This is the one thing I’ve been trying to avoid for long. Ever since I started drafting my Gastronomia Italia series in January, I have kept this post at bay. I have written about Venice, Milan, Pisa, Siena, Florence, Sorrento, Amalfi Coast and Naples. But then there’s that city without which no trip to Italy is complete. It’s majestic, it’s arresting, it transports you to a different world, and at times, a different era altogether. Words can never do justice to the magnificence that this city is. It is an experience, it is a feeling. You need to live it, you need to feel it. And I did both. This one’s to you, Rome. With love.
After a weeklong of wedding paraphernelia, some serious diarhhoea and nausea and an exhaustive flight (the major chunk of which was spent watching crappy Bollywood movies), we landed at Leonardo Da Vinci airport around 7.30pm, from where a bus took us to Termini station. Our hotel was a stone’s throw away from Termini, and given that our suitcases were as light as feathers, we glided our way to Boscolo Exedra Roma. This was my first night in Europe and my first overnight five star experience. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the holiday to start.
We would be staying for 3 days in Rome and the itinerary that we created didn’t allow us a single minute to spare. We woke up at the crack of dawn (the things a holiday happily forces you to do!) and by 8am were at the restaurant for our day’s complimentary breakfast. Now this was not your usual breakfast, my friend. But the tragedy of life is that I was eating with somebody for whom eating is nothing but a chore! So as I piled on cold cut after cold cut on my plate, carefully balancing the croissants on one side and trying to make some room for the bacon and eggs, P sat there in front of me with his second cup of coffee, his bowl of cereals and milk and fruits long over. Okay, I won’t stretch it too much. He actually did try some of the savoury items on offer, but coming out of a week-long of eating, eating and eating, there was so much he could withstand. But it’s downright embarrassing to hog on plates of food when the person in front of you is gracefully stirring his mug of coffee and sipping it from time to time.
Anyway, after a breakfast that spanned for a full hour, we made our way out of the hotel and towards the Collosseum. The 2.2km walk through the cobblestone streets was straight out of the dreams: I had dreamt of a European holiday ever since I knew that crossing the seas was possible, and there I was, finally living it! We reached the Colloseum with a strange feeling playing inside me: the feeling of catching the first glimpse of Taj Mahal or more recently, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As I stared at the massive structure that was standing tall in front of me, I was reminded of the photographs in coffee table books that listed Colloseum as a “must visit” monument. I was there. One item off the bucketlist.
After spending an insane amount of time at the Colloseum, Roman Forum and Palatino, marvelling the sheer grandeur of the place, we decided to pace further. Next stop: Campo di Fiori and Piazza Navona. We hadn’t yet taken local sims, which meant that we were technically allowed to get lost, and taking full advantage of that licence we deliberately ambled our way to the Piazza, wandering into every other quaint street that fell on our way.
Piazza Navona will always have a special place in my heart as it was the first “European square” I ever saw. I’ve seen quite a few since then, but it was for the first time I really understood what “people watching” could be like. We sat there for almost an hour, observing impeccably dressed Italian women (and men), taking photographs of the fountains that dotted the piazza and eating gelato (which was to spell my doom for the next 2 weeks).
Grabbing a pizza and local sims, We walked back 3.5 km to our hotel in the biting cold. What I didn’t realise was that I’d wake up the next morning with a crazy cold. My nose would be blocked, my throat would be dry, my cough would sound like a gong and my voice like Rani Mukherjee. But what is a little cold if the day ahead of you promises the rich history and culture of the Vatican? So off we went to another country that was just 5 metro stations away!
The Vatican City is a walled enclave within Rome and within seconds you can breeze from the Italian capital to the abode of the Pope, without even having to flash your passport. The chief attractions within the Vatican City include St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel, whose famed ceiling and frescoes (especially The Last Judgement), both painted by the Renaissance legend Michelangelo, are the cornerstones of 16th century art. We spent half the day at the Museum, navigating from one room to the other, staring at the immaculate paintings and gaping at the wealth of artefacts left by Popes through centuries.We now paved our way to St. Peter’s Basilica, a stone’s throw away from the Museum. My throat was betraying me by then and all I wanted was a cup of hot coffee. But rumour had it that the lines for the Basilica were anything but short and one had to stand for hours before finding his way in. So out of the window was chucked the idea of having coffee as we hurried towards the Basilica. And true enough! We saw at least a dozen serpentine queues in front of us, squeezed ourselves into one of them and then waited patiently for our turn to come. Let me alert you here, this was the ONLY place in the whole of Italy where we actually had to stand in a line. Winters, that way, are a great time to visit Europe. It’s cheaper, it’s less crowded and it’s abuzz with that quintessentially Christmas vibe that I absolutely adore.
St. Peter’s Basilica left me spellbound. I could happily have stood in the queue for 5 more hours for this. It helped that this was the first ever European church/cathedral/basilica I saw. I had never quite imagined their magnitude, but standing there, I felt so terribly dwarfed. St. Peter’s was everything that enamoured me, and more. The largest church in the world, and for good reason too, it was decked in gold, enormous in its expanse and majestic in its appearance. A good look around the church spanning a couple of hours and we were ready to climb atop.
