And tomorrow it begins again…
The ‘Bocca Della Verita’. Made famous and romanticized in the classic Italian rom-com ‘Roman Holiday’, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, ‘The Mouth of Truth’ draws tourists by the droves who line up to experience a little bit of Hollywood magic every day of the week. From the moment the gates open, the queue to slip your hand into the same marble mouth that Mr Peck used to frighten a 24 year old Miss Hepburn on film, starts growing. And they don’t dissipate until the gates close in the late evening.
The legend says, if a hand is placed inside the mouth and a lie is spoken, the Bocca Della Verita will take that hand as punishment. Lovers use the ‘Bocca’ to swear eternal faith and loyalty, and gladly pay a €.50 donation to immortalize this declaration in photo.
While this monument bares a sweet sentiment, and is no doubt, an eternally romantic spot, there are equally, if not more romantic, and much less crowded spots, in this eternal city if you care to look for them.
Step back from the ‘Bocca Della Verita’ and walk about fifty meters to the right, turn up an innocuous cobbled side street, and you’ll be heading towards a scenery that even some of the Romans don’t know about.
The most striking part of following this path is noticing how the throngs of people seem to almost immediately disappear. The sounds of the traffic quieten and you find yourself, for the most part, completely alone as you step up the moss-covered pathway encased by creeping vines. It’s a rare moment in Rome where you can feel entirely in touch with your surroundings with few distractions. In this case, the only distractions you’ll find are the lively greens of the vegetation trying desperately to engulf the man made structures, and the way in which the lights breaks through this hidden place revealing shades of green and brown that make you truly grateful places like these exist.
Atop the slope is an old metal gateway sheathed in vegetation. It’s completely locked up and inaccessible but looking through gives you a sneak peak of the almost fully enclosed ‘Giardino Degli Aranci’, a square garden filled with orange trees and surrounded by ancient roman walls. Peer through and you’re sure to catch a glimpse of couples lying on the grass, intertwined, and small groups of friends sharing a picnic. But if you want to enter, you’ll have to trudge on a little further for there is only one true entrance to this secret garden.
Turn right at the gates, and walk along the roman walls until you reach the Piazza Pietro D’Illiria. There you’ll find the only entrance to the little known garden. In this square piazza, orange trees cover all four corners, and the gentle breeze whispers softly as it passes through their leaves, heavy with unripened fruit. Daisies cover the fields of grass, and white gravel stones coat the four walkways while a small fountain trickles steadily in the centre of the piazza. The birds resting in the trees chirp in harmoniously with a soundtrack to match the visual surroundings. This place is the epitome of peace and tranquility. Walk towards the end of the piazza and look over the ledge to find one of Rome’s most stunning lookout points. Take a look below at the river, gleaming in the sunlight, framed by the stone pine trees that Rome is renowned for, then look up across the pines and the river and into the distance to spot the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica breaking out amongst the buildings.
Some may be stunned enough by this view to move no further, but this would be a sorry mistake. Only a small walk further down Via di Santa Sabina and a slightly closer look, and the true star of this attraction reveals itself. The Knights of Malta (I Cavalieri di Malta) headquarters reside in its very own piazza, the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, and while the gardens of the Knights are not open to the public, the doorway into them presents a little gem to those looking to notice. Walk up to the grand gates and peer through the keyhole and what you’ll find is one of the most spectacular views in Rome.
The keyhole provides a sneak peak into the gardens of the Knights of Malta. Peer through and find green hedges lining a footpath to the edge of the garden. If you don’t know what you’re looking for this illusive beauty might easily distract you and you may not see the star attraction itself right away. But keep your eyes straight ahead and watch as St Peter’s Basilica comes into focus, perfectly framed by the hedges in the garden. It’s a view that can only be seen one at a time, to be enjoyed in your own, private moment of solitude. While it’s name may not be made immortal in film, and no Hollywood actress has ever brought it to fame, in it’s uniqueness, beauty and tranquility it makes itself one of the most romantic and secluded spots in Rome. It’s a little kind of buried treasure, in a secret garden, down a hidden pathway.
