When in Rome

Jonathan Ray walks his socks off on his first visit to the Eter­nal City

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

IT is ridicu­lous, I know, but there I was in my late 40s ru­ing the fact I’d never been to Rome. I’d hate you to think I ama com­plete philis­tine, how­ever, for I have been to Venice dozens of times (I even got en­gaged there, thanks to a Bellini-fu­elled rush of blood to the head in Harry’s Bar).

I also know Florence, Siena, Mi­lan, Naples, the Amalfi coast and so on. Some­how, though, Rome had slipped through the net. It’s like ig­nor­ing Gina Lol­lo­b­rigida be­cause you’re dis­tracted by Sophia Loren and Clau­dia Car­di­nale,’’ mused my Ital­ian film buff mate Mark. No crime in that. But if this gap in your ed­u­ca­tion both­ers you, then go. It did, so I went.

A quick call to my favourite travel agent and Ma­rina and I were booked into the re­as­sur­ingly swish and swanky Ho­tel de Russie. This, we are told, is the favoured Ro­man hang-out of Ge­orge Clooney and Brad Pitt (the news of which put quite a spring in Mrs Ray’s step) not to men­tion Cameron Diaz and Ju­lia Roberts (which put quite a spring in mine).

The Russie cer­tainly isn’t cheap but it’s a fab, el­e­gant spot, me­tres from the Pi­azza del Popolo. The grub is su­perb and the wine list ex­tremely drink­able. A sup­ple­men­tary list — I Vini Delle Stelle — fea­tures wines pro­duced by stars such as Mick Huck­nall, Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, Ger­ard Depar­dieu, Bob Dy­lan and Ca­role Bou­quet. We made fair in­roads into this dur­ing our stay, agree­ing that the ex­cel­lent Mon­tepul­ciano d’Abruzzo from racing driver Jarno Trulli was our pick of the pops.

We didn’t spend all our time eat­ing and drink­ing, al­though Ma­rina did her best to di­vert us into ev­ery gela­te­ria, os­te­ria or enoteca that we passed.

My chum, El­iz­a­beth, who once lived here, sent us three sug­gested itin­er­ar­ies. So detailed and con­cise were they, we didn’t even bother to buy a guide­book.

Her first walk took us from the Span­ish Steps down Via Con­dotti (shops and bou­tiques galore), Via Borgh­ese and Via Marzo to the Pan­theon. Then to Pi­azza Novona, a vast bustling square once used for char­iot racing, now filled with the same crap painters and paint­ings you find in Mont­martre. Its pizze­rias were crammed with tourists, so we stuck to El­iz­a­beth’s itin­er­ary and ducked into the al­leys west of the square and made for the church of Santa Maria della Pace.

Here, in a se­cluded first-floor clois­ter, we found the en­chant­ing restau­rant she rec­om­mended. We were the only for­eign­ers there and we smugly sipped prosecco (me) and Aperol (Ma­rina) like the true Ro­mans we had be­come. Over the next 48 hours we walked our socks off fol­low­ing the sainted El­iz­a­beth’s im­pec­ca­ble di­rec­tions. Down to the Fo­rum, the Colos­seum and the Cir­cus Max­imus; over the river to Traste­vere; back past the Trevi Foun­tain, Tra­jan’s Col­umn and Tem­ple of Her­cules; up to the Borgh­ese Gar­dens and so on.

Al­though ex­cel­lent pit stops and restau­rants were marked for us along the way, I like to think that we weren’t com­pletely idle, manag­ing to roo­tle out one of our own: Hos­te­ria La Lam­para, a stun­ningly fine, brand­new fish restau­rant near the Pan­theon.

At the end of our stay, as we nursed our throb­bing feet with a re­vi­tal­is­ing bot­tle of prosecco in Buc­cone, a won­der­fully well-stocked enoteca in Via di Ripetta, Ma­rina and I voted on our worst and best of Rome.

Worst was our trip to the fa­bled An­tico Caffe Greco near the Span­ish Steps. Here we were served cof­fee and grappa by a mis­er­able, sullen old git in a grubby tail coat, and were charged might­ily for the priv­i­lege.

The best was harder. We agreed that the ma­jes­tic Fo­rum, bathed in early spring sun­shine, was a sight worth wait­ing all th­ese years to see, but it was edged into sec­ond place by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s ex­traor­di­nary sculp­tures, Apol­loandDaphne and TheRapeof Proser­pine , in the Gal­le­ria Borgh­ese. Th­ese ex­traor­di­nar­ily fluid works (how could mar­ble be made to look so soft and pli­able?), Bernini’s first solo com­mis­sions, date from 1621 when he was barely 23. They alone were worth the trip. The Spec­ta­tor Jonathan Ray is wine ed­i­tor of TheDai­lyTele­graph , Lon­don

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