Sitting on the bus heading for Rome, I am transported back to a time over thirty years ago, when my best friend Paul and I decided to spend the summer inter-railing in Germany. I have taken the bus to Rome several times before but this time the feeling is entirely different. For the first time in years, I have no idea where I will be in just a few days time, where I will be sleeping, where or what I will be eating. I have no idea when I will see home again. The sensation is liberating. At some time over the last 30 years or so, I have turned into a control freak – someone who will not go anywhere without first booking a room in a carefully researched hotel or B&B; who will not eat anywhere without having read the reviews and perused the photographs on Trip Adviser.
I panic if I have not planned and booked my return journey right down to the finest detail. This is why I have taken a vow that I will book nothing on this trip. Nothing at all. No hostel rooms, no tables in restaurants, no flight home. Everything is in God’s hands – what will be will be. The sensation of déjà-vu is compounded by the music I am listening to on my i-pod: “Outlandos d’Amour” by The Police, the exact same album I was listening to on that National Express coach to London Victoria back in 1985. I have always considered the coach to be a most romantic way to travel. Ferries too. I don’t know if it is memories of school trips, but it is one of the reasons, if I am honest, why I have chosen to depart from Rome and not the rather more convenient Naples.
I wanted this 3- hour coach trip to be a part of the experience. I wanted the time to come to terms with the fact that my “camino” had actually started. And I also wanted to see Rome again. Three years has been far too long away from this, the loveliest of cities. And I wanted my camino to start from Vatican City on the feast day of Saint James.
I said before that I had decided to book nothing on this trip; well, that is not quite true. We had booked two nights at the Biancagiulia Bed and Breakfast in Rome because we really wanted to be there for the start of our adventure. Run by a prince among men called Pietro and his lovely wife Cristina, we have spent several happy weekends there, and in their other Roman B&Bs. It seemed the right thing to do.
When the Police Album finishes, I start listening to an audio recording of Charles Dickens’ “Pictures from Italy”. I knew that I would suffer from homesickness after so many weeks away and that this book would be the perfect antidote, but I hadn’t expected to feel quite so nostalgic quite so soon. Anyway, it is the perfect accompaniment to the Campanian and Lazian countryside whizzing past outside.
It is marvellous to see Pietro’s happy, smiling face again. He welcomes us in his usual exuberant manner and asks us what plans we have for our stay. Pietro is a mine of information and ideas for the perfect few days in Rome but this time, we are very clear about what we want to do. We want more of the same – to see the places we have seen a hundred times before, to drink in the same bars, to eat the same food. This is to be a “best of” trip, something familiar before the great unknown. In the early afternoon we head to a pub in Via Santa Maria dell’Anima called Bibemus. Certainly not the greatest place to eat but I remember that the beer was very good and the people were friendly. We are disappointed that we can’t find it, although there is a place that looks very much like it.
We walk back and forth a few times before we realize that this was, indeed, Bibemus but that it has now changed management and name. It is still a pub and so we go inside and order a large beer for me and a medium one for Mrs. Asinello. We get rather more than we bargained for! A friendly waitress brings out a litre of a dark, frothy beer for me and half a litre for the missus! Not that I have any desire to complain, mind you! The beer is delicious and we decide to eat something to absorb it and order a focaccia. Now, in our neck of the woods a focaccia is a pizza-like food, substantial and delicious with a tomato topping and is ideal with beer. It is immediately brought home to us how the same word can mean entirely different things in different parts of Italy, even at a distance of just a few hundred kilometres. “Focaccia” in Rome seems to be what we would call “pizza bread”, albeit rather thinner, drier and totally cheerless. Pretty expensive too, for what it is, but never mind. The beer more than makes up for it and we sit in happy contentment and read “Il Messaggero”.
Rome, it has to be said, is a big disappointment. The city is filthy, with a rubbish problem that Naples would be proud of, and graffiti on every surface, even on vehicles! I don’t remember it being this way. Roman friends tell me that it is the fault of incompetent mayor Virginia Raggi. Whether or not that is the case, I feel very sad to see this beautiful city in such a condition.
We have booked dinner in a trattoria close to the B&B, a place to which we have been many times and where we have always felt very much at home. We remember it as cosy, not too touristy, and with friendly, efficient service. Their speciality is the “Amatriciana” and it occurs to me, with great sadness, that the last time we had it here, Amatrice was still standing and thriving. While we can’t fault the food, things have changed here. Like so many places I know, they seem to have become victims of their own success. We are ushered to our table, where a waiter immediately appears and takes our order, which, within a matter of minutes, arrives. There are far more tables crammed into this tiny place than there used to be, and I fear for my clothes as waiters pass steaming dishes of pasta and red wine to each other over my head. Customers wait on the stairwell, not far from where we are eating, ready to pounce the minute we show any sign of leaving. The frenetic atmosphere makes me anxious and, when the waiter asks us if we want a dessert, coffee or liqueur, with the air of someone desperately hoping we will say “no” so that he can usher in the next batch of punters, we thank him and refuse, to his almost tangible relief. We get up from the table, which is occupied before Mrs. Asinello has even had a chance to pick up her mobile.
Back in the B&B, we sit on the little terrace in the balmy night and I smoke an aniseed cigar. We reflect on the day and on what a disappointment Rome has been, with the exception of Pietro’s charming establishment, of course. Mrs. Asinello goes to bed and I finish my cigar and listen to more “Pictures from Italy” by Dickens. No, I decide: When the past is gone, it is gone. You cannot hold on to it and you can’t recreate it.
Music: The Police – Outlandos d’Amour
Audiobook: Charles Dickens – Pictures from Italy