Beautiful, empty and sad Rome

July 9, 2020

I haven’t been present here lately, and I’ve missed it. Recent weeks and months have been somewhat of a rollercoaster and an unexpected prolonged lack of a good internet connection has stopped me from posting here for a while (however I’ve tried to update my Instagram account when possible).

To begin with I thought I’d share a few words on the beginning of the lockdown in Italy. The borders are open now but it is far from what it used to be. The emptiness from the tourists and chaos for some may seen an amazing sight and experience but for many it boarders with a great sadness.

We were booked for an early flight from Rome to London. The night before our flight, while I was waiting for my next “Commissario Montalbano” episode on TV, the speech of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was shown. From that moment the whole of Italy became “the red zone” (initially it was only Lombardy). Subsequently our flight was cancelled and we received a message from the airline a few hours before the scheduled departure.

After a few moments of digesting the information we started cancelling all the meetings, appointments and what have you that we were supposed to have in London. Since nothing could be done, I went for a run to Villa Borghese Gardens, the last one before all the parks were ordered to be closed too. Needless to say that the gyms closed just after that, as well as restaurants (which were already only allowed lunch service) and practically every other businesses going.
After my morning run we decided to treat ourselves to a last unforgettable lunch, just in time before the proper lockdown.

We walked from our home just off Piazza del Popolo towards Testaccio, to have the best “cacio e pepe “ and lamb in town at “Felice a Testaccio”. I never order a half portion of “cacio e pepe” there, it is simply too good. Plus, the one hour walk each way helps me not to feel sorry about the very generous portion of the tonnarelli pasta in a peppery and Pecorino cheese sauce.
Very often we used to walk to the Testaccio Quarter of Rome along the Tiber river, which in spring is a very pleasant stroll under dappled shading of all the tree leaves turning vibrant green. Aventine Hill however, has become our latest obsession and the route of choice to Testaccio.

This very elegant hill of Rome is one of the sweetest, cosiest and quietest corners of the city. There is no shade of a shop. Just the most stunning residential villas. Moreover, The Orange Garden boasts one of the most beautiful views over Rome, particularly romantic at sunset. During day time we have almost always stumbled upon a grazing domesticated and most photographed pig in that garden.

The Aventine Hill is where you would normally stay patiently in line in order to rest your eye on the door of the Villa del Priorate di Malta with the famous key hole, through which you can marvel at the splendid perspective of the San Pietro dome appearing along the alley of the Giardini dell’Ordine. No queues this time, just us. On the way back from our generous and delectable lunch there was a carabinieri car parked near that point already ready to enforce the lockdown.

Another jewel of the hill is The Rose Garden which is most pleasing to walk around in April when the flowers are blooming. Sadly, this time of year we were already in the period of the full lockdown in Italy.

From the early days of March until the 4th of May we had the 200m rule to obey, which basically meant shopping at your nearest shops, markets and pharmacies. Only farther movements for work, health or other absolute needs were allowed. The police presence was very prominent. You could be asked at any time for your documents and the auto certification, a signed form explaining why, where and from where you were going to. And believe me, it wasn’t the nicest experience being stopped and not having these documents on you.

The tourism crowd had already eased a week or so prior to the lockdown by 70%.
We took an advantage of that peaceful time in Rome and we revisited The Palantine Hill and Vatican museums on two separate days. We left the apartment fairly early in the morning and just enjoyed the walk as well as no ticket queues, as you can imagine. We actually had some of the most fabulous and atmospheric days in Rome. A truly unforgettable experience. And also to be able to rest your legs and peacefully enjoy a cold beer in the (normally bustling) enduring Peroni brewery near Di Trevi Fountain on our way back.

During the most strict lockdown period we did our grocery shopping daily or almost daily. The need of a breath of fresh air and the contact with other human beings, in this case with all our food vendors, was stronger than the very convenient and free of charge home delivery service. It was very funny to see that during the first week of the lockdown there were no queues outside “my” butcher’s for example. Most customers were placing orders for home deliveries. One week under the way and the 20-30 min long lines of shoppers started to appear. The preference of personal shopping and an excuse to go out was already stronger for many more.

I was really amazed how well the food chain industry was handled during such a difficult and uncertain period. We didn’t experience any bulk shopping or running out of produce on the shelves. Perhaps once I noticed the shortage of 00 flour and it seemed like almost everybody with the time on their hands (or not) turned into a home bread baker. Fresh yeast was impossible to get, but it wasn’t far off from the normality anyway. No, I didn’t bake my own bread. I supported daily my favourite forno in Rome Roscioli, plus, I just love going there anyway.
I alternated many home cooked meals with the pre-made meals from my trusted place, which never disappoints.

