All roads lead here, they say.
And I guess it’s true. We stayed a few days in Croatia, Slovenia, and Trieste; a few more days in Venice, a grand old city that’s been falling apart for a thousand years; and then a week at an agriturismo villa in the Tuscan hills. These sojourns gave rich experiences to the grandchildren.
But eventually, we came to Rome. We arrived by train at Roma Termini, one of the world’s great railroad stations. The Number One Great Thing about Termini is getting out of it and finding your way to a cool hotel lobby.
I already like the Hotel dei Borgognoni—Hotel of the Burgundians! It’s in the heart of Rome, halfway between Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Its claim to four stars is, one may say, aspirational; but it is a pretty good hotel. The people are friendly, and there is a nice family restaurant nearby.
When we checked in on August 6, the desk clerk noticed from our passports that it was Elsie’s thirteenth birthday. A congratulatory fruit basket appeared in the kids’ room, compliments of the house. It was a nice touch—the kind of thing doting grandparents will not soon forget.
An hour after check-in, we were off on a pre-arranged tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Virginia, our guide, knew her stuff, but when her planned route led up a long, steep street paved by the ancients with jagged, irregular flagstones, we dropped out.
Virginia went on, escorting Katie, Elsie, and Tristan, while Joelle and I waited by the Arch of Constantine to be picked up and returned to our hotel. Joelle found us a leaning post by a brick wall. The afternoon sun beat down.
I went scouting for water. Three hundred meters down the street, a vendor held out a bag of half-liter water bottles.
“How much?” I asked.
“On bottle—two Euro,” said the vendor.
“Give me two. No, three.”
“Why don’t you just buy out my stock?” He opened his bag to show there were four bottles left.
I bought them all, and he threw in the plastic bag. As I limped back with my prize to where Joelle waited, I saw another man selling water fifty feet from where she stood. No doubt he had been there all along. Blinded by my belief that water was far away, I must have walked right past him.
While we waited for a ride, Rome entertained us. Bridal parties descended from black cars to get photos made with the Colosseum as background. A fashionable couple strode by, restraining a matched pair of sleek, hungry-looking, yellow-eyed wolf dogs on leashes—descendants, perhaps of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.
Overhead, a lone peregrine falcon patrolled.
This place was not built in a day.
Nor can it be fully explored in less than a month or two. We merely hoped to give the children a quick introduction.
Our desk clerk assured us that everything in Rome is still where it was the last time.
So yesterday we all walked to Trevi Fountain. It spouts streams of water amid statues of hippocamps and Greek water deities. People throng the piazza and toss coins into the swirling waters. At mid-morning, it was already gosh awful hot—we are gripped by the fiercest and longest heat wave in Europe’s memory. Just viewing the fountain was so enervating that we all had to stop for gelati.
Then, on to the Spanish Steps—a monumental staircase of 135 steps in the middle of Rome. The kids ran up the steps; we took the elevator from the Metro station at street level. Then we all went on to enjoy the large park and gardens at the Villa Borghese.
But the day’s highlight was a train/bus trip to the pleasant suburb of Frascati. There, mentored by a young chef named Nico, we made and cooked fresh pasta. Kids and adults enjoyed making, cooking, and eating the noodles, with typical Italian sauces. For growups, there were also some nice wines.
At last we had found an excursion that did not tax our capabilities.
Do as the locals do.
When our train rolled into Termini around nine o’clock, the Metro station was closed. So we took a cab home. It turned out to be a gypsy cab, a wildcat operation not licensed for the trade.
“The Hotel Dei Borgognoni,” I said.
“Oh, Borgognoni. Center of city?”
“I take you there, thirty Euro.”
Not a bad price. I nodded.
He led us across Via Giovanni Giolitti to his van. A young woman sat at the wheel, revving the engine. She could have been his daughter but might have been his wife.
When he told the young woman “Hotel Borgognoni,” she shot him a bewildered look. The man climbed into the front passenger seat, with us in the capacious rear seats. Off we shot through the serpentine streets of a perplexing city.
The man and the woman consulted, argued. She turned this way and that. After twenty minutes, we stopped in a brightly-lit street, sidewalk restaurants lining both sides.
“Here,” the man said. “Borgognona.” He motioned for us to get out.
“No.” I shook my head vehemently. “This is not it.”
He waved his hand. “Here. Via Borgognona.”
“Not Via Borgognona. Hotel dei Borgognoni.”
Katie chimed in. “It’s on Via del Bufalo.”
Doubt crept into the man’s expression. “Hotel? Hotel Borgognona?”
The young woman at the wheel consulted her smart phone. Her face brightened. She looked up from the phone. “Hotel dei Borgognoni?”
I nodded vigorously.
She showed me the screen—a glowing picture of the front door of our hotel.
“That’s it!” I cried.
She smiled and put it back in gear. After ten more minutes of narrow streets and alleys, we ground to a stop. “Here,” the man said, waving outside the cab. “Hotel Borgognoni.”
Nothing looked familiar. In the back seat, Katie stared at her little phone screen and nodded. “Yeah, this is it.”
We got out, I gave the guy his thirty Euros. We hoofed our way a block through a deserted street, turned a corner, and there we were. Home at last.
Thus did we survive an amusing travel anecdote of the old style.
Today, after our morning tour of the Vatican was over, Katie called us an Uber to get back to the hotel. Perfectly satisfactory it was. But not much drama, if you ask me.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite (Travel) Writer