Saturday, June 28, 2008

Retrospective – A Look Back

Over the past seven weeks, I have walked, jogged, ran, and frolicked all over central Rome. No matter where I was going or what I was going to do, I always made it a point to observe the new foreign land which now engulfed me. Without my IPOD or cell phone, this was typically a very easy task, and most times it was more entertaining than any piece of technology I owned. I took notice of facial expressions, fashion, routines, food preferences, drinking behavior, dog walking, exercising, conversation, tourists, and piazzas alike. I wouldn’t trade some of the moments I experienced during this time period for the world. I learned so much about the Italian culture by just monitoring the daily life of Roma.

In particular, I researched three main ideas which helped me to allocate a greater deal of focus to specific concepts rather than merely gaining broad images of countless themes and places in Rome. My first theme was Italian café. I researched different kinds of café, the bars which contain these drinks, and towards the end I highlighted multiple famous and delicious coffee bars located around the city. Although it was interesting to learn about café, my favorite part was tasting all different kinds in various bars. The firsthand experience I gained along the way was priceless. Visiting the prestigious bars was definitely an eye-opening experience, but I learned just as much from frequently the local ones as well. This was by far my most rewarding and interesting theme.

My second theme, Roman water, was a much broader concept than café. I focused not only on some drinking fountains and aqueducts, but I also covered artwork and the way it influences markets and the human body. I learned valuable lessons about the quality and dedication of the ancient Romans and how meticulous they were about the tiniest details. Their aqueducts still supply the entire city with cold, fresh, clean drinking water. Not only is it refreshing, but it’s free – a rarity for the €2 water sold in the supermarcados. I also enjoyed observing how water was used in various sculptures and how without it, we could not take pleasure in some of the daily markets which provide us with fresh fruits, vegetables, and sauces.

Finally, my last concept was a place – The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. I wanted to get to know the neighborhood I inhabited for about two months; what better way to do this than to physically visit places in this quaint section of Rome on a daily basis. Once I became familiar with the narrow, windy, and crowded cobblestone roads, it was easy to visit many different restaurants and shops. I literally could have popped into a new store or ristoranti every single day. My favorite spot to hang out in Trastevere though was by far the busy piazza which was alive and well during most days and nights. It was always filled with kids my age and with elderly men and women as well. If one of the latter would have told me that they were 200 years old, I would not have thought twice about believing the story. I do not mean this in a negative sense at all. The people just seemed so ahead of their time and knew everything about anything in their city. Trastevere is extremely historic and ancient, which to me is one of the most attractive things about it. It was like living in a flashback and everyday intrigued and entertained me. I hope that I did each of these three specific ideas justice; I strived to portray each as accurately and honestly as possible.

This is one of my favorite pictures that I took while abroad - St. Peter's Dome and the bridge at night.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Antico Caffé Greco – Finally!

On Monday morning, I failed at my first attempt to sit down and have a cup of the world famous Caffé Greco espresso. For some reason, it was closed on this day, so I decided to make the trip again the next day. It has taken me almost seven weeks to visit, since it is quite a trek from my apartment, but on Tuesday afternoon I entered Greco and stood in awe. It was everything I expected it to be and more. The entire café gave off a rich and prestigious aura, and I did not necessarily feel in the same league as most of the other patrons sitting under huge pictures on red velvet couches and chairs. Most of them were dressed to the nines with their Valentino and Yves saint Laurent bags taking up leg room underneath the tables. The majority of customers were Italian, with some Asian, and some tourists who looked out of place just like me. I walked up to the counter and was greeted by an extremely attractive barista who was donning a bright white long dress coat that buttoned from his neck to just below his waistline. He had on black pants, freshly pressed, and wore shoes that glimmered from Via Condotti to Via Trastevere.

