I arrived in Rome sleep deprived and slightly disoriented.  The area around Termini is not the prettiest, and is surrounded by rather dodgy looking restaurants and “illegals” lining the sidewalks, selling every sundry item from purses to scarves to cell phone covers.  Rome’s charm does not reveal itself immediately.  You must spend a little time getting to know her, and understanding what makes her tick, like with any good relationship. 

My first week was a whirlwind.  Everything was different from home.  The buildings are close together and surround you in every sector of the city.  Honking horns blast through the air and frustrated Monti neighbourhood in Romedrivers are shouting and gesturing when they are held up in their respective journeys.  Cigarette smoke continually coils around your head and loud and fast conversation flies through the air.   The cobblestone streets are challenging to walk on, and don’t even think about trying to wear high heels!  You just might fracture your ankle! *  The tiny crooked streets wind one way and then another until you’re simply not sure what direction your going.  The only thing you’ll be certain of, is getting lost. 

Rome’s chaos can whack you full in the face and leave you breathless and confused … but always a little curious for what else you will see or experience around the next corner.  Tourists crowd the streets, many walking in huge clusters, following their flag bearing guide like a pack of camera-toting lemmings.  Waiters from the many restaurants lining the cobbled streets are calling out to tourists, trying to charm and serenade them into their restaurants.  The main piazzas are the worst, where the waiters are bold and the prices high.  It is always my preference to dive into a tiny side street and pick a small and unassuming restaurant.  If it’s full of Italians, then I know my pick is spot on. If you do find Rome a little overwhelming, just wait for night to fall.  Rome becomes … softer after dark.  The streets are full of people still, but the glare of the sun on the cobblestones is gone, and the everything is bathed in a lemony glow from the street lamps and the store fronts (yes, stores of every description at still open).  The river is alight, reflecting the lights from the ancient stone bridges that span the inky waters.  If you’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed during the day, prepare to relax and really see Rome’s charm.

wall posterizedWhat is it about Italy that makes me love it so?  Certainly, it has its problems.  Nothing works well, the buildings are old and in disrepair, the cobblestones kill your feet, and the government…. well let’s just say it has its share of dysfunction and corruption.  But if you look deeper, Italy will seep into your skin and become an intrinsic part of you.  The warmth of the people will surprise and charm you.  The culture is irresistible – there is none of this nonsense of the population disappearing into their respective homes each night to watch their televisions.  The people are out and about, walking the cobblestoned streets, sitting in cafes and restaurants, or chatting in their neighbourhood piazzas.

Markets abound, full or inexpensive organic vegetables, cheese, bread, meat, and wine.  Wal Mart doesn’t exist here. Costco is unheard of.  It’s wondrous.  And the people don’t need Wal Mart – their organic foods aren’t massively inflated in price, rather they’re affordable and taste amazing.  I purchased a massive block of pecorino cheese that cost me 7€. The equivalent in Canada would be close to $20.  My morning cappuccino cost me 1€ (about the equivalent of $1.40) – a far cry from the $4 (or more) cappuccinos here that are, quite frankly, not nearly as good.  And I certainly never get greeted as “Ciao cara!  Cappuccino?”  Dinner out for a simple pasta or pizza with a glass of house red wine typically cost me 12 to 14 euros.  Amazing price, and amazingly good. 

My favourite market in Roma was the Mercato di Campagna Amica at Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus).  It is this bustling building filled with farmers with fruits, vegetables, and gorgeous flowers.  The air is fragrant, and 2013-10-07_0007there is a buzz of conversation that pervades the atmosphere.  Vendors with row upon row of gorgeous slabs of cheese take up one corner, and fresh bread in another.  There are so many people lining up for this bread  that you have to take a number and patiently wait your turn.  It is so worth it.  Fresh organic meat is available and a couple of the stalls have huge chunks of roasted porchetta, ready to be sliced off and piled on a fresh bun for a quick and delicious lunch.  “Un panini porchetta con formaggio per favore?” I ask , rather proud of my Italian.  The robust gentleman leans over to start slicing the porchetta, then hesitates and looks back up at me.  “Con formaggio?”  he asks, his brow furrowed.  “Si,” I reply brightly.  “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”  he replies quite emphatically. “Non formaggio!”  Through a string of Italian and hand gestures I get the picture.  The formaggio (cheese) will simply ruin the pork sandwich, so no, he will not give me cheese.  Amused, I hide my smile and nod in serious agreement.  “Capisco, va bene,” I reply.  I understand, that’s fine.  And my porchetta panini was fantastic, washed down with a plastic cup of white wine.  I also managed to purchase some amazing olive oil and some lovely dried figs for a snack.  All in all, a very Italian experience! 

The market at Campo dei Fiori is also quite a wonderful experience, and runs every day until 2:00 pm.  The square is packed full of vendors with flowers, vegetables, fruit, cheese, olive oil, jam, dried beans kitchen wares, clothes, jewellery… everything you can think of.  It is a little more touristy than the Circo Massimo mercato, and the prices are a bit higher as a result, but it is still a great place to have wander through and find some littlecampo de fiori treasures.  And every day all of the vendors clean up their stalls and disappear until the next day.  When you wander through the Campo in the evening, you’d never know it was packed with vendors earlier that day.  It is pristine.  Except for the arrays of discarded cigarette butts and the semi-occasional pile of dog shit.  Hey, you’ve already got culture, history, and cheap wine – you can’t have everything!   

*with a little practice, wedge heels work reasonably well on cobblestones.  If I lived in Rome, I would buy nothing else!