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Doru's Italian Notebook - Spring 2005 (Venice, Rome, Emilia-Romagna)


100+ Posts
By Doru from Canada, Spring 2005. (An incomplete set of) Highlights of our April-May 2005 Trip to Italy. From April 17-May 7, 2005, a slow, gentle trip, returning to Venice and Rome and getting acquainted with Emilia-Romagna.

The Venetian Republick began thus; a despicable Croud of People flying from the Fury of the Barbarians which over-run the Roman Empire, took Shelter in a few inaccessible Islands of the Adriatic Gulph... Their City we see raised to a prodigious splendour and Magnificence, and their rich Merchants rank’d among the ancient Nobility, and all this by Trade. (Daniel Defoe, A Plan of English Commerce)

Venice is a capricious mistress. From above, with the plane approaching low, it shows us a sunny complexion. Later, off the plane, the impression remains. Compared with the dour, grey reception of a year ago, the sun shines and a sweet breeze can be felt.

We collect our luggage without difficulty. Josette’s axiom that our luggage always comes last off the conveyer belt because I insist on arriving to the airport three hours before departure, is trumped this time.

Before going to the Alilaguna shuttle we collect our seven-day Venice Card (more on this in the special notes later on), buy the one-way Alilaguna tickets (we will leave Venice by train), and roll with the luggage towards the shuttle. This time, the shuttle drops us off a bit farther from the Alilaguna dock than usual, but not too far. As we start moving we notice the wind; the sweet breeze has taken force but the sun is hot and we arrive at the dock just as the Alilaguna Linea Rossa pulls along and passengers start boarding. The young man selling tickets invites us on. I ask if the boat will stop at San Zaccaria. “Certo”, he says. I don’t believe him, because I know that after 8:10am (and by now it is almost noon) the red boat will stop at San Marco but not at San Zaccaria, and we are not ready to drag the luggage over two bridges to get to Albergo Paganelli, on the Riva degli Schiavoni, which is our destination. I decline: I prefer to wait another 40 minutes until the Linea Blu boat arrives, because it stops right in front of the hotel.

The entertainment during the 40 minutes wait is provided by a very elegant, very trim, well kept but way past her 50s flirting with the young man selling the tickets. We also notice the wind getting stronger. The dock literally dances under our feet. Time passes slowly, the dock fills with new arrivals. It seems very few know anything about Alilaguna routes. They just wait. Finally, the Blu is here and we board, no mean feat considering that the boat bobs up and down in excess of one foot, asynchronous to the dock, which bobs the other way. People choose this moment to confirm whether the boat stops at San Marco. The impatient answer is “Sì, San Marco, sì!” The dock is unstable and people tumble into the boat. Unlike on previous occasions when we used Alilaguna, the crew this time seems completely oblivious and don’t give a hand, or a damn. Luckily, we know what to do, stow our suitcases by the cabin, and descend. We both almost fall as the boat unexpectedly dunks. So do others. Finally, sitting.

A Frenchman decides that he will take pictures along the boat route and opens a port-side window. Wind blows in. He takes a couple of pictures, then sits down on a bench way ahead of the open window, which therefore does not bother him, and forgets about it and others. Later, he will open another window, on the starboard side of the board, take a couple of pictures and leave that window open as well. It is chilly but I just comment on human nature, and do nothing about the windows, and suffer the wind together with Josette and the many other passengers who choose to say nothing, do nothing, chickens cooped in the belly of the boat.

The usual depressing procession of abandoned islets, with forgotten wan houses, dilapidated factory building and rusting machinery goes on, mostly on the port side of the boat, until we turn towards the islands and Lido, and then the glorious view of the Bacino is in front of us.

The wind continues to blow hard, but it is sunny. We prepare to get off at San Zaccaria and some passengers ask us whether this is San Marco. “No”, we answer with assurance of the experienced, “San Marco is the next, and last, stop.” People sit back. As we dock at San Zaccaria, the conductor yells: “San Marco, fermata San Marco”. It seems the pilot decided to forgo the San Marco stop altogether. I know this is wrong, that while the San Zaccaria fermata has in parentheses San Marco it is in fact quite far from San Marco, I try to say something, but I am pushed to the side by the other passengers who all struggle upstairs to pick up their luggage and get off. I know that if they needed San Marco, they have a long way ahead of them, with the Ponte dei Sospiri and Ponte della Paglia to be cleared first.

