Natale Italiano | Rome – Day 1: Arrival by sunset
We arrived in Rome as the sun was setting behind Vatican city; the golden yellow and deepening tangerine skies casting a stunning glow behind the silhouette of St Peter’s and the domes and cupolas of ancient Rome. Our arrival to the city amongst the sun’s warm luminescence which gilded all of Rome with a hopeful uplifting lustre, was the happy ending to a transit as smooth as journeys can be – starting out by boat from the Rialto Bridge in Venice, out across a misty lagoon to the Marco Polo airport and onwards onto a swift flight down to Rome Fiumicino and a train into Stazione Termini – the happiest of starts to the second chapter of our festive Italian adventure.
Thrilled to be so swiftly and comfortably installed into the perfectly located Hotel Babuino 181, only minutes from the Spanish Steps, we left unpacking for later in our eagerness to run out onto the cobbled streets of Rome to enjoy the last rays of sun that the day was providing. After all, we had been three days in Venice with not a ray of sun to be seen, such was the density of mist which shrouded the city. But in Rome, all seemed alive under the vibrant blue skies of a winter’s afternoon sundown – hard to believe that this was Christmas Eve. For us it felt like the dying hours of a Spring day, a thought which could not escape us as we sat, but minutes later, upon the terrace of a ritzy hotel bar adjacent to the top of the Spanish steps, watching the seemingly odd combination of sunshine and vibrant mediterranean colours, with the Christmas tree which was installed onto the centre of the steps.
Dying hours of Roman sunshine
People watching on the sun-drenched Spanish steps
After indulging in the ultimate exercise of people watching in this, the classiest of Roman quarters, with a glass of prosecco in hand and a camera in the other, we headed down into the bustling streets of a Rome but hours before the feast of Christmas. In the chic shopping streets off the Via del Corso, the excitement of Christmas Eve as families and friends scuttered energetically from shop to shop was tangible, and in the nearby Piazza del Popolo, crowds hung around the grand obelisk at its centre, full of the spirit of the holiday season. For us, having a few hours spare before a dinner reservation, we headed across the square to Santa Maria del Popolo to accomplish something which I had intended to carry out when I was last in the city in 2010 but had been thwarted by renovations – to see the two stunning works by Caravaggio which can be found in a small side chapel in this otherwise innocuous church.
Like most of Caravaggio’s works, these two: the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter are utterly stunning works; Caravaggio’s exercise of chiaroscuro as dramatic as ever, while the skillful foreshortening of St Paul falling out towards us and St Peter shown foreshortened on the cross allowing audiences to become utterly absorbed in the paintings – that is at least when we could see them – for this being Rome, we had to insert a coin in a light box in order to have the otherwise shadowed works lit for all of a minute (and us being us, we had no coins on us – meaning that we had to wait for some other earnest Caravaggio fan to come along and supply lighting on our behalf…).
Caravaggio’s Popolo masterpieces
Those Caravaggio masterpieces finally crossed off the list, we returned to our nearby sumptuous hotel, where a bubbly bath provided another luxury which we had been unable to enjoy in Venice, and where we were invited to an improptu drinks party on the terrace in celebration of Christmas. Now that’s what I call service. We could only party so much however – dinner at the Ristorante Life was set up for the night – a dinner which disappointed pretty much throughout, with ill balanced food and a tasting menu matched with only white, rather acidic wines. We did enjoy the pasta with lobster though – an indulgence which seemed perfectly complimented to the extravagance of the season.
But dinner woes were soon banished to the back of our minds and walked off in a wash of mild evening air as we set off again strolling around Rome’s ancient and baroque centre – prime examples of which were happily within easy walking distance of our hotel. First the famous Trevi Fountain, an ultimate icon of Rome, and happily bereft of the usual hoards of tourists who crowd around it throughout most of the year, allowing us the opportunity to properly appreciate the stupendous scale of this baroque masterpiece without constantly fearing for the pick pockets who inevitably haunt a tourist pull like this one.
This baroque masterpiece was followed by one direct from the Roman Empire – the incredible Pantheon, a Roman temple so perfectly intact that standing before it is like being transported back directly to the time of the great Emperors. And it’s also a place which has a special place in my heart. When I studied art history in Rome I stayed in a room overlooking this incredible building for 9 days. Yes, we had to share a bathroom with about 20 others, but this view alone meant being spoilt beyond belief. Back then I made an unbreakable bond with this magical building. No wonder I felt the need to hug the very columns of the place when I returned this December evening.
Our first day in Italy’s glorious capital came to an end with a visit to another of its iconic central piazzas – this time to the Piazza Navona, whose Bernini fountains continued to entrance, despite the many other attractions all around, including a Christmas market and a funfair happily still open despite Christmas day being only minutes away. Looking at our watch and our surroundings in unison, we quickly realised that as Christmas approached, Rome was going to be one hell of a place to spend it.
More from Roma…coming soon!
All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2014 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.