Eternal Rome

In Destinations, Europe by Kathryn Lejeune

Rome, with its storied history and candid appreciation of beauty, is well suited to its residents. Just as the ubiquitous fountains throughout the city flow freely, Romans themselves exhibit a joie de vivre seen in the clothes they wear, the way they talk, and their generous approach to food. This is a city shaped by passion and a thirst for life, whose citizens influenced the entire world. To whirl through the main attractions is to see only one layer, taste only the first course. Turn a corner and there is a fantastic statue, carved by a master, and yet the story behind it is just as fascinating. We wanted the full experience, so we went to the experts at LivItaly Tours, and the city came alive for us in unexpected ways.

This is how Rome should be done. LivItaly’s private, intimate tours make it seem like you have an extremely knowledgeable friend in town. That’s exactly how it felt as we joined the owner and founder, Angelo Carotenuto, during his Sunset Walking Tour. The buildings of Rome are painted in warm colors purposefully, for when the sun stretches into late afternoon the city turns golden. It makes for breathtakingly beautiful sights. “This is my favorite time of day,” said Angelo, sighing and looking out over the varied skyline. The city was aglow and the white wings of soaring seagulls caught the light.

We came upon the Trevi Fountain quite abruptly. One moment we were walking down a narrow street, then suddenly it loomed before us. I gasped. Angelo laughed good naturedly, this was obviously a favorite moment for him in the tour, and explained this was done intentionally by the architects, who call it a Baroque Surprise. We threw our coins in and admired the colors of the well lit fountain reflecting in the happy faces of the crowd.

When one hears of a wine tour, most often a sampling of good wine at a few select restaurants is expected. However, the experience in this case was so much more than that. Over the course of an intimate, pleasant evening, our guide, John, led us step by step through what it was to truly taste, and therefore enjoy, wine. Each varietal was painstakingly paired with food, and John encouraged us to ponder the effects of salty, sweet, and savory upon our palettes. Tannins no longer hold mystery for us.

Early one morning, we met LivItaly Tours in front of the Vatican Museum. Through them, we were able to experience something most tourists never get the chance to see: a nearly empty Sistine Chapel. Usually, the chapel is at full capacity, a thick mob of gawking crowds staring up at Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, quietly shuffling into each other. Under Angelo’s efficient urging, however, we swept down hallways while he warmly greeted each guard. The Vatican Museum is enormous, but eventually we rounded a corner and an attendant ushered us inside. We were one of only a few people quietly observing each panel in turn. Earlier Angelo had, with great waves of his arms and dramatic asides, filled us in on all the history (aka juicy gossip) behind the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Because of this, we saw not just a painting on a ceiling, but a story of the world that was and people much like us.

History buffs, if you haven’t been to Rome in a few years, it’s time to go back. A renewed interest, as well as a clearing of red tape by the city’s new mayor, has led to exciting new discoveries whose import has yet to be fully recognized. Our guide, Rachel, an enthusiastic ex-pat from North Carolina, has seen many treasures unearthed just in the last few years. Taking us through the Ancient Cities Tour, we moved from the very first bank. to the first law office, the emperor’s palace, the Colosseum, and more. All the while getting the dirt on ancient, and yet somehow still quite sensational, scandal and revelations. Aside from indulging her enthusiasm for archaeology, Rachel explained she moved to Rome for the food culture as well. ”You should visit in the fall,” she gushed, “the truffle harvest comes in and the young wine, too”.

On a fine afternoon, we decided to do as the Romans do and visit Borghese Gardens. Located just above Piazzo del Popolo, the gardens provide an excellent viewpoint to look out across the city. We bought a couple bottles of Birra Moretti at a street cart and sat among the flowering trees to people watch. Busts of long dead heroes and political figures lined the shaded walkways as rollerbladers glided by. We felt like quite the locals as we wandered the paths, smiling and nodding to the sharply dressed couples we passed.

Wherever I travel, I always try to get in a cooking class. LivItaly offers a class with “Nonna Lina,” but don’t call her Nonna to her face! Lina, a vibrant woman with passion for life spilling from her like a light, hosts a truly authentic Italian kitchen experience. So authentic, in fact, that each of her three sons called to say hello during the session held in her beautiful outdoor kitchen. Using only the freshest organic ingredients, we covered all the basics of a full Italian meal: cheese and meat, appertivo, pasta course, meat course, and dessert. Wine flowed freely while we made pasta from scratch and sprinkled parsley over sizzling strachetti. We discussed the joys of cooking and how it is a lot like love: for when one shares food, everyone is the richer for it. “Some people buy expensive handbags, but I wanted this,” she said, gesturing above us to her gazebo surrounded by fruit trees and flowering vines. Here is a woman who understands life, I mused, as I sipped her homemade limoncello.

A day trip to the countryside began with a visit to a city that is dying: Civita di Bagnoregio. Slowly crumbling into the valley over the centuries, it now looks like something straight out of a fairytale. Sad and yet romantic in its doom, the stone walls holding up doors to nowhere create an unreal scene. Dainty footed cats with smug expressions lounge along the middle of the cobblestoned walkway. Only fifteen people still live on this island in a valley, though it remains a lovely place to grab a glass of wine.

Orvieto is a medieval town in Umbria situated on a crest of a hill. Inside the town are fine shops, but the main attraction is the enormous cathedral, whose stripes and intricately embellished columns are mesmerizing in their complexity. In nearby Castel Giorgio is a yoga retreat like none other. The building of Locanda della Quercia Calante itself is old and solid, while the interior has been completely redesigned by the owner himself. Yogis from around the world teach here, bringing their classes along to soak up the positive energy of the grounds. Anyone can stay, or, with advance notice, stop by for an unforgettable meal. We were served a five course meal, where every ingredient was sourced within a few miles of the retreat, if not from right on site. The olive oil is from their own olive trees, the steak from the ranch down the street. Despite my full belly, I could still imagine how refreshing it would be to stay and practice yoga in such a tranquil place.

Just outside of Rome, in Selci Sabino, is La Vecchia Quercia, a small rustic bed & breakfast that serves food for the hungry soul. Plate after plate came to the table as the gracious hosts sought to make the experience perfect. The menu is vast and varied, offering up rare items such as pigeon and boar. Gazing upon the local bottle of wine, an old legend came to my mind of the Rape of Sabine, where Roman men abducted the women of a town to be their wives. I mentioned this to the table, and they nodded and said “yes, it was from here they took the women.” Despite my week in Italy, it still struck me to be on location of such a well known piece of history.

No trip is complete without souvenirs. Having feasted so mightily during our trip, it only made sense to stop at Eataly for edible momentos. If the high-end, fresh ingredients get to be too tempting, one may also stop and eat at one of the many restaurants scattered throughout the multi-storied building. I picked up flower salt, fresh gnocchi, sauces, beer and wine. In late November, Eataly is hosting the greatly anticipated Roma FOOD & WINE Festival. I will be quite sorry to miss it, but as if to ease my jealousy, Eataly recently announced an expansion to Los Angeles in 2017.

Rome opened its arms to us, as it does to all who visit, and urged us to take more, “Mangia! Mangia!” (“Eat! Eat!”). With great pleasure and a fine appetite, we did. We added our stories to the larger story of Rome, another layer upon a rich history.