Okay, a lot has happened in the last 48 hours, so get ready for a long post, folks.
Arrived in Rome on a rainy Saturday morning. Here for just two nights before departing for Lecce in Puglia (think of the tip of the heel of the boot) for a week-long cooking class.
My travel partner is my good friend Anne Rudden Press, whose husband and children have reluctantly surrendered her to me for 10 days. I’m writing this as we travel south and east of Rome to Lecce, a five hour journey, Anne is knitting away (“fare la maglia” in Italian), a craft she’s endeavored to teach me before, but it’s just not taking hold.
Anyway, we arrived in Rome on a very rainy Saturday morning. Our driver, Giorgio, met us outside of customs and baggage claim, and in no time at all we were speeding along the wet highway to the city center.
Giorgio proved very informative with only slight encouragement. “Giorgio, what church is that?” Anne asked him pointing to a large domed building on the outskirts of Rome.
“That church is not so special,” Giorgio replied dismissively. “There are 2000 churches in Rome, and that one is not important.” He then proceeded to point out a number of more interesting buildings, and tell us his life story. His wife is Venezuelan, they met in London, dated for 11 months only speaking English, and got married. They have a daughter who is fluent in Italian and Spanish and learning English.
We knew a lot about Giorgio by the time we got to our hotel near the Piazza Farnese and the Campo di Fiori. It was only 10:30, and our efficiently-sized room with twin beds made for Italian Vogue supermodels, were not ready, so we went in search of breakfast, quickly finding an unremarkable cafe on the Campo for cafe latte, cappucino and toasted cheese and prosciutto sandwiches. It was before noon, so milk-based coffee drinks were still allowable.
Despite the intermittent rain, we managed to shop around the Campo di Fiori and walk through the Piazza Navona, both relatively uncrowded. For the first time in 10 years, the Piazza Navona and its three enormous fountains by Bernini were free of scaffolding or other repair equipment. With few tourists and almost no souvenir vendors, it was very pleasant to stroll one of Rome’s prettiest Piazzas.
On our way to the Pantheon, we stumbled upon the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where we were treated to a chapel decorated with three large-scale paintings by Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Caravaggio is a little intense.
The Pantheon, Rome’s ancient temple, was next on our little whirlwind tour. It’s always the same drill — enter, check out the oculus (a large hole in the ceiling), make a remark about the enormous bronze doors (“Can you believe how big they are?”) and leave. Frankly, I don’t think much has changed since Hadrian built it in AD 120, but we had a little time to kill so why not.
We returned to the hotel around 1:30. After a nice long nap, we walked back to the Campo di Fiori for appertivi (cocktails!). The rain was long gone and it turned into a nice evening. One of my favorite parts of the day in Italy is the time before dinner, when everyone walks around, tourists and locals. It’s perfect for sitting at a cafe having a glass of prosecco or aperol spritz and people watching.
We had dinner at Costanza, an osteria set within the ruins of an old Roman amphitheater. Behind a nondescript facade, the restaurant is made up of a series of small rooms, seemingly carved into the stone walls of the former theater, with vaulted ceilings and arched doorways. The atmosphere is cozy and warm, and our waiter, Francesco, reassured us constantly that he would take care of us.
We shared antipasti of octopus carpaccio and outstanding bresola with shaved parmigiana and arugula. We split a decadently delicious pasta with black truffles and sausage, and an entree of perfectly flash friend tender lamb chops. It’s mushroom season in Italy, so we also had a plate of sautéed porcini. Perfetto.
Opting out of dessert, we made a gelato stop on the way back to the hotel as we passed back through the Campo di Fiori.
Blue skies and sunshine greeted us on Sunday (wrong again, Weather.com), and after breakfast, we were determined to make the most of our only full day in Rome. We crossed the Tiber via the Ponte Sisto into Trastevere, the charming medieval neighborhood across the river from our hotel. I stayed in this area last year for nearly a week with my nephew, and it’s still one my favorite places in Rome.
We visited the always beautiful Santa Maria in Trastevere to gaze at its spectacular mosaics, especially over the main altar. The church is on its eponymous Piazza and is always a good spot for people watching.
Next stop, the Church of St. Cecilia. You may remember her from last year’s blog entries. She was an early Christian martyr whom the Romans first tried to steam to death over three days in her bathroom, and when that didn’t work, they chopped her head off.
En route to St. Cecilia, we made a detour to Biscottificio Innocenti, a cookie shop that’s been in operation for over 100 years. We selected a dozen or so treats for immediate consumption and today’s train ride — delicious looking butter cookies, nutty “brutti ma buoni” (ugly but good), almond and chocolate filled treats. Cookies stowed in Anne’s fashion-forward knapsack, we ventured forth to St. Cecilia.
The church is a popular place for weddings, and as luck would have it, one was in full swing when we arrived. The casual atmosphere of the wedding made it distinctively different from most American weddings I’ve attended. Children wandered in and out of the church, and a flower girl climbed up on the altar while a woman gave a reading. She was gently shooed away and no one seemed to think this was unusual.
Trendy-looking, fashionably dressed, young Romans stepped outside during the ceremony for a smoke. Many of the men were in skinny suits and ties, with shaggy hair and stubble; the women in very high heels, sporting the current trend in dresses with short fronts and long blowy trains. And the bride’s tattoo was only barely visible through the corseted back of her strapless gown (I didn’t think bare shoulders were allowed in church!).
No one seemed to mind the tourists lurking in the back and we spied a nun overlooking it all, from the church’s screened loft.
Once the wedding was over, we tried to get into the Crypt but were turned away by another nun. We took this as a divine sign that it was time for lunch. We returned to the more lively area of Trastevere, along the Via Lungaretta, we selected Bruno alla Lungaretta after investigating their menu for the day and spying the roman artichokes and fresh mushrooms available for antipasti.
It was an excellent meal. We had the aforementioned artichokes along with a salad of radicchico, walnuts and gorgonzola. For primi, Anne selected ricotta-stuffed ravioli with black truffles, while I had a smoky, creamy rigatoni carbonara. Perfetto. We shared veal saltimbocca for our main course with a plate of grilled fresh vegetables (mushrooms, zucchini, tomato, eggplant). A lovely falanghina from campania complemented it all.
After lunch we briefly returned to our hotel to freshen up, but we were burning daylight and didn’t want to waste a minute.
Our next destination was Galleria Doria Pamphilj (pronounced: pam-feelyee), which is close to the Pantheon. Located in the Pamphilj family Palazzo, this museum features not only a lovely collection of artwork, but one gets a glimpse inside the home of a noble Roman family. Well worth the visit, their collection includes several paintings by Caravaggio (are you sensing a theme here?).
It was then a cab ride at breakneck speed to be on time for our 5 pm reservation at the Galleria Borghese. More great art, Bernini sculptures, an enormous Titian, and, you guessed it, Caravaggio. Phew…a lot for one day.
By the time we returned to Campo di Fiori, it was nearly 8 pm, so we stopped for some wine, cheese and salumi at Obika mozzarella bar. We were serenaded by a gentleman playing an electric guitar with some sort of karaoke backing track. Nothing says Rome like the greatest hits of Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Mr. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
Up this morning early to catch our 8 am train to Lecce, we are here in our vacation rental in the Centro Storico (old town) of this beautiful baroque city on the Salento Peninsula (google it).
Tonight we meet our fellow cooking school students and have dinner at the Scuola. More to come (including more pictures)!