“The light in Rome in September is remarkable,” our cab driver told us as we whizzed through the Piazza Venezia on a dazzling morning.
Driving in the Eternal City is also really something. It’s like a ballet. There are roundabouts everywhere, with nothing meaningful to designate lanes. Yet somehow everyone–the beautifully dressed business people on their scooters, the drivers of tiny five-speed Fiats, the brave souls who commandeer tour buses–all seem to understand how to make it work.
It’s hard to know where to look. Everything is beautiful: the people, the buildings in their varying degrees of ancientness, the greenery.
It’s a big city with lots of hustle and drive. Add in the hordes of tourists, even in the fall, and it’s raucous. We’d landed at 7 in the morning after a half-day’s worth of plane travel and had a good eight hours to traipse around before we could check into our hotel.
Sitting adjacent to a piazza in the lovely neighborhood of Trastevere, we enjoyed an early lunch and gorged on people watching. Nuns hurried by. A mother was breastfeeding by the fountain. Across the outdoor seating at the restaurant, I spotted the actor Sam Waterston haggling over a bill.
For a place to stay, I’d chosen what is reputed to be one of the quietest parts of Rome. Aventine Hill is the southernmost of the city’s seven hills, with a quiet and elegant residential neighborhood at its core.
Only one thing brings tourists up here: the Knights of Malta keyhole. Here you can peer through to see three countries, from the autonomous property of the Gran Priorato di Roma Dell Ordine di Malta, though a patch of Italy and then to the Vatican.
The Aventino neighborhood, as it’s known, is a quiet haven with only a couple of hotels and no restaurants. It’s a place where real, if quite rich, Romans live.
Testaccio, just down the hill, is a little grittier, but it has plenty of places to eat and drink. The area is also an amphora graveyard, a place where the ancient Romans threw away all of their pots. The 2000 year-old shards can be seen throughout the neighborhood.
For traditional Roman dishes (no spaghetti and meatballs here, the menu sternly warns) try the very popular Flavio Al Velavevodetto, which bills itself as “The Temple of Roman Cuisine.” (Via Di Monte Testaccio, 97/99-00153.) Reservations strongly advised.
In Aventino, we stayed at Hotel San Anselmo. Converted from a private villa, it’s a beautiful spot with staff who are incredibly professional. The service is formal and proper as hell. (Via di Sant’Anselmo, 2, 00153, Rome.)
When evening came, we were exhausted and I was trending downward into what would develop into acute bronchitis. Our dinner at Flavio’s was quiet, but that was only due to our reservation at 8. In Italy this is apparently the equivalent of the Luby’s crowd in America at 5.
By the time we left around 10, there was a line of twenty-somethings, the fellows in smart suits and the women in killer heels, smoking and visiting with enthusiasm, forming around the corner. It was Monday night.
Back at the hotel, we sat outside for a time in the quiet area behind the building, a spot where we’d enjoy tea and breakfast the next morning.
There, as through the rest of the night, there were few sounds beyond the odd dog barking. Up for most of the night coughing, I had plenty of time to gaze out the window at the moon and stars. It was okay. I didn’t want to miss a moment anyway.