Towns / Cities Visited: 154
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 19,898
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,924,097
Today was the day we would finally explore the labyrinth which is the heart of Italy’s capital. Rome was calling, but there was no timed schedule and thus we rose after a lie in, refreshed and ready to face the day ahead. Now, naturally, the best way to start a big day of adventure, is to dig into a solid breakfast, and with dinner falling onto my shoulders this evening, my brother decided to handle the morning meal. Given that he had braved the culinary stores of the city the previous day in search of a pasta machine and a cutter for tonight’s ravioli, our simple but tasty breakfast consisted of some rustically cut tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella (trust me, sharp knives are few and far between in the world of Airbnb), a little roquette, and some turtle shaped fried eggs on sourdough toast (thanks to a cute little cutter he’d bought me as a gift). Mum was still feeling a little under the weather and wasn’t sure if she’d have the stamina for the extensive walking; however, she downed her breakfast, took a few cold and flu tablets, and marched out of the house with us like the trooper she is.
Passing the perpetual mass of people waiting to enter the Vatican, we took a leisurely forty-minute stroll through the otherwise relatively deserted streets north of Rome’s old heart. With the sun shining overhead, we arrived at our first destination, Piazza del Popolo. Although it now translates as ‘People’s Square’, it was originally named after the poplars which grew here. Given that the square is now filled with far more people than trees, the transition of linguistics seems appropriate. The vibe around the square is generally jovial; all photo snapping tourists, and shifty spruikers attempting to winkle a few stray dollars from the wallets of unwary visitors in exchange for non-sensical novelties. In stark contrast, the square has a much grislier history, having played host to public executions up into the early decades of the 19th century. That being said, some may argue that the transition from scaffold to selfie stick isn’t necessarily an improvement.
The, rather ironically, elliptical square sits sunken within its surroundings, and plays host to a selection of historic Roman sculptures: delicately featured figures draped in swathes of stone chiselled cloth, and rippled-ab bearing God’s with their honour tucked neatly behind strategically placed fig leaves. These statues finally seem right at home after spending the previous months spying their Roman likeness in distant places; it is, instead, what stands pride of place at the centre of the space which looks at odds with all else, one of the cities eight Egyptian obelisks. It’s not simply the fact that it is covered in millennia old hieroglyphs which speak of foreign cities, but the stone itself seems so in contrast with all around it that the whole thing sticks out like a sore thumb. Like seeing mummies in museums thousands of kilometres from their original resting place, it made me sad to know that this important part of history had been transplanted here in 10BC and never returned to its rightful place in Heliopolis. Having collected them during their extensive reign over not only Europe, but also northern Africa, Italy plays hosts to the most ancient obelisks in the world; with thirteen, they possess two more than Egypt itself.
Heading south of the square, we were met with a gorgeous view of the striking twin churches as the start of Via del Corso. The churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto were built two years apart in the 17th century, and although they are not perfectly identical, they have a near enough likeness that they beg you to walk between them. Obliging, our journey took us through the throng of tourists churning through the streets to the hubbub milling around the bottom of one of the city’s most recognisable sites, the Spanish Steps. Now, despite being a far cry from the country of their namesake, these curvaceous, multi-tiered, stone steps lead up to the Trinità dei Monti church from Piazza di Spagna, which at the time of their construction in 1723, was home to the Spanish Embassy. Standing at the base of the steps, listening to the trickle of the fountain bubbling away in the middle of the square, we looked up to find not only the silhouette of the church, but yet another of the city’s Egyptian obelisks. Although the steps aren’t exactly an action-packed tourist attraction, there is certainly some top-quality people watching to be done, and, as such, we took a perch about mid-way up, pulled a few snacks from our bag, and took a short break to watch the world go by.
As recognisable as the Spanish Steps are, our next stop is one site that you would have to have been living under a rock or deep in some forsaken jungle to not know, the Trevi Fountain. Nearing our destination, we took a brief detour, ducking into a little gelateria, funnily enough not for gelato but instead for the tempting cannoli sitting in their glass display. A few more steps brought us round the corner of the fountain. Crunching through their crisp shells into the soft yielding ricotta centre as our eyes fell over the dramatic carved scene before us, it was hard not to feel like this was the epitome of Roman tourism. The Italians of the 17th century really did have a thing for extravagant public art displays, and this grandiose imagery of Oceanus being pulled on his shell chariot by triton wrangled hippocampus is a prime example.
