Rome without ruin

Ciao ragazzi! I’ve just come back from a couple of days in Roma, the Eternal City, Caput Mundi, Urbs Sacra (you can see I’ve been reading the guide books). I was visiting Ms Lamb who is there as an au pair (essentially doing a masters in dealing with recalcitrant children in a foreign city).

It was a great weekend. In the words of every postcard from my grandparents, ever, we were very lucky with the weather, which was as bright and fresh as a Raphael fresco. We stumbled across ancient ruins; wandered into churches and tried our bad Duolingo Italian – eliciting, without fail,  a perfectly phrased English response.  This was not a luxury weekend: with the pound tumbling, my new non-working status very much in my mind, and Mr Mutton in tow – who is to shopping what black holes are to matter – this was set to be a frugal few days.

But it turns out, Rome is not a bad place to go on a budget. Here are a few things we really enjoyed: Rome without ruin.

Brilliant Breakfasts

If you book somewhere to stay in Rome, don’t bother paying for an inclusive breakfast. Unless you can’t function without a plate of eggs, go out and head for the local bar. You will feel more Italian than Gina Lollabrigida’s pasta pan.

With a macchiato and a cornetto in hand and an Italian-style elbow on the counter, you will blend right in. And if it costs more than a couple of euros then you know you are in a tourist trap. It’s not a luxurious breakfast, but it’s quick and it means you can get on with your day. There’s plenty to be getting on with too: Rome is perfect for the less-cash rich tourist. It is full of sites just sitting there free, gratis and waiting for you to stumble over them.

With Ms Lamb as our guide, we grabbed pastries from Antico Forno Roscioli, something of a Roman institution near the Campo D’fiori (they have a coffee shop around the corner for accompanying caffe) and had a Sunday morning breakfast picnic in the square nearby, while a procession of Ethiopian Christians banged drums and chanted all around us. In full transparency, we didn’t just have one single pastry each. Frugality apart, we are pigs for pastries. So we had several. As a result of our bold experimentation, I discovered something called “brutti”, sugary nutty macaroons (it’s short for Brutti Ma Buoni, or ugly but good). Washed down with Italian coffee, they could raise the dead.

Fabulous Vintage Shops

Ms Lamb and I love our clothes shopping but the cold winds of change are blowing. She is living on an au pair’s pocket money and I don’t even have that right now, so we are in agreement: it’s a time to ditch the high street. Yes, we are shopping our wardrobes – a disheartening experience – and each other’s.  But we’ve also decided to also have a peek in other people’s.

In any of the cool areas of Roma, Monti or Trastevere you will find incredibly chic vintage shops which are brimming with Italian designer brands; great sheepskin and fur for those who can bear it and, strangely, DM boots. But, they are not particularly cheap.  We found some wonderful pieces in these (I lost my heart to a pair of Fratelli Rossetti snakeskin shoes) but were reluctant to splash our cash.

Instead we found Humana. These stores (and there are several in Rome) fall somewhere between charity shops and the more upmarket vintage stores. They are gloriously cheap: in fact one we visited had 30% off everything. Ms Lamb found the kind of bright patterned double-breasted jacket that Rupert Bear’s spivvy uncle would be wearing and I bought a highlighter pink sweater. On a previous visit I bought a pair of polka dot bell-bottoms in crimplene of which I am inordinately fond (as unfortunately is Tilly Mint who has plucked them to pieces). If I had been in full turbo spending mode, there were so many temptations: chic felt hats, sheepskin jackets, seventies print dresses, leather trousers, a wonderful reversible tweed raincoat, silk slips, beautiful leather shoes. They also do random clearance events where nothing costs more than five or ten euros.

Phenomenal Food

Who doesn’t love Italian food? But that’s the problem. We’ve all probably eaten pretty nice Italian food already, without having to shlep to the Continent to get it.

Rome, like all capital cities is full of tourist menus, restaurants where waiters corral tourists through their doors. Almost everyone wants to shy away from those, but sometimes when you are in a foreign city and you’re tired; and those new shoes that you thought would be perfect for a city break are giving you blisters; and the waiter is charming; what can you do? So you succumb and brace yourself for the bill. Not this Mutton. Not this time.

We went to some great places that weren’t like that. On Friday night Ms Lamb took us to a rather upmarket food court, Mercato Centrale, just alongside Termini Station, where you can grab a beer or some wine and a variety of food. (We ate truffle pasta which was not that cheap, but we didn’t mind because they’d upsold us on the wine and I should never, ever drink on a Friday night as I just get too excited).

On Saturday Mr M found the little Trattoria Settimio (on Via del Pelligrino not far from Campo de’ Fiori) which comes recommended by Jamie Oliver (not directly, obvs, just on the telly). It was the kind of place you can just see yourself at, when you’re sitting at home looking at flights on Expedia, but which in reality are almost impossible to find. Family run, it was filled with Italians eating things that weren’t on the menu. The trick, it seems, is to ask what they’re serving, otherwise they assume you want the equivalent of a children’s menu.

