I can still remember the moment I fell in love with Rome like it was yesterday. Alex, our mutual friend and I were nursing glasses of white wine and sharing a small meal at a tiny restaurant, surrounded on either side by happy, laughing Italians.
We were seated at basic wooden tables outside the restaurant on Via dei Coronari, a narrow cobblestone street bordered by small shops on either side and oozing with charm.
A few hours early, we’d all been a little down because everything we’d seen so far had convinced us that Rome was a dilapidated city, a mere shadow of its former glory days. It was purely by accident that we stumbled upon this street, after hopelessly walking around Rome and marveling at how rundown things seemed.
But perhaps I should back up to the beginning.
The three of us had arrived in the dead of night at a small airport in Ciampino, Italy after a miserable experience with Ryan Air, Europe’s budget airline. About two hours later (one of which was spent waiting), a shuttle took us into Rome, unceremoniously depositing us onto a street corner near Termini station, where to our surprise, the station was crowded with sleeping homeless people, tucked away under blankets on makeshift cardboard beds.
This was my first impression of the city, as we waited in the eerily still night for yet another bus that seemed to disregard the posted schedule. Eventually, we gave up and took a cab to our hotel — a bare-bones inn of sorts, where the manager bristled when we rang the bell and woke him at almost 2 am.
I suppose in this age of the digital nomad, it’s not unusual for people to show up with just a backpack in the middle of the night, but I can only imagine what a sight we must have made: me, accompanied by two men, each of us a different race.
Our apartments were not much to speak of either, since having just come from Paris and London, we were trying to keep our costs down. But it was a short walk from the Vatican and served as a decent home base for exploration. The streets were quiet, save for the soft sounds of conversation flowing from neighbors’ open windows or the ubiquitous roar of a passing motorcycle.
As we visited grand attractions like St. Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican Museum over the next day or two, we tried to reconcile the city’s historical significance with its current state, which seemed to rival a third world country. The Tiber river looked sad and abandoned. Walls everywhere were covered in graffiti or grime. The colosseum was grand, but right across the street, there was garbage everywhere and a pervasive stench of urine. The view from St. Peter’s Basilica was great, but why was there such a stark difference between the gorgeous manicured lawns inside the Vatican City and the grey dinginess outside?
We seemed to be missing something.
It wasn’t until we accidentally arrived at Piazza Navona one night that Rome’s charm slowly began to reveal itself. The sun had already set, but the piazza was abuzz with activity. Musicians played, grown men danced, street artists hawked photographs and prints from various booths, and everyone seemed to be out. Touristy-looking restaurants lined one side of the square, with tables and chairs spilling out onto the sidewalk. In the center of everything stood a giant fountain with interpretations of the world’s most famous rivers, including the Nile, Ganges and Danube. Two other fountains flanked the first, and ornate buildings stood off to the side.
While I was amazed to find some sign of the energy we had been looking for, I had no clue of what was around me. The square, which was first built as a stadium in 1st century AD, was paved over in the 15th century and eventually hosted both the palace of Pope Innocent X and Rome’s main marketplace.
With our spirits lifted, we kept exploring and found ourselves on Via dei Coronari, where a whole other world seemed to unfold. Again, there were people everywhere, and not just tourists. But instead of the frenetic atmosphere at the piazza where people tried to sell selfie sticks and light-up toys for a euro, this was the kind of quaint, but chic area you’d see in a film like Eat, Pray Love. Needless to say, I loved it.
On a whim, we decided to grab some food, which is how we ended up at Alimentari Coronari, which looked almost identical to all the other hole-in-the-wall places, except for the line-up of wooden chairs and tables outside. Little did we know what awaited us.
For most of the night, we were the only tourists there. We alternated between chatting up a slightly tipsy mother who was out with her husband and young daughter and taking in the characters at a lively birthday party that was happening on the other side of us. (If you watch my travel vlog below, you can see one of the women get
We stuck around almost until closing time, which I suspect was delayed even further because the party (who looked like they had deep pockets) had settled in and were in no rush to leave.
As their laughter and happy chatter rang in the air, I felt so carefree. The three of us took turns reminiscing about our college days, when we had first dreamed of traveling together in Europe, and, buoyed by the fact that it had all come true, proceeded to make other grand plans for the future. Perhaps the wine had something to do with it, but we all still agree that this was the best memory of the entire trip.
While we didn’t eat much (we ordered charcuterie, bread, wine and finished off with some espresso), everything we had was amazing. One thing that was common among every dining experience we had in Rome was the focus on high-quality, no-fuss ingredients, no matter how cheap or expensive the meal.
We never had a single bad meal while in Rome — from the mouthwatering pizza made with fresh ingredients at Pizzarium Bonci to perfectly cooked spaghetti in tomato sauce to the gelatos we indulged in every evening. In fact, I think the secret to Italian food is the experience of sharing a meal with friends or family, or just people you like. And the Italians near us that night were the perfect examples.
After our dinner, everything seemed so much more charming. Although I’d be curious to stay closer to Piazza Navona on a future visit, I came to love our quiet morning walks from our apartments. I became intimately familiar with each winding curve, the stone pine trees that always stood regally in the distance, the many tiring steps that left me out of breath and the little coffee shop where we’d have a utilitarian breakfast of a pastry and perfectly made cappuccinos.
I started to appreciate the riverside view from the city’s bridges, particularly at sunset. And now, the graffiti seemed to add character. Funny how things can change.
Rome was not a perfect place by any means (what is?) but in the end, it was hard to leave.
I can’t wait to go back.
Photos are a combination of iPhone snaps taken by me and Alex during our trip.
FOR MORE ROME | Watch me battle endless steps, eat pizza and explore the city in my travel vlog on YouTube.