Viewing: Rome

Let’s do brunch in… Rome

Time to take a break from Berlin and fly off to another European city for  brunch!

This month’s guest blogger is someone who I’ve been delighted to get to know online—not just because she’s a fellow Filipina, but because she’s a creative soul who’s generous with her inspiring work and creative finds.

Kat Conte has a knack for discovering artists and artisans, and shares their stories and portraits on her blog Zero the One. She teaches a Video Portrait workshop on Skillshare, and her workshop was a huge hit at this year’s The Hive conference in Berlin.

So I’m happy to welcome Kat here to share another kind of find—a foodie find. Loosen your belt a notch as she takes us for an Italian-style Sunday brunch, il pranzo della nonna, or grandma’s lunch… in Rome!

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Tasting Trastevere

Just one last Rome post on my list before I get back to my life here in Holland (which has been pretty awesome lately, by the way). Still on the food trail, I simply must blog about Trastevere.

Nearly everyone I talked to who had ever been to Rome insisted that we visit Trastevere. A Roman neighborhood with narrow, winding streets that date back to medieval times, it has maintained its charm and character while becoming a local hangout and foodie hotspot filled with great restaurants and happening pubs. “You will love Trastevere,” our Dutch teacher, who had lived in Rome for years, assured us.

And we did. Three of the four dinners we had in Rome, we had in Trastevere. We took pretty much the same route each time, making these stunning sunsets over the Tiber a regular affair.

For our first dinner, we headed to Dar Poeta, a pizzeria recommended by a few people on Chowhound. We got there before seven so we didn’t have a hard time getting a table, but just one hour later the queue for tables was snaking all the way down the cobblestoned alley. There were quite a few tourists in the queue, but also a lot of people speaking Italian, which is always a good sign.
I ordered the Superbufala, topped with raw mozzarella bufala, black olives, tomato and pecorino cheese. Not only was I knocked out by all that glorious cheese, but the crust—somewhere between light and crisp on the bottom, chewy and soft on top—was unlike any I’ve ever had.
But that’s not the showstopper at Dar Poeta. The Nutella and ricotta calzone is.

Ready for some food porn? This is what happens when you cut into the calzone.

The whole pillowy mass deflates, and our old friend Nutella oozes out to say buon appetito.

Another stab with the knife and fork…

Then it’s ciao, ricotta! Or should I say chow?

Needless to say, we were two very satisfied customers.

The next night, we ate at Da Fabrizio, which we had seen on the way to Dar Poeta.

Da Fabrizio served what was hands down my best meal of the trip: a heaping plate of fresh, homemade pasta (which tasted so different from every pasta I’d ever had before!) with extra-virgin olive oil and shavings of black truffle. (The white truffle pasta, at €40 a plate, was simply out of my budget.)

It was so good, I lost my senses completely and forgot to take a photo of it. I did take a photo of our starter, though: slices of prosciutto from this massive porcine leg, which Fabrizio carves up himself.

On our last evening in Rome, we got lost while trying to find one of the restaurants recommended on the Chowhound forum. I went ahead of Marlon and kept taking random turns, following my gut… as in tiyan, haha. We ended up at a small piazza where this picturesque old farmhouse-style building stood. How could we pass a place like this and not want to step inside?

It turned out to be a pizzeria and taverna called the Taverna de’ Mercanti.

It was huge inside, with giant wood and brick ovens.
We ate outside, of course—we wanted to enjoy the warm weather before flying back to Amsterdam. The food was average (grilled pigeon and a very good patatas al forno for Marlon, a pizza for me), but the medieval tavern atmosphere was wonderful.

Afterwards we had gelati (produzione artigianale again) while watching a street magician perform in front of the church of Santa Maria di Trastevere.

After living in Holland for a few months, the idea of an entire neighborhood where almost every restaurant is a good one sounded almost unbelievable to me. But now I know that (duh) Trastevere is real! And I’m missing it already.

Rome nom nom nom

After falling into a number of tasteless tourists traps during my Portugal trip, I was determined to find good eats in Rome. My online research led me to the Chowhound forums, which in turn led me to some of the best meals of my trip. Now… where do I begin? 
Let’s start with the first meal of the day. Nope, not breakfast… gelato!

My first meal on my first day was a cone of creamy caffe, my all-time favorite flavor (flavorite?), for just €1.50. As we were walking from our apartment to the Centro Storico, I spotted a hole-in-the-wall gelateria somewhere on the Via Lepanto, marked with the words “gelati Siciliani” and “produzione propria artigianale.”