Since it was already close to 3 PM and ungodly hot, I ordered a granita café con panna to cool down. My two friends, Hilary and Ilana, also ordered a lemon and café granita respectively. We sat on a nearby couch to wait for our glasses because I had read online that it was not encouraged to stand around at this particular bar. My eyes began to wander and soon landed on paintings of the Roman Forum and Colisseum, photographs of older gentlemen shaking hands, and many others of men and women who looked very dignified and important. Our granitas arrived in less than five minutes; the presentation was absolutely astounding. The three drinks sat on shiny silver serving trays and were decorated with whipped cream, coffee beans or lemon slices, and two thin circular cookies. I couldn’t wait to try my frozen espresso and soon realized just how great of a choice this was. It was the best cold drink I have experienced while in Rome, and the lemon was just as good as the café. Even though they cost €3 apiece, it was well worth every eurocent. I highly recommend this bar not only for the tasty drinks, but for the atmosphere and prestigious Roman attitude that accompanies it as well.

Sea Bass in Trastevere

It was a week before my time in Rome was up, and my roommate Hilary and I made a pact to experience at least four great restaurants before our departure back to the States. Monday night we researched some ristorantes strictly belonging to Trastevere. We found one called Antica - Hosteria PonteSisto directly across the Ponte Sisto (a bridge). It looked very homey and welcoming so we picked a cute table outside complete with a red checkered tablecloth, wine glasses, and oils. Our waiter was a gentle, old Italian man who spoke few words of English but responded genially to our pointing, graziés, and toothy smiles. We ordered the house white wine which came with a large bread basket. The wine tasted fresh – not too dry, but not too sweet either – and the bread bathed in their extra virgin olive oil was the perfect combination before our meals were served.

I decided to go big and order the baked sea bass. I was craving meat because my diet has been lacking protein, but I did not want a steak or pork chop. The fish was an ideal choice because it was light, yet filling, and absolutely delectable. The white meat was also seasoned to perfection, and the thin slices of potato stacked on top of it brought about a tasty marriage of flavors. I was very pleased with my selection and did not mind that the bill was a bit higher than what I was used to. Sometimes it is okay to treat yourself to a delightful meal even if it means splurging a bit in order to do so. After all, how many times will I be spending a summer in Rome?

Water: The Key to Life

Lately I have been observing and reflecting about the Roman water found in fountains and depicted in pictures and statues. As I walked through the huge morning market in Campo de’ Fiori the other morning though, I began to look at water in a completely different light. Water is the reason that the market was even possible in the first place. All of the fruit and vegetables for sale – the apples, grapes, cherries, carrots, lettuce, zucchini, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, watermelon – are all dependent on good old H2O. Not only that, the human body is made up of about 75% water by volume and without it for a prolonged period of time, we would surely die. Thankfully, this vital substance is available on pretty much any corner of the city. The public drinking fountains are so essential, especially in the summer, and I wish more cities provided these heavenly havens. Just when you think it cannot get much hotter, a drink from the ice cold spiket refreshes the body at least for the time being. Water literally surrounds us here in the Eternal City. Stop and take notice of all the different places it can be seen and also of every different place that it has an influence on. Without it, many beautiful pieces of artwork would not exist, not to mention we simply could not survive in its absence.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Orto Botanico

Last week some of my classmates and I decided to take a walk around our neighborhood, Trastevere, eventually ending up in the Botanical Gardens, also known as Orto Botanico, now owned by the Universita di Roma. After paying the €4 entrance fee, we entered a luscious green space filled with huge palm trees and gorgeous mansion-like buildings (probably used by the college students at the university).

On our way along the extensive and overgrown pathways, we observed different types of plant species growing in ponds, greenhouses, and even brushing against our legs. I was shocked when we strolled into an entire bamboo forest. I did not anticipate that the Roman climate was able to support bamboo or even all the palm trees scattered throughout the entire city. The grounds also held a huge rose garden situated on a hilly embankment. Although not all of the flowers were in bloom, the ones that were gave off a sweet aroma and filled the space with a serene vibe.