Now you can choose to either walk your way up (for 6 euros) or take the lift (for 8 euros). But beware, the lift takes you only halfway through. The game begins after that. As the Basilica tapers at its peak, the stairs leading to the tower become narrower and narrower and more and more winding. To the point that only half a person can climb up/down at a time. That was the most difficult climb of my life. I was coughing incessantly, running out of breath, my bottle refused to yield even a single drop of water and the “stairway to heaven” just refused to end. But once you reached the top, oh what a beauty it was! We caught St. Peter’s Square at sunset, enveloped in the warm hues of orange. There come those moments in life that you can give up anything for. This was surely one of them.
On Day 3 we did our usual “Day 3 things”: walked down the city aimlessly, crossed the Spanish Steps, ambled down Piazza de Spagna to Villa Borghese, traversed numerous quaint lanes and bylanes, jostled with the selfie-loving crowd at Trevi Fountains, sat in front of the Pantheon and tapped our feet as a local strummed away his guitar, pampered ourselves with a hearty dinner of Mushroom Risotto and Spaghetti Carbonara, shopped for baguettes, brie and cold cuts from the supermarket and were finally nestled in the train, waiting for it to take us to Venice.
But our tryst with Rome did not end there. We returned to the city again on Christmas eve. This time we had quite a formidable plan chalked for us. We booked a hotel roughly 5 km from the Vatican, from where we could easily walk to the Midnight Mass addressed by the Pope. The plan was that we’d go to the city to behold the Christmas lights and decoration, have an early dinner, take a metro to the Vatican for the mass and walk back once it was over. Simple enough, right? But what we hadn’t taken into consideration, or rather imagined, was that Italy was completely shutdown from 24th evening. So after we parked our luggage and freshened up at the hotel, we found that the metros had called it a day. There wasn’t a single car on the streets, leave aside public transport! No restaurant was open, not even a drive-thru MacD! All supermarkets had shut their doors and there we were, stranded in the middle of the street, with nowhere to go and not a morsel to eat. After walking up and down the street several times, we suddenly spotted a tiny grocery that we hoped was open. Fingers crossed, we hastened towards it, and sure enough, it was! We figured out that this store belonged to a Bangladeshi gentleman and chit chatting with his wife in Bengali, we packed our bags with bread, cheese, tuna, panettone, orange juice, a packet of chips and a tub of Haagen Dazs. We’d probably miss watching city lights but we could surely walk our way to the Vatican and catch the midnight mass. We asked the reception whether it was safe to walk down 5 km of deserted streets on a chilly winter night, and guess what? They said NO! Another dampener! After deliberating for almost an hour, we decided to not take the risk. We could see St. Peter’s Basilica from our balcony, and as the hour approached, we parked ourselves there, pretending that we were watching the mass, live!
Our flight was due the next evening, and back we were with truckloads of memories that were enough to last a lifetime. Italy will always be special to me, as it was the first European country I ever visited, and Rome even more special because she was where I first set my foot on. It’s been exactly a year since I came back from Italy, and I could do anything to go back. The people, the food, the places, the vibe: Italy, I can never get enough of you! My mother had asked me after my recent trip to Spain and Portugal, “Italy or Spain?” And even though I wholeheartedly loved Spain, it didn’t take me a single second to come up with my reply, “Italy anyday.”
1. In a deep-bottomed pan, bring the cream to a very light boil. Then lower the heat and simmer for 5-6 minutes or till the cream thickens a bit, stirring continuously. Take off from the heat. 2. Tumble in the chopped chocolate and let it rest for 2-3 minutes in the hot cream. Now gently fold the chocolate into the cream. The ice cream base is almost ready now. 3. Let the chocolate + cream mixture come to room temperature. Now add the vanilla and the Bailey’s bit by bit. Fold everything together uniformly. 4. Tip the mixture into a metal loaf pan or tray, tightly wrap with a clingfilm and tuck away in the freezer. Allow to rest for 5-6 hours or overnight. 6. 20-30 minutes before serving, bring it down to the refrigerator from the freezer. Savour the delight of a homemade decadent gelato. Without even setting foot in Italy!
Bailey's Dark Chocolate Gelato
1. In a deep-bottomed pan, bring the cream to a very light boil. Then lower the heat and simmer for 5-6 minutes or till the cream thickens a bit, stirring continuously. Take off from the heat.
2. Tumble in the chopped chocolate and let it rest for 2-3 minutes in the hot cream. Now gently fold the chocolate into the cream. The ice cream base is almost ready now.
3. Let the chocolate + cream mixture come to room temperature. Now add the vanilla and the Bailey’s bit by bit. Fold everything together uniformly.
4. Tip the mixture into a metal loaf pan or tray, tightly wrap with a clingfilm and tuck away in the freezer. Allow to rest for 5-6 hours or overnight.
6. 20-30 minutes before serving, bring it down to the refrigerator from the freezer. Savour the delight of a homemade decadent gelato. Without even setting foot in Italy!