Now, Gelati originated in Sicily and foodies assert that gelati in Sicily is way different from the rest of Italy. Another tip I found around the blogosphere is to keep an eye out for gelaterias that are marked “produzione propria” (homemade), “nostra produzione” (our own production) or “produzione artigianale” (produced by artisans).

If you can’t tell by the smile on my face, this gelato was the my idea of a most kick-ass benvenuti from Rome. Marlon had the cannele, or cinnamon, which was everything you would imagine cinnamon gelato to be. Not having that was probably my only regret of the entire trip!

My other memorable gelato experience was at Giolitti near the Pantheon. We stumbled on it quite by accident. It was only when I looked up Giolitti much later, that I found out it’s actually Rome’s oldest ice cream parlor.
The gelati guardians at Giolitti’s counter will actually refuse to serve you if you order a combination of flavors that they feel do not go together at all. Fortunately, my limone e champagne combo passed their scrutiny. Unfortunately, after only a few truly intoxicating licks, the scoop of champagne dropped from my cone onto the ground. Ugh.
Thanks to Chowhound, I learned that Thursday is gnocchi day in Rome. Who are we to buck tradition? Our Lonely Planet Rome app (worth it for the offline map!) led us a few twists and turns away from the madding crowd and cheap tourist menus surrounding the Pantheon, to this unmarked trattoria for a reasonably priced meal that hit the spot.

In the same neighborhood, near the Keats-Shelley House, was the Chowhound-recommended La Campana, where I ordered (and thoroughly enjoyed!) something very out of character for me: rigatoni with oxtail. Romans love their offal—so as they say, when in Rome…

The service at La Campana was smooth and efficient, and our waiter lit up when I tried ordering with the few words of Italian I memorized on the plane.

Friendly service was also a pleasant surprise at Anti Luzzi, a tiny, family-run sidewalk trattoria near the Pantheon recommended by the owners of our B&B. At €8, their pizzas were half the price of those being sold across the street. And when I ordered a granita di caffe to cap my meal, the waiter tried to explain something to me in Italian. After seeing that I couldn’t understand him, he brought me a small taste of their granita… just to make sure I liked it enough to commit to an order.

I was expecting a basic iced coffee, and got a delightfully cold (perfect for the heat!), sinfully creamy dessert. What’s not to like?

Our final meal on the run was at Volpetti, a legendary gourmet deli on the Via Cola di Rienzo, a major shopping street close to St. Peter’s Square and Piazza Cavour where we caught the shuttle bus to the airport. It’s right next to a famous gourmet grocery called Franchi. If we hadn’t been in such a rush to get to the airport, Marlon and I would have loved to spend a good hour or two browsing in these two shops. It’s probably good for our wallets that we didn’t!
Volpetti’s system is familiar to all of us Pinoys. This is turo-turo, Roman style.
We stood at the counter to tuck in: Marlon with his porchetta (roast pork) and stuffed pomodoro tomatoes, me with my orzo (barley) alla contadina and insalata di polpo (octopus salad). 

We inhaled everything in less than 15 minutes and rushed off to the airport, bellies full. If only all fast food experiences were as precious.

From Borghese to Trevi

From a superturbocharged first day, our level of activity slowed down with each passing day we spent in Rome. We became less ambitious with each day’s itinerary, hitting the snooze button more times and dawdling longer and longer in our blessedly cool, thick-walled, marble-tiled apartment. 
So by the time our fourth day rolled around, it was nearly lunchtime by the time we set off for Villa Borghese, the sprawling gardens-turned-public park that once belonged to the powerful and wealthy Borghese family. We stopped for lunch at the Piazza del Popolo.

The Galleria Borghese was the “party house” of Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V. Borghese used his wealth and influence to amass a truly stunning collection of art. I was excited to finally see the works of artists I had only seen in books, such as Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Rubens.

Tickets for the museum need to be reserved well in advance over the phone. An Italian colleague of Marlon’s had helped us call the Galleria Borghese to reserve tickets for that day’s 1 to 3pm time slot. The administration is strict and will shoo everyone out after the allotted 2 hours are over.

The Galleria Borghese is simply jawdropping from the first step in. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden—but if it wasn’t, I’d be all over it with my camera.

Scipione Borghese was one of the earliest patrons of master sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose signature is all over Rome. It was in Galleria Borghese that I came face to face with the true genius of Bernini. His Apollo and Daphne is, without exaggeration, the most beautifully sculpted piece of art I’ve ever seen in my life. I must have spent half an hour just looking at it, and could have easily stayed longer. 
His Pluto and Proserpina in the next room is completely different, but just as captivating.

