This past vacation gave us the shocking revelation that we aren't as young as we were 14 years ago, when we visited Rome for the first time. We were like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday then; this time around, we felt more like Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.
We flew out, as per usual, on a Thursday night flight, departing New York's JFK airport at 9:55 p.m., to arrive Friday at noon, local Rome time. It's the best way to do it, really; you can get all the little odds and ends taken care of during the day of your flight, and then, if you're lucky, have some semblance of a normal night's sleep while you're in the air. This time, we slept for nearly the entire duration of the flight - which was blessedly quiet, 99% of the travelers consisting of Italians returning home, rather than chatty American tour groups. After a quiet, uneventful trip, we breezed through passport control and baggage claim, and headed for our favorite destination in the world: the St. Regis Grand Hotel.
There really is no other hotel in the world like the Grand. The Gritti Palace in Venice comes awfully close, but the Grand still wins because of its unique combination of old world glamour, modern comfort, hushed professionalism, and unexpected warmth. When our taxi pulls up and the doorman opens the door for us, there's always a surprised, pleased smile, and a genuine "Why, welcome back! It's nice to see you again!"
By the time we had unpacked, freshened up, and changed clothes, it was nearly 3:30 in the afternoon. As anyone who's traveled in Italy knows, the Italians observe strictly set dining times: lunch is from 12:30 till 3, and dinner served only after 7:30 (at the very earliest). We had already planned an itinerary of favorite restaurants for our meals, and didn't want to spoil our appetite by snacking, so we did our next favorite thing to eating in Rome: shopping in Rome. The legendary Via Condotti, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, is like Madison Avenue, Rodeo Drive, and avenue Montaigne in one glorious mash-up. It didn't take us very long to decide on our one purchase: a pair of a.testoni lace-ups in dark grey.
Our new kicks were from the lower-rung New Studium line, but hey, times are tough. And, frankly, these looked nicer than the more expensive lines. Anyway, gone are the days when we would burn the credit card up and down the Condotti, armed with enough packages and parcels to necessitate the purchase of another piece of luggage. With our single shopping bag in hand, we strolled the streets, headed toward one of our favorite sights, the Pantheon. By now, it was 5 p.m., and the hunger pangs were so loud, we were afraid that passers-by would hear them. The look on TJB's face in front of the Pantheon says it all:
Are those jowls that we see???
Right after this pic was snapped, it was back to the Grand, where we immediately crashed on the bed and slept for four hours. We then headed for dinner at our favorite Roman trattoria, Santopadre. The hostess, Dina, greeted us like long-lost family, with busses on both cheeks and immediately bringing out plates of our favorite part of their massive antipasti - savory polpette with carrot and red chili puree. Then it was on to chewy, perfectly al dente rigatoni with oxtail, and finally braised lamb shanks. Perfection.
There was also a complimentary bottle of very good red, which pretty much finished us off for the evening. In all the years we've been traveling, jet lag has never been a problem, and we've been able to walk the hilly Roman streets, eat with gusto, and drink more vino than we ever would at home, with no ill effects. Time, it seems, has finally caught up with our systems, and we were back in bed by 11 p.m.
The following day, we awoke with a burst of energy at 7 a.m., and immediately began taking in more of the sights, including the Vatican. We also returned to the Spanish Steps, and seemed to have left our jet lag behind us.
But, o jet lag, ye merry prankster! By noon, we were feeling a little weary; by lunchtime, we were practically falling asleep, face down in our soup. Next on the agenda: another four hour nap. We had officially turned into our parents.
Sunday was our last full day in Rome. We had had great meals, visited a few of our favorite sights, done a spot of shopping and enjoyed bright, brisk weather; but we had spent at least 24 of the past 48 hours asleep. The irony is that our minds and bodies suddenly seemed to snap to attention and gain some equilibrium on that final day; we walked from the Grand back to the Via Condotti for a pseudo-breakfast of espresso and biscotti at Greco's, strolled back to the Pantheon to have lunch, and then walked all the way up to the Via Veneto to visit the gorgeous Villa Borghese - and did it all without requiring a nap.
As the day ended, we lingered over our final cocktails in the Grand's quiet bar. It was bittersweet, knowing that we would be leaving the following morning, and realizing that while Rome pretty much never changes, we had. It was still wonderful being there, of course; but we kept wondering, what had happened to us? What we were grateful for, was that we had seized the opportunity 14 years ago to make these Roman holidays a reality. We'd done and seen it all, and had done it while we still had the energy and vigor - unlike, say, TJB's father, who went to Europe for the first time at age 64, and despite having a marvelous trip, was practically in traction when he came back from all the walking. In the end, we realized that our perspective and enjoyment of Rome had shifted and changed - mellowed, maybe, to the point where the greatest pleasures were simply sitting quietly over a limoncello, or the dazzling people watching while slowly promenading the streets.
And, of course, the warmth of the people - from the doorman welcoming us back, to Dina plying us with food and wine, to the funny and charming bartenders who remembered our table and our order before we ever sat down. The people never change, and that's why we keep coming back.