In the old days before children, we used to spend a lot of our holidays travelling round Italy. And then it stopped. The trips had been about wandering through cities, spending hours in great little old fashioned restaurants, a bit of culture here and there, travelling light. None of these are easy with small children and so our holidays were spent first in England and then as the whining on long car journeys improved, France and in particular (as you know if you are a regular reader) French beaches, as a ready made entertainment source is on your doorstep when you stay near a beach. But time has passed and this week we tried to stretch the limits a little further... and went to Rome. It was exhausting. We did so much walking, too much walking. I now have stumps of gristle where my legs used to be. Civil words were sometimes few and far between. The crowds of tourists in some areas were shocking as were the hundreds of poor souls trying to eke a living out of them - you want to buy a selfie stick? But there was a joy that I had forgotten and some new pleasure I hadn't known before. I had heard about it but had never fully realised how much Italians love children. Picture us standing on a bus and eldest says to me giggling "Mum, I think there's a lady who likes me" and suddenly I see a hand stroking his hair and tickling his chin. Daughter, still blonde in a way that must be quite unfeasible to an Italian, has a waitress sit down on the bench next to her to talk about whether she wants pasta and meatballs and blood orange juice or peach, then tells her she should smile more as she is beautiful when she does. Even the flower seller going round the restaurant gives her a yellow rose (yes it was MY birthday but never mind) and the stern passport guy in the airport gives her a smile, a wave and a "ciao".
The elegance and faded grandeur of the architecture. Ochre and burnt siena shades in the sun. The splendour of hints of the 1950's in packaging, in shop windows, in advertising. Sunny happy Vespas and motorbikes parked in alleyways. The surreptitious SPQR's hidden on drain covers, lampposts, bins, harking back to a distant age.
The food, the joy and pride in good quality and flavour. The French may have beautiful croissants, but the Italians take them and then stuff them like a doughnut: nutella, custard or apricot jam, what could be better? The steamy puffiness of squares of focaccia made especially in a wood fired oven for the children to have with their meatballs (which come after the pasta course, a bewildering concept to an English seven-year-old).
We search for the best ice cream in all of Rome every day, based on guide books and website recommendation. The quality, the intensity of flavour, gives me the greatest pleasure and the greatest regrets now I've returned. Why didn't I try the apricot flavour, the wild cherry, the chestnut, even the fresh date? I am mortified that on my last day, when I went back inside to thank the man for the three scoops I'd just had (salted peanut, rice pudding, and ricotta, cointreau and orange if you're wondering) and shamefully bought two more flavours, I asked him what he thought his best flavours were, then when he thoughtfully and bashfully pointed out the very darkest chocolate, and then the habanero, I grimaced, made my excuses and ordered the cassata and zabaglione instead. Why didn't I just do it? Maybe I need to get some funding to go back on my own and do some more thorough research before writing my thesis on the best ice cream in Rome. It will only take a few months and some larger jeans.
Anyway my friend Laura says I should just post some beautiful photos of my trip on here without any words, but I never could keep my mouth shut. I think I've said what I wanted to say now though, so here are the pics...