What emotions are conjured up in you when you hear: “CIAO BELLA” or “LA VITA È BELLA” ? Maybe you think of the warmth of the people (gli italiani) or the warmth and inviting Mediterranean. Maybe you feel a longing, or a curiosity to know more about one of Europe’s most alluring countries. ITALIA, it was unexpected but incredibile to see you again this summer.
Quasi non ti ho riconosciuta / I almost didn’t recognize you.
The last time I was in Bella Italia was 8 years ago. That’s too long. What have I been doing with my life? A lot has changed in 8 years. I am not a 20 year old running around Europe for the first time. I am now a mature version of that young woman, though these days I admit I am still running around Europe (#summerofAriana). I had to come back years later to fulfill my dream of living in España and teaching English. This summer, I celebrated my first completed teaching year by hitting the road for three months. At the start of summer I had loosely planned to travel in Europe to France, Germany, Austria, the UK and finally my first country on the African continent, Morocco. . . but then life took over. I found myself in Berlin so long that it became clear a visit to the rolling hills of Austria wasn’t in the cards anymore, and neither was a visit to the UK.
Instead, I took a risk and started putting the vibes out into the Universe to travel back to Italia, and specifically to ROMA.
It seemed like the natural next step, having spent almost a month already exploring Berlin with my favorite Roman. I meditated on the decision, and purchased that flight to Fiumicino, Roma, Italia. With the company of a native Roman and the gorgeous backdrop of this capital city during summer, I couldn’t go wrong in Roma. Where to start/Da dove cominciare? The most obvious reason to come to Roma is to take in the sights, the epic reminders of an ancient civilization laid throughout the city. It’s one of the best cities to visit if you want to feel transported to the past. Stand outside the Pantheon, a nearly 2,000 year old temple (now a Catholic Church though) and look up at the massive granite Corinthian columns. Such precision, such endurance. It’s beyond impressive. Make your way inside and look up at the perfect dome, the largest concrete dome that hasn’t been altered or reinforced. On a summer day, Il Pantheon is full of tourists however, selfie sticks and all. . . but I found that looking up helped create the illusion that there was no one else around, and that oculus above let in heaven’s light to shine on me. I walked around wondering what people of generations past came here for. For prayer? For homage? To ask for things perhaps? In that case, cameras aside, its purpose has not changed so much in nearly 2,000 years. I didn’t ask for anything here though, I simply marveled. I touched the columns too, with a child’s curiosity feeling the elements, the textures.
Walk around Roma and you will see the old amongst the new. Turn a corner and there is almost always a reminder of the Roman past. Although in our first days we didn’t do guided tours to hear about the history, I could still feel the epic nature of this city. I almost didn’t recognize this city from when I last walked many of the same streets 8 years earlier. Last I was in Roma, I spent my days under an umbrella enduring the torrential rain of Spring (during Easter). Besides the Vatican museum and Easter Mass with il papa, both of which involved crowds, lines, rain, wetness and overall discomfort and gloom I don’t remember much of that visit to Roma. I don’t remember experiencing the awe and the bliss that were effortless this time around. In August in the peak of summer, sunshine certainly painted the sky and the buildings with a certain aura. The streets had vita, the parks and restaurants too. Walking around energized me, and with no schedule to follow we enjoyed every moment in Bella Italia.
La cucina italiana/The Italian kitchen
Ever heard someone utter “MAMMA MIA” whilst savoring some meal, some perfect concoction for the senses?? Travel to Italia and you are bound to encounter this someone, or perhaps you will be that someone. After following Anthony Bourdain religiously for nearly a decade and imagining what it would be like to trade places with him on just one of his many many trips to Italia, I finally got a true taste of la cucina italiana because I had the very best insider’s guide. Bourdain had a team of producers, close chef friends, and local fixers. I had il romano, who I was entrusting with my palette. First things first, he absolutely did right by taking me on our first afternoon in Roma to the best Gelateria I have ever been to. Easily my #1 ice cream, I mean gelato, that has ever entered my mouth. The creamy and velvety texture, delectable flavors, mamma mia I was crossing over. Goodbye mediocre gelati that had colored my past. I have seen the light and I will follow it and never look back again. Later a walk around a beautiful piazza and down the less crowded side streets, I was glad to be back in this city. One thing you may not know is that Roma has a whole list of specialities in cuisine that they are extremely proud of, dishes so tasty that you’ll wish to find a local who’d be willing to marry you, so you can eat Pasta and die happily in Italia. I’m telling you the thought crossed my mind once or twice. If you start talking about Pasta with Italians, I doubt they could narrow it down and choose just one favorite dish. And after 5 days in Roma I know why. . .
