Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Poem Pressed into Service as a City

Far from the vines and the work of the farm is the place where much of the wine goes: the city. And while it is great to get to Italy and head for the agriturismos and castellos and spiaggias, from time to time, the urban pilgrimage must be made.

Rome always seems to be along the way, a place to get caught up on the time zone, grab a meal, visit a spot or two and move on. But Rome is more than a layover. For me once, it was a whole summer: I fell in love with the Eternal City.

Fellini made sure I would come back, once I saw his films. Odd, I probably know Paris better, but Rome has a few secrets of mine stashed away in the ancient neighborhoods.

Could you spend a week there? One could spend a lifetime there and never completely know the place. There is an erratic rhythm to Rome. It doesn’t always hum. But a Saturday night, making the passeggiata, arm-in-arm, with all of Rome is an experience I wish everyone could have. It is like walking with history, with the old citizens from thousands of years ago, as well as the new pulsating life to come under the cobblestones. Rome could exist on its own, transplanted to an island or another planet, I am sure of this.

I rarely go there these days. I have less time and patience with the mind-numbing tourists that block a painting or complain about a line into a cathedral. And when they are turned away because they aren’t dressed appropriately, please. I would rather just be in a cool little cafĂ© with a fan and a liter of Colli Albani Bianco poured from an earthenware pitcher.

Not to say it isn’t a casual city. For sure, there are folks who use Rome as their living room, bedroom, even bathroom. But it’s all in the delivery and the intention. There are Romans who see the city as their home, literally, and they use the parks and the trattorias and the churches to live out their lives. A mixture of ancient layered with whatever we have dreamt up lately, it all goes onto the buffet for the pranzo.

A party among Romans feels like a celebration among souls who have spent many lifetimes among themselves. There is a familiarity and a cousin-ness that makes a party seem more like a family reunion. Really the only place on earth I have ever felt that. Perhaps one could say the Bay Area of Northern California in the late 60’s-early 70’s, but so far only a generation of that, not 90 or 100 generations of the kind of energy I feel in the hills of Rome.

And the food and the wine, not just from the surrounding areas. Also from distant cultures and epochs: foods from the Jews, the Greeks, the French, the Africans, and on. Rome is a city where, if you go into a small trattoria, you might find a wine list not only with wine from the local region or Italy, but even from vineyards in France, and beyond. Everyone goes to Rome, even born-in-a-bubble American politicians, though they never stay there long enough to have the spirit of the place (or the history) rub off on them in any beneficial manner.

For years my favorite place to stay would be the Raphael, between Piazza Navona and Piazza Pantheon. It is a small hotel, away from the traffic and the noise of the modern city. The rooms often look out onto a private garden; there is a sense of serenity in the space. One of my joys would be to get into the room after traveling from The States. I'd take a shower in the Roman water, a baptism of sorts in the soft embrace that the ancients would have known. Then a short, sweet, nap. A blessed slumber. Just enough to get disoriented in the late afternoon, and take to the streets in search of dinner.

Fortunato al Pantheon, a short walk from the hotel, would always have a plate of artichokes or string beans, some appetizer thing fresh from the sea, an out-of-this-world pasta or gnocchi, and a roasted fish with lemon and olive oil. There, one can order any kind of wine, so perhaps a bottle of Gavi or Prosecco to start, moving into a rosato from Tuscany, and either staying there or going to a light red like something from the Maremma or from Valtellina, or perhaps Campania or Sicily. Fortunato will guide, so one doesn’t really need to study up on it. In fact, for me, the beauty of Rome is to simply arrive. The city will cradle you upon its bosom and fill you with all the knowledge and experience that you will need for your time there.

On my first trip to Rome, I was as helpless as Romulus and Remus. I landed on August 15, Ferragosto, a national holiday. There was no place to exchange money, and I had no Lira. I walked around the Stazione Termine, the train station, and found a small pensione, with a lady who took me in and rented me a (shared) room with a bathroom down the hall. I still have fond memories of landing in a foreign country, unknown by anyone, and being treated with kindness and hospitality.

That Rome still exists. You might choose to stay in a 3- or a 4-star hotel, but one can find an overlapping sense of an ancient cult, maybe Cybele or Dionysius. Don’t think of Rome as merely a hotel stop before or after a trip, or just a repository of museum artifacts. It is a vibrating, living city that has had more experience being a city than most urban areas on earth. It is the birthplace of ancient love and drama, with a little tragedy and a lot of patina. For the traveler along the wine trail, it is a place to stop and savor timelessness.

Beyond Rome and into the vineyards~an excellent site: The Roman Roads in the Mediterranean
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