How do you experience a place as rich and ancient as Rome in less than 8 hours?
That was my dilemma back in December last year, when I was sent to Italy to cover the president’s state visit. We were there for nearly a week, but our days were filled with work so I only got into tourist mode hours before we had to fly back to Manila.
The plan, basically, was to explore the city by myself. I never thought I would be able to go around a European city in my 20s, and the excitement was overwhelming. It was always just a fantasy, and even in my fantasies I only got to go because there was a special occasion I had prepared for months before, like a honeymoon.
I’m not a fan of following a strict plan when traveling, so generally I was just going to wing it. But there was one non-negotiable: I had to get inside the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.
My cameraman had a Filipino friend whose husband owned a restaurant near the Colosseum, so he told me to contact her in case I wanted to grab breakfast before getting into the Colosseum. Unfortunately I got tied up in the morning with work-related things, so I got there late and we didn’t have time for breakfast. She told me she had only been inside the Colosseum once or twice and haven’t explored the Roman Forum despite living in Rome for years, so as a way to make up for the trouble I caused her, I offered to buy her ticket inside (a ticket costs 20 euro, in case you want to know).
The Mother of All Ruins
The Colosseo, as it is called there, is the grandest, most spectacular structure I have ever seen. As the largest ampitheater ever built, it is one of Rome’s most popular tourist destinations. As soon as I entered I felt transported back in time. The ancient brick walls! The dark passageways! As I gawked at the tunnels, I imagined what it must’ve been like for the gladiators who once passed through them, knowing that they were about to walk to their deaths.
There weren’t that many people, so going around was pretty easy. Most of them traveled in groups, often with a tour guide who, I suppose, probably explained the historical significance of every pillar in the place. I felt slightly envious, but I took comfort in the fact that I…had the internet. Every now and then I’d google something I’d see–and that, my friends, is how I learned the word “hypogeum” (a series of underground dens and passageways, which, in theColosseum’s case, can now be seen because the arena no longer covers it).
From the Colosseum we walked to the nearby Roman Forum, or Foro Romano. Now, I’ve always found ruins of historical structures fascinating, but the Foro Romano ruined all other ruins for me. Once the city center with the most important temples and government buildings, it is now a vast, sprawling display of pillars and brick walls that withstood the test of time.
And it was all breathtaking.
What made it so exciting for me was the history that surrounded the place. Here was where leaders of ancient Rome delivered their famous speeches. Where they condemned their criminals, and worshipped their gods. As someone who grew up reading Greek and Romanmythology, seeing what remains of the statues of the twins Castor and Pollux sent shivers down my spine.
After exploring the ruins and taking more pictures than necessary, my new friend Jasmine invited me to her apartment, which was only a few blocks away. There she introduced me to her Italian husband Leonello, the restaurateur.
He asked me why I was there, and I told him I came from Paris, where I covered part of the climate change summit.
He asked me what I thought of Paris, and I said I found everything in it beautiful. I may have raved a little bit; I may have said that Paris chose no angle, that everywhere you looked there was beauty, even in the trees, even in the graffiti.
He smiled. It is beautiful, he said…and it was once part of Rome.
Nearly of Europe, after all, was once part of Rome.
I was still reeling from the beauty of that statement and thinking about the great Roman empire when he uttered magical words that completely took my mind off European history: Have. You. Ever. Had. Homemade. Italian. Pasta.
Once I said ohIwouldlovethathankyouverymuch, he and Jasmine took turns making fettucine con funghi porcini e bottarga (fettucine with porcini mushrooms and cured fish roe). I was so in awe of my luck — “I am inside an Italian home and an Italian restaurateur and his wife are making me pasta from scratch!“, my mind screamed — that the preparation process was kind of a blur to me. At some point pasta was taken out of the refrigerator. It was softened in boiling water. Mushrooms were chopped. Bottarga, which looked like dark cheddar cheese to my untrained eyes, was shredded, and as they tossed it with the pasta they tried to explain what it tasted like.
It tasted divine.
At first my taste buds adjusted to the foreign flavor, but once I had two bites, I couldn’t stop. How could mixing together so few ingredients result in a dish as precious as this? My favorite adventurer Anthony Bourdain had said something about it, I was certain, but I couldn’t really think of much as I wolfed down the food.
More to Explore
So my plan to explore Rome by myself didn’t exactly happen. That’s okay; I gained a friend who told me more about the city than I would’ve known from the Internet. And having a companion meant not all of my pictures were selfies, so that’s another plus.
There’s still so much of Rome I didn’t get to see. The Trevi Fountain, for one, which was featured so prominently in “When In Rome” that I felt ashamed that I didn’t get to go there when I was in Rome. I wish I had the time to get into actual buildings too, and not just ruins.
The good thing about missing a few things, though, is that it gives me more reason to go back. My gracious hosts and new friends certainly give me more reason to go back. I’m not sure how I’m going to go back to that beautiful city without selling a kidney, but I’ll find a way. After all, all roads, as they say, lead to Rome.