As I approach the city in a cab, my senses jump at the eclectic jumble of domes, cones and arches spanning a range of centuries and surrounded by trendy vehicles whizzing by. My B&B is in an old building equipped with an ancient elevator sporting an ornate wrought iron door. The large windows in my room on the fourth floor provide a panorama of the ruins of Largo di Torre Argentina—where Julius Caesar had been stabbed and killed. On the other side, trams and buses trundle by, matter-of-fact, alive. Sitting amongst the remains are cats of various descriptions, enjoying the sun and the attention of children and adults viewing the Largo from the busy streets around. The dead and the living co-exist here.
My neighbours at the B&B are a couple from another part of Europe. The gentleman criticises the Italians with vigour—in his view, there are numerous evidences of a lack of refinement. He isn’t very impressed by the ruins—to him, a cheap display of power and plunder.
In a new city, valuable time is spent fumbling with keys and keyholes, elevators and front door passwords, mobile sims, bus stops, and most importantly, in imbibing a sense of where the hotel is positioned in the city. With the GPS finally in action, one ventures out in a gingerly fashion, conscious of the people on the street, of possible pickpockets and sellers of doubtful souvenirs. One hand holds the phone and another a small camera; a sling bag hangs diagonally from a shoulder.
Narrow streets and small piazzas with baroque fountains that no longer work yield the convex behind of an elephantine structure. This rear view appears nude, exposed—there are no gawking tourists, as if everyone wishes to respect its privacy. Yet the cylindrical walls, though crude, seem to hold a raw beauty: the weight of age. Once I get to the front, it reveals itself as the Pantheon, the oldest building in operation. Its largeness is its main characteristic. Numerous tourists sit around a fountain in the square, resting, eating, talking, gawking. The interior is dark and crowded—a perfect hole in the dome lets in a shaft of light. The small elliptical holes in the marble floor, built to drain out rainwater that enters through the hole in the dome above, are interesting. I make my exit through the huge Corinthian columns: although daylight is yet to disappear, the streetlights are on.
The GPS leads me to landmarks made famous by novels and movies. The thronging tourists—throwing coins in Trevi Fountain, sitting on the Spanish Steps and getting photographed with the boat-shaped fountain in Piazza di Spagna—take away any possible charm that these spots might have held, particularly for Baroque enthusiasts. Rather, one is riveted by the sight of school children in yellow caps, flanked by nuns in white, crossing the square in an ordered line.
Another day, another set of encounters. The alleys are narrow, cobbled, winding— made narrower still by parked cars, some of them absurdly small. A building exterior displays a faded face in an oval frame, covered by a tassel-fringed canopy. A pedestrian bridge connects two houses over a lane. A homeless person sits on the sidewalk with several bags, the tiny head of a Chihuahua peeks out of one. Once in a while, the otherwise innocuous streets lead to unexpected drama—ruins from another time emerging from ongoing excavations. There are shops and eateries everywhere—chairs and tables with chequered tablecloths, eager to satiate the vast army of tourists, occupy the narrowest of spaces. A patchwork of exteriors accost the eye. Some painted, some with the paint peeling away, some with a splash of new paint over the old, some with the brick entirely exposed and some crumbling—black, brown, sepia, brick red, ochre. Yet beneath it all, there seemed to be ministration, care—fondly nurtured roof gardens, creepers laden with purple flowers, brightly painted doors and windows.
Tiber Island, V-shaped, emerges in the middle of the river, its two old buildings, one a basilica and the other a hospital, visible through branches and leaves. A rotund nun stands before the large doors of the basilica, a broom in her hand. On the other shore is Trastevere, with its history of working class protests.