Later, I would check, just to be sure that I was not dreaming, whether the boat should have had a last stop at San Marco and, of course, it should have. I would have felt sorry for those guys, but they were so rude pushing us out of the way as we had some trouble handling the luggage on the menacingly bobbing dock, that I actually felt some sinister satisfaction at the thought that they will have to drag suitcases and bags and boxes, all the way to Piazza San Marco, over the steps of crowded bridges, and who knows how much farther from there, while we were just in front of Albergo Paganelli, its façade basking in the sun. We have arrived.

Albergo Paganelli
Routine is reassuring. So we feel reassured when we first spot the older of the Paganelli brothers basking in the sun on his usual chair, in front of the Albergo. Inside, more familiar faces: the “younger” Mr Paganelli and the smiling Mario Schiavon at Reception. We are at home, at least for a few days.

First, Mario hands me a note: Massimo, the owner of the apartment we have rented in Rome, left a message for us; he called just to say, “Hello!” A nice gesture from a man with whom we have had so far only email contacts but with whom a friendship is incipient.

Leaving the passports at the desk, we are led my Mario to Room 18, a much larger version of Room 16 which we have always had in the past, with a larger window and the same amazing view spanning from the entrance to the Grand Canal on the right, all the way to the Giardini Pubblici on the left. We open the window wide and stare. I have never enough of this view, of the teaming life of the Bacino, from gondolas to service boats, vaporetti large and small, the occasional cruise ship, the boats of the Vigili del Fuoco, and boats carrying cement, and vegetables, and fresh catch of the sea, all the needs and product of a city living on and off the water.

Regretfully, I must turn away from this unique view to start unpacking.

Our Usual Itinerary
We decide to forgo rest, despite being already over 24 hours up, without much sleep on the plane. We take our now “usual” itinerary, “around the block” towards Piazza San Marco, over the two bridges. In front of the Palazzo Ducale a mighty crane labours in a fenced area: the Comune di Venezia has initiated works with the objective of raising the level of the fondamenta of the Molo so as to reduce the impact of acqua alta on this well travelled area. Huge blocks of stone, bags of cement, smaller machinery, fill the enclosed area. A year ago, on the day of our arrival, the water was covering more than half of this space; not this year. Maybe acqua alta didn’t take notice yet.

The inaugural tour is completed by working our way back, around the Basilica, the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, Campo San Zaccaria. Everything is as we left it. One year is a speck of dust on the face of the moon for Venice. As are we.

In the afternoon we go to La Fenice to pickup our tickets for Pia de’ Tolomei. We know we have terrible seats, in the loggione (more expressively, in English these seats are classified as “The Gods”, thus underlining their nosebleed altitude.) We make a valiant attempt to improve the seats and the lady cashier looks at us with feeling and says “Sold out.”

Tickets received, we spend a bit of time in Campo San Fantin, around La Fenice, taking pictures of its white marble façade, pure in its simplicity, accentuated by columns and statues, by three colorful flags and by the appropriate Phoenix, for what could be more symbolic of La Fenice than this bird which made its custom to periodically rise from its own ashes and be reborn more striking, more beautiful, more representative of the unbending spirit of Venice and its Venetians?

I am sure we had some dinner but I have no recollection of it; we are so very tired. Back at the hotel we try to check whether “Habemus Papam” yet. It seems do not. We just crash closing the count at about 34-35 hours without sleep.

Museo Correr
Next day a sunny morning greets us, although the wind continues to be quite sharp. The breakfast at Paganelli’s does not disappoint, cappuccinos et. al., and we are ready to go on the town.

For the morning, we go just around the corner, at Museo Correr where a Veronese exhibition is open until May 29th under the title “Myths, portraits, allegories.” In a city where Veronese’s works are just about everywhere, these is a collection of masterpieces assembled from the treasures of European and American museums and had never been presented in modern day Italy. Their common thread is their secular character, abundant in mythological and biblical scenes, full of magic, exuberance and sensuality.

