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Letter from Rome

Spring along the Tiber, looking at the Ponte Sisto bridge. Photo by Karen Glenn.

by Tom Passavant

It’s spring in Rome, with thunderstorms giving way now to sunny skies. Even the marble statues in the piazzas look refreshed and ready for the onslaught of summer tourists. One of the first things that struck my wife and me when we arrived last week after a two-year absence was how green Rome looked, in more ways than one. Recycling bins have taken over a couple of parking spaces on virtually every block–this in a city where finding a place to park your Fiat is about as easy as achieving sainthood. Clearly the Romans are taking trash seriously.
We also could not help but notice just how verdant everything was. We are staying in Testaccio, a middle-class Roman neighborhood at the foot of the Aventine hill and just across the Tiber from far better known Trastevere. The avenues here are lined with towering trees, the apartment buildings are built around courtyards filled with orange and lemon trees dripping with fruit, often with a three-story tall palm tree in the center. We are surrounded by gorgeous greenery, with the Tiber on two sides, the serene, leafy Protestant Cemetery (final resting place of Keats and Shelly, among others) on another, and the lush, winding streets of the decidedly upscale Aventino between us and the Circus Maximus.
And it occurred to me that this is something that a lot of visitors to Rome miss. It’s so easy to spend all your time communing with piles of stone and churches and museums filled with (admittedly stunning) paintings and sculptures that you might not consider taking a break and heading for the hills–literally. Most of Rome’s urban hills are studded with parks and well-maintained gardens, and even neighborhoods without major attractions, like the Aventino and Gianicolo hillside above Trastevere offer a glimpse of a gentler lifestyle than you see on the traffic-clogged streets below. I know, I know–the time you spend strolling up the Via Santa Sabina in the Aventino or the Via Giuseppe Garibaldi in Gianicolo might seem to come at the expense of that tour of the Barberini Palace, but when you get home you’ll remember those cool, sweet streets every bit as fondly.

Vendor selling artichokes at Testaccio Market. Photo by Karen Glenn.

 

And finally, Rome at this season is full of wonderful green things to eat. Virtually every trattoria that means to be taken seriously–not to mention the local supermarket up the street from us– has a hand- lettered sign by the door announcing that fresh fava beans have arrived. Artichokes and squash blossoms are everywhere–atop pizzas, in pasta, fried or cooked in olive oil, stirred into risotto or pureed into pestos. Fresh peas, plates of garlicky sautéed chicory, and the much-prized crispy puntarelle, bathed with olive oil and anchovies, are the inevitable first course or side dish. The other night at a neighborhood restaurant called Agustarello, the chef/owner offered a soup special that managed to include artichokes, peas, favas and asparagus in a porridge so thick we ate it with forks. Ahh, spring in Rome.

 

Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.

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