Saturday, March 14, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #331] The Eternal City

So, finally, this past weekend I got to make a trip three years in the making to decide which European capital is the hottest. Berlin, my spiritual home, is undoubtedly the sexiest. A trip to Madrid shocked Russ's and my libidos to their cores. Parisian men, of course, have a certain je ne sais quoi. But who can make a list of lucky genes without bringing up the Italians? My first visit to the boot was pleasant, but certainly showed diluted evidence of Italy's claim to fame; but I was in the North, and I wouldn't want to rank Britain based on Middlesbrough, so a trip to the capital was, for scientific purposes, necessary.

Fortunately, Mary Keany had a drive to go to Rome as well - something about some old buildings, art, fountains and the such. In the spirit of bipartisanship that is the manner of today, we set out on a joint mission on our separate journeys as a commemoration of Mary's imminent departure to Sydney for 10-12 months next week. (Did someone say Mardi Gras 2010?)

So - Rome! Stepping off the plane you can tell you've left the more industrious, richer North, but the fading, wear and minor crumbling are all part of the charm. You don't get to have both a relaxed life eating, drinking and being merry and gleaming cities. The Romans came to that fork in the road millennia ago and have stuck fastidiously to their decision, and for that, I am thankful.

From the airport, after driving through open fields, regrettable new multi-use developments at highway exits miles from the city centre and an uncomfortably long series of 70s office blocks, we rounded a corner and very suddenly I had my first impression of Rome proper: "Wow. The Coliseum is really small." The rest of the drive was similarly uninspired. It was agreeable enough, don't take it wrongly - pleasant Mediterranean architecture interspersed with ruins and monuments, but it lacked that indefinable something that made me want to jump out into the streets the way other cities had. It was Lisbon on too much cappuccino.

We checked into our continental-sized room, unpacked and headed out into the city to try a restaurant that sounded good in the guide book Mary brought. Sadly, it was full for the night. Unsadly, it was just around the corner from a square that we thought was going to be hyptertouristed, but which turned out in fact to be - wonderful. Over the next three hours, at dinner, I learned what my Rome was all about and my hesitation with the city faded into a happy, gastronomic pleasure. Rome is a city to feel and taste more than to see. It has its dramatic vistas (The Vatican, Trevi Fountain and, admittedly, the Coliseum at night), but it's meant to be lived and played in - it is not a museum, despite its antiquity.

Mary did get me out on a stroll the Sunday night past some of the highlights, and Monday we did a whirlwind pre-flight tour through the Vatican. I was more interested in the geopolitical fact of a country that is less than half a square kilometre in size than in any religious or artistic aspect, but I capitulated to touristic pressure and gave my donation to the Holy See to see Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

I've known this for quite some time, but this confirmed it: this is not the sort of thing that thrills me. Of course it's gorgeous and amazing, but I just don't get the pleasure out of museums and their variants the way others do. And it's certainly impossible for me to have an inspired moment, no matter how amazing, if I am surrounded by hundreds of other people busily checking off an item from the to-do list in their guidebooks. I'd've been happier spending that €30 on two bottles of great wine, talking with Mary Keany and people watching in a piazza tucked away in some corner of the city. I prefer the people's Rome.

So the official verdict? Berlin is sexier, Madrid is hotter, Rome has better food.

Ciao bello,

Link to all the pics:

Signage at Fiumicino airport

The palace Parlamento - they got these beds from France, obviously

Ancient Romans having fun. Actually, the guy doesn't look too interested - he must be Greek

Trevi Fountain, where you're only allowed to make one wish: to come back to Rome

Mary threw about €25 worth of coins in

Look! Rome has that lived-in look of pre-Giuliani New York!

Me getting close to God

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

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