Once you manage to finally peel your eyes from the masterful sculptures you finally remember that there is actually a fountain trickling below it. Now, superstition has it that if you toss one coin into the fountain over your left shoulder with your right hand you are destined to return to Rome, two coins and you are destined to return and find love, and three coins will see you return, find love, and marry; a fact which explains the crush of tourists scrambling to reach the rim of the fountain. Given that I’m not a superstitious person, I worked hard to come here the first time and will gladly work hard to return on my own merits, and I was already standing there with someone I love, we all kept our three coins safely in our pockets and ourselves far from the scrum around the base. To be honest, considering that an estimated 3000 euros find their way into the fountain every day, it all sort of seems like a money-making scheme to me. Still, the funds have been used by the city to subsidise a supermarket for Rome’s needy, and I can’t turn my nose up at that.
As breath-taking as it is, I couldn’t help but be a little let down by it in the end though; not because it lacks beauty, but because every photo you see of it paints it as some peaceful place. Its one of those sites I had seen so many times before, that by the time I saw it with my own eyes it had lost some of its shine. If only the photographers would zoom out; if only they could capture the true scene of tussling tourists and distracting decibels.
Man cannot live off snacks and cannoli alone, and as such we pulled ourselves away and wound our way to Campo de Fiori. Although not the fanciest square in the city, it has historically always been a hub of commercial culture, with its surrounding streets named after the trades which used to base themselves in this area, from tailors to coffer makers, locksmiths to milliners, and even crossbow makers. It used to play host to public executions, but now it plays host to a far less grim local market. Unfortunately, said market seems to be home to far more knick-knacks and souvenirs than lunch options. Luckily, we spied a little hole in the wall sandwich shop from which we snaffled a few fresh focaccias layered with porchetta and salami and wandered over to the squares fountain to lean and eat in the shade as we watched the nearby florist ply his trade.
What would a meal in Italy be without topping it off with gelato, and although we had planned on indulging a little later in the afternoon, I couldn’t help but wander into a little shop offering over 30 flavours, from the tried and true flavours in every shop like lemon and hazelnut, to a more intriguing flavours like chilli chocolate (my mum’s personal favourite for the entire trip), and white chocolate and candied lime. As someone who often struggles to be decisive when faced with a plethora of tantalising choices, I was grateful when the friendly shopkeeper slid over and offered us a taste of any which tickled our fancy. They were all delicious if I’m honest, but I was enamoured with the choc orange, and what to this day remains the best passionfruit gelato I’ve ever tried. A double scoop each in hand, we continued our walk, revelling in how much better our gelato experience was to the previous days shambolic one. Perhaps there area few bastions of non-tourist gouging artisan shops squirrels away in the back streets here.
Eventually, we found ourselves in yet another of the city’s impressive squares, Piazza Navona. Given the vast size of the space, it is not surprising to learn that this square was built atop the 1st century Stadium of Domitian, which used to play host to ancient Rome’s sports. Nowadays it plays host to some gorgeous Baroque Roman architecture and art, from the buildings which surround it, to yet another fountain filled with scantily clad mythological men. Once more, there is an Egyptian obelisk on display here, poking up like a marker on a map, and looking just as out of place, except this time it sits perched atop Baroque sculptures in the centre of a fountain. Sports have given way to more artistic endeavours here, with numerous stalls selling hand painted images of Rome’s stunning sites, and spray paint artists creating more modern designs while tourists gape at their prowess. Unable to resist, my mum decided to purchase a few small paintings for her colleagues, and my partner and I couldn’t help but buy a pair of spray paint creations which sung to us from the pavement.
The afternoon was ticking away, but there was one last classic Roman landmark which required our attention, the Pantheon. Its granite columned porch screams ancient Rome, and although it is itself quite old, it is actually a reconstruction of the older temple that it replaced after a devastating fire. This fact wasn’t discovered until fairly recently though, as the façade was re-inscribed with the original Latin dedication to Marcus Agrippa who commissioned the first iteration. As with so many sacred sites in Europe, it was originally a Roman temple, but, despite pantheon coming from the Greek word pantheion meaning ‘common to all gods’, it is is now a catholic church and dedicated to only one higher being. Unlike many other ancient sites though, the Pantheon has been well preserved, if only because it has been in constant use since its conception.