Our Carta Venezia carry the benefit of a reduced entrance fee to the Veronese exhibition and free entrance to the rest of the museum. We visited the museum previously, with special interest in an extraordinary 14th and 15th century books and manuscripts (“La via nei libri”) and in the permanent painting collection. We retrace part of the collection and stop for a minute or two at my particular spot in Ala Napoleonica: Rooms 32 to 35, which offer an extraordinary, unobstructed view of Piazza San Marco towards the Basilica. This time the stars and planets align just perfectly: the windows giving on to the Piazza are open! This occasions an orgy of digital photos, without the deficit of window glass glare, at different levels of zoom, which I will probably suffer over once back home and forced to select “the best few.”

We enjoy again the Canova works, the prolific Bellini family with masterpieces by Papa Jacopo and sons Gentile and Giovanni, then Lorenzo Lotto, Carpaccio, Cranach. The problem with the Correr is the focus: one passes by frescoes and paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese without hardly any highlight directing the attention to them.

We weave by military paraphernalia and spend sometime with the fascinating collection of coins, then say “Basta!” for the morning and enjoy cups of good coffee and pastries at the small café on the second floor, overlooking the square. More photos, since also here the tall doors are open.

Down the majestic stairs and back to open air, we decide to just enjoy the view of this extraordinary space which is Piazza San Marco, at the siesta hour, when visitors are few.

The Basilica
On the way back to the hotel, we enter the Basilica, taking advantage of the small lineup. Entry is again free, courtesy of Carta Venezia and we have the luxury of time and so we first go to see the Pala d’Oro, that part of the high altar retable of San Marco’s, that Byzantine extravagance of gold, silver and priceless gems guarded by angels, prophets and apostles and decorated by representations of all the events, holidays and celebrations of the Church. An astounding vision, hard to comprehend as a whole, or in part. And as tough a subject to photograph as any I have ever encounter.

Stimulated by the Pala, we decide to go on to the other treasure of gold and gems, the Tesoro, and then move on to our preferred position in the Basilica: the upper balcony, where Josette can admire and swoon over the amazing Four Horses, while I can get out on the terrace and shoot away pictures of the Piazza, Piazzeta and the Bacino, the Lion of San Marco, and generally chase any special angle of photography I may have missed in the three or four previous visits.

Habemus Papam and Almost Late for La Fenice
Back to the hotel, after earning a good rest, and also needing one jet-lagged as we are, since in the evening we have tickets for La Fenice, tickets we bought eight, repeat eight months ago(!!) on the Internet, two of the only four tickets which were still available at the time.

Towards late afternoon we are caught in the television coverage of the events in Rome, where hundreds of thousands of people await in “the other” grand Piazza, for a decision of the College of Cardinals. While we change for the opera, there is a sense that important events develop and indeed, first the subtle movement of the drapes, followed by the appearance on the balcony of the Dean of the College, and the dramatic announcement “Habemus Papam!” We continue to stare at the TV screen and I forget the time, which is normally my responsibility. Finally, the new Pope appears to thank and bless the crowds and I glance to my watch and say, “Well, just in time, because the opera starts at 7:30!”

Outside a drizzle has started and a cold wind and Josette is not feeling quite well. Is it being tired or the beginning of something else? We walk to La Fenice under an umbrella and get there around 7:20, myself upset that we are arriving a bit late and will not have time to admire the renovated lobby and check on the various levels of the hall. To our surprise, there are hardly any people outside. More precise, nobody outside! Somewhat perplexed, we step into the small lobby and it is empty. We ask a young usherette and she tell us the opera has started. At 7:00!! Josette throws a withering stare at me, and I would throw one to myself too, if I only could. We missed the start and first half hour of the opera!

Still, with the help of an usher we are taken to the upper, better said “upperest” level, the Loggione. We slide quietly in the loge to discover that all other occupants are standing, a challenge for Josette and, to a lesser extent, for me. Finally, we wiggle into a vantage point and understand why: from our seats all one can see is about one third of the stage. Even when standing.

