True Romance - One Incredible Night in Rome
When booking your flight on Skyscanner, do you search by 'Cost' and then recoil in horror at the flight schedule and route? 5:40am out, via Helsinki, Abu Dhabi, Colombo and Stansted Mountfitchet with an 8 hour layover here and a 13 hour stopover there? It's pretty much a standard occurrence for a bargain hunting tightwad like me. We all like to get there directly, quickly and with just enough time at the connecting airport to flurry a flannel around the basement stairs (I don't have a flannel, btw.), clean our teeth, untrap some wind, spray on some free cologne, grab a coffee and croissant from a mock Parisienne cafe and throw our bottles of water away with contempt at the Gate. This is ideally an hour and half, give or take... allowing an extra 30 minutes for a tardy A380 and all that. Especially on the way home. Teleport me please, pronto presto!
Well, we were in the difficult position of having to fly out of Prague on a one way ticket and nearly all of the affordable flights truly sucked. This trip had found us in an unusually penny-pinching and thrift-filled mood, having unexpectedly purchased our first home days before flying out on this uncancellable yuletide trip of a life time. We were fairly skint, in other words. The trip there was booked using the last of our ill-gotten Quntas frequent flier points, and we'd been scratching around snowy mountains and frosty lanes looking for lost change for about 4 weeks hence. I know, your heart is breaking but we needed a cheap one-wayer nevertheless. The best flight I could find, after weeks of searching, was well over 44 hours long. It was with Etihad who have been my preferred long hauler for the last few years... although recent changes to their pricing and baggage policy make me somewhat regret my decision. Obviously Singapore are a far superior airline but the flights are far too crowded for the likes of this lanky cabin class neer-do-well.
The flight had a couple of long stopovers, one in Rome, after a brief hop from the Czech Republic, and another monster one in Abu Dhabi. For reasons I wont go into, but through an enormous stroke of luck, the flight actually ended up being a very short stopover in Abu Dhabi and a very long one in Rome. Arriving at 2pm and not leaving until 10.40 the next day - Perfect. This is actually a brilliant schedule if you like travelling and pushing yourself for one last hurrah, as we surely do. Get to the hotel sometime after 3, freshen up and just casually chill in the locale, a few aperitifs before a long dinner, a stroll and a good night's sleep and all is right with the world. We're here to travel so we might as well... travel. The upshot now being that the flight in the morning was now only 22 hours long from Europe to Brisbane, and that's pretty bloody good actually. This flight with the Roman overnighter is actually available even if you don't get the stroke of luck we had out of Prague .. it just costs a little more. I hastily booked 'The Inn at the Roman Forum' on yet more as yet unused frequent flyer points and it was done. I'm finding spending Quntas points on Hotels far less stressful than actually using them to book roundabout flights that go in the opposite direction on their annoying booking system anyway these days.
This Italian detour was about to start off on the right footing almost as soon as we boarded our Alitalia/Etihad flight from Prague. Just shortly after Kati had made sympathetic contact..... in a very rolly-eyed way, with the crew member who was having to deal with a passenger who'd decided to go to the loo just as service had started and was trapped between two carts as a result. The flight crew obviously felt some understanding of Kati's eye-roll at the grumblings of the slack-bladdered complainant that moments later he came over to us with an unopened bottles of Prosecco, two glasses, a wink and a secretive shhh! This was a dry flight for the poor, so I'm pretty much beaming from ear to ear at this point, although I can clearly sense unrest from our already envious near neighbours. They may me little but they were most welcome and covetous, it would appear. I've often been on flights when I've seen this happen to others. They must be off duty crew I've reckoned, or friends... or celebrities (Minor if they're in cattle class.)
