Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Your Bike Signora!

When Christopher Morley, the American poet said “ The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets” , I’m pretty sure he wasn’t including those residing in Rome. The odes of Keats would have contained more references to being shoved into flower stalls than unrequited love, if he had ever chosen to cycle around the centre as I have in the last year. 

Apart from the fact that cycling across the ‘san pietrini’ cobbled streets rythmically shakes your bike to pieces, cyclists are thoroughly unwelcome. Pedestrians glare at you like you really are the proverbial last straw and drivers hurl Shakespearean threats if you dare to stray into their trajectory for more than a second. A classic Roman threat from behind the wheel is “ Mortacci tua” which means “death to your family and all who know you”, enough to have kept Emily Bronte and her sisters off two wheels had they ever come to Rome.

As I push my bike out of my building every morning, the first challenge that awaits me is: how do I actually reach the road?  A row of car bumpers encroaches on the path where I stand amidst scooters chained to trees. More scooters are crammed, tighter than door wedges into spaces between cars.  A zebra crossing won’t ensure my escape as it would in England, where few would risk parking within 10 metres of a crossing, apart from in the early hours, stopping for emergency cash at an ATM.  In Rome, zebra crossing means free long-stay car park as circling traffic wardens are only qualified to issue fines to those whose pay and display tickets have run out. Echelon parking on a zebra provides two comfortable spaces, coins  are then fed into the nearest bar for a quick espresso before work.

 As a new Roman, I accept the situation and head for the nearest restaurant where waiters are busily setting up the roadside outdoor seating area for lunch. I drag my bike through the upturned tables and  “funghi”, (large mushroom-shaped outdoor heaters). Finally, like a thoroughbred about to win the National, I’m up and over the box-hedge boundary of the eating terrace and out into the road, slaloming through the stationary queue of cars and dodging the on-coming nun foot traffic that is rife in Rome. At last I'm romping to work, a ladder in my tights but Anglo-saxon punctuality still firmly within my grasp. 

A note for visitors to Rome:  Don’t trot along behind lost tourists.  Atac Metrebus are now hiring bikes with thunderous bells that propel pedestrians right up into the air. They are a much faster alternative to the incomprehensibly unreliable, even by Roman standards, public transport system Atac traditionally provides in Rome. Alternatively, the “Biciclettara”, a Roman Signora stationed in Piazza del Popolo on white garden furniture, will hire you a bone-shaker by the hour, no questions asked. She has precious little sense of time and is a fan of “ Roman forfait”, which means she will invent a price much lower than anything you might have calculated on return of her bike.  Predictably and shamefully, there are no bike lanes in central Rome so if you don’t possess a fearless heart, the splendid Borghese Gardens are just off Piazza del Popolo.   Otherwise, head towards Campo dei Fiori or Trastevere via the backstreets parallel to Via del Corso but remember, Amsterdam might be cycling heaven but Rome is closer to Dante’s inferno when you are pedalling and I’m willing to bet Dante never got on a bike here either.
TO POSTS VIA FEED. Ice cream's on me in Rome!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tiramisu: delicious when eaten on a zebra crossing

My favourite meals in Roman restaurants are comparable only to being invited to a friend’s gluttonous grandma’s house where requesting a price list or a menu would be equally as inappropriate.  Instead, wobbly tables (or as they say in Italian, dancing ballando) are sandwiched together refectory style and a jovial owner stands at one end shouting out the traditional dishes on offer, to all within earshot . Ordering is achieved by raising a hand when something sounds heavenly and hoping the request is noted on a wad of scrap paper the owner juggles while counting.  As with many things in this city, there’s giant scope for blunder but the food is, as they say here “Da panico”.   The kind of delicious that can send you into a panic as you anticipate the arrival of your order.  In this environment I could be mistaken for a Roman until I reveal my life-long vegetarianism, a phase they all concur I will grow out of.

These Roman eateries are mostly family-run and granny is often at the helm, so checking what kind of food she’s into before you sit down is a wise move. Sending back a bowl of soup because there’s tail in it could prompt her to leave her stove and deliver you a disapproving look, unless you are a grizzling child or vegetarian, in which case you are only pitied for turning down Roman delicacies.

These types of eating establishments are real Roman territory and only the most intrepid of tourists would dare to navigate them.  It's a shame as the atmosphere is one of frenetic family celebration and the food is genuine.  So often, in line at Ciampino Airport, the air in the departure lounge is thick with moans; “Arrogant bloody waiters, the food's not all that” . The chorus of the disgruntled British tourist who mistakenly chose to dine with a  view of a monument instead of the dessert trolley, full of homemade sweets.   The Colosseum will still be there when you have finished eating. 

So my first restaurant recommendation is “Luzzi”.  It’s not visible from the Colosseum, but hidden in a sidestreet nearby. Perfect. There, non-Romans feast on typical Roman fare with locals, amidst the animated, pleasurable confusion of an authentic Roman trattoria.  It's usually overflowing, so turn up and socialize in the jumbled queue until you are squeezed in.  In  spring, the boundaries of the outdoor eating area swell into the road when necessary. Their grilled aubergines and onions au gratin are a great starter and spaghetti alle cozze are spectacular on Tuesdays and Fridays when the mussels have just been caught.