As the first scene draws to an end, I look around trying to figure out whether we could find a better viewing option. It seems to me that, if we are forced to stand, at least we could do this from a more central position and so I take advantage of the lax discipline around me and signal to Josette to follow. We find better standing towards the centre, where one can at least see most of the stage. Others stand there already, but there is room for us. In the second act, two young women who were sitting in the last row of the gallery offer us their seats. Insistence, gratitude. We thank for their gesture and take our (their) seats. I am absolutely supporting the ceiling of La Fenice with my head! I even have room to separate myself from the wet umbrella that I was carrying all this time. Finally, we can concentrate on the singing and enjoy Donizetti’s little known work. All is well.

This was a fruitful day: we resolved successfully the Papal crisis and elected a Pope, and had the privilege of worshiping in another temple, that of La Fenice. We are very happy as we walk back to Paganelli through the quiet paths of Venice at night. But Josette develops a cold, and a sore throat. We stop in a café on XXII Marzo, for a tea for Josette and a quartino of wine for me.

We will start tomorrow with a visit to the pharmacy.

More about La Fenice
La Fenice is a jewel without peer. One does not have to go to the opera to see La Fenice, although we prefer it with opera included. Guided visits can be booked, and we recommend bookings be made at least a day in advance. If the only opera tickets available are in the loggioni (fifth level), then buyers beware: the extreme right and left of the loggioni are visibility impaired, although the sound is still great. The remedy is to drift towards the center, where visibility is much better. This also assumes standing for the duration of show, unless you are lucky as we were, and two very obliging students, who are also standing, indicate that you may take their emptied seats. This also offers the unique opportunity of touching the roof of La Fenice with your head, an unprecedented musical experience for me. Would we go to the loggioni level again if this were all that that is available? Of course, any time.
April 20, 2005, Our Wedding Anniversary

It is raining today. A cold spray covers everything as we go out for breakfast in the Paganelli Annex. The plans for today call for a visit to Ca’ Rezonico and some loitering around Castello, since we would want to reduce as much as possible Josette’s exposure to this sullen weather, which insinuates its cold, wet touch under the skin. In our previous visits to Venice we were fortunate to catch mostly sunny, pleasant weather. Not this time, but we have to do the most with what Venice is dealing us. Josette is a trouper and soldiers on.

First stop at the beautifully named pharmacy “Al lupo coronato” (“At the crowned wolf”), in Campo SS. Filippo e Giacomo, a place we know well from previous visits to Venice, but not for their pharmaceutical services: this is where Josette bought Dr. Scholl sandals! This time we get a cough syrup. It is somewhat strange to see the four pharmacists jostling for space in the small farmacia, in such contrast to our drugstores, where there is lot of space but less pharmacists to service. And here you can talk to them about your pains and symptoms and in some cases they can even dispense prescription drugs on their own authority.

Anyway, we put our faith in the medication they recommend and we are on with vaporetto 1 to Ca’ Rezonico, one of the most splendid palaces in Venice and where one year earlier we were privileged to listen to an opera by Rossini in the Georgio Massari’s grand ball room covering am entire floor of the building. Wonderful furniture, chandeliers and gilded walls create a frame for ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo. One floor above there is a rich collection of paintings, again with Tiepolo present with renderings of his own home. I am fascinated by the views of the canals from some of the windows.

Among the most treasured memories from Ca’ Rezzonico will also be “Dama Velata” a beautiful sculpture by Antonio Corradini, in which a delicate white marble veil gives a life-like feeling of transparency, under which the ethereal face of a woman (“Puritas”, or Purity) appears clear in every detail. Incredible léger-de-main!

No anniversary dinner: The cold has caught up with Josette and plans call for seeking a doctor tomorrow.

A Great Failed Get Together (GTG)

On Saturday, April 23, at 6pm sharp as agreed, I place myself at the foot of the Nicolò Tommaseo statue. Josette and I start scanning the faces of passers-by, particularly searching insistently those who linger by the statue or on the nearby bench. I was expecting a minimum six to eight people, even more: Robin P, Elizabeth Rilley and her sisters (never found out how many of them...), Chris W., and the late surprise announcement of Dean “with the crew of (his) baccaro crawl.” Being me, I go over to the café and make a reservation “for at least eight.” As times passes Josette and I start wondering whether I should have prepared a big Slow Travel sign or something. Times passes slowly, slower than a baccaro crawl, and nobody shows up. After a while I start noticing a strange fleeting apparition: a tall, bushy bearded guy, who floats temporarily through my peripheral vision and disappears, only to come again, each time from a different vicolo or rio. Finally, “beard?” I say to myself, and taking my life and reputation in hands, I start trailing in Campo San Stefano a bearded guy while whispering to him: “Dean? Dean?”

The three of us, Dean, Josette and myself, spend together a great couple of hours. Never heard again from any of the others, until I met Elizabeth Rilley in Rome; she and her sisters had left Venice a day earlier than planned.
Bologna Centrale and the Bologna Riot Police!

Our train from Venice pulls into Bologna on binario 6. We drag our two heavy suitcases (don’t ask) and two bags, down the stairs and check the Partenze list for our connection to Modena. It indicates binario 1 and we go on as indicated, along the underground passage to binario 1 and up the stairs leading to the track.

Only a young couple seemed to wait for this train. To be safe, I approach a train station worker and ask whether binario 1 is indeed the right one for the train going to Modena. He comes with me to the Partenze board, takes a look and confirms: binario 1 it is. We wait out the remaining 20 minutes - I always make sure we have enough time for connections, although in this case “enough” will prove to be a relative term...

About one minute before the expected departure (we assumed the train was a few minutes late) the PA system crackles sickeningly and I think I hear that the train which was supposed to come to binario 1 will arrive at binario 9. I ask the young couple whether I heard correctly and they confirm and run towards the underground passage way. We are paralysed: two heavy suitcases and two loaded hand-bags (don’t ask) and the prospect of having to try to catch the train nine sets of tracks farther is a doomsday scenario.

The man with whom I talked earlier is still nearby, smoking. I hope he is a porter and dash to him and ask whether he could help us to get to binario 9. He says that he indeed has heard that there was a change, takes a look at the two of us taking in our full fledged senior citizen (anziani) countenance and the obvious despair, then grabs the two suitcases and dashes across the tracks, calling to us to meet him in the underground tunnel. We remain frozen for another second or two, while our suitcases dance from track to track, then disappear together with the man. We wake from the temporary paralysis and decide to do the right thing: get somehow to track 9. A “dash” downstairs, now carrying only our hand-bags and there is the man, waiting for us at about binario 6 and gesticulating that we follow him faster. He goes on and up to track 9; we follow. As he waits for us with the suitcases, I get my wallet to pay for the help. He waives me off, saying: ”non ci è problema; con piacere” or something to this effect, and descends quickly back into the tunnel. Which leaves us facing a train and looking for a door.

As we do that, by necessity I turn to my left and freeze again: I face a dense body of circa six feet tall cockroaches: the Bologna riot police, in full gear, with dark plastic masks, shields and armed with huge batons. Stunned as I am, I somehow figure out that they are not there for me and, as soon as this thought flashes through my very tired mind, the doors to the train open and a never ending flood of people, singing, chanting, waving banners and flags, stream through all the doors of the train and towards the station, being sullenly supervised by the riot police.

Later it will become clear what has happened: Fiorentina, the calcio team of Florence, in imminent danger of relegation out of the Serie A, was to play that day the Bologna team. Because of the many wild rioting incidents which plague the Italian sport of calcio, the Bologna police redirected all day’s incoming from Florence to a more isolated binario, for easier crowd control. Our luck! (Note: If you care - I did – the score was 0-0 and the last time I looked Fiorentina was still just above the relegation positions).
Modena, Rubiera, Giusti's

Reggio-Emilia, Clinica Gastronomica Arnaldo in Rubiera
How to fit this restaurant in a category? The best I can place it is Italian dim-sum or, better, tapas. Why? Once greeted by the friendly staff, whose only purpose in life seems to be to make one comfortable and relaxed, a menu will be provided and carts loaded with food will be pushed close to the table. One has the option to either order a specific course or will be encouraged by the staff to make smaller selections of different choices for each course. Thus, there will be on each plate three different antipasti, or three different primi, or secondi, and contorni, so that by the end of the meal one has tested 12 different specialties of the house instead of three or four. The food was wonderful, the staff totally motherly and we met Lambrusco, which seems to be the fitting wine for the Reggio-Emilia food. Rubiera is about €25 by taxi from Modena, about half way between Modena and Reggio.

