Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Villa of Dreams

In keeping with my ebullient mood, I feel the need to show off a little.

How lucky am I  to take my regular exercise in the grounds of a glorious Renaissance villa? Complete with manicured gardens, meadows, fountains, lakes, and hundreds and hundreds of my beloved Roman pines? I write of the Villa Pamphilj, a summer haven sprawling over Gianicolo hill and into the valley behind it, created in the 17th century by the rascal Camillo Pamphilj, (son of the infamous Donna Olimpia Maidalchini--more on her later) and originally called Bel Respiro. It has been a public park since the 1960s, at which time it was sadly cut in two by a busy new street. Only in the year 2000 was a sky bridge built to connect the two sides.

At 185 hectacres (455 acres) the villa feels like bit of countryside within the steaming city, and this lush retreat, high above the bustle of Rome, offers surprising tranquility.  A few nights ago I took a twilight bike ride through my enchanted forest, bringing along a camera to capture what I knew I would fail to express in words.

The Villa's lovely lake. What are all those little dots in the water?

Oh my goodness, turtles!

Lots of turtles!!

Turtles and ducks and swans, oh my!

The one spot in the villa where you can see the very tip of Saint Peter's dome.

I've been looking for a new place to live... I think I've found it!

Acqua Paola. This aqueduct is not ancient, although it follows the path of the ancient aqueduct, the Acqua Traiana. A few underground sections of the original aqueduct are still intact, and were incorporated into this Renaissance one when it was built  in 1612 by Pope Paul V Borghese. It brings water to Rome from the volcanic lake north of the city, Lago Bracciano, and feeds many of Rome's most important fountains, such as those in Piazza Navona, Piazza Farnese, St. Peter's, Trastevere, and of course the Fontanone.

The view on my ride home. Ahhhhh......

All photos by author
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Siamo Romane... Trasteverine..."

When does buying olives and cheese nearly make you cry?

When you are buying them at the loveliest, sweetest, most delectably delicious salumeria in the most perfect and adorable neighborhood in the greatest, most beautiful city in the world... and when you know you are soon to be leaving that magical neighborhood with that wonderful shop.... (perhaps forever?)
No, I'm not leaving Rome. As much as she frustrates me, I don't think I could bear to part with her. But--at least for now--I'm leaving Trastevere.

People always ask me, "What is so great about Trastevere? It's so crowded/chaotic/loud at night/touristy/overpriced/cliché/covered in graffiti... Why do you insist on living there?"

Oh, only for a million and one reasons. But the one I'm thinking of right now is the one and only Antica Caciara. Baskets of the freshest ricotta cheese on the planet sit temptingly in the windows, along with dried meat hanging from the doorway with the worrying tag "Coglioni di Mulo" (mule's testicles). Inside the smell of the cheeses and cured meats could tempt even a vegan. Row upon row of olives, tubs of freshly made pesto and other sauces, barrels filled with bottles of local wine, narrow wedges of parmigiano lined up on the shelves. But all of this isn't the best part.

The best part are the people who work there. If you've ever lived in Rome, you know that the shopkeepers here are not always the friendliest bunch, especially if you are a dreaded foreigner. But the owner and his two charming assistants are the loveliest and most helpful people imaginable. Not even in my home town of Seattle--where customer service is an art form--have I been treated so well. Roberto, the owner, is soft-spoken and patient, carefully explaining how each cheese should be served and stored. At first I thought he was just unusually kind (which he is) but his assistants (one of which I assume to be his wife) are as courteous and friendly as he is. Samples are obligatory and leaving without a chat is unthought of.

As I bought my gaeta olives, I realized that this might be the last time (for a while) that I visit this delightful bottega, the reality of my departure from Trastevere--and all that I will miss about it--came crashing down on me. The winding streets, the cobblestones, the local shops on every corner: the fishmonger who keeps laughably short hours, the green grocer with his overpriced but glorious wild asparagus, the old man who beautifully frames my cheap prints, the two ladies at the laundrette who distinctly disapprove of me, the guy at the wine shop who's always ready with a smile and a "ciao bella!"...this is what I will miss most. Enveloped in the warmth of my adopted community, the graffiti fades into the background and all I see are ivy-covered buildings. My ears tune out the incessant car-alarms and revving of motors and I hear only churchbells. Even the stench of urine is covered by the scent of wisteria and freshly baked bread.

Trastevere means, "across the Tiber" and it is a neighborhood distinctly separate from the rest of the center of Rome. When you are there you feel it: time slows down a touch, the buildings get shorter and the streets get narrower. Sidewalks don't exist. A knife sharpener pushes a file attached to a bicycle through the streets, shouting up to the windows so the casalinghe can run down with their knives. They say some of the oldest Trasteverini pride themselves on never venturing to the other side of the river. And sometimes I think, well, why would they?
When I told Roberto and his wife that I was leaving Trastevere, they were sad, because they could see I was sad. "Trastevere è un piccolo villaggio dentro una città," said she, my thoughts exactly. "Trastevere brilla..." said he, and it does. On a sunny afternoon, approaching the Ponte Sisto, the bridge's sanpietrini shine as if lit on fire, like a golden brick road leading to the neighborhood I love best in all the world. From the battered fountain to the crooked rooftops, the medieval towers, the umbrella pines, and at last the Fontanone.

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