ALL ROADS LEAD TO …

“Let’s meet in Rome. I dare you.”

That was Agat’s WhatsApp message. I immediately replied … “Tell me the dates, we’ll be there.” And we were.

The timing was perfect. David & I had our second jab of Pfizer, and we were thinking about taking a little trip … two weeks later … to celebrate our immunity. Our first thought was a favorite destination, the place where David fell in love with Italy. Lago di Garda. I had written to our friend Lorna, whose family owns a beautiful resort in Gardone Riviera … and she replied. But before I could respond, Agat’s message appeared.

So my response to Lorna was thank you, but I just got a message from my bestie … and we’re going to meet her in Rome. It seemed so fake, fabricated … “I have to wash my hair.” “My dog ate my homework.”

Agat found a flight and we fixed our dates … four nights. We decided not to stay at our usual hotel at the top of Trastevere, but find something more centrally located. David set out to find us a great hotel.

He uses what we call the “house hunters method” … narrowing the search down to 3, then comparing and contrasting those choices to eliminate the least desirable, and from the remaining two … the winner. We decided on HOTEL MONTE CENCI, near Teatro Marcello. Since Rome means walking, walking, and more walking, it proved to be an excellent pick.

David immediately was in touch with Paolo, the manager. He was helpful and friendly, and told us to be sure to use his specific driving directions … with the corner next to the hotel as the destination … to avoid the ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) that was a block from the hotel. He also said we had a choice of parking lots. The one nearby was 35 euros a day … another, 1 kilometer away, was 25 euros … street parking, for a lucky few, was a few euros a day. Convenience versus savings.

And then I bought tickets for several must-see attractions. Sorting through the sites is not for the faint of heart … and trying to get just “skip the line” admission, not a guided tour or audio tour or bus tour, involves lots of scrolling. The Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel was first. Then, rather than being locked into an entrance time to see St. Peter’s Basilica, we decided to skip the tix. We knew that there were fewer tourists this year, and we wanted the flexibility … go to the cathedral immediately or take a lunch break … without watching our watches. For the next day, I bought tickets for the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill. Late morning for both, so we could linger over our cappuccini.

I emailed confirmations and forwarded screenshots of our assorted tickets to Agat and David.

Agat wrote that she’d want to eat gelato.

I told her that was on my “mental agenda” for our first afternoon … ! … with a stop at the Pantheon and our favorite gelateria nearby.

And pizza, she added in her next message.

David & I discussed driving our EV or the ICE. (My abbreviation for an Internal Combustion Engine.) The EV could make it to the airport, but without margin for error. The EV navigation app recommended 1 stop to re-charge. Once in Rome, there were plenty of places to plug in … but again, we’d need to stop on our way home. The ICE … the car we decided to take … got us there and back on one tank of gas.

David & I gave ourselves plenty of time to get to FCO … Aeroporto Fiumincino, on the coastline near Rome. Italian traffic is notorious in the summer, and any route that is even marginally headed toward the beach will invariably have traffic.

We arrived early … and the plane landed late. We spent the next hour circling the airport in 10 minute increments … pausing in the kiss & fly zone … parking near the police station … exit/re-enter … repeat.

With 10 minutes until touchdown, I got out and waited by the door.

I sent Agat my location. I kept checking WhatsApp to see when my message was delivered … which meant Agat had landed and turned on her phone. I stood outside by a door, watching and waiting.

And there she was. We hugged.

Hugging!

We gave Agat water, fruit, and homemade biscotti (how we greet all visitors) … and a bouquet of freshly-cut lavender, her favorite.

As the navigator, I typed in Paolo’s “secret” address, and we headed into Rome. All went smoothly until the last kilometer or so. Traffic increased. Roads narrowed. Stress built. Shouting began.

Ha! Problems with the in-laws … disputes about the kids … how to spend money. Nope, not even close. Nothing tests a relationship like Driving. In. Italy.