A Meal at Giusti’s, in Modena
Thank you, Judy! What a great tip! At Giusti’s pre-notazzione is obligatory. Once in, through a tortuous and mysterious weaving between stores and counters, a meal will be prepared for you from the freshest available ingredients, after serious pondering, consultation and customization. No menu. It is really a home restaurant, operated while the shop itself, the Giusti Salumeria, is closed for the siesta. We just discussed and negotiated availabilities and preferences, they cooked for us and we had one of the most memorable meals of our lives. Giusti’s is a small endeavour: there are only four tables, sitting a maximum of six each, hence the requirement for reservations.

What we had at Giusti, mostly in Italian:
  • Cappone al balsamico, with a sauté of vegetables and sauce. Giusti insists that Josette taste the 30-years old balsamico (which, we find out later, sales for €90 for 100 ml. botiglietta...);
  • Tagliolini con asparagi cut small and sauteéd;
  • Gnocchi fritti con pancetta, prosciutto, lardo;
  • Garganelli con anatra al parmigiano;
  • Arrosto arrotelato di maiale di latte con pureé di patate, salsa di cipolle con balsamico;
  • Crostata di amarena;
  • Frutti;
  • Coffee;
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Enrico Cialdini
What to See in Modena
Modena is a beautiful, civilised city, somewhat unjustly ignored between the much bigger Bologna and the better known Parma. And there is lots to see. A very short list:
  • Duomo di San Geminiano
  • the Ghirlandaia campanile (both on the list of UNESCO world heritage, together with Piazza Grande)
  • the richly ornate Chiesa di San Pietro, Palazzo Comunale
  • Palazzo dei Musei, which includes the Galleria Estense.
All this is quite concentrated and accessible by foot.

If you have room left for a treat, wonderful gelato (one of the best anywhere, I think) on the central Corso Canalgrande (Gelateria K2), just down from the Teatro Comunale.

It should be noted that Sunday in Modena is a pretty dead day, although museums and churches will be open. Otherwise, with the exception of people walking in the park, you will hardly see people on the streets until early evening. Finding restaurants on Sunday requires perseverance. In order to find a restaurant open for dinner on Sunday we had to have the hotel reception go over lists they had available for this special purpose!

The Apartment in Rome, and its Owners
We stayed at the apartment of Biancamaria and Massimo de Majo (Rome is Home). Highly recommended - read my review.

Three Millennia Tours
I was privileged to win two prizes in the 2004 Slow Travel contest, and we were inspired to choose Tony da Roma’s donation of two guided tours with his company as one of the prizes. We selected the Vatican Museum (with Tony) and the Ancient City (with Daphne) tours as the prizes and also booked the Angels and Demons tour because of ... well ... Bernini. Thus we had the pleasure to meet Tony Polzer, the owner of Three Millennia Tours, and enjoy his company, guidance and explanations. We will remember for a long time sitting with Tony in the “first courtyard” of the museum and peering at his prepared illustrations and receiving introductory explanations, in great detail, about the Sistine Chapel. It was also special to meet the Tony da Roma of Slow Travel. No matter that one and the other are the same person; I met them both with the same great pleasure.

Tony also arranged for the three of us to get together with Elizabeth Reilly and we all had lunch together at one of the special places known to few but the best informed, which includes Tony. This was Miscellanea (not my spelling), hidden away on Via delle Paste, a Via which hardly deserves the recognition of a Vicolo, so short and narrow it is. Somewhere around and about the Pantheon, between the latter and Palazzo Madama, not far from Tazza d’Oro, a spot easy to find if you have already been there a few times or have a very detailed map at microscopic level. The place (aka as “Micky’s” by those in the know) is hard to describe. For one, it does not profess to be a restaurant or a bar or café; it calls itself Associazione Culturale... If you get there by lunch time, it is likely you will find yourself in the midst of a noisy, well-disposed, gregarious mob of mostly young people from the offices and businesses nearby. If you get there by dinner time, the Italians are gone and the tourists dominate. No matter when you come, there will be noise and laughter, rushing waitresses, tight proximity of tables and bodies, and excellent, very simple food at incredible prices. So Josette, Elizabeth, Tony and I spent a very pleasant lunch together, eating panini or salads with salsa rossa according to Tony’s suggestions, drinking some beer ordered by the colour (rossa, chiara o verde) and ending with frosty glasses of fragolina, all this for under €30 for the four of us. I know; if you don’t believe, ask Tony. In fact Josette and I went once back, ending up with sharing a table with an Italian couple. Our lunch for two, with fragolina of course, went for €12.50. Spot right.