We soon polished off the bottles as it was a quick flight, but he was back and ready for a chat, a long chat. It was lovely and our hearts sank when we found out that Alitalia have been bought by a big player and that one of our favourite airlines was possibly about to change irreparably and for the 'progressively' worse. He also wanted to introduce the flight manager to us, and who then duly arrived at our row for a bit of a natter. Following this interaction, we were brought yet another unopened bottle of wine, this time a Tuscan white. We were very sorry to land shortly afterwards. It was a flight we were both very much enjoying and the jealous stares and fractious elbowing amongst our fellow passengers was a hoot, but land we did in Rome, albeit disconcertedly accompanied by yet another round of applause from the predominantly Czech and 'active wear' ridden cargo. Is there something I should know, as they did this on the flight in from Milan also.
We caught the 5 Euro charabanc into Rome, eschewing our usual private transfer for obvious reasons. Don't hate me for private transferring from airports, by the way. I have found it singularly the best value for money excess you can indulge in, especially when travelling with a loved one. No stress, direct, and we all love a sign being held up for us at arrivals... unless it says 'You're nicked', 'Go Home British Scum' or 'Vaccinations This Way -> Urgent!'. After a very dull drive, but with the odd moment of Roman magic thrown in, we arrived at the terribly forlorn Termini train station, called an Uber from an even more desolate back street, before finding ourselves crawling through the micro cobbled streets of Rione I Monte.
Our ride was a galumphing great Mercedes and we soon got well and truly stuck trying to execute a 70 point turn around a very tight and aptly named stucco corner, so we vacated via the emergency shoot and dragged ourselves to the hotel on foot, ... which, due to the incredibly picturesque area, was no great hardship at all, especially as the apricot sun was starting its descent behind the rambling Forum.
'The Inn at the Roman Forum' is a small, thin hotel down nestled along a little cobbled backstreet, and a place I have long wished to stay at. Check-in however wasn't a great start. Clearly something was amiss. They were definitely expecting us but not expecting us to want a room all to ourselves, it would seem. After a lengthy process of introduction, confirmation, procrastination and explanation, we were instructed to make ourselves comfortable in the 'crypt' behind reception and await further instruction. Not actually a crypt but a genuinely bizarre and authentic array of in situ wells, dungeons and Roman ruins (What else would they be, Inca?).
Now, under normal circumstances this would be just fine, although the sight of a skeleton slouched in a garden chair clutching a Samsonite carry-on and an empty bottle of Valpolicella on their bony lap was disconcerting to say the least. Fine but for the fact that the sun was setting just outside the barred gate and we were only metres away from some of the best views and icons in the whole of this amazing city, and I wanted to see it, especially as our time here was short, as was the Receptionist.... or curt maybe, but definitely stressed out at our desire to leave the 'Welcome Dungeon'.
Time had, after all, dragged on and clearly nothing was happening, so I let them know, quite pleasantly, that they could release us back into the streets so we wouldn't miss the sun's doing its thing. They allowed this begrudgingly and opened the gates. The scene outside was truly spectacular and the timing perfect. Although the area roadside of the Forum and down to the Colosseum to the left has been taken over by beatbox performers, pedlars, bad buskers and the usual Segway insanity unbefitting of such a city, the area to the north east is utterly brilliant in every way and quite new to me.
I find it very difficult indeed to believe that so many visitors to this place will stare in awe and wonder at two people sitting on a metal frame pretending to be statues and throw money at them. If they just for moment turned around, they would see hundreds of real statues dating back to when Jesus Christ wasn't something you said when stubbing your toe and when togas where worn well below the knee. The irony is surely lost on them but once again, why? Why look at a paving stone chalk drawing of the Mona Lisa when there is all this to behold at eye-level? I don't understand. People draw on the sidewalks of Cleveland, go there instead, it's cheaper, probably.
After a little walk and a few 'happy snappies' we ended up back at the hotel to see if our overnight bags had answered all of their questions and were happily taking a refreshing shower up in the room. The 'big boys' had been checked-in all the way through to Brisbane so we were free of that heavy burden and it makes such a difference, ergonomically especially, when you don't have to cart suitcases around with you all day - They weren't. They were still dirty, confused and ravenous down in the crypt. An American couple had arrived at the same time as us and were still playing the waiting game, but having decided to stay shackled in the dark and crumbling cell and had missed the golden, glorious sunset unfolding only a few precious steps outside. I chose not to let them know this as I'm a decent human being although the urge was great ... as I'm not that decent a human being.