But you’ll have to find it for yourself.
I hear a buzzing in my ear. I squint my eyes opened slowly in confusion, and turn to find the object perpetrating the offending noise. It’s my phone. My alarm is what woke me from my slumber and it sure worked, I’m alarmed to find that it’s 5.30am. And then recollection strikes. For weeks I had been planning on waking up early and heading into the centre of Rome to view the sunrise, and apparently, last night I had committed to the plan. After several mental repetitions of ‘you can do this, it’s only waking up’, I lift my heavy limbs from their comfortable slumber and move on towards the confronting reality that lies beyond my bedroom. It’s cold and dark out there.
There’s something to be said for waking up early. Of course, there’s something to be said for staying in bed beyond 5.30am in the well-worn snug sheets that whisper promises to always keep you warm. But if you can break free from their tender embrace, pour yourself some of the life juice we call coffee and drag yourself outside before the sun wakes up, there are some sights to be seen, sights you won’t see at any other time of day. And in Rome it’s no different.
As I wait for the bus, under the moonlight, while the sun is still snuggly sleeping and there are only street lights to illuminate the few but prominent, shady characters around, I start to wonder if I’m crazy for trying to get into the historical centre before sunrise. But as I clamber onto the bus (careful to select a seat closer to the driver, away from the rebellious back seat passengers), I relax and remind myself that I am about to see something that not many people ever see. A quiet Rome. A Rome without the throngs of tourists that most people capture in every frame of their holiday happy snaps. I am going to see Rome before it’s woken up, while it still has sleep in it’s eyes. My excitement wells.
I change transportation in Trastevere and wait for the tram that eventually carries me over the Tiber River and into the heart of the city. The tram comes to a halt at Piazza Venezia, the area of Rome renowned for the imposing Vittorio Emanuele II Monument that commemorates the first king of Italy. While beloved by some for it’s prominence and the eternal flames that burns at the tomb of Italy’s Unknown Soldier, killed during World War I, it is loathed by others for it’s connections to Italy’s fascist period and the way in which it obscures the view of some of Rome’s most important historical architecture. I, personally, have always been fond of the ostentatious monument, affectionately referred to as the ‘wedding cake’, but at this moment as it blocks a potentially fantastic view of the distant Colosseum I can’t help but wish it out of existence. I wander down the road to capture the beauty of the ancient roman Amphitheatre ahead of the rising sun, with the evening street lights still glowing and guiding the few morning cars safely down Via Dei Fori Imperiali. I witness the affect of the slowly rising sun saturating the ancient roman structures in a soft orange hue, and attempt to capture the serenity of the scene with my amateur photography skills, but to no real avail. It’s impossible to replicate the feeling and vision this sight evokes without experiencing it first hand.
I make my way back towards Piazza Venezia and head down the popular shopping strip Via Del Corso, and although I expect it, I’m still amazed and filled with awe when I realise that I am indeed the only tourist on the street. I witness shutters opening on the various stores to accept deliveries and construction workers already well into their working day, but shoppers? Tourists? None. But why would they be here? It’s not yet 7am. Having realised, somewhat disappointedly, that I have no idea how to best capture the sunrise (the elusive sun having thrown me by rising from behind my preferred vantage point), I decide to spend the early morning wandering the streets and making my way to some of the cities most popular landmarks. My first stop, the Trevi Fountain.
Walking down the street with my oversized camera hanging comically around my neck, I begin to realise what a strange sight I am to the early bird workers. Their gawking and incredulous stares are my first indications that perhaps, it is not entirely common to see a tourist, such as myself, acquainting herself with Rome so early in the day. As I wander down the tall narrow streets and eventually luck my way to the Trevi Fountain, I understand just how out of the ordinary my presence is.
