Roma, Italia : Wonder by Wander

I wrote this article 2 years ago (this trip occurred in July 2010) - however, I can safely say that Rome has not, and hopefully, will not, change for years and years to come.  
My taxi driver boasts a black pony tail the length of mine, a thick gold hoop earring through his left ear lobe and a vintage "San Fran" tee with cut off sleeves. All this, plus he's about a whole foot and a half taller than me. At first glance, I ask myself why a Native American has ended up so far away from his Native America. He grabs my bag the way an eight year old would his brown paper bag lunch. (Really?! That 50 pound suitcase with no wheels has cost me feeling in the lower half of my back.) "Where I take you?" The sudden broken english, sly little wink and coy smile confirm two things: I'm definitely in Italy, and this guy, who has just winked my way a second time, is definitely Italian.

I've just set foot in Rome, and Trastevere is where the address on my trusty BlackBerry says I'm headed. Far from oblivious to my strong American accent, my non Native American taxi driver has very kindly decided to take the longest possible route to my hotel. If we were in Downtown L.A., I may have thrown a fit, but here in Rome, I can't say that I mind. In fact, after almost immediately passing the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to my right- it's clear that I don't even remotely mind. A spectacle is popping up all around me; each street corner comes equipped with ancient architecture and beautiful Italian fashion clad citizens to match, and from the back of this semi smelly, semi uncomfortable Roman taxi, Italy has never looked so pretty.

Thirty minutes later, my taxi pulls into what looks to be a lost and lonely little street off of the more crowded and noisier Viale di Trastevere. Twenty-five euros the poorer (but four winks the richer) I drag my bag to idyllic wooden doors marked "20," somewhere in between a tattered art shop and an even more tattered bum gripping a half-empty wine bottle. I've found my haven: Le Relais Clarisse.

Le Relais Clarisse doesn't look like much of anything from the outside, but as soon as you step into the comfortable little lobby with its lemon colored walls, you know you've landed in a safe place. I would feel completely at peace now, except one of the reasons I'm in Rome, even more specifically, in this very hotel, is nervewrecking: I'm here to meet my half sister, who manages the hotel.

"You must be Olivia, Maria's sister. Maria isn't here today. She will be here tomorrow morning. She says that you call her." Obviously, the young Italian concierge has no idea what kind of emotional strain comes along with meeting a long lost sister, one you haven't met the entire 22 years you've been alive. But without the faintest look of disappointment, I grab the number out of his hand and head on to "La Rosa," my dedicated room for the stay.

If Maria doesn't have time for me, maybe Roma will.

And Roma does, indeed. In fact, one of my favorite things about the city itself is its inexhaustible friendliness- as if promising that there is room for absolutely every traveler. Unlike London, or say, Paris (two cities I love to death, but would be reluctant to call home [again]) it does not buzz with the condescending air of being too busy for its traveler, but, just the opposite, has a way of beckoning you to call it Casa.

Like any major ancient city, Rome boasts endless possibilities of where to spend your days and nights. And what with it being so inviting, you are prone to feel you could conquer it all in one day. But what Aliénor (my very close friend from France whom, on a whim, decided to meet me here) and I found, is that having no set plan at all is the best plan on the exciting premises of Roma. With no other help but a little map of the center, and no real idea of where or how to start exploring, Aliénor and I ripped through Rome with our gut feeling as guide. And, what a terrific guide - for, it did not fail us once.

By the second day, Aliénor and I have been trekking through the center of town's windy little streets, admiring everything from an antique toy store to a beautifully crafted statue of La Beata Vergine Maria perched over a street corner, when, mildly remembering the name Villa Borghese, we hop onto a bus which leads us to what can only be described as a very public, yet very secret garden. The Villa Borghese has been around longer than both of our great grand mothers combined, but with the intensive daily care of its gardens and monuments, one could find themselves in a much more mysterious and exciting Central Park. We walk up the windy little graveled paths, Roma's famous pine trees swaying from either side, to what we both most want to see: La Galleria Nazionale de Arte Moderna.

Italy's National Gallery of Modern Art, which is located right here in this sort of secret garden, is majestic. It can only be described as that. Much like other Roman monuments, it's in amazing shape considering the number of centuries it has been tucked away on the other side of Villa Borghese's beautiful gardens. Aliénor & I have visited many modern art galleries in our youth - the Tate Modern, MOCA, MoMA etc. - so we walk in with our noses waiting to be turned down.

The museum does that, and more.

Entry is free, as we are both students of the arts. This added bonus already sets a light mood. Now on to the exploring.