TripAdvisor reviews are fair in my opinion although whosoever thinks they saw a microwave probably saw a portable TV in the kitchen: all Roma football matches are religiously observed.  Service can be sporadic and brusque but never arrogant. One Pavarotti-esque waiter likes to address all his customers as “secco”, Roman dialect for “skinnyribs”. "Luzzi" isn't intimate or sophisticated (you may well have to set your own cutlery out as you would at granny's house)  but it's great value and entertainment.   There’s no upselling and waiter recommendations are golden.  I for one can highly recommend their Tiramisu which tastes all the more delicious when eaten, seated on a zebra crossing with a statue of Padre Pio above your head. Metro: Colosseo. Closed Wednesdays. Ok for Vegetarians brave enough to unveil themselves.  Cheap Roman Cuisine with delicious bread from the Castelli. Menus provided!
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Ice cream's on me in Rome!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Escape like Princess Hepburn did with Peck

My first accommodation recommendation is a hidden gem, run by the family of a friend of mine, who inherited their rooftop apartment, from an ancestor who was a well-respected artist of his time. It's called "The Episcopo Lipinsky Bed and Breakfast." I know what you are thinking; not a very Roman name, sounds like an ex-president's church-going lover but bear with me.

Recently I watched Roman Holiday again and for the first time I recognised the rooftops outside Gregory Peck's escalator sized apartment where Audrey Hepburn sleeps in his pjs and quotes Shelley. Much of the film was shot in a tiny, hidden backstreet called Via Margutta in central Rome. Gregory's neighbours back in the 50's would have included Federico Fellini and the aforementioned artist's family. This tastefully refurbished B&B shares the same views and street as Gregory's place.

From street level, all a passerby sees is a ceramic wall-mounted Madonnina ( little statue of the Madonna), half- hidden under creepers, next to a large racing green wooden door, which seems to be the entrance to the period apartment building but in fact leads you into a secluded, lush courtyard garden full of palms, creepers and a number of blissed out cats. The apartments are behind the garden, backing onto the Borghese Gardens, Rome's largest central park. The location feels like a secret garden in a capital city centre and the views over Piazza del Popolo are a favourite with George Clooney, a regular guest at nearby Hotel di Russie.

So check it out on TripAdvisor. Reviews all fair in my opinion, even the American guest's negative review. It seemed almost apologetic for not appreciating the beauty and pedigree of the place. For sure, more luxury could be purchased elsewhere on the same budget but magic is priceless if you are a romantic such as myself, isn't it? A B&B in Rome means you can live like an aspiring Roman; you may see the bins by the entrance, wonder if the Hercule Poirot epoque lift will make it to the top floor, but you'll also feel the atmosphere of a genuine Roman Holiday gone by. Book well in advance as there are only two main suites and I can't keep my mouth shut about this place forever. Metro: Spagna
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Ice cream's on me in Rome!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Surviving " The Three Days of the Blackbird"

Coming from a weather-fixated country such as England, it never ceases to amaze me how obsessed Romans are with the weather and how badly they take any downturns. On Italian TV current affairs debates are typically hosted by surgically-enhanced blondes, more suited to traditional English weather forecasts. Winter weather forecasts however, are presented like an “our nation’s at war” announcement by a decorated military airforce major in full uniform. Before digital saw off my TV, I used to watch handsome Major Guido Guidi deliver the bad news; ironically, Guido Guidi means “I drive, you drive”, poetic in a town where few actually can drive. Anyway I guess it makes sense, weather comes from the sky, logical use of the nations otherwise low profile airforce.

Rainman and Roman are of the same mindset when it comes to driving rain. They are both classic no-shows, refusing to leave home. The ill-informed Roman who ventures out on foot without checking with Major Guido first, generally never makes it to their final destination. In a desperate attempt to disassociate themselves from drowning tourists, they eventually scramble into their cars, hands placed firmly on the horns, ready to protest if someone looks like they might actually be getting somewhere.
Last Thursday, to save me from certain death by cold spell, I was warned that “The Three Days of the Blackbird” were approaching (I giorni della Merla). Surely it couldn’t be worse than the scene in “Three Days of the Condor” when Redford steps out for coffee and his whole office are gunned down by a fake postman.. In reality, much worse I am assured. These days mark the three coldest days of the year, which miraculously are the same three days every year, although Romans can’t agree on exactly which: 29th,30th,31st Jan, or a day later depending on who warns you. The tradition has its origins in a Lombardian tale about King Herod, Baby Jesus, blackbirds and opportunistic polenta theft.

As a" New Roman", I realise I’m now obliged to overreact to inclement weather so I got on it immediately.. I made provisions to borrow ski gloves. I went to Gallo and stocked up on woolly tights. I notified my English next of kin. In the end, it felt no different to a mild London winter weekend with an unexpected gift of an uplifting blue sky. I just didn't feel the cold, experience the terror but if I want to make it as a Roman, the secret is not to let on. On Monday morning as my colleagues swapped horror stories about ice on their Smart cars and the rising cost of cashmere, I resisted the temptation to really make them jump with bone-chilling details of English winters; grey, leaden skies for months on end, that feeling of having been immersed in a 1970's Tuppaware box, grey lid firmly in place, imprisoned until Easter regardless of good behaviour. Instead I chimed in that I had finally put my heating on, enough to send them into mass hysteria. Blew it again.

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Ice cream's on me in Rome!