Behind its towering rectangular porch, its main bulk is made up of a massive concrete rotunda so expansive that even now, two thousand years after its construction, it remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Given that the building predates lights by a good few millennia it’s unsurprising that we ventured inside to find the inner space bathed in afternoon sun streaming in through the large oculus at the centre of the dome which opens to the sky above. This feature obviously means that rainy days see water cascading down into the centre of the space, and, as such, the floor is slightly angled to internal drains to allow for run off.
Before I even registered any of the interior decoration, I was left fascinated by the stunning coffered dome that dominates the space, but eventually my eyes came down to the almost typically gaudy catholic interior. The walls play host to a number of biblical paintings and sculptures, and are home to a number of historically important tombs including that of famed Italian painter Raphael, as well as the tombs of the first two kings of unified Italy. The majority of the open space on the walls is wrapped in marble and granite, inlaid artistically, but in other places the walls remain raw, with the brickwork visible in spots behind crumbling plaster. As aesthetically pleasing as the accoutrements of Christianity are here, a part of me wishes I could have seen it as an ancient Roman temple.
Originally, we had planned to visit the ‘Mouth of Truth’ before heading home. The creepy, hollow-eyed, stone face complete with gaping mouth carved into a stone disc back in the 1st century, is fabled to bite off the hand of anyone who dares to place theirs in its mouth and tell a lie. Historians are unsure why the disc was carved, or even where it comes from, with theories from it being part of a fountain, to being an intricate manhole or well cover. Despite its fascinating tale, we couldn’t bring ourselves to make the extra twenty-minute walk, and thus we made our way home with hands in tact, which was probably for the best given that I had a ravioli feast to make. That being said, we went a little out of our way to pass over the ancient, angel-lined bridge of Ponte Sant’ Angelo and past the 2nd century beauty of Castel Sant’ Angelo.
Making it home with weary legs, we took a short moment to catch up with my brother and Leighann, swapping stories about our respective days. Still, time waits for no one and the kitchen called. All of these months since that one drunken night in Brașov where the idea for this crazy food adventure was born, our six course ravioli bonanza was finally coming to fruition. Now, as with the other few fantastical feasts my brother and I have created, the bulk of the work fell on my shoulders, not only because I am the only chef in the group, but also because there was only one pasta machine, limited space and minimal knives.
The others helped where they could, washing dishes, stirring pots, and ensuring my glass of vodka never ran dry. Even though the meal was sporadic, given that we had to wash all the pans to make the next course, and despite it not concluding until after midnight, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a memorable endeavour. They may not have been the neatest or fanciest dishes, and their creation may have been a mixture of slapdash and cutthroat culinary techniques considering the equipment on hand, but they were everything we wanted them to be: a representation of six countries both the ‘Return Date Unknown’ crew and the ‘No Fixed Adventure’ crew have visited.
In order, the courses went as follows: potato filled ravioli with a stoverij inspired beef gravy (a nod to Belgium’s fries with stoverij sauce), veal filled ravioli in sage pasta with madeira sauce and crispy prosciutto (a nod to Italy’s veal saltimbocca), chicken paprikash filled ravioli with paprika and sour cream sauce (a nod to Hungary’s chicken paprikash, and the unanimous favourite of everyone involved), beef and pea filled ravioli with rosemary gravy (a nod to England’s roast beef and mushy peas), veal filled crumbed and pan-fried ravioli with mushroom sauce (a nod to Austria’s wiener schnitzel with mushroom sauce), and finally lemon ricotta filled ravioli with berry compote and cinnamon sugar (an albeitloose nod to the Netherland’s poffertjes).
By the time we finally made it to bed, very full, fairly tired, and relatively drunk, it was hard not to be proud of the culinary feat achieved here this evening. Not only was it the food which made the night special, but it was the way these little pasta parcels bought us all closer together. Each course came with a hearty side order of reminiscence, laughter, and shared stories. Flavours and aromas can transport us not only thousands of miles away, but they also allow us to time travel. Flavours, much like photos, pick us up and place us right back where we were when we remembered them best, whether that be our first time experiencing them, or simply the best time. I don’t know about you, but as long as time travel remains beyond our grasp, I will happily settle with a full plate and a table surrounded with people I love as a most ample substitute.