Rome in August is when Romans flee and Rome is your own personal trattoria

This was Via Marmorata, the main drag in my Testaccio neighborhood, last week at 5 p.m.

This was Via Marmorata, the main drag in my Testaccio neighborhood, last week at 5 p.m.


(Editor’s note: I’m away on vacation (yes, even retired expats have vacations, when they date Italians who work) and I’m re-running a blog from two years ago about the glories of Rome in August. Enjoy.)

Living in a tourist town such as Rome has its disadvantages. It’s crowded. Your view is often impeded by the silly white fedoras all the tourists apparently get at baggage claim. You’re often embarrassed to be American when some tourist walks into a cafe and asks, “Where is St. Peter’s? Thank you very much.” (How tough is it to learn the word “Dove”? It means “Where is?” And any tourist who says “Thank you” instead of “Grazie” should be made to swim the Tiber until infected by diseases contracted from rat urine.)

But in Rome, one month is hugely underrated: August. I recently ripped Rome in July (https://johnhendersontravel.com/2015/07/09/july-is-worst-time-to-be-in-rome-or-anywhere-else/) . It’s hot, crowded, touristy. Everyone is sweating. An empty bus seat is a rumor. However, when I turned my calendar page from Il Vittoriano to Piazza Navona, Rome changed. Half of it emptied. I’m actually sitting on buses. I’m sitting on the subway. I’m no longer twisting my body in yoga positions to avoid roller bags and gypsies’ lightning-fast hands. I’m walking down the middle of streets downtown not worried about runaway Fiats passing idling cars stuck in traffic.

Rome, in August, is fabulous.

It’s shocking how fast Rome empties in August. It’s like every Aug. 1, the Allied troops invade. Romans flee as if Rome is burning again. It’s uncanny. The reason goes into the mentality of the Roman mind, a habit that has gone on since possibly the Renaissance. Romans love the sea. Rome is only 20 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea which has a coastline 620 miles long. Rome’s region, Lazio, is dotted with cute little beach towns such as Fregene and Sabaudia and Terracina and Sperlonga and Gaeta. About 75 percent of all businesses in Italy are family owned. Not only do their employees want to vacation at the sea, so do the employers. So they all close up shop for most of August. It’s the hottest month of the year. Schools are closed. It makes sense.

Piazza Testaccio is usually buzzing with people and activity.

Piazza Testaccio is usually buzzing with people and activity.


It peaks on Aug. 15. That’s Ferragosto. It’s the major Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary and marks the biggest vacation day of the year. This is when you roam around Rome and see so many corrugated iron doors pulled down shut. My video store is closed. My enoteca is closed. My cleaners are closed. My tabacchi is closed. My vegetable stand in Mercato Testaccio is closed. My Piazza Testaccio is nearly empty, void of children kicking plastic soccer balls and couples kissing on benches. It is so quiet, Suddenly, my neighborhood has turned into North Platte, Neb.

Still, this is one of my favorite times in Rome. Last week I had dinner at La Cantinone, about the only restaurant open in Testaccio and home to the best lasagna I’ve ever had. I didn’t need reservations. I just showed up and I was about the only person on the patio, facing the old fountain in the modern piazza. I went to my subway station at Piramide, usually packed with commuters coming in from or going to connecting trains to the suburbs. The subway platform was empty. I had beers with friends at Antilla, in Trastevere, Rome’s old bohemian section so packed in July you must walk sideways down the narrow, windy, cobblestone alleys. On this day, we sat outside the tiny sun-splashed pub with our artisan Italian beers and watched whatever left in Rome’s world walk by. My randy Australian friend barely had enough women to hit on. The nights are even cooling.

The platform of my Piramide subway stop.

The platform of my Piramide subway stop.


Despite the closures, August is a terrific time to visit Rome. Centro Storico, Rome’s historic center, remains largely open. Prices have dropped from the peak in July. Believe it or not, August is not considered part of Rome’s high tourist season. You can always find something open. You just may have to knock on a few more doors. And at least you can sit on public transportation while you roam the city looking for a place to eat. Bus and subway service is not cut one iota. The only negative is if you come to Rome to meet Romans, you’ll be stuck meeting only waiters and bus drivers. If you want to meet the locals — and that’s why I travel — go to the sea.

