I just got back from a two-week trip in Italy, and as my girlfriend Miki, who accompanied me, said, "Who could not love Rome?" A lot of people, apparently: friends have told me that they feel alone in their admiration for the Eternal City, and others have had reservations about visiting. There seems to be a belief that Rome is just for tourists and backpackers: thirtysomethings having a romantic Italian getaway are supposed to wile away their days in a Tuscan villa or along the Amalfi Coast. That's all well and good, but I prefer big cities: There's more to do, the restaurants are invariably better, and it's easier to get around (I still refuse to drive in a foreign country, especially Italy). So in defense of this town, which I deem a cooler destination than even Paris or Barcelona, here are nine reasons why I found Rome utterly fabulous:
- The best drinking water ever. You'd think with a teeming, traffic-choked metropolis like Rome, the drinking water would be as foul as in any other city. But everywhere you go, you see water pouring freely out of drinking fountains; water that is clean, tasty, and cold! Apparently those aqueducts built back in Imperial times still do the job of bringing fresh water to thirsty Romans.
- A bunch of jokers. I immediately found native Romans to be the friendliest people I've ever met in a big city, even more than New Orleans' denizens. But aside from smiles and warm greetings, these people love to tease. When checking into our first hotel, there was a couple with a screaming baby in the lobby. The concierge cheerfully kidded us, "That is your neighbor!" And a waiter, sensing that Miki was a vegetarian, asked her how she liked the ravioli that she just consumed, adding, "the roast pork, it's good, isn't it?"
- Nuns! They don't call it Roman Catholicism for nothing: this city is overrun by nuns on pilgrimages to the center of their faith, and they're just so quaint. They have the longest life expectancy on earth, and as Miki said, "Why shouldn't they? They never have to worry about jobs, men, taxes, or their looks - they just read, pray, take up a little hobby, work in the garden..." They also fill the Roman streets with charm.
- Madonnas! Not being Catholic, I have no personal connection to its imagery, so I found the little shrines on the corners of buildings - each one a little different, each one a portrait of Mary and the Baby Jesus - simply quaint. They add a touch of sweetness to even the gloomiest of alleyways.
- Ruins everywhere you look. Being a big town for over 2,000 years gives you two millennia of history down every street. Athens and Cairo may be older, but they shot their cultural wad centuries B.C. Despite numerous sackings, Mamma Roma has kept herself relevant, from the time of Caesar to Hadrian to Michelangelo to Mussolini to Fellini.
- Gelaterias. I needn't go into the pleasures of Italian food, but what's really fun about Rome - as with the rest of the country - is its proliferation of ice cream parlors, aka gelaterias. They are as ubiquitous as Starbucks are in the US, maybe even more so, and it's a pleasure to stroll around on a warm June evening licking a cone heaped with scoops of fresh kiwi and fig gelato.
- A sharp-dressed citizenry. What a bunch of fashion disasters we Americans are! At least you get that impression after spending a few days in Italy, where everybody dresses well. While Milan may be the official fashion capital of the country, the Romans are certainly no slouches when it comes to sartorial splendor.
- E-Z public transportation. It's a breeze to walk just about everywhere in the "centro storico" - the historical center of town - but if you have to get a subway or a bus, they use the exact same tickets, which cost precisely one Euro each, and which you can buy at ticket machines and tobacconists(!) just about everywhere.
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Michelangelo is the name everybody knows, but for my money, the multi-talented Bernini - sculptor, architect, painter - is the real genius of Italian art, and how wise of the dukes of his time to employ him so frequently. Rome is packed with his masterpieces, from his public fountains to his statuary at the Borghese Gallery to his vast piazza in front of St. Peter's. As great as it is, Rome would still be a lesser city without him.