Photos from the Galleria Borghese website—they simply don’t do them justice!
After our museum visit, Marlon and I decided to just take it easy and cool off under the shade of the trees around the Villa Borghese. 

Our curiosity was piqued by the small, funny “tandem bike” buggies that rattled by us every now and then. “That looks like fun!” Marlon said. So we had to give it a try.

The buggies turned out to be electric riscios (rickshaws), that, along with regular bikes, can be rented on an hourly basis. 

Marlon and I rattled around the park for a good 45 minutes or so until we spotted something so tempting, we just had to park our riscio, get down and enjoy it.

A public fountain! After four days of broiling heat and constant walking, I can’t tell you what a treat it was to perch on the lip of this fountain and dip my poor footsies into this clear, ice-cold water. It is a miracle of Rome that the water in its fountains is always shockingly cold no matter how hot it gets.

I was obviously not the only one who felt this way. But I just couldn’t bring myself to take it to the next level!

Refreshed and rejuvenated, we returned the riscio and headed to the Piazza Spagna, or the famous Spanish Steps, starting all the way at the top for a sweeping view…

… stopping for a photo op, naturally…

… until we ended up all the way at the bottom, with the rest of the 48,000 tourists and their mothers who were there. #mobbed

Everyone was taking photos of this fountain just because it was there, so I did too. #sheep

Just a few streets away was the great granddaddy of all fountains, the Trevi. I didn’t expect it to be so… BIG!

The Trevi Fountain was completely mobbed, too. The crowd was overwhelming, so I just found an empty spot to sit down for a while before even taking a single picture. I may have lost count of how many people did the “tossing a coin into the fountain” pose, but I give all them an O for Originality!

Silent hill

Palatine Hill, or the Palatino, is the oldest and centermost among the famed seven hills of Rome. In addition to some of the city’s first and grandest homes, the Palatino is also where the Roman Forum—the main square around which ancient Rome’s public life revolved—were built.
Part of the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum are visible from one of the city’s main thoroughfares. After snapping a couple of pictures of this exposed portion, I thought I had seen the Roman Forum. I came thisclose to skipping the whole thing… which would have been highly regrettable.
Marlon and I had also considered doing a quick skip through Palatine Hill after our visit to the Colosseum. It was a good thing we didn’t, because wandering through the Palatino eventually took the greater part of an afternoon. 
There’s a lot to wander through and absorb. Palatino is where the word palace comes from—because the earliest, truly palatial private residences of the Western world were built here, sort of like a Forbes Park (sige na nga, Upper East Side para sosyal!) of the Roman empire. The homes of the wealthiest and most powerful Romans would be considered impressive even by today’s standards.

Much of what we saw on our meanderings were simply the brick understructures, devoid of ornament. Only a few fallen pillars and broken pieces of decoration remain to feed the imagination.

Imagine these walls clad in the purest, most expensive white marble, studded with carvings, mosaics and other minerals. Then imagine a whole hill full of these homes. #class
We attempted to tail an English-speaking tour group to find out as much as we could. Their guide splashed water on the pavement to reveal beautifully veined white marble. Marble sidewalks! #wow

Climbing Palatine Hill was hot work. Thankfully, the Romans built beautiful little public fountains everywhere. Many of them exist to this day, providing cool relief and drinkable water for overheated tourists.

We also sought shade under the many olive trees that dotted the hill. It was my first time to see them.

Palatine Hill encompasses both private homes and public spaces. The Stadium is one of the latter.

With just a little huffing and puffing, you get expansive views over Rome. Not just the Rome of today…

… but also the Rome of yesterday.

One of the most evocative and well-preserved spaces was the Casa delle Vestali, or the House of the Vestal Virgins. 
The Vestals were priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. They lived their whole lives as virgins, tending a sacred flame that could never go out. I loved Greek and Roman mythology growing up, so being in this space was a huge thrill for me.

For my ex-debater husband, it was a special experience to walk through the place where debate itself was born. By the way, the Forum was also the birthplace of Senate. So maybe I should’ve put aside my heady imaginings for a second to spit on its steps. This is for Enrile! And for Bong Revilla! And—PTOOOIE! Take that for Lito Lapid!

Seeing the Temple of Saturn looming over us was like coming face to face with a giant hand that had been held up to signal end of our visit. In the rays of the setting sun, what’s left of the temple regains some of its former grandeur.