Or, better yet, come in the best month of the year to visit Rome. It’s when the days have cooled and the backpackers have left. It’s when the Romans have returned and so have their tans. Come when skies remain blue and the tomatoes still taste as sweet as apples, crushed on the homemade pasta you eat while sitting in a quaint garden trattoria on a cobblestoned alley. Come when it’s the Rome of your dreams.

September.

One-year anniversary in Rome reminds me of all the reasons I love living here

Today is my one-year anniversary in Rome and I know I won't have any problems eating well to celebrate.

Today is my one-year anniversary in Rome and I know I won’t have any problems eating well to celebrate.


JAN. 11

One year ago today I landed in Rome, a roller bag in hand, a duffel bag and backpack draped over my shoulders and a boarding pass from a one-way ticket in my pocket. Today marks my one-year anniversary of retiring to Rome and it has simply been the most amazing adventure in a life full of them. After 94 countries, I finally found the one I want to live in the rest of my life.

Yes, I know I ranted in my blog two weeks ago (https://johnhendersontravel.com/2014/12/31/public-services-make-italy-resemble-a-third-world-coumtry/ that some of the more advanced tribes in the Amazon Rain Forest have better public services than Italy. Look, I’m a retired sportswriter. I have to practice my whining.

But the positives of this culture far outweigh the negative. Living in Rome and putting up with its public services is like living with Kate Upton and putting up with her eating Clif Bars in bed. I’ve had exactly one bad meal in a restaurant. I have more friends than I ever had in 23 years in Denver. I have seen more beautiful places within two hours of Rome than can possibly fit in a Lonely Planet travel guide. Living abroad is an adventure every day. Living in Rome is a feast every day.

All the scandal in the ancient past can't take away from the beauty and power of Castel Sant'Angelo.

All the scandal in the ancient past can’t take away from the beauty and power of Castel Sant’Angelo.

My lovely penthouse apartment with the terrace overlooking the Tiber River never gets old. Every day I pass new trattorias I want to try. And I want to visit Trieste. My future here is as bright as my present. And my past year could not have been better. In celebration, below is a long list of all the reasons why I love living in Rome. I would’ve written more, but writing this made me too hungry:

* Waking up to hear Italian chatter outside my window. Even if I don’t understand what they’re saying, the Italian language is as beautiful as a love song.

Roberto with some of the black truffles that make E Volpetti one of the top alimentaries in Italy.

Roberto with some of the black truffles that make E Volpetti one of the top alimentaries in Italy.


* How my barista at Linari, the best pasticceria in Rome and just down the street from my apartment, always knows to make my cappuccino “ben caldo,” or extra hot.

* How ben caldo is just one of a dozen ways you can order coffee. It sure beats “a triple shot one shot decaf two shots regular extra compassionate cappuccino with an add protein shot with a straw,” which someone actually ordered in the U.S.

* How Federico, my butcher in Mercato Testaccio, always wears a white hat to honor all the Italian macellaios from the past.

* How Federico’s prosciutto and sweet Italian sausage make my terrace aperitivos and pasta salsiccia the best in Testaccio.

The famed chocolate Tartufo at Tre Scalini on Piazza Navona.

The famed chocolate Tartufo at Tre Scalini on Piazza Navona.


72 Ore, my favorite pizzeria &#039 in Rome.

72 Ore, my favorite pizzeria in Rome.


The tomatoes in my Mercato Testaccio are as sweet as apples.

The tomatoes in my Mercato Testaccio are as sweet as apples.

* How the church bells peal on the hour. I don’t go to church, but these bells make me want to go.

* Hearing an old man in Trastevere play “Il Padrone,” the theme song of “The Godfather,” not because he wants you to put money in his cup but merely because he loves the song.

* Hearing strangers in cars yell at me, “FORZA ROMA!” (GO ROMA!) when I walk my neighborhood streets in my A.S. Roma sweatshirt.

* How I yell, “SEMPRE!” the traditional greeting when you hear, “FORZA ROMA!” It means “always.”

