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Travel Notes for Italy (Taormina and Rome), March 2005

Nancy Lytle

Travel Notes on Taormina

This was my second visit to this beautiful cliffside town in eastern Sicily. My strong advice for those going is: stay in town. We were ensconced in a roomy villa near the shore, way below Taormina. For me, the inconvenience loomed large, although it didn't seem to affect the others in our house group. I would so have preferred to be located on or near Corso Umberto 1st, the charming main drag, from which pretty side streets wind either up or down the mountainside.

The Pasticceria Etna, C. Umberto 112, has the best cannoli I ever had. 1.70 euro each, deep, dark crunchy shell, creamy, airy filling.

There's a cool internet cafe, Netpoint, on Via Jallia Bassia 34, near the Messina gate, 3 euro per hour.

I liked the Mocambo Bar in the gorgeous Piazza 9 Aprile; great views and people-watching from the outdoor area. A glass of house wine is 3 euro.

In general, the restaurant food I had was good and a little cheaper than, say, Rome. I don't have any particular place to recommend from those at which we dined. There is a lot of good wine to be had.

Travel Notes on Rome & Trastevere

Arriving in Trastevere after nine days in Paris was like finding one's self suddenly in a version of Bosnia. It took several precious days to get back into the hang of the neighborhood, where I've happily stayed twice before, in two different apartments. I had planned to do the same this time, but some iffy personal circumstances occurred that caused me to cancel the vacation rental I had reserved.

So, this time I stayed at the Hotel Cisterna, which is just a minute's walk from the neighborhood's main piazza, Santa Maria in Trastevere. The ancient street the hotel is on is a total mess, with graffiti everywhere, trash, and actual garbage strewn around the cute little old "cisterna" fountain at the corner. The hotel itself I liked.

Most of my ten days in Trastevere were spent lounging unashamedly in caffes, especially Caffe di Marzio on the main piazza. Spent a lotta euros there. I talked to friends on my loaner cell-phone. I saw friends who live in Rome for drinks, lunches and dinners. I wandered around and made a couple of watercolors. I spent time in my hotel room writing. The death watch for il Papa was in full swing on TV from the moment I arrived in Rome.

On my first night, after schlepping messily from Fumicino by train and taxi to the hotel, and arriving after dark, I went out in search of, well, I didn't even know what. I wandered over to via della Scala, found Pizzeria Gianni, a slice place, where I carried off two fetti and a bottle of chilled white frascati. Gianni had opened the wine and provided a couple of plastic cups, so I climbed up some of the steps of the church (della Scala) and quaffed a lot of the wine. A large stream of humanity went by, looking for a fun end to the day after Easter (pasquetta). I slept really well that first night.

One morning, I trekked over to a launderette recommended by the hotel, with two bulging bags of dirty clothes. For 4.80 euro, I handed it over and was told to come back in two hours. After a quick cappuccino, my morning was made glorious by a visit to the church of San Francesco a Ripa, just down the street from the Laundromat. I tiptoed into the empty church, down the left aisle to the end chapel. There she was, the Ludovica Albertoni, Bernini's greatest work, in my humble opinion. I spent a happy forty-five minutes with her, leaving when a small group of other admirers came.

Ludovica Albertoni, by Bernini in San Francesco a Ripa, Trastevere, Rome
(photo by Pauline, December 2003)

I had decided that I would attempt to use the bus system in Rome on this visit, having never done so in the past. Actually, it was pretty easy to figure out where any given bus was going by studying the sign for each route at the bus stop, Rome map in hand. My biggest success was actually getting to the main Banca D'Italia building from Trastevere on one bus. A short walk up via XX Settembre was necessary, so I stopped on the way and said hello again to Santa Teresa, Bernini's other greatest work at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Teresa looked good, but the Ludovica has more soul.

My mission at the Banca was to exchange a 500,000 lira bill into euro, an unfortunate necessity with the current exchange rate. A few weeks before, at home in Santa Fe, I had found the souvenir lira bill tucked into my passport, along with 250 euro. Once up the escalator to the first floor, I found a row of bank clerks whose job it is to redeem the old, wonderful lira for the mechanical-looking euro. There was, of course, a full-page form to fill out with my vital information. With an unexpected qualm of regret, I forked over my cinque cento bill, large in size, gorgeously purple and blue in color, with Raphael's portrait on it (for god's sake), and received 272 boring euro and some centissimi. A really elderly man at the next window was handed a ten euro note and a couple of ones for whatever he had found in a pants pocket or an old shoe. He seemed grateful; I felt sad.

The bus ride back went through the piazza Barberini, past Bernini's little bee fountain and the Triton sculpture in the center, cheering me up immensely. That night, April 1st, I went to dinner with a friend from San Francisco who was in Rome (plus Italy and Europe) for the first time. Two friends from Rieti drove into the city to join us, resplendent in their professional clothes. This was the night of the Ultimate April Fool's Day joke.

Kathi and I arrived at the ristorante-pizzeria La Tana de Noantri at around eight, after sharing a bottle of falanghina at Cafe di Marzio. We expected Paola and Sirio to arrive momentarily. The restaurant was completely empty. Are we that early? we wondered. I asked one of the six waiters who were hovering over us, and he said that maybe people were not coming tonight because the Pope was near death. We murmured sympathetically. My Rieti friends showed up, other diners did too; things got merry and I forgot about the Pope.

After lots more wine, some great food and conversation, we rose happily from the table. The young, rotund waiter from the start of our evening came up to us with the news that il Papa was dead. He had tears in his eyes; I had lots of wine in my system. I hugged him and said "coraggio." Back in the main piazza --- it was about ten-thirty by then --- we had coffee and brandy at the Marzio. We talked about the dead Pope while a scattering of people strolled around the piazza. An hour afterward, back in my room at the Hotel Cisterna, I found CNN still immersed in the death-watch. He wasn't dead after all!

The next morning, I learned that Italian television had erroneously (perhaps) announced that the heart had stopped Friday night; then, later, that the heart had started up again. I pretty much lost interest in the whole thing around that point in my stay in Rome. A few nights later, after the real death, I had dinner again at La Tana de Noantri, with new friends from the Slow Travel Get-Together. The chubby waiter and I eyed each other sheepishly and exchanged "mi dispiace".

As for the restaurant mentioned above, it's one of my old reliables in Trastevere. I especially like to go when it's warm enough to sit outside in their terrace area across the lane. There's a wonderful old two-story palazzo, incredibly crusty, on one side of the tented dining area. I actually celebrated my 60th birthday there on a warm May evening, with a number of friends. Imagine my surprise that night when the check came and I found out that the Italian custom is apparently for the Birthday Person to treat all the others. Yes, that was a memorable night. Anyway, the restaurant has excellent fritto misto and fiori di zucca, plus good versions of most Roman favorites. Inside, the lighting is unatmospherically bright; I always thought how my parents (who lived until their late eighties) would have appreciated the wattage during perusal of the menu. La Tana de Noantri, Via della Paglia 1-2-3, just off the piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.

A few Pope Notes

On a random bus ride, I wound up at the Vatican, and saw the crowds gathering for word of the imminent death, with scores of TV vans parked in a clump, anchor-people and cameras on top of the vehicles, broadcasting to the world. My friend Kathi and her sister actually got into the viewing line on Monday, when the body was taken from the residence into the basilica. They shuffled along from two o'clock until midnight, when they finally passed the bier. Then, they walked back to their hotel at Piazza di Spagna. On Tuesday, I was almost trampled by thousands of people running down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II from the bus terminal toward the Vatican. By that time, the line was several kilometers long. I didn't go into the centro again, nor anywhere near the Vatican. The city was plastered with repeating posters featuring an image of John Paul II, hands clasped over his head, and the word, "Grazie." Rows and rows of the same poster --- very surreal.

On my last night in Rome, Wednesday April 6th, my Trastevere friends drove me over to visit a mutual friend who lives in Parioli, a posh neighborhood far from the earthy Trastevere. Lots of streets were in the process of being blocked off, in preparation for the funeral on Friday. My friend Floriana had prepared a delicious dinner --- champagne and tidbits to start, a fabulous pasta with peperoncini, broccoli, panna and amazing tiny roasted croutons, then crudities, fruit and twenty kinds of cheese. After that, there was gelato, which I had to forego, regretfully.

My friends were all upbeat about the on-going regional election results, which were showing a turn toward the leftist coalition; eventually this could translate into tough times for Berlusconi. They gloated over his uncomfortable "press conference," where he actually had to, for once, squirm through some difficult questions. All during dinner, helicopters came, went and hovered overhead. Floriana said, matter-of-factly, "Bush is here in the neighborhood, sleeping at the American Embassy."

We had a lovely, twisty-turny ride back to Trastevere in the Roman night, past the Colosseum, the Forum, Caracalla --- each ground-lit and beautiful. The past, the present, the future, all in one night.

Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2005

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