Allura, I am in Rome, in a bar, finishing my third whiskey, and my second beer. I don’t know where I am exactly but the italian barman and I are having a good conversation about italian tradition, australian culture, german beer and christmas celebrations. I’m in a bar for another sneaky reason too… They serve aperativo – free food between 6-8 in most places in Rome. Usually a mix of cold cuts, pasta, quiches, mini pizzas and the like, not bad for a pre dinner snack eh?
After spending the afternoon around Monti while my favorite cugino was working away at the office, I’d wandered down to my favourite place in Rome – Piazza Venezia, to admire the imposing, white, columned Altare della Patria. I love the power that radiates off the monument to Victor Emmanuel (first king of unified Italy), and every time I visit Rome, this is always the first place I visit. You could say it’s almost become a tradition. Nearby, at the foot of Capotaline hill is Trajan’s column and the forums of Rome, and right next door to the Altare della Patria is Campigdolio, which is a piazza designed by Michelangelo, one of many pieces of art the pizza eating ninja turtle has created throughout Rome. This is one reason why I always return to Rome – there is always some work of art around the corner, everywhere you look there is spectacular architecture and art, be it a small fountain or the Coloseum. Ambling off into the distance, I visited my other special place, Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), an ancient roman stadium, the biggest in the empire at the time. There isn’t much left of it now, due to the roman ideology of recycling matierials, but it’s still a great park to sit and chill while taking in the views of the Palatine and Aventine hills.
After deciding to head down to Terme Di Caracalla the following morning, Thom and I jumped in the chariot and made our way over. Funnily enough, not many romans have ever been here despite the fact that pretty much everyone seems to drive past it, and I doubt many tourists have flocked here either. Everyone seems to know the Coloseum, the Pantheon, the Forums, but it seems Terme di Caracalla is way off the radar. The place is an ancient roman bath, wait, let me re-iterate – a HUGE ancient roman bath. The size of the main dome over the spas is staggering, it makes you wonder how they built a dome so large 1800 years ago. Terme di Caracalla was a free bath for romans, can you imagine all the memberships people pay for pools and aquatic centres? This building had a library, aqueducts running down to supply water, 2 gyms, hot and cold rooms, a roofless swimming pool, games carved into the stones and the surrounding walls were covered in sculptures and mosaics. Visiting a place like that by today’s standards, it’d probably cost you a torso, a leg and a few digits just to have a wee in the dunny. Stomachs rumbling, Thom graced me with the perfect sandwich at his local deli in Monti… Prosciutto and tuscan pecorino in a fresh bread roll. Perfect in its simplicity, knee shaking, melt in your mouth greatness, I thanked the deli gent profusely before heading off to the barber for a date with a few beers and uncle chop chop, to comments of ‘bella barba’ (beautiful beard)
Heading into the depths of Nero’s palace, Domus Aurea, was an interesting experience, and a great insight into the opulence of old mate Nero. What a place. Now located underneth a park, the guides here are archaeologists working on the palace itself, so the knowledge they have is priceless to your experience and really paints the picture for you. It’s crazy when you think just how great this palace once was. Oppulence was once abundant, and you can see small patches where archaeologists have cleaned the richly detailed painted walls and ceilings which are covered in a salt layer that protect the art inside this now underground palace. The colours of rome are abundant in their yellows and reds, and our archaeologist painted for us an almighty picture of the sun god, Nero. Just before I continue, for those not aware, Nero was the loose roman emperor who burnt down half of rome to fit all his buildings in the city, which made him most unliked, as you could well imagine. Throughout you can see where gold leaf has been laid out on ceilings in various high ceilened rooms. Not a huge fan of tours and such, I’m glad Thom took me inside this place. It’s another piece of ancient rome, and the ingenuity of the romans once again prevails in this palace, in terms of waterfalls, natural lighting, art and sculpture. Check out the vatican. You’ll see where those artistic legends borrowed their ideas from.
That same night led me to intertwine paths with Camilla and Eithel. Invited to an actors party we rocked up, my beard a wiry mess, in characteristic dirty boots with my head of hair looking worse then a wild yeti with an excessive hair problem. Everyone was an actor of some sort. I played the part of moses, parting the red sea easily with a swing of my holy beard, to reach the bar and ordered my expensive glass of monkey gin. Dressed in their classy clothes, I mingled with the famous, sipping on my expensive gin on the rocks, sussing out the stardom of italy, who were just as curious, wondering as to why there was a homeless, hairy bum at their party. Well, I didn’t smell funky, at least I thought so anyway.
‘Santa Justa is open, we should go!’ was the first thing that Camilla texted me the next morning. Considering how many times I’d been to Rome and still had not visited St Peters, it was a great call on Camilla’s part. After meeting up at my favourite spot, Piazza Venezia, we marched off through the hectic streets of Rome, to find this wondrous door, and see what was inside St Peters Basilica. Making speedy tracks, we busted the Castel Sant’Angelo and it’s namesake bridge or ‘Ponte’ flirting with itself in the water in the late afternoon sun, which back in the day was used as a fortress by the popes of old, built over the top of Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Admiring St Peter’s square, the circling columns outlining the square closing in on us as we approached, we passed through security and made leaps to the Santa Justa door quick smart.