In Praiano on the Amalfi Coast, just a three-hour trip from Rome.

In Praiano on the Amalfi Coast, just a three-hour trip from Rome.


* How the Nutella melts in my mouth as I take that first bite of the fluffy cornetto cioccolato in the morning.

* How I can wear an Italian suit to an informal event and no one stares at me, even though I feel like a dancing bear.

* How my market’s fishmonger covered in blood and guts and carrying a knife the size of a machete can tell me how to delicately season a salmon steak.

* How Corriere dello Sport runs 26 pages of soccer every day, including 9-10 stories on A.S. Roma games.

* How sitting in the middle of the Tiber River on Tiberina Island, the longest, continually inhabited island in the world (3rd century B.C.), and white-water rapids fall around me reminding me of the Colorado River I left behind.

* How I get weepy, still, every time I hear the Stadio Olimpico crowd sing “Grazie Roma” while trying to remain stoic in the press box after an A.S. Roma soccer win.

Alessandro, my pasta man at Mercato Testaccio.

Alessandro, my pasta man at Mercato Testaccio.


* Asking the man in the pasta shop for buccatino, the round pasta perfect for amatriciana, and he takes a big slab of pasta and feeds it into a machine. In seconds, perfectly shaped, fresh pasta is wrapped up in paper and in my hand.

* How I can sip wine all day and all night and still reach for my espresso machine in the morning instead of my Excedrin.

* Walking through my tree-lined Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice and seeing old women and old men chatting on park benches, smiles still on their faces after all these decades.

* How the clementines from Sicily taste like they were picked in my garden when I suck on their juice to wash down the fresh prosciutto and Sienese dolce cheese from my Mercato Testaccio.

* How no chocolate in the world was better named than the little chocolate droplet from Perugia called Baci (“Kisses” in Italian).

* How eating outside in a garden-ladened, candle-lit trattoria makes the food and wine taste even better and the woman you’re with even prettier.

* Having a Pinot Grigio nightcap at Caffe Oppio, late at night after the tourists have left, and seeing the back-lit Colosseum towering above me across the street, one of the most magnificent views in the Western world.

* Standing on my terrace on a warm summer morning, before the intense afternoon heat arrives, in my bathrobe with foamy cappuccino in hand, looking out at the Tiber River. From that vista, the Tiber looks like the Seine in spring.

* The silence of Testaccio during the afternoon pausa when all the local merchants close for 3-3 ½ hours to catch up on their own personal business. It’s so inconvenient yet so civilized.

I don't care how you feel about religion. This view of St. Peter's never gets old.

I don’t care how you feel about religion. This view of St. Peter’s never gets old.


* Pausing in St. Peter’s Square, so late at night the only sounds are cascading waters of the fountain, and seeing Bernini’s sculptures line up like sentries leading to the spectacular back-lit basilica. If God ever surfaces on this earth, it will be here.

* How warm a biting gorgonzola pizza tastes after walking through a cool mist to Pizzeria Remo, my cozy, Roman-style pizzeria where the wait is always worth it.

* The packed crowd at La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo suddenly breaking into Roman songs as the smiling wait staff claps along and the owner pounds the tables in encouragement.

One of the prettiest hill towns in Italy, Calcata.

One of the prettiest hill towns in Italy, Calcata.


* How one 10-minute train ride and a 50-minute bus ride takes me from Rome to Calcata, a tiny hilltop village of 70 artists and bohemians all escaping atop a 150-foot pile of volcanic rock.

* How I can go into l’Oasi della Birra, my local wine and beer shop and buy a bottle of Barolo, my favorite wine in the world (and it’d be yours if you tried it), for under 30 euros, a steal for the pride of Piedmont.

* How the baker near my gym will tell me “Ciao, bello” when I walk by and I don’t think he’s weird.

* How after one year, I’ve barely dented my massive volume of “365 Giornate Indimenticabili da Vivere a Roma” (“365 Unforgettable Days Living in Rome), by far the biggest book in my growing library.

Oh, yes. The girls here are kinda cute.

Oh, yes. The girls here are kinda cute.


* How you can smell a woman’s perfume when you do the wonderfully obligatory double-cheek kiss at introductions.