Even just a fraction of a corner of a single pillar is as big as I am.

Like this fallen chunk of temple, so many forgotten fragments of art and architecture are scattered around the ruins.
Each piece makes you ache to see things as they once were. Your mind begins to work to fill in the gaps, to somehow piece together the clues that time has left behind.
 To me this was the best thing about Palatine Hill: the fuel it pours into your imagination.
You really do feel like you’re walking through a city. And what a beautiful, vibrant city it must have been in its day.
While its bustle and noise have been silenced, the beauty is still there, just… different.
Looking at the fragments that remain, such as in this temple, was like looking through cracks in time. 
I simply wished I could fall through those cracks. But all I can really do is stay on the outside, looking in. And I promise, I will always keep looking.

Night at the Musei

Just for peak season this year (Easter till early fall), the Vatican Museums opened their doors to the public on Friday nights. What used to be a very expensive privilege became a brilliant way for Marlon and I to beat the debilitating daytime heat and experience the Museums in an unusual way.
So I signed us up for a two-hour night tour of the highlights with an official Musei Vaticani guide. At €24, tickets from the Musei Vaticani website itself were the cheapest ones around. We were lucky to nab tickets only days before our visit.

Our official Vatican guide, Alexandra, was not only extremely knowledgeable and thorough, she also had amazing voluminous hair despite looking rather dead on her feet at 10pm. 

The Musei Vaticani house the vast art collection of the Catholic Church, a treasure trove that’s been amassed over centuries.

The magnitude of the collection is mind-boggling in itself. The Museum’s various galleries (only some of which are open at night) hold everything from ancient sculptures and priceless paintings, to more unusual things like maps and tapestries. 
Not all the art was centuries old. We only just breezed through the contemporary section, but I glimpsed large-scale works by the likes of Dali and Matisse, among many others. 
If you think the art is overwhelming, the decoration and ornamentation of the galleries themselves will make your head spin. By the end of the evening, I literally felt like my eyeballs were going to pop out (it’s a very… interesting feeling). There is art in every possible nook and cranny, masterpieces everywhere from floor…
… to ceiling.

My friend Jec asked, “Is it more mind-boggling than Versailles?” I snorted. The Vatican Museums make Versailles look positively minimalist.
And yes, I had to wrestle with that a bit. After my very emotional afternoon at St. Peter’s, thinking about the value of the art and—oh, you know this one—how much good it can do for the suffering of the world brought me crashing down. 
I know any of us in such a position to amass all these these treasures would keep them for as long as we possibly could. But this is an all too human instinct from a Church that professes to be divine. I wonder if a Musei Vaticani auction is something we will ever see in our lifetime. 
Since they are not exactly easy to sell, the masterpieces that are fixed to the buildings themselves are somewhat easier to think about. 
These are some of the Vatican Museums’ greatest treasures: ceilings and walls adorned with frescoes by Raphael.
I was glad to have my wide-angle lens, but these pictures cannot even come close to doing these ceilings justice.
How Raphael brought theology, history and even mathematics and philosophy together in his art was simply genius.

At the point where my eyeballs were about to fall out of their sockets, we entered the world’s most famous chapel with the world’s most famous ceiling. I managed to snap this photo before I saw the sign forbidding photography. 
It’s just as well that photography is not allowed; sometimes we forget to experience things with our own eyes, and not through a viewfinder or lens.

So I just threw my head back and stayed that way, eyes glued to the ceiling, for about 20 whole minutes. I tried to drink in as many details as I could. I simply didn’t want to forget. And I don’t think I ever will.

Mother of all churches

Most tourists who visit Rome actually end up visiting two cities in one: Rome and Vatican City. That’s just what we did on our second day.

There’s a dress code for entry into St. Peter’s Basilica and the Musei Vaticani: covered knees, shoulders and toes. I was glad that one of my favorite dresses (which I haven’t used all year!) turned out to be Vatican-appropriate. Later I saw them letting people in sandals in, so the ban on toes was probably relaxed for the summer. Kasi naman, Jinit Jackson talaga!

I don’t normally wear hats, but after just five minutes standing in St. Peter’s Square under the broiling sun, I had to break out my Japanese sun protection gear (from Uniqlo, naturally).

It was funny to see all the overheated tourists “queuing” under the shadow of the obelisk for some much-needed shade, like a giant human sundial.