Sant’ Agnese in Agone and Meeting Steph and Cesare
Before leaving Toronto I received a very warm message from Steph, suggesting that we meet in Rome and adding a number of recommendations as to venues, events, etc. Thus we met on a Sunday evening. The meeting point was in front of Sant’ Agnese and Steph had said that she will surely recognise me from the Slow Travel personal profile. As did I, from her own profile. Indeed, no sooner have we planted ourselves in front of the scaffolding covering presently Sant’ Agnese, and Steph and Cesare came towards us. Introductions, then a short walk to Cul-de-Sac for a light meal, drinks and a chat. The surprise of the conversation was the fact that Cesare and I were sharing a common thread to his previous work and mine. Small world! We had a great time together, followed by attending together an excellent violin and piano recital at the Borromini Chapel of Sant’ Agnese, as previously recommended by Steph.

Later we return to Sant’ Agnese to admire at leisure the beautiful statues and reliefs which characterize this small, elegant church. To our pleasant surprise, an organ and trumpet (more specifically cornet) rehearsal takes place. Hard to describe the impact of the pure trumpet sounds (the trumpet player was at an exceptional level) playing Albinoni in this bright church, made even brighter by the surrounding suffused sunlight. Heavenly? It would well match the feeling.

Azaleas in Piazza di Spagna
Generally, I avoid Piazza di Spagna, unless I can get there by sunrise: too crowded, its beauty too often obscured by the multitudes that seem to permanently populate this space, one of the most beautiful and also most crowded in all of Rome. This time, as we approached from Via dei Condotti, it was even more traumatic, since we looked all the way at the enormous Bulgari drapes covering grossly the now (temporarily) invisible façade of the Trinità dei Monti, which is undergoing renovations. However, as we came closer, we started noticing the flowery glow covering the steps. It was that time of the year when hundreds of azaleas (this year, a local newspaper wrote, there were 600 azalea plants in the Piazza) flower, covering the steps with their massed colour.

It is not a city, it is a world. And it would take a life time to explore, and it will not be enough.
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A few notes about Rome from our 2007 visit

So, what I will now set to do here is to talk about changes. Of course, Rome has been there for almost three millennia, so it is hard to talk about changes when the context is the Eternal City. The changes in reference belong to the more modern Rome.

The Roscioli. For example, the celebrated Antico Forno Roscioli on Via dei Chiavari has changed its profile somewhat. It now also sports a deli, where one can have sandwiches prepared or take out warm food. There is a variety of delicious takeouts to choose from, all Roman typical fare, and don’t miss the gnocchi, warm and fresh every Thursday (Thursday is gnocchi day in Rome, so they told me), or the porchetta d'Arricia when they have it (Arricia is situated in the Castelli Romani region, near Rome). The front of the store also serves a variety of cut-to-required-size pizze, in addition to their usual and delicious pizza bianca. Roscioli uses only non-animal fat and is the mecca for gluten- and lactose-intolerance sufferers. We were at Roscioli about three times daily over 14 days (Sunday closed) and this place kind of monitored our days.

While we were in Rome there were passionate political discussions related to the rise in grains and, of course, flour cost, and Roscioli was featured repeatedly on TV news and so all Roscioli workers and owners became subjects of public attention and enjoyed it very much together with their customers! On the other hand (there is always another hand, alas), the former Riscioli deli located on Via dei Giubbonari, which two years ago had a small dining area at the back, has expanded into a restaurant while retaining the long and rich deli counter. The problem is that the place is packed, and tables for two were set along the deli counter, which makes it unappealing to try to talk to the deli clerks over the heads of people dining. It also became crowded. We were there once and never went back, while in the previous visit to Rome we bought from there, almost daily, prosciutto, mortadella, salumi, cheeses and wine. Well, not all changes are for the better.