* How women wear stilettos that could puncture a soccer ball even while negotiating 2,000-year-old cobblestones.

* How I can walk from the Termini train station all the way to the Vatican, a walk of about an hour, and never walk down a main boulevard.

* How the amarena gelato has big, fat, juicy chunks of black cherries floating everywhere in your cone.

My 35-square-meter terrace is perfect for sunbathing with an aperitivo.

My 35-square-meter terrace is perfect for sunbathing with an aperitivo.


* Sunbathing on my terrace as the sun sets across the Tiber River on Trastevere and thinking back how I used to do this at my fraternity. But the pizza now is so much better.

* How Italians give friends bottles of their family’s wine stash from their home in the countryside.

* How I get choked up writing this last line of Why I Love Living in Rome.

Public services make Italy resemble a Third World country

Me Wednesday at the Caffe In where I wrote while dressed more appropriately for a football game in Buffalo.

Me Wednesday at the Caffe In where I wrote while dressed more appropriately for a football game in Buffalo.


DEC. 31

I am writing this with chattering fingers that are producing more typos than pearls of wisdom. Suddenly, all of Italy’s charms in monuments, food and women are engulfed by the country’s maddening public services that resemble 1966 rural Poland. I’m in a small Chinese-run neighborhood cafe where I just wrote a 2,900-word magazine story over a mishmash of screaming Italian and Chinese. The annoying “PING! PING! RATTLE! RATTLE!” of three slot machines are chiming behind me as well as a screaming child running around the floor and music videos on the TV above. I am here because the Caffe In has two things my apartment does not: Internet and heat. I write “heat” and not “warmth” because every time someone walks through the cafe’s automatic door it stays open for seemingly like generations, letting the cold winter air from a 36-degree day pour in like a splash coming off the North Sea.

I am here because in Italy’s never-ending quest to become the most backward industrialized country in the world, my Internet shut off Monday night. I had finished a phone interview, and my laptop screen just zapped. No warning. No explanation. Nothing. Just SNAP! Gone. On my screen appeared vague instructions in Italian to type my name in a little box, an act that produced nothing but my expanding vocabulary in Italian profanity. I called Roberto, my advisor in the WIND Internet office, as he readied to lock his office door. He looked up my account. It said I hadn’t paid my bill.

Huh? My records showed I paid my bill in November. So the next day I crossed the Tiber River to the WIND office near the Vatican and Roberto looked at my account again. Yes, I paid my November bill. I didn’t pay my August bill. I never GOT a bill. Even if I did, why didn’t they warn me? Send me an email? Send me a text on my cell phone it also provides? Roberto laughed with open arms in that Italian way that pretty much says, “My friend! This is Italy!”

“They used to send a telegram,” he said.

A telegram? I thought Internet replaced the telegram. I thought stone tablets replaced the telegram. So I paid my bill and sent WIND a fax showing my receipt. I now must wait 24-48 hours to get my service back. This being New Year’s, figure 72 hours. This being Italy, figure … um, well, when I first signed up for Internet in March, it took a month. By the time it returns to my apartment this time, I might be fluent in Mandarin.

(A disclaimer. After I wrote the above, my kind landlady, Michela, found a new key phone number I didn’t know I had and inserted it in the little instruction box. Miraculously, this morning my Internet is up. I am writing this in the comforts of my freezing home.)

This is on top of the post office holding Christmas presents as if they’re political hostages and an apartment that has gone from charming penthouse flat overlooking a meandering river to a meat locker in Greenland. My sister sent me a present that, according to her tracking number, arrived in Rome Dec. 20. It was never delivered. If it was, I wasn’t home. PosteItaliane, whose branches have more chaos than a sorority fire, has an interesting response when you’re not home and they’re delivering something too big for the pocket-sized mail boxes.

“Tough.”

I must take the tracking number to a major post office and hope some underpaid, perpetually pissed-off drone somehow finds the gift in a warehouse surely filled with other undelivered presents. Yes, there is a reason you never see Santa Claus in Italy.

My office until my Internet gets fixed.

My office until my Internet gets fixed.