Speaking of queues, our wait to get into St. Peter’s wasn’t that long… maybe just about 10-15 minutes. In dry, baking heat though, it can seem like forever. Still, it’s a good time to just take in all of St. Peter’s Square, another Bernini masterpiece. The architect’s design of the colonnades (those curved rows of pillars) were inspired by Christ’s open arms welcoming His flock; topping them are statues of 140 saints, many of them martyrs of the early church.

At the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica stands a member of the Vatican “fashion police,” something like an ultra-conservative bouncer who denies entry to visitors who haven’t complied with the dress code. Ah, memories of high school.

Admission to the Basilica is free, but you can get an audio guide for €10. All the art and history crammed into St. Peter’s makes it one of those places audio guides are made for. But it also works the other way: there is just so much history and information (narrated by what seems to be a rhapsodically ecstatic priest, lol) that I literally felt my head was going to explode. So I turned off my audio guide two-thirds of the way in.

Of course, you can just wander around and soak it all up by yourself. Because there is a lot to soak up. And I mean A LOT. After all, St. Peter’s is the mother of all churches, in every possible way.

I can’t even begin to describe the scale of the basilica, or the amount of art within its walls (not least of which is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta), or even the treasures beneath it (an underground graveyard city called the Necropolis, plus the graves of all the Popes dating back to the first Apostle, Peter himself).

I have to admit: I found the experience overwhelming. Not just visually, but emotionally. I found myself in tears three times: first, at the entrance (where I took the photo above). Second, at a small chapel where we caught up to the hourly Adoration of the Holy Sacrament. And third, at the altar, which is built over the place where St. Peter (that’s the famous statue of him on the right) was crucified. A mass was being celebrated at the time of our visit.

People are all at different places with regards to their relationship to the Church, and in their personal practice of faith. So not everyone might not react to St. Peter’s as emotionally as I did, or even understand my reaction.

But for me, St. Peter’s was a powerful reminder of the earliest days of the Church. Before wars in Christ’s name, before hierarchy, scandal, politics, before our own CBCP and Pajero bishops of today. When there was simply Christ himself—a force, love, a power, and a mystery so strong men (simple but honest men) died to follow him and profess their belief in him.

I needed that reminder. At the time, I was simply overcome by tears without really knowing what I was crying about. But now I also understand that I was crying for that time when we—when the Church was so close to Christ. How long ago it all was.
How do we ever find our way back?

Sometimes I feel like being a Catholic in these times entails a willingness to be seen as backward. Kumbaga e nawala na siya sa uso. It’s been a long way from the earliest days of the Church; along the way, its history has become laden with all the other things that characterize a history that is more human than divine. Sometimes I wonder why I still believe, and wish I could speak about my belief more powerfully and convincingly to people who question my belief, or have lost their own.

Being in St. Peter’s reminded me that I’m not the only one who believed without having all the answers. That I believe because of what I have experienced—and experience is simply so personal, it’s non-transferable. I was reminded that other people experienced it too, something so moving and powerful they were even willing to die for it. I don’t know if I would do the same, today. But they did. And that whispers to me, maybe I’m not crazy for believing. Or if I’m crazy, at the very least, I’m in good company.

Okay, I’m crying again. Enough big questions for now. The only question that remains is: How do you solve a problem like Maria?

That’s what I imagined these nuns were discussing as they crossed St. Peter’s Square, haha.

I was feeling rather emotionally drained after our visit to the Basilica (plus my feet were killing me), so for about an hour we just sat in St. Peter’s Square and watched people. I must have seen more nuns and priests go by in that one hour than I did in four years of Catholic high school. Then again, how could I forget that the Mother Ship was just a few meters away?

Eternally yours, Roma

I knew that I wanted to travel to a major “bucket list” type destination this year. When the gloom and gray of August began to depress me, I decided it was time to bring out the big guns. Thus our mid-September trip to Rome.

Rome proved me wrong about a few things. I thought mid-September would be cool enough to get just a bit of sun but not debilitating heat; I was wrong. I thought it would be hard to find a great, non-tourist menu meal; wrong again. I thought I wouldn’t do any shopping, having not factored it into our four-day itinerary… hah! Finally, I’d heard a lot of complaints about how rude, chaotic, touristy and overcrowded the Eternal City could be, and thought I might hate it; again, I was wrong. I recently realized that I’m no longer a big fan of big cities, and almost booked a trip to Cinque Terre instead. But Rome was so worth it.

From our AirBNB apartment in Prati, a residential area north of Vatican City and (by choice) a fair distance from the tourist hotspots, Marlon and I got up early on the first morning for a leisurely meander to the historic center. This was when I first started to fall in love with Roma.

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