within it walls.

We were hooked instantly although our room, despite high ceilings and old fashioned furnishings, was nevertheless rather poky. Well, we did ask for their cheapest room. La Sorellina (the baby sister now living in Sydney but also back in town for a visit), who knows the hotel well, assures me that the deluxe rooms and suites are grand affairs. In the end, we were ridiculously happy at the Locarno, despite the poky room. Every thing else, the location, the public spaces, the bar, the roof terrace, the free old fashioned bicycles (perfect for riding in the nearby Borghese Gardens) put us in a wonderful, and yes, very romantic mood.

And what do people in search of romance do for fun in Rome. They eat. Thanks to the La Sorellina, we had one of those lunches that you can only have if you know someone. In this case, the restaurant was on the via del Croce, two blocks in from the via del Corso and I think it was called “Frescatteria” although it’s hard to be sure since the place has no number and no sign. There also was no phone, no credit cards and no coffee. The food was great. We had excellent stracetti and at €18 per person in one of Rome’s most expensive neighbourhoods, it was an absolute bargain.

Don’t you dare write about this restaurant, La Sorellina admonished at the end of the meal. Of course, writing about something and being able to find it are two different things but if you head down the via del Croce at lunch time and you see a small room crammed with people eating, go in. You’re probably there.

After lunch and to satisfy our desire for more romance, and a cup of coffee, we headed for Caffe Greco, Rome’s oldest and most atmospheric cafe on the via Condotti. Yes, its touristic and expensive but at the same time, the place still has much of the incomparable elegance that made it a favourite of the intellectual giants of the times. Chopin, Berlioz, Wagner and Mendellssohn, Goethe, Byron, Shelley and Keats, they all took their coffee there. Hans Christian Andersen lived upstairs. Blink, and despite the hordes of Japanese tourists, you are transported to another time when it was common to wile away the hours in Napoleonic splendour. The ageing waiters in frock coats (ours had a large bandage slapped up the side of his head) add to the old world atmosphere. La Sorellina reports that Caffe Greco is at its best in the early evening when the tourists have mostly departed and the Italians like to meet for a post shopping aperitivo.

That evening, we ate fish with La Sorellina and family at the Monserrato. It’s an intimate place where the day’s catch is prominently displayed as you come in the door. Needless to say, you would only put your fish out for all to see if they were very, very fresh. The Italians would spot a bad one in a heartbeat. We ate spaghetti vongole with gusto. Throughout the meal the Sorrelina’s children were clucked over and indulged and gazing down the table crowded with food and lively with conversation, I reflected on the fact that in Rome, even family dinners have a romance all their own.

On day two we continued our pursuit of great meals and civilising experiences. We spent a interesting morning at Trajan’s Market which has been newly reopened after a $7.6 million renovation. The results are impressive and go a long way to help visitors visualise what is no longer there. Later, we had lunch on the terrace of Da Giggetto in the old Jewish ghetto, stuffing ourselves on fried artichokes, zucchini flowers and bucatini all’ amatriciana and dinner at Trattoria da Settimio all’Arancio where the bistecca Florentina is so huge and obscene that they have to hang a side extension off your table to fit it all in.

Sadly, after 48 hours of indulging our appetites, admiring beauty and celebrating civilisation, it was time to return home. We had gone to Rome looking for romance and had been seduced, yet again, by that singular experience that is the Eternal City.

Useful Addresses

Hotel Locarno
Via della Penna 22
Tel: 39 06 361 0841
Fax: 39 06 321 5249

Somewhere on the via del Croce
No phone

Caffee Greco
Via Condotti 86
Tel: 06 67 82 554

Ristorante Monserrato
Via Monserrato 96
Tel: 0668 73 386

Da Giggetto
Via del Portico di Ottavia, 21a
Tel: 06 6861 105

Trattoria da Settimio all’ Arancio
Via dell Arancio 50
Tel: 06 68 76 119

Photo: Couple in MG, Ruth Orkin, 1951, Florence

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