Of all the pasta dishes I tried, for me there was one clear favorite. Maybe Anthony Bourdain was right, because of the simplicity of its ingredients CACIO E PEPE for me, was the pasta that was other-worldly. Tasting mostly of Pecorino Romano (cheese made of Sheep’s milk) and fresh pepper, the flavors of this dish danced a ballet on my tongue to the tune of an Italian opera. Not a moment of the experience was forgettable: The perfect local restaurant with patrons at every table (reservations are a Must), and the best company across my table smiling back at me. Not a bit of sauce or pasta was left over; I would have licked my bowl dry, but opted instead for a piece of bread to scoop up all that remained. We had to order dessert too, because Italia knows how to please a sweet palette too. Our tiramisù was decadent. Finally, we each had pistacchio biscotti con caffè. Molta contenta! Molta soddisfatta! …and I think the Roman was too!
“Must try” Roman specialities:
***Cacio e Pepe
“Must try” Italian desserts:
Gelato at “La Romana”
Pistacchio biscotti e caffè
Una visita al Colosseo
Every good tourist goes to see the Colosseum in Roma. So what does that make me? A good tourist the second time around I guess. On my last visit, I didn’t see the interior of the Colosseum. With all the rain and gloom we were enduring, it just didn’t happen. This visit I wasn’t going to miss out on Il Colosseo. I was willing to pay. I had been pumping myself up with all my favorite Gladiator songs and rewatching scenes of Russell Crowe’s best role. I was ready for this epic visit. The tour guide we got was SHITTY, downright horrible in my opinion, but it was still the Colosseum, the largest amphitheatre ever constructed in front of my eyes. Finally I was standing there inside that piece of history … amazed.
I took in the magnitude of this place (which could hold up to 80,000 people in its time) but not without moments of solemnity too. The astounding numbers of animals and people that were killed in this very place made my heart hurt too. But we humans think we know best right? We think we are the greatest creatures to walk this earth and every chance we get to celebrate our “feats” (like constructing something as immense and imposing as il Colosseo) we pat ourselves on the back, hoping they write about us and talk about us into the way distant future. Well the facts are there. Massacre/ bloodshed/execution, referred to at the time as “entertainment”, ocurred in this place. So if you go, don’t lose sight of this. Some of the exhibitions in upper floor of the Colosseum had bones and skulls of animals and people that have since been excavated on display. It’s important to not forget these things; our past is to learn from.
Other things I learned while in Roma, where I was certainly the student learning from the Italian version of Mr. Miyagi: I learned how to walk slowly in these hot summer days, like the locals do. When hot and thirsty, stop at a fountain and drink. If still too hot, wash your face with the fountain water and then carry on. If tired, rest on a bench and enjoy the sights. If energized, walk up to one of the highest viewpoints of the city (there are many) and behold the city of Roma from above. Some of the best views of this city are from high up. When hungry, there is great pasta that awaits you. When feeling good, order a bottle of wine and you’ll feel even better. Don’t wear shorts if you expect to step foot inside any churches (you’ll be thrown out). This trip made me realize how much I had missed traveling with someone. This was supposed to be the #summerofAriana, likely a summer full of Sola Travel. . . one where I would let the places and people inspire me and fill my heart more. So? Roma was just that: A place that inspired me, in the company of il romano, heart filled (and my belly too)! We also traveled to the Roman coast one day because I was dying to swim in the Sea, and rode around his city by scooter (my first time ever on a two-wheeler) where I learned to hold on tight enjoying the moments, the sights of Roma zipping by. Each day was an adventure and I’m eternally grateful for these memories that will live in me for a long time to come. Until the next visit to ITALIA, hopefully sooner than 8 years.