Trastevere is simple, laid back, coarse, and quiet. Graffiti adorns the frayed walls, giving them new life. ‘Fisheye’ is the name of a trendy store with graffiti on its exterior, two men lounging against a huge door, a couple eyeing a jacket in the shop window. Around the corner, a man sits on the street with two cats—one black and the other brown and white—a piece of cardboard propped up against a bowl asks for a coin per picture. The market in the square displays fish and meat, a surprising range of tomatoes, zucchini flowers and half of a humongous pumpkin—its inside strikingly orange. I buy a few plums from a Bangladeshi, exchange a few Bengali words, and eat the fruit, sitting on a bench. A father and son throw around a football, a child cycles past; several overweight seniors remain engrossed in a heated discussion. ‘Who is Maria?’ is the question printed on several posters plastered on a wall, next to it is colourful graffiti of a pig with a huge snout. Shirts and trousers hang on a clothesline strung between two windows, creating a splash of colour over a dull brown.
A nun shoos the few tourists out of a church at lunchtime, and I navigate my way to a workman’s trattoria. A visit to the loo reveals a squat toilet that we in India call ‘Indian style’ as against ‘Western’. A carafe of red wine, a plain soup, bread, and a meat stew constitute a substantial lunch. At the next stop, a middle-aged couple emerge from a church fronted by an ornate portico—the woman is tall and sinewy, in a white dress with a long veil, the man is also slim but shorter, bald, and with a beard. They appear to have just married, and look happy. No friends or family accompany them, but there is a photographer. Nearby is a 16th-century villa built by a Sienese banker. In the centre of an empty hall whose walls and ceiling are adorned with elaborate and colourful frescoes that are in sync with the huge stone pine trees visible through the arched doors, a lone girl stands with a sketchbook, painstakingly copying one. I end up in a square with a raised fountain and steps leading down from it—three musicians and two electric guitars were entertaining tourists sitting on the steps. The newly-married couple make a surprising appearance with their photographer in tow. As they run up the steps for a photo-op, the musicians do a special performance for their benefit, and the audience claps.
On the way back to Old Rome, stopping in the middle of the bridge, I spot half of another bridge standing pointlessly in the water, its ruins overgrown with trees and creepers. One gets an introductory view of the Colosseum through the windscreen of the bus. It is a first amongst equals. It astounds by its beauty, simplicity and by the history that it embodies. One imagines as much as one sees. The violence, the blood, the agony, the crowds, the power. All of it reduced to tranquil limestone and concrete. The Forum is another story— eclectic edifices of peace and affluence— difficult to fully grasp, for while they stand side by side today, they were actually constructed in different centuries and millenniums. But it is evidence of violence of another kind. The heads of the Vestal Virgins are cut off, the columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux look lonely without the rest of the building, in some places there is only rubble or a few blocks of stone. Its ruins attracted public interest only after artists in the 18th and 19th centuries started painting them. Several centuries ago, it was a spot where cattle grazed—grandeur and glory had disintegrated into nothing.
Back at my B&B, the manager suggests I share a taxi with my European neighbours the next morning. The couple agree, but when I drag my suitcase out of the room, I find them gone. We speculate the reason while a question pops up in my head—was this a mark of refinement?
There are numerous flights from all the major Indian cities to Rome, including direct flights from Delhi by Air India and Alitalia. One can take an express train (€14) or a taxi (approx. €48) from Fiumicino Airport to the city centre. The jourey is roughly 30 kilometres, about half an hour. Indians will need a Schengen visa to visit.
WHERE TO STAY
The Historic Centre (Centro Storico) has most major sites:
>Superior Relais B&B (from €180; superiorrelais.com) near the Jewish Ghetto and the Pantheon.
> Boutique Relais Bramante Hotel is located in Rome’s city centre (from €77; boutique-relais-bramante. tophotelsrome.com)
>Raphael Hotel is a luxury option, also in the city centre (from €355; raphaelhotel.com)
WHAT TO SEE & DO
>Take public transportation (buses/metro) to go to the Vatican or the Colosseum.
>Apart from the usual sights, visit sculptures and piazzas like Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona and localities like Trastevere and the Jewish Quarter.
>Food and flea markets such as Campo de Fiori, Campagna Amica, San Cosimato Market in Trastevere and the Borghetto Flaminio Market provide a local flavour and shopping options.
>Two excellent day trips you can take from Rome are Ostia Antica and Pompeii.