In the early years of our trips to Italy … in the mid-aughts of the 2000s when navigation meant MapQuest … many husbands and wifes had almost identical experiences. Before “Carpool Karaoke,” before “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” there was “You’re Driving Me Crazy!” Here’s a familiar excerpt:

DRIVER: Where do I turn?
PASSENGER: I’m trying to figure it out.
DRIVER: You have the map.
PASSENGER: But the name on the map isn’t on that street!
DRIVER: DOES THAT ARROW POINT HERE OR OVER THERE?
PASSENGER: ARROW? I’M READING THE MAP.
DRIVER: HURRY, THERE’S A MOTORCYCLE COMING UP MY ARSE!
PASSENGER: GO AROUND THE ROTUNDA AGAIN!

GPS has made things easier, but the nemesis of many a driver remains the rotunda. Or ambiguous arrows on traffic signs. Or a motorcycle coming up ………

When we got close … or what we hoped was close … David parked in the first quasi-spot he found and started to walk toward … or what he hoped was toward … the hotel. I called Paolo in a panic. Panic because I really didn’t know where we were, so couldn’t tell him where to find us. “We’re on a cobblestone street by an old, ocre-colored building,” could be anywhere. Soon a man in a suit appeared … it was his colleague, Miguel, sent to retrieve us and our luggage. We were, indeed, close to the hotel. There is no way that we could have found the narrow, one-way viale (think “alley”) that led into the small piazzetta (think “courtyard’) with the hotel’s entrance. Within a moment, David returned … and Paolo appeared.

PAOLO: Do you want me to park your car?
DAVID: YES!

(This is note-worthy because David hates when anyone, let alone an Italian, drives his vehicle.) Paolo found a spot at the end of the street, and there it stayed until we left Rome on Friday afternoon. The parking fee … 10 euros a day.

PAOLO: Would you like a glass of wine on the roof terrace?
AGAT, LINDA, DAVID: [in unison] YES!

Our rooms were in a small alcove across from one another … with a view out to the courtyard. We started with that wine on the lovely terrace upstairs, then headed out, hungry and ready to start our vacay.

I used to take a business card from the hotel so I’d have the address and phone number at my fingertips. It helped David on his first trip to Italy, an adventure you can read in WELCOME TO FLORENCE, one of my earliest stories. Now I use WhatsApp “location” … sending it to David and Agat … and know that the hotel name and phone number are stored in my phone.

A few blocks north was Torre Argentina … our favorite cat sanctuary, where we usually make a paw-ilgrimage. But Agat didn’t want a feline souvenir, so rather than visiting the four-legged inhabitants in their new digs we focused on the old digs.

The Pantheon is probably my, maybe our, favorite building in Rome. With so many old and historic buildings, this one is unique. We explained how the builders thinned the dome as it got higher, added light-weight pumice, coffered the structure … so it could “support” the oculus. Do you support something that isn’t there? We pointed out the drainage holes in the floor. And the tombs. The center area is now closed, so there are no more “holding up the hole” photos … and everyone moves clockwise around the ropes.

And then … gelato. Yes, there are thousands of options, but we love GELATERIA GIOLITTI. When every place makes fior di latte (flower of the milk), this gelateria born of a dairy, makes fiore di panna (cream!). A medium cup holds 3 flavors, and being a creature of habit, I had my favorites. The luscious lactic love of fior di panna … the intense, dense flavor of pistachio … and the pureed strawberries that become sorbetto di fragola. Agat had extra-large portions of lemon and pomegranate sorbetti … both 100% deliciously, refreshingly fruity. David opted for flavors we’ve loved before. Cinnamon, so good you almost feel the finely ground spice linger on your tongue … hazelnut, rich and full-bodied flavor of this delicate nut … and fior di panna.

To be continued …

NUTELLA BITES

1 cup nutella (or other chocolate-hazelnut spread)
4 oz. butter, at room temperature
1 egg
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate chips … for decorating

- Preheat oven to 375° F (190° C).
- Cream nutella and butter until blended, then add egg, and finally stir in flour and baking powder until it is a smooth dough.
- Shape/roll dough into walnut-size balls.
- Place on silpat-lined or parchment-lined cookie sheet.
- Put 3 chips … one each dark, milk, white chocolate … on top of each cookie.
- Bake for 8–10 minutes until lightly set … do NOT overbake … they should remain soft.
- Makes approximately 40 cookies.
Enjoy!

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Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.

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