I look around and all I see is the large monumental fountain. Usually it is the hoard of tourist that first take your gaze but right now, it’s the fountain that captivates and engages. I expect to hear the sounds of loud bustling chatter from the hundreds of people, who at any given moment, stand gawking at the infamous piece of architecture, but those expectations are met only by the sound of rhythmically flowing water escaping from the different orifices of the largest baroque fountain in the city. Beyond the rushing water all I hear is the deliveryman pushing his trolley loaded with goods across the cobble road, and a nearby bar setting up for what will be a busy morning. The sun makes its way higher in the sky and lightly kisses the top of the fountain, bathing it in a soft yellow glow. And there’s no one here to witness it but me and a couple of locals as they pass by to start their day.
I move along to my next stop, the Spanish Steps, a sight usually renowned for the hoards of people that find respite on the 135 broad steps that this monument boasts. In the summertime, ice cream consumption on the steps peaks, and on every one of my visits, I’ve found countless weary travellers sitting down, gleefully holding the obligatory Italian treat in their hands. But as I make my way down the luxurious Via Dei Condotti, passing the lavish stores and their mouth-watering window displays, I look up to find an almost completely abandoned Spanish Steps, a sight that will soon be obscured by eager visitors. As I watch this scene, I witness the city coming to life. A student settles in to study, a jogger exercises down them, and then a few tourists make their way over and take in this uncommon sight with me.
I walk halfway up the steps, and look back down to catch a glimpse of the morning light starting to illuminate the streets ahead. I sit and watch as the sun rises higher before deciding to trudge on up for a broader view. Walking along the road that travels between the Steps and the Villa Borghese, I find the view that only the birds see so frequently, Rome, cast in shadows and light as the sun makes it’s begrudging way higher into the sky.
At the top of the Villa Borghese, one of the best lookout points to take in Rome, you can see the distant dome of St Peter’s Basilica, the top layer of the grand ‘wedding cake’ in Piazza Venezia, the Obelisk standing central in the Piazza Del Popolo and everything in between. With the sun rising from behind the gardens, I feel it gently warm my back as it’s brings Rome into a new day. While there’s no denying that my legs are exhausted, my eyes are desiring to draw the curtains and I’ve never been more ready for a second coffee, I can’t help but be convinced that there certainly is something to be said for waking up early.
*Not an Italian version of vampire romance
Having lived in Italy now for five months it’s safe to say that I have had a decent taste of la dolce vita. The food, the drink, the liveliness, the passion, and the history are just some of the finer things that this country offers in abundance. But, with all things, there are ups and there are downs, and generally speaking while the ups may be sparkly and fantastical, the downs tend to be a little rougher around the edges and not so enticing. And the downside quite clearly manifests’ itself in public transportation in Italy. Sometimes you need to take the bad in with the good. Without further adieu I present my compilation of tips and tricks for navigating the pitfalls of public transportation in Italy:
DO be sure to check every single ticket purchased for error. When buying multiple tickets carefully check all tickets and not only the first one. Failure to spot an error transfers the accountability to oneself. Or so they told me.
DON’T assume that persons working for a transportation company know anything about aspects of said company including how to buy tickets/where stops are/why your ticket is dated yesterday/why you were sold two tickets for a compartment that does not exist.
DO put aside any and all preconceived notions about public transportation schedules. Bring a book. Or two.
DO try to find the amusement in watching two identical buses taking the exact same route drive one behind the other while you wait an hour for your own.
DO assume that all trips using public transportation traversing 10kms will take approximately one hour and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised by any result under that threshold.
DO try not to weep if said trip exceeds one hour…these things happen.
DO raise your hand as your bus approaches or sadly watch the elusive bus pass you by. However…
DO accept that the bus driver is very busy and important and may not have time to stop and pick you up.
DON’T be selfish. A driver’s got to eat. So, wait patiently in the bus while he goes to the bar to buy a sandwich.
DO remember that strikes happen. Usually every second or third Friday.
