The Start of an Italian Love Affair
You are not prepared for Italy. No matter how much you have read or heard about it.
Leave your perceptions at the gate.
Italy is like the cousin you don’t visit often enough.
You know the welcoming smile, the history and the culture, the smell of coffee, of pizza and of pasta … but you don’t get the chance to catch up as often as you would wish.
Flying into Rome, the view of the Appenine Mountains takes you by surprise … it’s as if you can see all the way to Naples and Mt Vesuvius.
The Rome Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport is not far from the city and set among farmlands and towns, much like Melbourne‘s Tullamarine Airport in Australia or Budapest Ferenc Liszt Airport in Hungary.
And the city is coming to meet it.
Fiumicino is the busiest airport in Italy, and among the busiest in Europe yet has a relatively casual feel. Not as hectic as Sydney International or London’s Heathrow.
I find out later this is probably because there are so many regional airports that are linked to international as well as European cities.
Entry through customs is relatively easy and we have arranged a group of six to share a limousine into town although there are train and bus options.
Initially we thought two, maybe three in a limo at a fixed fare of 40-48 euros but we get six people for 90 euros in a Mercedes eight-seat people mover.
The driver is from one of the nearby farming towns and the journey is efficient on the six-lane motorway through the sea of terracotta and beige houses and apartments.
Soon we pass the walls of the Vatican, a state within a city, and are dropped right to the door of Hotel Cicerone, which is in a leafy part of the city where there is a bend in the River Tiber.
All the historic sites are within 15-30 minutes walk, the driver tells us.
I’m impressed by the traffic in Rome. Very come and go, rather than the chaos we were expecting.
It’s the same with the buildings.
Rome has grown up around a city heart of classical buildings.
Hotel Cicerone is rated four star but it reminds me of Raddison’s Hotel Beke in Budapest. Quirky but with friendly staff.
There’s a bar, lounge, restaurant and dining room.
Outside, you have cars, buses, dedicated cycle path as well as footpath. It’s a passing parade.
We are on a 16-day music tour of Italy with Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir, a 60-strong group from Queensland, Australia, that will be singing at a string of cathedrals across the north of this amazing country. One that has close links with Australia, especially through the migration schemes of the 1950s and 1960s.
Our rooms are not ready for check-in so there’s time to take a quick walk to familiarise myself with the surrounds, get a taste of life in Rome.
It’s a warm day … at the end of summer rather than early spring, and I get to the Tiber River.
There’s an avenue of trees, market and craft stalls, even a carousel but sadly it’s silent. The almost ghostly animals and figures look out from the clear, drop-down blinds. Looking and listening for the sound of children, the sound of the music.
Follow the riverside esplanade to the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo, not far from the Vatican.
Commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135AD as a mausoleum for himself and his family, it was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum.
Just as much a landmark is the bridge across the Tiber, now a pedestrian thoroughfare and one of the most photographed structures in the city.
Designed by Bernini, it stretches 135 metres across five spans.
Pilgrims used this bridge to reach St Peter’s Basilica, so it was regarded as the “bridge of Saint Peter” (pons Sancti Petri).
In the sixth century, under Pope Gregory I, both the castle and the bridge took on the name Sant’Angelo, explained by a legend that an angel appeared on the roof of the castle to announce the end of the plague.
In 1277AD an 800-metre long fortified corridor was built that connected the castle with the Vatican City so that the pope could escape in the event of danger.
At the heart of the Vatican, St Peter’s is the largest church in the world.
Designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Berninii, it is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and regarded as one of the holiest Catholic shrines.
Tradition holds that the basilica is the burial site of the apostle Saint Peter.
In two days time, the choir is scheduled to participate in an evening mass in the basilica.
So this was what I was learning about all those years ago at school in an Australian country town.
The power and the might of the Roman Empire. And here I am, walking through history.
You can reach out and touch it, the feeling is so tangible.
Rome is a very walkable city and somehow pedestrians, cyclists, motor scooters, cars and buses all get along. It seems to be a level of respect built up over many years.
Wear comfortable shoes as the cobblestones can be uneven and the centuries-old marble flagstones are smooth. Carry a water bottle but the running taps of Rome are quite convenient.
It seems that at every turn there is something to catch your attention. Laneways, doorways, people just going about their everyday life or engaged in conversation.
How many people have walked these cobbled streets?
What have we learned?
That time goes on. That things change.
That life simply is what it is.
After check-in at the hotel, it’s time for a thirst-quenching Campari and soda at the bar – with plenty of ice.
It’s mayhem in the lobby. There are so many people arriving … stories to tell of the various journeys it took to get to Rome, whether direct flights or flights of fancy through other exotic countries.
And the barman is so good at his role.
He asks a customer if he would like two glasses to go with the bottle of wine he has just ordered.
“Heck, no,” was the reply, in an American accent.
“I’ll drink it myself.”
Then the barman asks if he would like the cork, in order to finish the bottle later.
“Why would I want to do that,” the gentleman said.
Here was a guy on a mission so I invited him to join our table, a jet-lagged group of Australians discovering the joys of Aperol spritzers as well as prosecco and the local beers.
Turns out that Jon was part of a wine syndicate in California that had just bought a brewery in Mexico … and their shares increased dramatically as a result.
Dinner is in the hotel and afterwards it is good to go for another walk, to feel the softness of the air at night and listen to the sounds of the city – the talk and music from the restaurants and bar/cafes, the rustle of leaves in the breeze.
Sleep comes easily after a 20-hour flight half-way around the world, and the excitement of planning what to see the next day. The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain.
“What would you see?’’ I ask our tour guide.
“Piazza Navona,’’ I am told.
“It’s quieter than the main tourist spots but with markets and restaurants. People enjoying themselves.’’
That, I think, says a lot about Rome, this eternal city, and the Italian way of life.