Once I managed to pick up my jaw, which had smacked loudly on the polished floor, we snailed around gazing at priceless art, great spanning marble arches, domes, chapels and sculptures. My nunchuck wielding friend Michelangelo had been at work here. I didn’t bother taking photos, I was here to soak it all in and was not inclined to subtract from the visually engaging experience within the masterfully crafted walls. My gaze caught sight of a royal red ‘go-under’ rope, and just before I got my second leg over, Camilla gave me a heads up – I was headed straight for the confession box! Rather then confess my multitudes of sins to old bloke in the hotbox, I averted the annoyed and unimpressed stares of the hotbox queue who I’d managed to miss completely and receded back into the fold of people bumbling around the great basilica.
Rome is usually my prize in Italy because I love it there, the art, the sculptures, there’s always something around the many historic corners. Rome is comparable to a chaotic washing machine, the city has some kind of crazy system in place where nothing works, but it still works. It’s kind of quirky in way, I love the cobblestoned streets that wick about every which way, and watching people park their cars. They don’t relatively care where they park, double parking, triple parking, parking in no parking areas, footpath parking, smart cars stuffed into every little corner they can find. There should be a parking olympics just for Italians, I’ve seen some impressive ways of making a car fit where it’s not supposed to in this city. My best memories of this wonderful pizza and pasta infested country this time however, lie in Pescara, which was much to initimate and special to be photographed, so I’ll paint you a picture with words instead..
Arriving in Pescara on the 24th of december in the evening minus a new samsung tablet and a pair of sunglasses, which we cleverly left behind on the bus, we caught up with our man Giuseppe (boyfriend to Roberta, Thom’s cousin). Just as a side note here, it was pointed out before leaving Rome by Emiliano (a close friend of Thom) that there is a family trait that runs in our veins when it comes to forgetting things. We are just naturally fantastic at ‘misplacing’ things, a pure and unconscious ability that we revel in. After a quick drive I then met Nonna Due and also caught up with the grinning pianist, my uncle Sandro. After recovering from the scenic coach ride with a several glasses of whiskey and a beer, we all walked the long 25 metres to Roberta’s parents (Annamaria and Rossano) place for the christmas dinner. The only idea I had of what dinner was going to be like was when a grinning Thom said to me ‘just wait cugino, wait and see’. One other thing – try to understand what Italians do at christmas, or at least my Italians. They make food. Lots and lots of delicious, varied, amazing food, almost as if they are trying to kill you with the sheer amount of it. Just wait and see.
You know those theme park rides that look amazingly psychotic? The anticipation slowly begins it’s ascent up the stairway to heaven, as you wait to hit the first peak of the coaster, drawing you in. This was it. That moment of anticipation. You reach the peak, and are served with a huge “you’re welcome”, salivating at every sight, tasting it not just with your tastebuds, but your soul gets right in amongst it like cheese in a cheeseburger. A good term to use for it would be soulfood, something that touches your heart and tugs on your soul. Panochia is a step above that. Ever had one of these succulent little beasties from the sea?! I don’t know what the English translation is, but the closest thing i can think of is between a crayfish and a prawn. Someone give me the word please. This crustacean is… if Thor was to propose marriage to Aphrodite, he’d do it with Panochia. Everything about it, from look to taste, evokes an ocean of feelings. Here’s a fact for you – Panochia the word is of the d’abruzzo dialect from the east coast of Italy. Upon Rossano’s salute we began.
Sagne ai frutti di mare, Baccalà fritters, cauliflower fritters, white anchovy on toast, anchovie meatball with red sauce, smoked salmon with sour cream on potato chips, grilled prawns and of course, my favourite, panochia. This panochia… this panochia was the sea. I haven’t eaten better seafood then this. Beats the pants off garlic prawns. Next was tuna slice with home made mayonaise and capers. Potatoe and baccala soup. And it kept going. And going. And going. And going some more. At this point you start to wonder if there is ever going to be an end to the food, which for a hairy telletubbie like me, is unusual in the largest. It was as if I was trying to be gorged to death, various types of fish, crustacean and vegetables kept circling the table. Kings have not eaten better. Then there was the beverages. Various shades of red wine, white wine, pink wine, green wine, champagne, prosecco, whiskey, grapa Genziana (which is a regional digestive made out of tree root), sambuca and cognac. I recall sitting down and not getting up for around 4 hours, with my top jeans button and my belt buckle hanging loose. They say the key to a man’s heart is his stomach and you won’t hear me arguing the point. After bar hopping about the town bars with the boys, I crashed out, full to the brim of christmas cheer and single malt whiskey.