I decided to use this time of staying at home as a possibility to try and test some new recipes or those, that I had always wanted to make, like: vitello tonnato for example, or to perfect the tarte tatin that we’ve become obsessed with. We also had potato gnocchi with cinnamon and sugar as they make them in Veneto, thin pork slices baked with spinach and walnuts, Sardinian semolina gnocchi and spiced sausage ragù , Sicilian veal rolls, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, beef tartare and many more.

It hasn’t been easy for anybody. Some of us had their birthdays and were on their own. It happened to be that I also had my birthday in March but I didn’t feel it was the right moment to celebrate. We did have a cake though, the stracciatella pavlova, which was more an excuse to have something sweet and for me to try out a new recipe.

Some of us grieved for their family members while not being able to say the last good bye and pay their respects. Easter without family didn’t feel like Easter. Rome also had the best weather in years for the festivities, unfortunately enjoyed from a terrace or a window in most cases.

The list perhaps could be endless. We have all been anxious and anticipating the “ gradual reopening” of the countries and borders with a great hope for a slow return to normality or a new normality, as it is called right now.

The 4th of May finally arrived. We were able to walk around Rome freely (it was a 10km rule), the auto cerifcation was still required though. Parks also reopened to my great joy. I had never seen Villa Borghese Park to be so busy at 8am before. It was much quieter the following days. Everybody who lives around a park, couldn’t wait to walk around it, be in a green area and practice any kind of sporting activity. Children in particular couldn’t get enough of the freedom.

Initially taking pictures wasn’t really allowed, the police often asked people to stop taking them. Perhaps it didn’t fall into the basic needs basket like food or medicine shopping. Even journalists were checked for their work license. Later on it relaxed a lot, but not near the Di Trevi Fountain. There were more policemen around than people themselves. I was also asked to stop taking photographs. Since it is a narrow space along the fountain, the aim was to avoid any form of gathering.

Wearing masks, at least in Lazio, has been obligatory in a closed space like a shop, bank, station and so forth or when you can’t distance yourself by 1m from another person.
Later on came the dates for other businesses to reopen: hairdressers and restaurants.
I was circulating around my nearest hairdresser studio since early morning as soon as they opened to get an appointment for both of us. We got it. We were over the moon. Felt almost newborn, fresh and presentable again. We also booked ourselves into our local osteria, well attended as always by the locals and customers from the Parioli area, which is just above the Villa Borghese. After years spent in Rome, you learn to recognise the differences between particular quarters of the city. Plus, Roman actors love mimicking those differences when they can. Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, came to say hi and wished everybody a good evening. She was walking around Rome to observe the atmosphere on the first day of the official reopening of the restaurants. Reading the newspapers the following day, sadly only 10% of them decided to open their doors to customers. The new safety rules and the lack of tourists forced many to wait. Some of them still remain closed.

Rome during the month of May turned into the city of the cyclist. A very low level of traffic on the roads allowed whole families to cycle around very safely. The Romans had Rome to themselves and it was wonderful.

At the very beginning of the new phase there was only one place at the Piazza Rotonda (where the Pantheon is) which started serving coffee and cornetti. Sounds pretty basic but we had a couple of coffees there almost every day. It was magical, just us, a few government workers and the Pantheon. After a short while it changed of course. On Sundays we barely saw any difference from pre Covid times, loosely speaking.

I don’ t have a custom to carry my camera with me very often. It actually must be something of an occasion for me to do so. I walk far and a lot having just keys, my phone and a few coins on me. On top of that it gets in the way and during ferocious Roman summer heat and it just feels too heavy. But above all, I love to experience a place and memorise it in my heart. Focusing on trying to take “the right shot” spoils the moment, at least for me, a non professional photographer by far. Personally I found it inappropriate to glorify images of empty sites or monuments during such a sad and difficult period we’ve got to live in. It is true, it is wonderful to see normally very busy cities like that, but simultaneously we all know, that it is the pandemic which is responsible for it. Just quiet enjoyment is more appropriate perhaps, at least in my humble opinion.

Later on, once some of the museums, shops and eventually the regions along with the borders reopened, while I was passing La Scalinata by the Spanish Square going to see the exhibition of the works of Raffaello, the Dègustatuer took a few pictures of me on the empty steps. Something, to remember this happy moment by. It was just before 9am. As you well know, the so called “Spanish Steps” prior to the Covid were very busy and perhaps the most visited place in Rome, sometimes too busy that I even avoided walking on them. Luckily I passed them almost daily, thus I didn’t mind. They still do fill up, currently mainly over weekends but it is also a well known rule, that places are emptier at early hours of the day.

I accidentally found some yeast on a fridge shelf in my local store a few days ago. Perhaps we have fewer home bread bakers at the moment. I hesitated, but I bought it. I didn’t manage to use my fresh yeast and had to throw it away (which made me very sad actually). I’ve found it to be a positive sign that the long awaited moment of being absorbed by many other activities outside our homes has finally arrived.