As the crypt began to lose it's appeal even further, at last but slowly some information began to creep down to us, until we finally heard the words "Your rooms aren't ready". Our hearts dropped like one of the nearby spiders dangling from its high-wire. Another group, whose rooms also weren't ready yet, had complained that their 2 daughters were tired after their trip from the States, bless their little cotton socks, and as a result had been given our room to sleep in until theirs became available. Nice one, I thought. Feck that! I said. That makes no sense, I continued. F**k 'em, I said... or thought. I can't remember as it was all getting a bit odd and I was becoming delirious through thirst, as is my wont. Check-in had so far taken nearly two hours and it was approaching 5.30. Our time here was disappearing quickly and I was beginning to feel like a bit like Spartacus, such was the length of time I'd spent in this dingy gaol of ours. We were eventually invited up to the rooftop lounge and/or terrace to partake in some complementary drinks. "At last. Now you're talking", I said, and thought, and did, for that matter. Up we went, in a lift so small, I expected us to be joined by a plate of Canapés and some soggy bruschetta. Surely this was a dumb waiter built for food transportation and not for human occupation, or consumption, as it were. There wasn't even room for all three of us, so the barman had to walk the 4 flights up, which, I figured, would undoubtedly slow down the delivery of our Aperol Spritz ever further.
We disgorged from 'il liftetta piccolo' into a different world. A beautifully decorated and very welcoming lounge lay to our left, only slightly diminished in appeal by the sight of the parents of Hansel and Gretel, who were currently sleeping comfortably in our beds downstairs, sprawled in dishevelled slumber across the two couches. They had obviously been here a while. This might take more than a free drink to get over, I thought. I was doing a lot of thinking. Straight ahead was the terrace - Complete with views out across the rooftops, over the Forum and the majestically silhouetted Il Vittoriano. For all its controversy, it is quite the site, especially from here.
There was also a little winding staircase too. From where, if climbed, the view opens up even further. The sunset was still going strong. The myriad of colour often only expands once the sun has left the sky and I think we were beginning to understand that our check-in delay was becoming a bit of a Godsend. We would have missed all this whilst we showered and prepped our weary bodies for our last night of the trip. Our drinks arrived and were perfect.
The barman filled us in on some more details about what was going on. It was obviously an anomaly as the hotel has a very good reputation for affordable and natural cordiality and comfort. It was a staffing issues. Folks who shudda, didna turn up for work, leaving our three hosts to deal with the situation. From the guy at reception, the barman and the more aloof loitering guy, they were all having to take up the slack of the missing hands. They were all acting as chambermaids when it clearly wasn't their job. My heart went out to them and this is were honesty really counts. Knowing the truth in such circumstances really helps us guests understand their difficulties. We immediately relaxed and even offered to help in any way we could. Especially if it meant mixing the drinks for them. "I can do that." I said.
Once the darkness had fallen, our second drink had been enjoyed, we made our way into the lounge where the barman/chambermaid/chef/bellhop/maitre d had prepared a vast spread of snacks, nibbles and sandwiches for us. After yet another complimentary glass of Chianti, and an evening preamble with some of our fellow inmates, our room became available, fully three and a half hours after we first arrived.
Goldilocks x 2 had been stirred, awoken, their bathroom distress had all been cleaned up, and the bed linen hopefully changed. We were escorted to our room by all three of the hotel staff, who all bowed and apologised in perfect harmony whilst walking us in. It was a lovely room and they had prepared yet more food for us. A vast plate of antipasti, sandwiches, fruit etc lay in wait for our enjoyment and yet another complimentary bottle of wine. They also announced, apologetically again, that the mini bar was free for the duration of our stay and thanked us for our patience.