Later in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a large tree a bit off of the normal path which supported thick branches holding small, orange balls of fruit. I was immediately intrigued and began examining the pieces that had already fallen to the ground and lie strewn across a twenty foot radius of earth. They smelled like peaches, and so I decided to pick a ripe one from a lower branch and take a bite. Looking back, this was probably not one of my better decisions, yet I was thirsty and the “mini-peaches” smelled delicious. The first bite confirmed our prediction that the balls were indeed peaches or some sort of peach derivative. I had two more and then found the pathway back to the garden. Since it was beginning to get extremely humid, we called it a day and started back towards Trastevere. Taking an afternoon to explore the Botanical Gardens was a welcomed change from the small, muggy classroom back in the Piazza del Collegio Romano!

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Monday Morning Themed Walk - Cafes

Early Monday morning, six students including myself and one teaching assistant from Penn State’s CAS summer program set out on a memorable walk all around the northern part of central Rome. I had wanted to experience a few of the more famous and talked about cafés so we would be heading to three of these establishments to begin the first day of our last week. We all met at the foot of the Giordano Bruno statue in the center of Campo de’ Fiori’s morning market. After perusing some of the food and t-shirt stands, we set off towards our first stop, La Tazza d’Oro, located near the Pantheon. Most of us decided to try their world famous granita de caffé con pannas and we were not disappointed by any means. The mixture of the light whipped cream and iced espresso was delicious and certainly satisfying on such a hot morning.

We backtracked to the Via Corso after this and headed for Via Condotti. Once there, we all began posing next to expensive and sophisticated store fronts fully knowing that these shops contained items that were completely beyond our price range. It was still entertaining to imagine ourselves wearing some of the chic outfits and shoes though. We reached our second destination, the Antico Greco Caffé, only to discover that it was not open on this particular day. There was no sign posted and after my initial displeasure, I decided that I would just try back tomorrow after class.

On the way to our final destination, Piazza del Popolo, we swung by the Babuino talking statue on Via del Babuino and heard from a classmate about its rich history concerning the Italian people’s rights. Finally we had reached the piazza, and I pointed out the rivalry between the two cafes which faced each other in this space. On our left was the left-wing hot spot, Café Rosati, and on the right was the more conservative, Café Canova. The latter was definitely more crowded and filled with very properly dressed patrons. Still, we decided to stick to the original plan and try Rosati. I entered and ordered a cappuccino freddo which is a cappuccino served cold. It was refreshing and provided me with the boost I needed in order to walk around the city in such thick heat. This technically concluded the bar tour, but since the San Maria del Popolo church was so close to where we were, I decided to stroll in to check out the two Caravaggio’s which grace the small chapel located in the front on the left side of the altar. I was very excited that the church was actually open (I had tried on other occasion when it had been closed.) and was extremely intrigued as I gazed up at the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. It was very well done, and I was able to overhear a tour guide telling her group all about this famous work and why it is significant. One thing I learned was that the dirty feet of the men who are crucifying Peter are located in the very front of the painting; they are made to stand out. Back in the day, many were upset by this and considered the entire work blasphemous. Now it is known around the world and many come to visit it each year. It was packed when I viewed it around 11AM. Our walk exceeded my expectations, and I just wish we had more time to complete other themed walks around Rome.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fonte Acqua Paola

On our way back to Trastevere from the Botanical Gardens the other day, we decided to get a better view of the city by climbing up Via Garibaldi. This is a long, steep road which leads to the enormous Fonte Acqua Paola, a fountain which contains three rapid spouts each spewing water as if a dam has just burst behind the entire structure. The aqueduct which feeds this fountain is called the Aqua Traiana (renamed the Acqua Paola later on). It was built in the 1st century by Trajan.

The fountain used to be called “Il Fontanone”, or the big fountain, and was in the form of a triumphal arch made of white marble. Most of the material came from the Forum of Nerva. It also contains the Borghese coat of arms along with their eagle and dragon.

In 1690, Pope Alexander VIII commissioned Carlo Fontana to remodel the fountain. Fontana then created an enormous single basin which is what we saw last week. A small garden is hidden behind the structure and only a small portion can be seen from the front. The giant fountain is well worth the walk, especially when you turn around and experience the aerial view of the Eternal City spread out before you. Don’t forget your camera!

Information obtained from: