We cashed in the last of a travel credit, from a trip postponed by Covid-19 in 2020, and took a budget flight to Rome on Saturday. Despite many repeated trips to Western and Central Europe back in the days when college kids could hop over to London on Virgin Atlantic for $99, I’d never been to Italy before.
We landed at noon on Sunday and were zipped in a Mercedes minivan by a very cheerful driver to the Hotel Locarno, near the Piazza del Popolo, chosen by me after an intensive investigation of possibilities because Federico Fellini was a habitué of the Locarno in the 1960s and Jack Kerouac stayed here with Gregory Corso in the 1950s. (I met Gregory Corso in Paris when I was 17, in the days when American college students — and teenagers like me who had run away from college chasing bohemian dreams — flew to Paris for $99 to live among the bedbugs at George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank.)
It was 92 degrees in the shade. At dinner the first night, after eight hours of very sweaty wandering from piazza to piazza, I asked the kids to describe their first impressions of Rome in three words. “Fancy,” “hot,” and “city” were Teddy’s three words for Rome. “Cigarettes,” “designers,” and “architecture” were Nettie’s. “Palmy,” “pastel,” “basilica,” said I.
My extremely rudimentary ideas of Rome previously came from the movies — Pasolini, “Roman Holiday,” and “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” — and I was completely surprised by the atmosphere of the city. Taken aback, bowled over. I expected Rome to be more vertical, but it is horizontal, mostly blue sky and pale yellow, ocher, and tangerine buildings with shutters drawn. The umbrella trees lining the avenues — pine trees with long, long, bare trunks and flat caps of dark green, Pinus pinea brought to Rome by Mussolini — hardly look like trees at all.
The taxi drivers of Rome seem universally happy and adorable. We are using an Uber-like app called Free Now to hail our cabs, and the app provides the driver’s first name. Simone, young and handsome, singing along to the radio, took us to the Colosseum this morning, taking his hands off the wheel to mime stabbing as we passed the Largo di Torre Argentina, where Julius Caesar was killed; Davide, wearing no seatbelt and encouraging me not to wear a seatbelt, either — “It’s Rome!” — drove us over the Tiber. Mario, older and smiling but not talking, chauffeured us back to the hotel; Mario had affixed two signs to the backside of the front seats, admonishing passengers, with three exclamation points, not to shout if they had to use their cellphones.
I had expected Romans to be dressed with intimidating fastidiousness — loafers, collar, pomade — but no one is costumed like Louis Jourdan in “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Even in the fancier restaurants, we find not just tourists but Italians wearing sport sandals. The women wear practical floral dresses in prints I would not characterize as stylish, the men “graphic tees” and shorts. There is an Italian man staying with us at the Hotel Locarno who came to breakfast in the courtyard wearing a tank top printed with scenes from comic strips and a pair of frayed, 1990s-rave flares. Sparrows came down to eat orange cake from the basket on our table. Apparently all the Romans who dress in the haute bourgeois fashion I’d expected — the elegant lotharios of the Hollywood vision of the glamor of Rome — are on the beach at the moment, in St. Barth or Southampton, in their small swimming trunks.
No one is in Rome now but tourists. Today was Ferragosto, the holiday of mid-August. We sweated our way through the Borghese Gardens and up and down the Via del Corso.
Lions, tigers, elephants. . . . In the underground tunnel below the Colosseum, our bedraggled tour guide, Lucia, argued with a Russian family about whose fault it was that the little Russian girl — wearing a flowered bucket hat and behaving like an angel, I thought, in comparison with my own bumptious children — couldn’t understand the guide’s heavily accented English. I scraped sweat from under my bangs with the cuff of my linen shirt and carefully inspected a reproduction of one of the 60 elevators that carried wild animals up to the arena, where they chewed on the gladiators, who carried short swords. The arena floor in 70 A.D. was covered in sand to absorb the blood of dying men and beasts.
Pomegranates, ice cubes, lemonade. We collapsed in a touristy cafe, circa 1952, on the Piazza del Popolo, where nozzles fixed to the wall sprayed a fine mist out over the tables under the shade of the awning. I was surprised that half the customers in the cafe were neighborhood regulars embraced by the waitress and called by name — men in their 60s, in pairs, in vividly colored trousers and Borsalino hats, with long hair combed back, smoking, and telling one another “Buon Ferragosto.”
Azure, red madder, Schiaparelli pink. The Borghese Gallery was a lot of fun, although I continued sweating, even in the chill of the air-conditioning, for the first hour of our tour with a guide named Emmanuella who made a point of directing our attention to the horrified expressions of the girls sculpted by Bernini in white marble: Daphne, her mouth open in a scream as Apollo caught her around the waist, and Persephone, the flesh of her marble back and buttocks pressed by the squeezing, massive fingers of Pluto, the divine kidnapper/rapist.
We had gelato at 6 in the evening — dessert before dinner — at a ritzy gelateria called Giolitti, circa 1900, all polished wood and glass. Walnut, coconut, mahogany. We saw many, many marble feet of ancient Romans today, each foot so individual, shod in 2,000-year-old sandal fashions with elaborate straps, such elegant, long toes. (Can toes be aquiline?)
My favorite part of an unforgettable Monday was walking through a rose garden on the Palatine Hill and standing at a lookout point above the Roman Forum as the church bells pealed and the calling birds wheeled in the sky. Nettie tugged on my arm and said she’d seen a green parrot over the House of the Vestal Virgins. I missed the parrot, and the peevish tour guide, Lucia, berated me — calling out, “Madam! Madam! Is there some problem?” when I took the earphone out of my ear for a moment to listen to the bells — but nothing could diminish the force of Rome’s ravishing. Travertine, sandals, steps.