So far, everything today had been free, gratis, just when we needed it most, which was obviously a huge bonus, but the humility, kindness and desire to make things as right as they could be from all of the staff members there (those who bothered to show up, that is) was a delight. I really felt for them. They were working their socks off and it showed. They deserve every kindness and all our respect, and we knew that this was going to be our chosen hotel for the years to come. I know Rome and I love Rome but my periods of exploration were coming to an end. I wanted now to come here and just relax. To have and to know my places and frequent them often: metaphorically 'feet up' and actually open hearted. 'The Inn at the Roman Forum': Check-in is a bit weird but we wouldn't have you any other way. As with airlines, better to judge their quality when things go wrong than when things are just tickety-boo.
It was well past 7 when we had polished off what we could of the platter without ruining our appetite. There was a Trattoria just around the corner that I'd always wanted to visit and this, at last, was my opportunity to gorge there. I had made a hasty and unreturned email reservation for 8, so a quick drink was still at hand and we left hastily out on to the cobbled streets of the Eternal Check-in, I mean city.
As soon as we had ventured out from the confines of the tiny hotel, we heard music: Proper music, music that fitted, suited the situation and the place. Music that you would want to hear when walking through Rome, and not the commercial crap that might be emanating from the tourism ravaged Via dei Fori Imperiali. Violin, accordion, guitar, mandolin and hand-drum filled the evening air. We hadn't walked 50 paces up Via Baccina when we found ourselves blocked by an energetic and happily noisy throng.
One man with a megaphone, peaked hat, handle-bar moustache, eyeshadow, shorts and hob-nailed boots, instructed the crowd in the proceedings and they all dutifully and eagerly followed his every command. A white open topped pick-up truck packed full of cases of red and white wine, salami and bread was surrounded by excited revellers. On one side, in a rushed yet somehow orderly fashion, a row of kindly men did nothing but fill glasses and hand out food to anyone who wanted it - All the time to the accompaniment of music hall song and delighted laughter. It was very much a theatrical crowd that we had found together and dancing outside this one very particular house. A plaque announced that it was once the home of Ettore Petrolini. A famed and respected vaudeville figure from the early part of the 20th Century and today was his birthday.
The gathering was of about 80 people who ebbed and flowed to the narrow street's sway. Megaphone man instructed the crowd to let vehicles pass through when required, which was done with such immediacy and grace that it was hard to believe. It was so heartwarming to see smiling faces emanating from the few passing vehicles instead of raised fists and even more raised expletives. He also instructed us on what to sing. It wasn't a huge list and we soon became familiar with the words, and joined in with gusto, bravado and terrible Italian. The atmosphere was joyous and I became increasingly bemused by the amount of tutting tourists that were trying to barge their way through the group and not bothering to understand that it was a party and that we were all invited. Where could they possibly be going that was more eventful than an impromptu street party with free food and wine in a visually stunning cobbled Roman backstreet? - The loss was theirs but it is a bit strange to wonder at their expectations and priorities. Horses for courses I know, but still, this was an unusual occurrence and I would suggest walking away at ones peril.
We were definitely caught in the moment and were being very well looked after by one of our hosts especially. In her flowing black cape and equally flowing black curled hair, our glasses were rarely empty. It soon became apparent that we were going to here for a while, and so, as the music played on, I decided to go back to the hotel to get the all the wine we had accumulated during our day and to at least contribute something to the proceedings. Upon my return, Kati was surrounded by musicians and was beaming radiantly. The joy on her face was mesmerising and will live long in my memory. After 4 weeks of pretty hectic travel, here she was leaning in a doorway in Rome on a winter's evening, drinking local red wine from a plastic cup being seduced by a long passed Italian music hall star ... and salami.