Taxis. If one uses taxis in Rome (we do, for farther destinations in the city), theoretically taxis can be taken either at their regular stations (for Via de Chiavari the closest station is two to three minutes away in Largo Argentina) or via radio-dispatch. For the latter, if you trust your Italian, you need to dial 06-3570 (the number is preset on the mobile telephone provided by Rome is Home). A taxi called via radio dispatch will come with the meter already running. We used this facility a couple of times but as we gained more experience we discovered that, despite all rules, regulations and friendly advise that this is not allowed in Rome, we flagged taxis successfully in Rome quite a few times.

Another taxi related tip is that traffic access to Via dei Chiavari is quite tortuous and many taxi drivers may have problems finding the street. We started to ask taxis to drop us off in front of the Basilica Sant’Andrea della Valle and saved time, money and hearing the complaints of the “lost” drivers.

Culinary discovery. Others discovered it before us and reported on it. We became devotees during this trip. The discovery is Ristorante S. Anna, on the little street with the same name which opens from Largo Arenula. In 16 days we ate there five times, with guests or just the two of us. It is a pleasant, welcoming place, with daily fresh fish in addition to the classics of the Roman cuisine. The service is discreet, the staff would allow us patiently to figure the choices and preferences in Italian and assist where necessary with a few leading words in English. The best way to order in this restaurant is to ask the waiters what they recommend and follow.

Here is my 2007 review:
Ristorante S. Anna, Via di S. Anna, 8/9 , Phone: 06.68.307190
Closing day: Sunday
When: 2007

Excellent fresh food, excellent service. Warmly recommended.

Directions: Straight from Largo Arenula.

In September 2007 we were in Rome for a total of 16 days. Within this time span we ate five times at Ristorante S. Anna, whether just the two of us or with friends.

In all instances the food was excellent and the reception and service flawless. The owners and the waiters made sure we were comfortable and we had no problem changing tables on the one occasion when we happened to have some difficulty of access to a table.

The restaurant serves the typical Roman cuisine, and there is always fresh seafood available. There is also a self-serve antipasti buffet, always fresh as well.

The staff is friendly and sufficiently informal to make guests comfortable without becoming intrusive. They will wait patiently through the guests’ sundry levels of Italian, and complete details or make recommendations in English as well if necessary.

We found that the best bet was always to ask the waiters what they recommended or what fish or seafood was fresh that day and follow their recommendations.

Among things we greatly enjoyed at Ristorante St. Anna at various times were: insalatta di mare, which includes very tasty marinated octopus; risotto pescarese (my favourite) with chunks of fish, mussels and shrimps; grilled calamari; sea bass or dorade prepared wrapped in salt, or at other times grilled; “sopressatta di polpo” (sliced thin and pressed octopus) in olive oil; smoked swordfish (pescespada affumicato) salad with arugula, romaine lettuce and olive oil; stracetti di manzo con la rucola (sliced beefsteak with arugula salad); spaghetti con alici, a wonderful dish made with small chunks of anchovies, breadcrumbs, parmiggiano, pine nuts, and capers. The ubiquitous fettuccine con funghi porcini, always a tasty fallback.

In all cases, we had some antipasti and/or contorni, mineral water, a quartino of the house wine, and coffee. Rarely desserts.

There is absolutely no problem going through the meal at one’s pace; you are not expected to order the gamut of antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci. In fact I have never noticed any of the Italian clientele doing it. All eat here sensibly and order as they wish; however, if one of the guests ordered antipasti and a secondo, while the other started with a primo, the plates will be served in the traditional order, which means that, at times, one guest was eating while the other was waiting. Not a problem; in most cases we at least tasted from each other’s order, if not fully shared, which is also quite acceptable too: we shared a larger fish more than once.

On average, all meals cost about 25-30 euro per person, all included.

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