But the best thing I ate – and a candidate for the best lunch I’ve eaten in a long time (mind you I have been living on pilchards for the last few weeks) – was at a really wonderful chain called Trapizzino.

What they serve trapizzini. These are not just delicious, they are an actual food pun.  Based on tramezzini, those inexplicable bland white bread sandwiches you often see crusting over behind the counter in an Italian bar, this version uses warm pizza bread instead of Warburton’s Toastie loaf, and is stuffed with delicious hot and cold fillings, instead of what looks like Sandwich Spread. Apart from dessert, the only other thing on the menu are suppli, Rome’s homegrown version of arancini.

Both are so tasty, they will have your tail a-wagging within seconds. The branch we visited in Trastevere, also served a glass of wine (or several). Here we are happily feeling that it’s not such a bad old life, a couple of sips of Prosecco into our lunch.

Supermarket Sweeps

I love a foreign supermarket and Italian ones are especially intriguing and unfamiliar. As far as I can tell they seem to be named after Aunties or maybe superheroes (I mean, Pam? Conad?). Ms L and I were on a mission to find the stuff of legends, a fabled product, hitherto unknown to us: coffee Grisbi biscuits.

Grisbi biscuits are my favourite Italian biscuits. They have a crunchy but cakey outside and a soft, creamy inside. You can get them in London, especially in Italian delis, but they aren’t cheap and it’s unusual to find more than the basic chocolate or hazelnut varieties (If you come across them, the lemon cream variety are like a biscuity concentration of every Italian pastry ever). I had already blown my own mind by stumbling across… gulp… coconut Grisbi. (I will leave a pause here for you to reflect on this and perhaps recover your sang froid). On the pack was mentioned that there was also a coffee flavour: in other words, a whole new Grisbi universe to explore. Every supermarket we came across we headed into, Mr M patiently waiting outside, eyes rolling. But success had we none. Then, finally, as a dramatic finale to the trip, I came across them at the deli at Termini station on my way back home.

On this visit, I hadn’t bought a luggage allowance, but if I had, even with the parlous state of the pound and the Mutton economy, I could have filled it. Then I would have bought a nice, aged balsamic vinegar, at least one Panettone, maybe a really large one with one of those crunchy sugar and almond toppings, not just the basic, schmasic; some nougat; a hunk of Pecorino and some of the beautifully packaged Marvis toothpaste, which comes in flavours like liquorice and jasmine as well as mint.

Bountiful Blessings

On Sunday’s, in The Vatican, the Pope appears at 12.00 and blesses absolutely anyone who is in the square at St Peter’s. It’s a crowded affair and involves going through quite a lot of security, but it is interesting for any student of religion; the anthropologically curious or the horribly lapsed cradle Catholic.

Pope Francis delivers a sermon in Italian – to be honest, without much gusto – and, like any parish priest, also gives notices of upcoming events, though as far as I could tell they are on a rather grander scale than the local Knights of St Columba Bingo evening. Afterwards you can wander into the Basilica and wonder at the Pieta and the jolie laide Bellini baldacchino (below).

(The Pope also does blessings on Wednesday, but these are ticketed so you have to book ahead. )

Wonderful Walks

So much of a good time in Rome relies just on you, a pair of comfy shoes and good weather. With ancient marvels popping up every few yards, you don’t have to spend much to see lots. Trajan’s column is just standing there, looking majestic; you can’t fail to be impressed walking by the Colosseum at sunset; Piazza Navona with the amazing Bernini Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi is, for me, much more worth a visit than the Trevi Fountain which you can barely get near; the Pantheon is one of the remaining wonders of the world; almost every third church has a masterpiece in it or an ancient relic. I rather enjoyed watching the cats milling around at Largo di Torre Argentina, where some of the remains of Pompey’s theatre lie and where Julius Caesar was assassinated. There’s a cat cafe there for anyone who wants to get nearer to the moggies.

My favourite area is probably Trastevere, just across the Tiber. There are several reasons for going there: it’s a very beautiful spot, full of cobbled streets and unexpected corners. There’s a lovely square in the centre with the lovely Basilica di Santa Maria which is one of the oldest in Rome.

Apart from the lovely mosaics which feature some rather lovely sheep, the entrance hall is filled with rather touching Roman gravestones and pieces of graffiti.

The main square has a fountain in the middle and everyone sits there drinking take away Aperol Spritz from the bar opposite the Church in Summer (generous and cheap) and eating unusual but excellent ice creams from Otaleg (Gelato backwards, geddit?!) which is just round the corner from the bar.

And of course no trip is complete without heading up the Gianicolo to get a view of the whole beautiful place. On Sunday mornings you may also get the treat of vintage, pastel-coloured versions of my favourite cars, the original Cinquecento’s, tootling around, showing themselves off in their wonderful Italian glory.

Ah, Rome!

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