Thom, annoucing that lunch was around the corner, swiftly got me up and out of bed in a hurry. I had reason to get excited, if last nights dinner was anything to go by. Welcomed to the table with red wine and in true legendary style, the dishes began rolling out like a sushi train on speed. Zuchini and spinach quiches, super fresh tuna sandwiches and killer mushrooms with capers bolted on found their way quickly to my mouth. Brodo con il cardone, a meatball soup, with parmesan cheese sprinkled on top cam next, and I found my bowl refilling itself courtesy of Roberta. Thick slices of pork with a rich, dark plum sauce oozing off the top, succulent juicy lamb chops covered in breadcrumbs also found themselves victim to repeated attacks from my knife and fork. Fish patties with drizzled with sour cream and capers wound up on my plate more times then i can count. And then… And then this epic creation of a Gelato cake. That is an iced chocolate exterior with a traditional cake filling on the inside, with delicious home made gelato smack bang in the middle of all of that. Me Gusta! The food was incredible. Mandorle con zucchero (roasted almonds coated in crystallized sugar) chased the belly charming meal, with more Genziana, whiskey and sambuca.
The best part of the day was yet to come. Have you ever played tombola with a group of Italians when you can only count to 16 in italian? I was given a speed lesson by Thom and Martina, and bang we were off. A little different to how we play “housie” on christmas day at home, there is a few more prizes to be won. Ambo (2 in a row), Terno (3 in a row), Quaterno (4 in a row), Cinquina (a line or 5 in a row) and Tombola (full card). As we got closer to the end of the game, the tension rose, you can practically smell the anticipation dripping off the wall, everyone is dead quiet, waiting to hear their number called. Grown adults are standing up and leaning over the caller, concentrating nervously, double checking their numbers, pacing up and down to calm their nerves. It’s as if a riot is about to break out, like italy is on their last penalty to win the world cup. With guidance from Thom and Martina, I ended calling the last game in italian, nerve racking to do in a room full of italians when you can barely even speak the language. Even more so when everyone is hovering over you waiting for their last number to ping. It was the clincher to a perfect day. Definetly a must if you are ever in Italy around christmas time, it’s a ship full of fun.
But the best thing about all this wonderful food, delectable beverages and games? The company I was in. There was of course my cousin Thom. The one and only cheeky Giuseppe, sweet kind Roberta Thom’s cousin, Martina and Valeria, . They made me feel very comfortable, dolling out dishes of laughter throughout, punting jokes my way, like i’d been there my whole life. It was a really cool experience, definetly the highlight of this foray into Italy, i won’t be forgetting my christmas in Pescara. I’ll probably go back this year again to see my legendary, laughter abiding, extended family. It felt so comfortable, as if I had been attending every christmas there my whole life. There might be nothing to do in Pescara, but the people made it feel like the city of gold. Time and again, I’m reminded that it’s not where you are sometimes, but the people around you that make it something special. This extended family made it both fun and enjoyable.
For me the highlight of the great adventure so far was spending christmas with the extended family. It was great to be with the “kids” Thom, Giuseppe, Roberta, Valeria and Martina. They made my christmas remarkably enjoyable. It was a whole new thing for me, to be served what seemed like a million delicacies, new tastes, new people and a lively atmosphere. Offering each other plates of laughter and glasses filled atmospheric conditions, I found myself in a warm happy place, well looked after by the legendary hosts in Annamaria and Rossano. Nothing was too much trouble, and alongside with Piera and my jolly man Fabrizio (Valeria’s and Martina’s oldies) they pulled me right into the fold. Surrounded by new friends, it was one of the best moments of 2015. Italy was all about Pescara, and the lovely people I met there, the fun we had over christmas, the amazing, soul rendering food and of course, the heart racing, high tension games of tombola. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Christmas is universal. Not necessarily a religious lets bow to santa claus and leave the round red bugger a plate of cookies and milk. For me, this year especially, is more an occasion to appreciate and reflect on the people that have become part of the great adventure that is my life, from my miscreant years of youth to my terribly improved roguish ways of today. I am lucky to have the sensibilities and wisdom of my surrounding friends and wonderful sisters and brothers in law, and of course my short, sweet, huggable little mum. The amount of times I’ve been wisely yanked back to reality from ‘Planet Dutchieland’ by these people, is off the charts. They can somehow handle and deal with the incredible lateness and dysfunctional unreliability that only I can deliver in such epic proportions to every single important event and function on the calendar (something that I somehow unconsciously persevere in making my cliche, which everyone I know will vouch for). I am thankful that my friends and family always have one eye babysitting my always new borderline insane activities that I am increasingly inept at thinking up. They all make great wicket keepers. So this is the time of year that really reminds me of what’s important – the patient, caring, poor souls that put with my bananas shenanigans all year long. Thank you all for pulling my legs out of the cow poo bucket time and again. Ciao for now brown cow. MooooooOOOOOO!