On the day I had to leave Rome, I woke up with a heavy heart. In the past few days, as I meandered around, I found myself warming up to the city. Getting used to, even rather fond of its extravagant Baroque architecture and monuments.
There were of course some that were probably never going to win me over. Like the Altare della Patria. Unlike my favourite building, the Pantheon, the Altar of the Fatherland is easy to spot – remember the view from the ‘back door’ of Villa Medici in last week’s post? It’s not just its size. The ‘Wedding Cake’ effect of all that white marble make it stand out – its many detractors would probably say, glaringly – against the rusts and ochres of the rest of Rome’s buildings.
It was originally conceived as a monument in honour of King Victor Emmanuel II, who had the dubious honour of being the first to try his hand at ruling the fiercely independent city states that were officially united under the Italian flag in 1870. But as work limped along between the early 1880’s until it was finally finished in 1925, the temptation to tweak not only the design, but also the symbolism proved irresistible.
For me, the best thing about the Altare is hidden behind the building next to it.
The statue behind the wedding group is of Marcus Aurelius. For such an illustrious figure, it’s mounted on a surprisingly modest pedestal. That’s because Michelangelo, who had been commissioned by Pope Paul III to spruce up the piazza for the upcoming visit of Emperor Charles V, didn’t like the statue. But the Pope insisted. He believed, as did everyone at the time, that it was not of an ancient, pagan Roman, but of the Christian Emperor, Constantine.
When he redesigned the piazza, Michelangelo deliberately turned his back on the Forum and the pagan Romans of old, directing the eyes and hearts of the Romans of his day to the new, Christian Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica across the Tiber. Fortunately, for modern-day visitors, the great artist’s snub has had an unanticipated and marvellous consequence. If you leave the piazza and go down an unassuming alley to the right of the Senators’ Palace, you will come to a small terrace with one of the greatest views in the city.
And what, you may well be asking, does all this have to do with my heavy heart? Allora. (ahl-loh-ruh). One of the most beautifully evocative words in the Italian language. An amorphous creature, it means nothing and everything and is often accompanied with a hint of a sigh or regret. But enough digressing! As sad as I was to be leaving the Città Eterna, that wasn’t the main reason for my distress. It was the fact that the day had finally arrived when I would have to pick up the rental car, drive out of the centro storico and get onto the Grande Raccordo Anulare. The GRA, as it is usually called, is the justly maligned, 70 km, approximately 6-lane highway around the city. (‘approximately’, given the locals’ habit of squeezing in an extra half lane or so every now and then.) And here’s where that tangent I started off on comes into the picture. The GRA was designed so that its very centre would be – the Campidoglio.
After fortifying myself with even more cappuccini than usual, I checked out of the hotel and headed for the ufficio di noleggio (oo-fee-choe dee no-ledge-joe). I had chosen this particular car rental office not so much for the servizio impeccable and the staff cortese e professionale (see how easy Italian is!), but for its location. It was the closest to the GRA and hopefully in an area that didn’t have any Varco Attivo or Non Attivo, because by now I had them totally mixed up.
Before crossing back into the familiar terrain of Tuscany, there were three more gardens in the Lazio region I wanted to visit. This first morning morning al volante I was on my way to a Renaissance extravangaza created by a Farnese cardinal. It was in Caprarola, a town 60 km north of Rome. Adding to my general senso di agitazione was the knowledge that many would-be visitors had arrived there only to find the garden inexplicably closed.
Once I had managed to get on the GRA, all I had to do was follow the directions I had printed off before leaving home. “Take Via Cassia Veientana/SS2bis and SR2 to Strada Statale 311/SS311 in Nepi. Continue on Strada Statale 311/SS311. Take Strada Provinciale 1/SP1, Strada Provinciale 36/SP36, Strada Provinciale 69/SP69 and Strada Provinciale 35/SP35 to Via Filippo Nicolai”. According to the Michelin people, it would take me ‘1 h 1 min., without traffic’. Since ‘Rome without traffic’ was obviously an oxymoron, and since I was bound to miss one or two of those signs, I gave myself two hours. That meant I would arrive around lunch time. Since I also had a hunch that trying to find my way around Caprarola for the first time was not something to be done on an empty stomach, I decided to head for a village nearby that was sure to be more manageable.
Unlike most of the medieval villages I have visited, Ronciglione did not wind itself around the top of an elevated promontory. It was on flat ground. But I assumed that the layout would be similar – a labyrinth of winding, cobblestone alleys that would lead me, inexorably, to the town’s centre, where I would find a place to eat.
But the layout was less medieval labyrinth than geometrical Roman grid. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, ‘There was no centre, there.’ The closest thing to a centro was an irregularly-shaped piazza with a fountain and part of a presumably ancient wall. Around the piazza were a few stores, but nowhere to eat.
Thinking that in my effort not to hit anything or anyone, I might have missed something, I decided to explore on foot. But I was worried about getting disoriented, so after wandering fruitlessly along a few of the streets that led off the piazza, I gave up and asked a local. I was in the centro after all. In the grandly named Piazza Principe di Napoli. (Prince of Naples) My friendly guide suggested a couple of places, but then remembered they were all closed. Restaurants and a host of other commercial establishments are required by law to close one day a week. It’s called la chiusura settimanale. When I first came across this, I assumed it was to protect vulnerable employees, and perhaps, by making it impossible for patrons to spend all their euros at one establishment, promote the economic survival of all. But I have noticed as I travel around, that in many places, an astonishingly large number of eating establishments have the same closing day. (Do not visit San Gimignano in Tuscany on Tuesday if you want to have a good choice of eating options.) Obviously I had arrived on Ronciglione’s off day.
‘Non si preoccupi, signora!’ I was not to preoccupy myself. If I followed a narrow dog-leg off the piazza, I would come to the ‘new’ part of town where there might be something open today.
I found a non-pink parking spot close to an osteria that was open.
The first thing on the menu – pasta e fagioli – was just what I was in the mood for. The tables outdoors looked inviting, but it was cool and windy. I joined the locals inside.
A cheerful, young woman came to take my order, but when I asked for pasta e fagioli, she advised me, politely but with a surprisingly authoritative air that, nonostante the menu out front, pasta e fagioli were only served on Wednesdays. This was giovedì (joe-vay-dee). Thursday. I followed her suggestion to try the antipasto misto.
By the time I finished lunch, the dark clouds had disappeared. I set off for Caprarola.