Warm-weather countries like Italy can not figure out how to handle cold. And right now Rome is real cold. It has been under 40 during the day all week. Last night it hit 30 degrees. That’s no problem. I grew up in Oregon. I lived my previous 23 years in Colorado. I can handle extreme cold — outside. But my building turns off the heat from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and from 10 p.m.-6 a.m. to cut costs. I agree. I’m about the only person in the building in the afternoon. The rest shouldn’t pay to make me comfortable. But when the heat is on, the three radiators don’t heat enough to warm a marshmallow, a complaint heard all over the city. To feel anything, I must practically hop on one of them naked. If I’m going to take off my clothes to get warm, what I want to keep me warm is not a radiator.

(Michela told me there are two problems: One, Rome is unusually cold this week; two, my penthouse apartment with big picture windows looking out onto a wide terrace is going to be colder. I understand. I also understand that Italians are more environmentally conscious than the energy-guzzling Americans. But come on. My local butcher is hanging skinned cattle in my living room. I’m sleeping with more clothing than a hockey goalie.)

So my to-do list yesterday read:

Gym.
Cafe.
WIND office.
Convince North Korea to nuke the entire Republic of Italy back to the Stone Age.
Buy milk.

It’s all a trade off. I’m approaching a year in Rome and when that anniversary arrives Jan. 11, I will post a blog listing all the reasons I love this city. But after a year here, I have slowly learned that expats’ constant mantra about Italy’s horrific public services are not a cliche. They are real.

I’d complain more but I have to call Pyongyang.

Buon Capodanno (Happy New Year).

Retired in Rome Journal: Six-month anniversary marks a lot of learning about my favorite city on earth

My friends from Poland, Italy and Gibraltar at the Expats Living in Rome Meetup aperitivo in Colle Oppio, the wooded area above the OS Club above the Colosseum.

My friends from Poland, Italy and Gibraltar at the Expats Living in Rome Meetup aperitivo in Colle Oppio, the wooded area above the OS Club above the Colosseum.

Isola Tiburina on a Roman summer night.

Isola Tiburina on a Roman summer night.

Me in Anzio next to the statue of Emperor Nero who was born in the port city.

Me in Anzio next to the statue of Emperor Nero who was born in the port city.


JULY 11

Six months ago today I arrived in Rome with the rest of my life encased in a duffel bag, a backpack and a roller bag. I left behind a 40-year journalism career, a condo with a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains and all the comforts sought by the embattled Italians I was about to join. I had no regrets. I still have none. Retiring to Rome was one of the greatest decisions of my life, right up there with moving here the first time.

After six months, la dolce vita is sweeter than I ever imagined it would be. My mind has expanded as well as my circle of friends and, occasionally, thanks to an extraordinary stock market, so has my retirement account. I have a beautiful penthouse apartment with a gorgeous terrace view of the Tiber River. New clothes from one of Rome’s biannual sales fill my walk-in closet.

But those are mere material pleasures. Talking about Rome in terms of material goods is like describing the woman of your dreams by discussing only her bust size. I once wrote that living in Rome for a year and leaving is like having the greatest weekend of your life with the best woman you’ve ever met and spending the rest of your life looking for that woman again.

I found her.

The love affair has continued and it’s more intense than ever. Sure, we have rough patches. Waiting a month for Internet tried my patience. Waiting an hour for a bus that never bothers to show up is maddening. But I wake up to birds chirping outside my window. The sun sets on Gianicolo hill across the river from my terrace. Every day I cook great meals from some of the freshest, most flavorful food in the world. Look, I live in an outdoor museum, for God’s sake. Even if you’re not into art you can appreciate walking past a backlit Roman Forum that was the center of the universe 2,000 years ago.

The only thing battered in my life is my Collins Italian-English dictionary. You can barely read the “Collins.” In fact, you can barely tell it was once blue. The color has faded into growing splotches of white from my fingerprints constantly grasping it to search for the word I don’t know or the spelling of one I do know.

More of the Italian language is only one of the things I’ve learned in my six months in Rome. And, like life in Italy, I’ll never know it completely. But as the brilliant sun shines through my window onto this corner writer’s nook, let me write all the things I have learned in my six months retired in Rome:

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