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Report 1084: A Springtime Slow Travel Prize: Ten Glorious Days In Umbria And A Little Bit Of Rome

By Stella from New York, NY, Spring 2006

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Page 9 of 12: Leaving Umbria, Finding Rome, and a Shoe Crisis

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It is hard to enjoy the Forum when your feet are bleeding

It was incredibly hard to get up on that day, our last morning in Umbria. It had only been a week, but I was feeling very sentimental. How could we leave? The trees were starting to burst into full blossom, which I did not want to miss, and how could I possibly go an entire day without seeing the chubby sheep? Would the next set of guests be as serious as we were about going to the compost heap? Rome is my very favorite place in the world, but I was shocked to be so ambivalent about heading there that morning. I was hoping this would change as soon as we entered the city walls, but in the meantime, it would be the morning of “lasts:” the last pot of coffee, the last loaf of Montefalco bread, the last lazy lounge on the porch. And later on, it would be the last ride in the Alfa.

After we finished packing and tidying up, it was time to say goodbye to Silvana, and to thank her for her hospitality, especially since this stay had been donated to Slow Travel for the contest. We rang her up and told her we would be leaving soon, and asked her if we could buy several bottles of their excellent olive oil. Mauro had not yet returned from VinItaly, and we would sadly be unable to say goodbye to him.

Silvana soon arrived with our oil, but we had a hard time leaving. We hadn’t seen very much of her during our stay, so we took this last morning to visit with her, asking her many questions about the history of the property, how they chose this location, the long journey of restoration, and how they have assimilated into Umbria. I said it before and will say it again: Silvana is a very cool lady. There is something about her that is difficult to describe adequately - she is warm and friendly, smart and sophisticated, chic but relaxed; I could clearly see her fitting in perfectly in her former home city of Milan, but she was also connected in a very emotional way to the countryside she now calls home. Sitting on the porch of Il Portico, listening to enchanting lilt of Silvana’s voice and her deep, throaty laughter, I felt relaxed, completely at home and at peace. But we had to return the rental car by 1:00 pm, so there was no time for further sentimentality. We packed up the car and waved goodbye, and left Le Case Gialle behind, left the rolling hills outside of Bevagna and Montefalco behind, and swiftly left the Umbrian countryside behind as we entered the Autostrada and headed south towards Rome.

I was armed with maps and directions to our rental car drop-off location in Rome, determined not have any more drama arise from my lack of navigational prowess. Since we were staying in Trastevere, I had chosen a drop-off point on a very busy main street, not far from the railway station in Trastevere. I thought this would be an easier place to leave the car because we would not have to approach the city from a side opposite to where we were staying, and the maps I had looked at seemed pretty straightforward.

Unfortunately, the signage approaching Rome was a bit confusing, and we missed our turn-off from the ring road. Figuring out where we had gone astray was not easy and we were both frustrated. But eventually we found our way off the ring road and into Rome proper, where I began to get a better sense of where we actually were. This is where C. and I truly differed; he was clearly more comfortable winging it in the countryside, and I was unafraid of venturing into the unknown of Rome’s busy streets. We finally found the location on Ciconvallazione Giancolense quite easily. But even though we had made excellent time and were arriving well before the 1:00 PM closing time, the office was shut tight with a sign hanging up that said somebody would be right back. C. went off to get some water and regain his composure, while I stayed behind, stressed about my next dilemma. I was short of the cash I needed to give to the person who would meet us at our apartment.

Eventually, the Europcar representative returned and proceeded to check us out. He passed by the Alfa’s nasty scrape without saying a word, pronounced us "finito," and called us a taxi. Our goodbye to the Alfa was almost as bittersweet as our farewell to Silvana; we had logged some eventful miles in that car, and it was sad to see it virtually ignored and haphazardly parked in front of a strip of storefronts. But being in Rome again had an immediate effect upon me, and my heart began beating wildly as we entered the old city walls and passed the Giancolo. The taxi pulled up in front of our apartment building, and I nervously looked at the time. We were about a half-hour early. And I needed to find the bancomat.

Now in my defense, let me say that the cash shortage was due to a series of bancomats in Umbria that decided they did not like my card. Repeated calls to my bank assured me that all was well on their end, so I was hopeful I would find a friendly cash-dispensing machine once in Rome. What I didn’t know is that there are very few Bancomats in Trastevere. I left C. and our bags outside the building and set out to find the elusive ATM. I literally ran through the streets, asking passers-by with a noticeable sense of urgency. After about 15 minutes of frantic searching, I turned back, not wanting to leave C. behind for too long. I was too upset to appreciate where I was, and that alone was making me even more upset. I would have to wing it with the rental representative.