DO try to accept the fact that there is no rhyme or reasons to some things in life. For example, there is no rhyme or reason to why you’ll wait a maximum of 5 minutes for a train on Lines A and B and all others lines could vary up to one hour for a simple inner city train station. There’s also no rhyme or reason as to why the door of the bus may remain open while in motion and close when the bus stops, and nobody thinks to advise the driver…some things in life are just meant to be marvelled at.
DON’T pull that lever. On an overnight train where 95% of the buttons do not function/no longer function, it is safe to assume that a hand rest has not been implemented into the design of the train to assist you in raising and lowering yourself from your bunk bed. As such, it is best not to use the emergency lever to lower yourself from your bed in the middle of the night. HINT: If you begin to pull the lever, it will make a slight hissing sound. At this point it’s best to find another way to exit the bunk bed.
DO try not to cry. Turn that frustration into hysterical laughter; at the very least, you’ll burn more calories.
It’s a little difficult at times to adjust ones expectation, but try your best and you just might enjoy the ride.
‘Where am I?’ I ponder as we drive down a long country road. I know where I am, of course, but as we continue on the highway towards Bracciano, to find cooling respite by a lake on a hot day, I can’t help but feel a strange sense of displacement. I know I’m in the Lazio region, not even one hour out of Rome but as I watch the scene of dusty yellow pastures, golden hay barrels and distant hilltops pass me by I’m struck by a sense of Déjà vu. I feel like I’ve been here before, but the here that I feel is not Bracciano, it’s country Victoria, Australia. It’s a scene I’ve seen a few times a year ever since I can remember on the drive from Melbourne to Beechworth. It’s hard to associate this setting with Italy, when I’ve only ever known it to be Australia. If it weren’t for the occasional Italian signage sporadically placed alongside the road I might have trouble remembering where I am. Oh, and of course the two Italians conversing in the front seat helps too.
Going to the lakes in Lazio is a quintessential Roman summer activity. Speak to any Roman about how to cool down in the blistering summer heat and you’re likely hear a few disparaging remarks about the local beaches, but the lakes? Well, that’s a different story. The lakes and mountains of the Lazio region inspire discussions of delicious hearty meals in trattorias, lazy walks through small towns and dips in the crisp and cool depths of the picturesque waters. Whether it’s La Pasquetta, a public holiday, birthday, or maybe the sun just happens to be shining, it seems any excuse will do. And now I understand why.
But before we can explore the lakeside that Bracciano has to offer, we’ll need to lunch in the town first of course. Trying to decide between take away pizza and a plate of pasta is always a challenge, but as we stumble upon a trattoria bustling with patrons and sending perfumes of fresh seafood and pasta wafting out the doorway the decision makes itself. Trattoria Garibaldi is a small establishment but every table is taken and every patron tasting the delicious dishes has a gleeful look in their eye and those still waiting watch enviously as tasty well-laden plates pass them by. The menu board scribbled in red pen shows us that the price is fair too. Offering a starter of antipasto, a plate of pasta or a meat dish, and bottled water for only €10. We lucked out on this one.
Fresh salumi, cheese and bread makes its way to our table and within moments we’re licking the crumbs from our lips and back to watching the doorway to the kitchen in anticipation of our next plates.
Cacio e pepe pasta is a typical Roman dish. It’s spicy and creamy with its two main ingredients comprising of fresh ground pepper, and a hefty dose of pecorino Romano cheese. This is one of those rare dishes that screams simplicity while simultaneously overflowing with flavour.
With out plates immaculately clean and our bellies guiltily grumbling, we make our way down to the lake for some sun (or shade if you’re so inclined) and a siesta. With only a small beach, you’re likely to lay your towel down amongst the grass and wildflowers while you participate in this typical Italian ritual. Children splash in the waters, swans swim along undisturbed (the braver ones take to the land for a hand feed from the little ones), and the rest of us lie down with the canopy of leaves fluttering above us, twinkling in the sunlight. With the musical sound of that wonderful language carrying in the wind, a stomach satisfied with the local fare and the sun sending me into a tranquil afternoon nap, it’s impossible to forget that I’m in Italy.