So, how was your festive season?
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
Jack Frost nipping on your nose?
Roast Turkey with all the trimmings?
And the whole thing set off with a sprig of holly?
Or what about bright blue skies over the Eternal City? A plate of pasta piled high with lashings of fresh tomato and garlic, followed by slow roasted lamb, sweet inside, crisp outside and the whole thing set off with a sprig of basil?
Yes, yes, I know. Christmas (or Hanukah or Eid or any one of the great festivals of the year) is for families and tradition runs deep. But when grandchildren have to be shared and it’s the other ones’ turn, what then? Faced with the dismal prospect of a childless Christmas Jafar and I opted for the grown-up version and skipped off to Rome. Finding an exchange wasn’t a problem. Christmas in London, even when the weather is freezing – in fact especially when the weather is freezing – is a big attraction apparently and we were spoiled for choice. Angela and Gianluigi won with a comfy, old-fashioned apartment in the San Giovanni area of Rome, just twenty minutes walk from the Coliseum. They, and their family, loved the idea of tramping around London, preferably in the snow and spending a typically British Christmas. We loved the prospect of blue skies, of Italian restaurants, of piles of pasta and scrummy Italian wine. We wanted to wander around fabulous sights, experience a culture that vibrates with history and colour. We just wanted it all. The beauty, the excitement, the sheer exhilaration that is Rome.
Angela and Gianluigi left us a cheeky little Fiat Punto that we could drive around in. I was tempted, having driven all around Italy about 40 years ago in a navy blue Fiat 500, which looked like a cake-tin and behaved like a Lamborghini. But that was then and this was now and somehow driving around Rome with one hand permanently on the horn and the other manipulating the steering wheel had lost its appeal. Besides, if we could walk to the Coliseum, we could walk to the Piazza Venezia and from there to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain and..and..and just about anywhere we wanted to go.
Of course there were decisions that had to be made. The most pressing being, “where were we going to spend the big day?” It turned out it’s not a big day; it’s a big night. Christmas Eve, and it was already happening as we arrived in Rome. I despaired over the prospect of a dreary Christmas Day in a city bereft of people. Luckily, Angela and Gianluigi did our booking for us, choosing a traditional restaurant, ‘Il Drappo’, so popular with the locals that it was filled to the rafters with families, from granny at one end of the table, venerable in black, to great-grandchild at the other, delicately picking her way through a plate of lentils and lamb in a herby sauce. There was not so much as a hint of turkey or brussel sprouts or mince pies in sight. Phew!
New Years Eve was another grand success. Thankfully, no confusion about days or nights here. Capodanno, as it’s known, the end of the year, is the same the world over and as the fireworks burst across the Roman skies we watched it all, from the terrace of ‘Il Winebar’ atop La Cittá del Gusto. We’d enjoyed some of the best food we’ve ever tasted in our lives, accompanied by the kind of music we love, and that was followed by dancing and disco for as long as our feet could handle it.
No grannies here (except me), no grandchildren, (at least not under the age of 18) just happy, excited, enthusiastic Italians doing what Italians do best. Enjoying themselves. As we walked off into the early morning of 2013, filled already with memories of an evening both familiar, in its countdown to ‘mezzanotte’, and delightfully different in its menu (which started with a tartare of tuna and balsamica and ended with the lightest, crispest, tastiest millefeuille I have ever eaten) we contemplated what Rome had yet in store for us.
Days of both exploring the unfamiliar and rediscovering old treasures, of wandering through a city so redolent of its history that the ghosts seem to be walking the streets alongside you. Rome at its height was a brutal city. Just listen to a good guide when you visit the Coliseum and it’s there for you in all its blood soaked reality. But this is a city that is also heart-breakingly beautiful, decorated with some of the greatest art it’s possible to find in this world. As for culture and invention, Rome reeks of it. We dropped into an exhibition of made-up models, realized by students, of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinary inventions, including the first tank and helicopter. Both amazing and humbling.
But it’s not just the buildings, not just the lasagna of civilizations that layer, one upon the other, that makes Rome such an extraordinary location. It’s nature. It’s the Tiber River. It’s the trees, so graceful reflecting the colours of the landscape. And the skies, all looking as if they were painted by Canaletto.
Would we have made our Roman exchange without the prospect of a dismal childless Christmas in London? I can’t answer that. I can only say, I am so glad we did.