Our greeter was on time, and we finally entered our Roman home. It was a great apartment in terms of layout and size, but the décor left much to be desired. The tables and chairs were made of gray plastic, there were really awful pictures on the walls, and the bookshelves were almost completely empty. It wasn’t bad, it was sad. With some proper accessories, that apartment would have been a showpiece. But it won on the important points: it was clean, the beds were comfy (underneath their truly tacky bedspreads), the bathrooms were spotless and the couches were cushy (underneath their truly tacky slipcovers). The best of it was that the storage capacity was seemingly infinite, and very large windows were dramatic. The worst of it was the kitchen. The sink, refrigerator and metal cabinets were very rusty and worn out. We would not be making any meals here anyway, so it only bothered me for about a minute. I reminded myself that I was getting what I paid for, which was not much. Explaining that I was a little short on the cash I was to hand over was not as much of a drama as I had anticipated; the agency representative was unruffled by it and we agreed that she could return the following morning to pick it up. I finally began to loosen up and felt the weight of our arrival lifting off of my shoulders.

The dynamic between C. and I had changed completely as we looked at each other in the middle of our large, tacky apartment. We were no longer in a place that was unfamiliar to both of us, but in a city that I knew very well. It was my time to be a tour guide, and C. was ready and willing to explore. We had the entire afternoon ahead of us, the sun was shining and Rome was ours for the taking. Leaving the apartment, we headed for Piazza Trilussa and the Ponte Sisto, which would lead us over the Tiber and out of Trastevere; I knew there would be plenty of time to explore our little neighborhood in the next two days. My immediate plan was to find a place to have a snack and maybe a glass of wine, and to show C. a few of my favorite spots that were close by.

Our first stop was to see the Campo de’Fiori, even though I knew would be winding down at that hour. We had missed the full display of beautiful produce and caught the Campo in a state of disarray, as vendors were tearing down their stands and packing up for the day. Not very impressive. I hung a right and headed towards Antico Forno Marco Roscioli for some pizza bianca; it was a wonderful feeling to walk in there and see the exact same people behind the counter I remembered from my November trip. I heard the familiar “whack-whack” of the cleaver as they cut our slices for us and carefully wrapped them in brown paper for easy munching. As we wound our way towards Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II, I pointed out the lovely Rome-is-Home apartment that I happily occupied a few months prior, and the grand church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

We walked to Piazza Navona, which was filled to capacity and in complete chaos, wall-to-wall with huge tour groups and masses of Italian schoolchildren. I decided to duck into the nearby San Luigi di Francesi to escape the crowds, and to show C. the St. Matthew cycle of paintings by Caravaggio.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was conducting an impromptu drive-by of Rome’s greatest attractions, which was not my style in the least. Our slow, slow means of travel in Umbria had shifted into high gear in Rome, where every turn of a corner meant stumbling upon another treasure. Rather than feeling guilty about not taking it slowly, I forged on, many times breaking into a trot to keep up with C. and lead him in the right direction.

The Pantheon was the next stop, and I and watched with glee as his we rounded the corner and C.'s jaw dropped. The Piazza della Rotunda was as packed as Piazza Navona was, but the crowds were less noticeable in the shadow of this magnificent structure. We went inside for a few moments to admire the dome upon which all others were modeled, and I promised C. we would stop by again when it was less packed.

The next stop was to Tazza D’Oro, for an icy caffe granita, which was scrumptious. Nearby was my favorite church in all of Rome, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, so I insisted we go in. The frescoes by Filippino Lippi that had been undergoing restoration last November were unveiled, and it was an unexpected treat to see them in all their glory. We slowly wandered about the majestic Gothic church, and I pointed out the many treasures art stored within her.

By the time we got outside, I was ready to find a spot for a leisurely glass of wine, but C. was so happy and excited by everything around him, I didn’t have the heart to suggest stopping. We looped back to Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II and crossed the street to see Largo Argentina and the kitties in the sanctuary located there. As usual, I was more excited by the kitties than my companion, but C. indulged me nonetheless. Since we were so close to Piazza Venezia, I thought it was the logical next stop. Up the Campidoglio we climbed, this time stepping into the shadow of Marcus Aurelius on his horse. C. was thrilled when we walked behind the Campodoglio and the expansive view of the Forum opened in front of him. It was at this moment I realized that I was in the midst of a full-on shoe crisis.