I was most happy to immediately see Gustav Klimt, one of my personal favorites, a great Austrian talent who wowed the art world with his dreamy "Golden Phases." Room after room of global favorites such as Mondrian and Andy Warhol lie before us - but then, also an impressive collection of less world-renowned Italian talents, exposed in grandiose rooms that are definitely art in themselves. Most of these, Aliénor and myself have never even heard of, which is a nice surprise considering how many of the rooms are filled with these artists. Once again, Rome has our full attention, as we discover paintings such as La vergine al Nilo, 1865 by Federico Faruffini, or Gaetano Previati's I funerali di una vergine from 1912-13.

Our afternoon ends on a whimsical note, as we ride the tramway home, listening to the broken french of a little Italian "nonna" who once, long ago, knew a girl engaged to Van Gogh.

From the first night, we are delighted to find that public transportation in Rome is extremely efficient. On a Saturday night, from our hotel, we hop onto the tram and in less than 10 minutes, are dropped off at Torre Argentina, which is right in the center of town and a short walk from Piazza Navona, Piazza Campio de Fiori and Palazzo Venezia. Our tram stop, Torre Argentina, is a piazza in ruins.  Aliénor and I stand over the fence surrounding the ruins for some time, just beholding the fact that our modern tram may as well have been a time machine: we are now standing overlooking what used to be four temples, all built around the 3rd century BC. The four temples (nicknamed a, b, c & d) were all built to celebrate gods or commemorate different victories the Romans achieved in wars against the Carthaginians (now Tunisia) or Cimbri. Not much of the original structures remain, but the feeling we get standing over these ruins is not one that can easily be put into words. We are staring into a vast crevice that is the past.

Although Piazza Navona is not in ruins and has stood its test of time, the piazza's baroque Roman architecture oozes the same feeling of a glorious Roman history. After a short walk, we are once again taken to another era. I can't help but hush at the sight of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) with its impressive height and intricate design. Three-hundred and fifty odd years later, I'm positive it still looks just as magnificent and imposing as the fountain's designer, Gianlorenzo Bernini, intended for it to look. I can't imagine just how lucky the people are who own an apartment across this beauty. Waking up to this piazza must be fabulous, but eating on it, certainly comes in at a close second.

Eggplant is Rome's choice vegetable, and I can definitely understand why. Our restaurant on Piazza Navona completely exemplifies why one can trust the aubergine. It's deliciously versatile - whether smothered in tomato sauce and garlic, gracing a delicious pizza, or slipped into some lasagna - you cannot get bored of the vegetable (I started adding it to burgers once I got back from my Italian expedition.) So, two scrumptious eggplant dishes definitely satisfying our hunger for food, Aliénor and I return to the streets and our hunger for culture, for nightlife, for experiencing the city which we have already decided to one day call our own.

Our gut feeling strikes again. We wander around Piazza Navona, through little streets lined with bars and cafes, when just as we pass a really fun looking wine bar with an outside terrace occupied by gorgeous men and women alike, we are called out to by this Karl Lagerfeld Italian look-a-like. He's surrounded by what can only be described as a posse of extremely good-looking young men, who are, as we soon find out, his boy toys. Admiring his taste in toys, and glasses (small funky round spectacles with a black rim- very I've-been-here-since-the-60s-and-don't-plan-on-leaving), we decide that Yes why not? We would quite like a glass of champagne. And though this encounter was not in the least planned, this champagne not anticipated in advance, it feels as though this fated night has been drawn out for us all along.

Fate or not, Rome equally knows how to work its magic at night. Two hours and two bottles of yummy champagne later, we find ourselves at one of its greatest summer clubs, Blue, in Villa Borghese, right in the midst of that favorite secret garden of ours. There is no way to possibly describe what it's like to sit at a table with a happy group of Romans, as all around us, a garden which seems to harbor all the secrets of Rome itself breathes the whimsical sound of summer winds.

More champagne. More music. And sparklers. And dancing (did I mention that one of the boy toys taught us how to dance the tango in the little street outside the café?) Ah, the Italians have a love of life, of moments, of passionately engaging with everything around them as if it were specifically there to be consumed. As I look around all the happy faces, I cannot help but think that these people have kept a secret fiber of life all to themselves - one that we are not acquainted with in America, or France, or England - a fiber which is so true and terrifying that we wouldn't possibly know what to do with it were it handed back to us. But that night, with their guidance, Aliénor and I are initiated to that coveted fiber - through incredible laughing fits over champagne, the impromptu twirling of each other in circles and impressive drunken recitals of ancient Roman poetry.

It's 6 AM and time to rest, knowing Rome will be just as glorious when we wake. However, that fact feels quite uncertain as Aliénor and I trudge home from Blue, a daze and a smile on both of our faces, wondering whether we could possibly wake to find the almost-too-magical city vanished along with its almost-too-magical inhabitants. Never one to stay pessimistic for long, I close my eyes, take the risk -- and still would, again and again and again.