Friday, 5 June 2009

The Unpublished 6: Roman Holiday

Ancient monuments and exceptional gelati were my obsessions in this piece I wrote after visiting Rome some years ago. I never did get around to submitting it to any publications, but now this tale of saltimbocca, theatre, pickpockets and temple cats can be told...

Standing on the edge of the Piazza Rotonda, I have an instant sense of Rome’s appeal. The square is home to the ancient Pantheon temple, flirting waiters and spectacularly-priced caffe lattes.

The sun is shining and there are Vespa scooters tearing up and down the street outside, so what more is there to desire?

Perhaps the exceptional cioccolato gelato on sale throughout the city. If chocolate ice cream can be this good in Italy, why not everywhere in the world?

Federico Messina from website Live in Rome reveals the secret. “Traditional Italian gelati is only prepared with fresh ingredients,” he says. “Cream based flavours like chocolate, stracciatella, gianduia and nocciola are made with fresh milk and egg yolks. Fruit flavours only use ripened, tasty fruit.”

And once you’ve eaten saltimbocca alla Romana like the gold-digging gal in Three Coins in a Fountain, you can die happy.

Saltimbocca is one of Rome's most renowned meat dishes,” continues Messina. “It literally means ‘jump in the mouth’. Its combination of veal with sage and prosciutto shouldn’t be missed. Yet the most traditional Roman meat is lamb. Either baked with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and served with roasted potatoes, or cooked in a casserole with wine.”

Appetite piqued, we have dinner before taking in the opening night of Shakespeare's famous play Antonio e Cleopatra in a venerable theatre shaped like a very tall horseshoe, with the stage at the horse's heel.

I vaguely expect to see some local policemen on stage, if only because the Roman police have fantastically ornate uniforms... suggesting they might patrol in the mornings and appear in light opera in the afternoons. But what we get instead are bare boards, burning candelabra and a sexy cast in little black numbers and Zegna suits. “In mare!” cries Antony, meaning “At sea!” and we pat ourselves on the back for spotting a line we can translate.

On the way home via the Metro, I have a close encounter with a pickpocket clutching a baby, the calling card of the cutpurse across Europe. Danger averted just in time, I decide to dismiss the incident as one of those colourful moments that litter a traveller's life; and have a gelato to round the evening off.

That’s Rome, full of risk and delight. Lying flat on the grass on the Palatine Hill, taking a rest in the ruins of imperial palaces. Feeling like cast members of Prospero's Books, as we stroll through one curious gallery after another in the Vatican Museum. Finding Egyptian obelisks in the centre of endless baroque piazzas. And discovering a multitude of cats in temple ruins in the centre of the city (who end up appearing in my debut novel many years later).

La dolce vita? More like la stimolante vita, from my point of view.

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current gelati situation before travelling to Rome.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.