My Essex Girl's Guide to Rome; TRAVEL ON SUNDAY

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), February 18, 2007 | Go to article overview

My Essex Girl's Guide to Rome; TRAVEL ON SUNDAY


Byline: DAVID NOBBS

Reginald Perrin author David Nobbs escorts his latest literary creation -- Ange from Romford -- on a tour of the Eternal City

I HAD always been reluctant to visit Rome. I read classics at university, knew the ancient city well in my mind, and was worried that I would be disappointed by the reality.

Now, however, I had a reason to go.

I needed some background for my new novel, Cupid's Dart. This is a humorous (I hope!) romance between an Oxford philosophy don who is a virgin at 55 and an Essex girl who is a darts groupie and isn't a virgin at 24.

I wanted Alan to take Ange to a great city where he would be able to show her a world rather different from Gallows Corner in East London. Where better than Rome, with its classical, Renaissance and religious treasures?

They would have to see the great tourist sights, of course, but I wanted to find two or three things that were less well known, more intimate.

My wife and I stayed in the small three-star Hotel Due Torri, on the corner of two tiny old streets between the Tiber and the Piazza Navona.

It was friendly and quiet, had lots of good umbrellas and served breakfast till 11. It had once been a home for bishops and cardinals. Our room had a view over a narrow cobbled lane to a roof garden festooned with washing.

What more could one want?

I felt that Ange and Alan would be happy here.

We arrived in torrential rain but after dinner in the nearest restaurant we found the rain had stopped, and we strolled along narrow, dignified, cobbled streets to the Piazza Navona, the liveliest of all Rome's great squares.

It is shaped like a huge paperclip, if one can use such a banal image for such a splendid square. It is so shaped because it follows the lines of a stadium built by Emperor Domitian in the 1st Century AD.

Now all modern Rome was there - lovers, tourists, painters, umbrella salesmen, stallholders selling paintings and drawings, elegant bankers strolling home from business dinners,

photographers, statues and painted people standing motionless for hours pretending to be statues.

This, we would come to realise,is the best part of the Roman experience, the way the modern city lives, moves and breathes in and around its ancient buildings.

We sipped a drink that really wasn't overpriced when it gave one a view of Borromini's lovely Baroque facade of Sant' Agnese in Agone and Bernini's magnificent Fontana dei Fiumi.

Then we examined the fountain in more detail. It's a vast, Baroque work with four huge male figures who symbolise four great rivers. It's magnificent, but it's not what I wanted. Ange wouldn't appreciate the symbolism. She would say: 'I like art better when you don't have to explain nothing.' It rained all that weekend. It wasn't like English rain. It was far more theatrical. It teased. It would pretend to stop. Out would come the English, the Japanese and the Americans. Down it would pour.

It was particularly wet in the elegant Piazza di Spagna. The palm trees looked embarrassed to be there and there was no point in photographing the Spanish Steps.

People were scurrying down them in plastic raincoats, and the church at the top was hidden behind scaffolding.

We followed the crowds to the Trevi Fountain. One always wonders, with something so famous, if one is going to be disappointed. No, there it was in all its vulgar magnificence.

I felt like James Bond. I was shaken but not stirred. It is both wonderful and gross, and it is plonked right up against the wall of a building in a tiny square of no special charm. And the cameras are going off like grouse shooters' guns on August 12.

IKNEW what would happen there. Alan would tell Ange, trying not to sound too much like an Oxford don, that the site marked the terminal of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct, built in 19BC, but the fountain itself was not finished until 1762. …

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