Choosing which shoes to wear in Italy is a task wrought with peril for countless numbers of women, including me. The very shoes that are likely to provide the most comfort for one’s constantly over-worked feet are usually so ugly it is a wonder that Italians even allow us to bring them into their fair and fashion-sensitive country. For this trip in particular, I had not been very wise with my shoe choices; my two pairs were more plain than ugly, but my biggest mistake was not breaking them in adequately before attempting to walk for miles in them. So it was there, overlooking the Forum, with Roman blisters that had formed upon Umbrian blisters that I conceded defeat to my bloody and battered feet.

I whimpered and tried to hide my pain from C., who was still raring to go, knowing that I had to continue as best as I could. It was the last day of La Settimana della Cultura, a week of free entrance to many museums and cultural institutions throughout Italy, C. happily trotted down the steps to the Forum entrance, looking up at me to follow him. For the rest of the afternoon, I limped my way through the Forum, limped my way through the Colosseum, and limped my way back home to Trastevere. It was a marathon of sights that I knew I would never repeat, but was happy to conduct in order to let C. see as much of Rome as he could. Thankfully, he had tuckered himself out as well, and when we finally collapsed on the couches in our apartment, he was ready to take to it easy for a few hours. I headed for the bathtub to soak my angry feet.

A few hours later, with my feet covered in band-aids and socks, we emerged from our apartment in the dusky evening, searching for a place to dine. We tried one, two, three restaurants in Trastevere, each turning us away. It was a Saturday night, after all, and we had no reservations. Again, this was my fault, since I had failed to make any. I had never needed them before. Wrong. C. saved the day by suggesting a restaurant recommended to him by a friend; I gave Ristorante Santa Lucia a quick call and was thrilled to hear that they had a table for us. In order to preserve my tender feet, we hopped into a cab.

Ristorante Santa Lucia is located in a little piazza just off of Piazza Navona, next to the ivy-covered Hotel Raphael. Their specialty is seafood, and after a week of truffles, truffles and more truffles in Umbria, we were happy to have something bracing from the sea. The restaurant has a charming patio that sits in center of Largo Febo, underneath twinkling lights that are hung from the trees above. Even though it was a bit chilly, we chose to sit outside.

The first order of business was to procure some wine, and for our fish dinner we chose a nicely chilled Vermentino di Sardegna DOC that was simply wonderful. For our antipasti, we began with a Mixed Antipasti Fritti, which included fried whitebait zeppole, anchovies and zucchini flowers. With it, we split a lovely and light salad of calamari, fennel and blood oranges. The pasta courses that followed were absolutely wonderful: Spaghetti with Calametti (little squids) and Bottarga, and Scialatielli, a long, thick pasta rope tossed with baby octopus, honey fungus (a kind of sea mushroom) and carpet-shell clams. For our secondi, C. ordered colossal grilled scampi which were sweet and luscious, and I enjoyed tender Swordfish sauced with tomatoes, capers and olives.

What a fantastic meal we enjoyed under the stars; the service was efficient, warm and very friendly, too. Santa Lucia is now on my top ten list of Roman restaurants.

I decided to give Piazza Navona another try, so after we paid our check we strolled over to see what was happening in Rome's most famous square. It was hopping and busy, but nowhere near as crowded as it had been during the day, and the Bernini fountains were lit in all their glory. As we passed Tre Scalini, I could not resist suggesting that C. sample a tartufo and watch the young Romans parade by. We procured a table, ordering tartufo and a bottle of prosecco which delighted our waiters, who doted on us as if we were honeymooners. The tartufo was darn good, as was the prosecco, and C. and I proceeded to get pleasantly buzzed. We could have stayed there all night, but eventually the waiters began to break down the tables and clearing their throats - loudly. We paid the check and floated away from Piazza Navona towards the Ponte Sisto. The streets of Rome on a Saturday night held the same energy as those of New York, and we felt completely at ease as we strolled across the Tiber. The Dome of St. Peter's was reflected on the river, and thanks to the prosecco, I didn't even feel my feet. And neither of us noticed the tacky bedspreads as we fell asleep, hard and fast.

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