With time, the songs were becoming very joininable, even though our pidgin Italian wouldn't bear any scrutiny, our voices were there to just add further depth to the occasion and to announce our involvement. After probably another hour of song, music and wine, moustachioed man hoists his megaphone into the mild and still evening air and we were off, who knew where. A rapturous procession soon formed and we headed north easterly up Via Baccina and out into the picturesque streets of Rome. Restaurants diners left their seats and fettucine to glimpse us as we passed, cameras and glasses raised to our revelry.
Down cobbled lanes and into fountained courtyards we went. All the time met with smiling faces and confused, bemused wonder. We stopped at various locations along the way that were obviously very important spots in the life story of old Ettore, where famous passages were read and simple songs were sung. Eventually we arrived at one of the most beautiful and archetypal Roman piazzas you could ever wish to see.
With a fountain in the middle and surrounded by a host of little restaurants with braziers aflame, a host of local actors, writers and performers gathered to pay homage to the man in any way they chose. Soon I realised that I had made a crucial mistake in not packing away a full bottle of red in my jacket pocket, and was becoming increasingly aware that our glasses were being filled with the rapidly diminishing bottles of others. I needed to find a wine shop and quickly. After a walk of some 17 seconds, I finally found a place that sold screw cap wine and the crisis was averted. This wasn't a time for great wine.... The quality of the wine didn't matter. It was of the moment, an ingredient. A wonderful life enhancing ingredient.
Soon we were off again. Singing all the more, back to the truck and to the place where it all began, and back for a slice of birthday cake. We continued to party, making more friends in fractured Italian as we went, until it was time finally time to leave. It was now 10.30pm and although our grins were still as wide as the Tiber, there was still that matter of the Trattoria round the corner to deal with. Both megaphone man and our caped crusader scribbled down the name and address of the club they were all going to later for us, and we said our heartfelt goodbyes. We then made our way, still pinching ourselves at our good fortune, giggling down the hill, hand in swinging hand, and out on to Via della Madonna dei Monti
It was probably a 100 metres to La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali from both the hotel and from Ettore's house. The whole evening had taken us about three blocks from home yet it had been an incredible night so far, but now I just wanted edible. We arrived with the kind of hang dog expressions on our faces often reserved for such occasions as these.
A long missed reservation and a rambling explanation for our tardiness. Our host, Claudia, couldn't have been more helpful, and although Rome's locals and glitterati took their places ahead of us, a table was quickly found, which was a miracle really, because even now at nearly 11 o'clock, the place was packed. We thanked her graciously and were placed at a table directly opposite Bruce Springsteen and Dustin Hoffman. The place was obviously held in as high esteem as I'd been led to believe, and these photo's of happily smiling guests and celebrities added to the vibrant and bustling atmosphere within. It was a proper 'place' and although pictures of 'Stars' on the wall don't guarantee great food, I happen to like them. They don't give me comfort, they make my mind wander to the night they were here.
I'm certainly no celebrity chaser and often, just a picture is infinitely more preferable than the real thing. Although, as Santa Ana in Bologna will attest to, sometimes a signed picture hanging on a wall is no more than a doffed cap to the past and to long lost glories. The service was prompt, as it would be at this time of night, the wine was lovely (just a carafe, we're not animals.) and the food delicious. I'm a sap for Saltimbocca when in Rome and it was no disappointment. We managed to squeeze in a white chocolate soufflé, and at midnight we fell back out into the street after what turned out be one of the most unexpectedly incredible and spontaneously memorable evenings of our lives, and all because of a long, cheap flight and one last big push.
Effort is something that cannot be underestimated and this night couldn't and wouldn't have happened if Kati, my incredible life, love and travel companion hadn't found the energy and zest for living to give it once last hurrah. She might easily have said, "I'm tired. Can we just go to bed?" but she didn't, she said " Let's go! Let's do this..... Hic! "
Footnote: I realise that this may not be everybody's idea of a fantastic evening but given the location and proximity to our hotel, the brief time we had and the manner, kindness and hospitality of our hosts, it was certainly one to remember for us.
Cheers, and thanks for reading.